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Compassion through Contemplation

In article Jesus’ Priestly Mission, we dealt with Jesus’ prayer life as revealed in the Gospels. However, what the Scriptures do not disclose is Jesus’ life of contemplation. But how else can we explain Jesus’ intimate closeness to God?

In Jesus Before Christianity, Fr. Albert Nolan, O.P. states: “It is generally agreed that somewhere at the heart of Jesus’ mysterious personality there was a unique experience of intimate closeness to God—the Abba experience…we know that the Abba experience was an experience of God as a compassionate Father.” No doubt, it was his time in contemplation that led Jesus to the heart of God, and thus to compassion for others.

Jesus’ Contemplation. Surely, Jesus practiced this wordless, imageless form of prayer that concentrates on being fully present with a caring heart and attentive mind to God’s interior presence. In his prayer he would also have experienced God as One Who was, by his very nature, for others. Contemplative prayer would lead Jesus to experience God as Father who loved all his creatures with an unconditional love. Most importantly, in contemplative prayer Jesus would experience God as Compassion who was intimately and lovingly present to all his creation.

Here is the important point. Jesus’ solidarity with God gained through contemplation created solidarity for him with all humanity. Contemplation involved commitment of his whole being to his beloved Father, and concern for all that his Father loves. Thus, his contemplation would lead him to his life vision and life mission of compassion for others.

Our Abba Experience. How do we partake in Jesus’ Abba experience? In our contemplation, such as in centering prayer, we must experience God as Compassion for others, for only then do we embrace the true nature of God. Only then can compassion for others be the fruit of our contemplation of God. Only then can we experience what Jesus experienced. We cannot rest in the enjoyment of God’s presence in contemplative prayer apart from the creation and creatures God loves.

How do we enter into God’s compassionate life? By making the Risen Jesus the focal point of our contemplation of God. Why? Because the Risen Jesus is the continuous outpouring of Divine Love, beginning with creation, the Incarnation, Jesus’ passion and death, Jesus’  continuing involvement in bringing us to wholeness and ultimately to  resurrection. Further, the Risen Jesus has bound us into solidarity with all human beings by incorporating us into his Body. So, the Risen Jesus holds all the world and all our sisters and brothers in his hands. Uniting with the Risen Jesus as Compassion for creation and others opens us up to compassion for all creation and our sisters and brothers. May the Risen Jesus stretch, extend and expand our hearts to embrace all that he loves!

Compassionate Life. The Gospels make it clear that the historical Jesus’ compassion for the suffering of others was a gut-wrenching emotion. However, Jesus manifested another form of compassion in his everyday encounters with people that shares similar qualities with contemplation. Let us look at those similar characteristics.

Both contemplation and compassion, as we are using the term here, require that we be fully present in a caring and attentive way to the other to “receive” the presence and giftedness of the other. Both require that we make a gift of our total person to the other to receive the other’s giftedness. Both require an openness to the other. When the Other is God, the experience is one of contemplation. When the other is a human person, we experience the call to compassion.

Now think of Jesus’ compassion—being fully present in a caring, attentive way—in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Or with Nicodemus who came by night to learn more about Jesus. Or with the apostles Matthew and Nathaniel when Jesus called them to follow him. Jesus gifted these people with his compassionate presence and affirmed their giftedness so dramatically that he changed their lives forever.

Earlier, we emphasized that Jesus achieved compassion for the suffering of others through contemplation of God. We also asserted that Jesus manifested a second form of compassion in his evangelization of others. Now we want to assert that compassion, in both senses of the word, can help us in our practice of contemplation of God. Both the practices of compassion to others and contemplation of God require a mode of being present to another that enables one to be affected by the presence of the other.

Therefore, practicing contemplation of God and practicing compassion to others are reinforcing practices that help us attain our spiritual goal of greater intimacy with God in our contemplation. Further, these practices encourage greater compassion to others, both those in need and those to whom we manifest Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation in our everyday lives, such as to our spouses, our children, our friends and acquaintances, the present-day Samaritan women, the Nicodemus’s of the world.

Paraphrasing St. John’s Gospel: How can we be fully present with all our hearts and minds to God whom we cannot see if we cannot be fully present in a caring, attentive way to our sisters and brothers whom we can see?

Contemplation helps us to become more compassionate to others, and being more compassionate to others helps us practice contemplation of God. Together they comprise the Compassionate Life, a focused way of living, a Jesus-like way of living!