In our last CCE Corner, we talked briefly about the four Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice and the three Theological Virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love). Our virtue focus for the first quarter of the year is a virtue deriving from the Theological Virtue of charity: COMPASSION.
The word “compassion” comes from Latin “pati” (to suffer) and “com” (with). What does it look like to have compassion for, “to suffer with,” one another? Before we try to answer that question, it would be good to recognize the source of this virtue. While all virtue is the result of practice, we cannot even begin to exercise the Theological Virtue of love without the grace of God.
It is a tenet of classical Christian thought that love runs contrary to our fallen human nature. Some philosophies teach that human beings are born good and are naturally perfectible. In contrast, the Christian tradition recognizes the universal impact of the Fall on human nature: love is not something that comes naturally to us anymore. It requires divine intervention. G.K. Chesterton thought the universal corrupting effect of sin was so self-evident that, in his book Orthodoxy, he describes it as “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
But, don’t we just naturally feel love and affection? Sure. Sometimes. Even the most innocent of relationships shows us that the feeling of love can be a fickle thing. What could be more natural than a child’s affection for a puppy? And yet, even that kind of love is not steadfast. Our daughter’s heart overflows with adoration for her puppy one minute and turns to total exasperation the next. Such inconstancy of the heart is perhaps one reason why Christians have always taught, contrary to much of the world, that love is not a mere feeling, it is an action. Indeed, it is a commandment from Christ: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
We get a glimpse of how hard the commandment to love can be when we hear Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Christ’s audience had some real enemies. No wonder it was hard to follow Him. Most of us do not know people who want to kill us. We do not live under persecution. It shouldn’t be too hard for us to love others and to pray for them, should it?
But what about the annoying co-worker? The meddling parents? The disrespectful spouse or ex-spouse? The pro-Trump neighbor? The pro-Biden co-worker? Take a minute to imagine them. Now hear Christ’s words again, “Love them. Pray for them.” Really. It isn’t a suggestion, it’s an order. Does it feel like it’s too much? After telling his audience that loving people who are easy to love is nothing more impressive than what tax collectors and pagans do, Christ gets to the heart of the matter: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is a high calling.
Which brings us to another tenet of classical Christian thought: love perfects our nature. Or perhaps we should say: perfect love perfects our nature. It is only because of and in God’s perfect all-giving love that our human nature is restored to its original design. It is only in His power that we can love and pray for others. Practicing the virtue of compassion requires us to begin with prayer and with accepting God’s own gift of love.
In our next CCE Corner, we will look more closely at what compassion in action looks like. It will be a good virtue for us to think about and to put into practice during this election season.