One of my frequent frustration with Christianity (although not especially with the Catholic Church, which as a teaching body does much better than the Body of Christ tends to do) is the lack of focus on the duty of love and on compassion in general. Too often different Christian groups are so busy arguing the merits or faults of their doctrines that they tend not to put those doctrines into practice. Try finding a Christian book about compassion and compassionate treatment of others. This tends to be left to the Buddhists, and so, for refuge, I sometime find myself turning there to learn what their great teachers taught.
Reading Cultivating Compassion by Jeffrey Hopkins, I stumbled across this "daily exercise" in compassion. The following prayer, mantra, reminder (call it what you will) is to be brought to mind six times a day:
I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.
This has few parallels in Christian prayer--although the Prayer of St. Francis comes to mind. And because I don't find myself taking refuge in Buddha, I would need to change the prayer:
I go for refuge to Jesus, his doctrine, and the mystical body until I am made holy. Through the merits of charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve holiness (Saintliness) for the sake of all beings.
What good is personal sanctity if it does not better the lives of those with whom we have the closest relationships?
The Church hits this theme time and time again, but because we are the people we are we tend to regard these teachings with suspicion. Mention Social Justice and see how many good and faithful Catholics look at you askance. If you hear talk about a preferential option for the poor, it is likely to remain just that--talk. How often have we been stirred by understanding these teachings to actually make the lives of some other person better? Often the preferential option for the poor is left at the foot of the altar as the congregation goes out to play parking lot derby. Not only do we not internalize the teachings, much of our behavior suggests that we reject them entirely.
I was musing this morning as I drove my car in to work how much better things might be if every car was equipped as mine is. I have a hybrid civic, and one of the ways you can configure the instrument panel is to give you feedback on your driving to see how certain behaviors help to conserve gasoline and increase milage. As a result of these readouts, I have seen large changes in my behaviors behind the wheel, and coming with those changes, I have experienced a completely different attitude most of the time when I drive. Other drivers don't become obstacles or problems, but people in their cars, just like me, just as scatter-brained as I sometimes am, just as courteous as I can sometimes be. When I see a person driving foolishly, sudden starts, screeching stops, I think about how they might be different if they understood the effects of their actions.
Compassion, understanding that all people at heart want the same things we want for themselves and for their children. Compassion is one of the roots of charity--when we look at people in all their strengths and weaknesses and see ourselves.
Jesus taught compassion through His words and works. The Church extols and sets up institutions and groups to cultivate compassion. Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers are one such group, but far less radical and far quieter are the innumerable Martin de Porres or Vincent de Paul societies that are part and parcel of our Church.
But compassion isn't just for the church or just for a meeting--it is part of a way of life--living in Christ's love, being Christ's heart for the salvation and redemption of a world gone astray. That is part of the imitation of Christ to which we all are called. That is the root and source of sustenance for Christian compassion.