Last week I had the opportunity to go on retreat with our Bishop and five other priests from our diocese—some dear friends, others acquaintances and a few were strangers to me. After Eucharist and lunch, the Bishop shared his simple vision for these retreats: we were gathered for nothing more or less than to tell our story to one another—to share and listen. For, as the Bishop said and as I know to be true in my own experience, “once you’ve heard another’s story you cannot help but love them.”
The bishop began, starting with his grandparents, and following the thread of his life into the present. There was no time limit, no sense of being rushed along, only a spacious quality of holy listening to his profound, authentic, vulnerable self-offering. Each of us followed as we felt moved, breaking for a wonderful dinner and resuming our communion in the morning until all of us had shared our stories. Following the gift of each one’s sharing, the others had an opportunity to offer something that they heard or wondered or were touched by. It was truly holy ground, this seeing and being seen. Each life, the Bishop reminded us, is a living gospel. I wholeheartedly agree.
All of life provides endless opportunities to share and to listen, if we allow it. It’s what it means to follow Jesus’ command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Take the time to stop, slow down, really look and listen to your own life, to the lives of those whom you know and love. How did they come to be who they are? What experiences formed them, what joys and pains inform who they are in this moment? When you encounter someone through a chance meeting as you go about your daily life or hear about them through less personal avenues such as news, pause a moment to wonder who they are, what challenges they’ve known, and imagine what their life might be like from the inside out. It is only possible to love them if we don’t gloss over them but learn to see them, really see them, to wonder at who they are beyond whatever brief brush or long exposure you might have with them.
This kind of living in love doesn’t have much to do with whether an emotion is present or not, nor is it a dispassionate intellectual endeavor. The key to what Jesus embodied in his life and calls us to live in ours is found in the root of the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamin, derived from rechem, meaning womb. God’s love for us is visceral, powerful, intimately connected and unstoppable. God is present with us in every instant of our lives—listening, loving, inviting us into holy communion at all times in all places. Most of us struggle to take this in, to live as if this promise was actually more real and true than anything else. Jesus reveals God’s heart of compassion in tangible ways, that we might allow ourselves to imagine being included, healed, seen, loved. Spend some time allowing yourself to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ remarkable ability to see and know in love. Step into the skin of the prodigal son, the Canaanite woman, the blind man. And then practice this extraordinary, ordinary way of being in the world.
When have you experienced this kind of compassion as a gift from others? When have you extended it in ways that have blessed you beyond measure? Who might you resist extending it to today? What might happen if you did?