The act of compassion is, whatever the manner of its expression, primarily an interior one. It may show itself in any one of the corporal works of mercy, but before it brings the particular kind of relief that the situation demands, it has to exist in the mind. Otherwise the act might very well be an act of vainglory.
So much does it reside in the mind rather than in the performance that sometimes compassion does not have to show itself outwardly at all. It is simply there waiting. The mere possession of it brings sympathy. It is at the ready, wanting to help in any way at all or in no way at all. In other words, compassion is not just an exhibition of pity; it is a virtue in the strict sense of being a habit.
Compassion is co-suffering: constant willingness to share in the sufferings of others. It is yielding to another’s cross as though it were our own. It is making that other cross our own.
Works of compassion are a sign that the virtue is possessed; they are not themselves the virtue. If, by tossing him a coin, I commiserate a poor man — truly co-miserating in his distress — I show that I possess at least enough of the love of God to see in him an object of charity. Thus, the love of God has to be present before the coin is tossed; the coin is the outward expression of the inward activity.
What is all this leading up to? It is meant to point to the conclusion that, had Mary never brought outward relief to Christ’s sacred humanity, she would still be Mother of Divine Compassion.
But because love does not remain inoperative, Mary’s love must in fact have brought relief to Christ in His sufferings. Tradition gives us nothing more about the meeting between Christ and His Mother on the way to Calvary than the fact that they saw one another. What passed between them we do not know, but if words did not, it makes no difference. Christ was suffering, and Mary was suffering with Him. Both knew this, and in the joint knowledge lay mutual compassion.
Accordingly, perfect love, as found in Christ and in His Mother, supposes perfect compassion. The presence of love assumes compassion, just as the absence of love disproves it. The saints could enter sincerely into the trials of others, not because they had themselves always experienced such trials, but because they loved God. Their love of God made them see. They saw into the sufferings of others and immediately wanted to share the pain that they saw there. “Bear the burden of one another’s failings [or just ‘bear ye one another’s burdens’]; then you will be fulfilling the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is the law of charity, and charity inevitably makes us compassionate. It is because charity gives us insight that we can take so much off the shoulders of others: our mere understanding, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit and an aspect of charity, lessens the weight.
Without the insight and direction that charity gives, the emotion may go by the name of compassion, but it cannot be accounted for truly supernatural virtue. The sympathy may be heroic — just as philanthropy may be heroic: “If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor” — but if it hath not charity, it profits nothing.16 If the inward activity of love were not the qualifying factor — a love that has God as its primary object — then the compassion of Mary would have to yield place to the emotion that has moved other mothers to acts of love for their sons. Was Agar’s pity for her child, because so intensely expressed, more noble than the compassion of Mary? Did Respha, because her lamentation was accompanied by such privation, mourn more deeply than Mary? Are we to imagine that Eos and Eurydice went further in their motherly love than Mary?
If Mary’s compassion was less conspicuous, it was not because it was less felt. We must not fall into the trap of thinking of Mary as being above human emotion, different from the rest of us by reason of her Immaculate Conception and therefore aloof, remote from anxiety, withdrawn into herself and beyond the reach of sentiment. If Mary “pondered,” keeping many things within her heart, it was not because she felt things less than we do, but rather because she felt them more than we do. So great was her feeling that there could be no appropriate outlet. She had to ponder and, in pondering, suffered more.
But for us, to whom appropriate outlets are constantly opening, the situation is different. Everywhere around us lie objects of our active supernatural compassion. The danger for us is to ponder and do nothing. Or even not to ponder. Idle compassion — the emotion inspired by grace, but allowed to remain sterile — is worse than no compassion at all. It is the negation of virtue, a frustration of grace. What our Lord said to the Pharisees about following up the vision of truth has its application in the matter of following up the vision of suffering: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty. It is because you protest, ‘We can see clearly,’ that you cannot be rid of your guilt.” The compassion that is locked up turns easily, like any other talent that is not traded with, to corruption. Such mean qualities as cynical indifference, imputation of blame, unwillingness to make allowances, and preoccupation with our own small difficulties to the exclusion of interest in the greater difficulties of other people are often the effect of neglected compassion — a grace working in reverse.
If compassion is charity, the expression of compassion will follow the order of charity. Its first object will be Christ in His Passion.
By meditating upon the happenings of Holy Week, the soul comes to see into the psalmist’s reproach and to respond to its implication: “I looked for one [saith the Lord] that would grieve together with me, but there was none; and for one that would comfort me, and I found none.” Christ is not suffered to tread the winepress alone: the soul, together with Mary and the saints, volunteers companionship. “More than ever is our Lord thirsting for love,” says St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “and He finds, alas, few who surrender themselves to it.”
This is surely where even the least penitential among us can make his offering: all we have to do is to surrender, and grace supplies the rest. With the bride in the Canticle the soul can say, “Draw me,” and God will see to it that the pursuit of His love is kept up; the soul can say, “Show me,” and God will see that there is no more wandering after the companions of yesterday.
In the Passion we find our true attraction: the magnetism of love that cannot but invite compassion. “But my share in the Passion is so weak,” cries the soul when the vision of Christ’s infinite love begins to assume reality, “and in the face of such suffering, there seems so little that I can do.” True, there is little enough that anyone can do, but the word passio does not mean “doing”; it means “suffering.”
In bringing compassion to Christ, we bring compassion to the whole Christ — to His members as well as to His memory. The members of Christ are everywhere, wherever there is human suffering. We bandage His hands; we anoint His feet; we soothe the roughness of His skin. As the priest is the extension of Christ sacrificing, so the sufferer is the extension of Christ suffering.
“But what if it is their fault that they suffer?” It makes no difference. The fact they suffer is claim upon our compassion. We shall not be asked, “Did they deserve it?” but “Did they need it?” The neurotics, the failures, the misfits: all are sufferers; all are Christ.
Finally, we must be compassionate even with ourselves; and perhaps this calls for the most difficult expression of the three. We must know our limitations and be patient with them. Never condoning weakness, never indulging in self-pity, we put up with ourselves in a spirit of supernatural compassion.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dom Van Zeller’s Suffering: The Cross of Christ and Its Meaning for You, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.