Compassion, Charity, Grace and a Hug

I have a big book on my lap. Well, it’s no Codex Amiatinus and actually claims to be concise. At 1840+  pages the Encyclopedia of Theology: a Concise Sacramentum Mundi might be full of “major articles on theology, biblical science and related topics from the (six volume) Sacramentum Mundi,” but concise it isn’t.

It’s also interesting to see what words it homes in on and what it does not. The apparent gaps and highlights show us, in part, how language changes and how with it (before it, after it) beliefs and attitudes. So I turn to the contents. A is for Afterlife, Agnosticism, Angels… M is for Magisterium, Man, Mariology… and it finishes with W: World and Worship. Compassion, I note, is missing, as is Love (if you’re wanting to know, Sex, Celibacy and Marriage all have sections). But Charity is there.  Reading Charity is interesting for what it says about language, as I mentioned (“Men feel bound to love others in proportion to their ‘social proximity'” reads as stickily old-fashioned) and its dryness is something of a challenge: “Love of the neighbour determines the basic structure of the moral act;” “The ‘transcendental depth’ of man in the encounter with the ‘other’ always points beyond itself, at least implicitly, to God…” It is clear the author (Waldemar Molinski) is talking about an active love of a real other person, but the vision seems to lack all sorts of attributes, not least everyday attention and  affection. There is no coffee here, there are no hugs: love with no humanity. In some ways that was, of course, the brief: this is an encyclopedia, after all.

Looking beyond Christian theology there are sources with more immediate appeal – even ones mentioned in this blog: vulnerability with Mike Armiger; Geoff Taggart’s compassionate pedagogy; and then Dennis Tirsch whom I quote in this blog post on sacredness:

A good relationship is a sacred space that can safely contain how we think and feel, along with our potentially painful histories + the whole of who we are.

In calling for a recognition of the sacredness of a good relationship we are actually closer (in thought if not in language) to the Charity article than it at first appears: recognising the reality of the other person is at the heart of Christian living. But Tirsch, I think, and my atheist and agnostic and Buddhist friends would not see Christian morality (when shaped like this) as having a sufficient language in itself. This is partly because Molinski is thinking in terms of individuals: this man [sic] and his neighbour, and their several relationships with God. Some of the appeal of Buddhist writing comes from its refusal to compartmentalise. Thich Nhat Hahn writes of working for peace in Vietnam during the War:

We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the Communists and the anti-Communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides.

Being Peace

Thich Nhat Hahn sees us as trying to solve problems when things go wrong for a child, rather than blaming the child. This may be part of the issue (aka bitter arguments and name-calling)  around discourses of behaviour in schools: I don’t know. I do know that at home and at work it can be very hard and that I’m not very good at it in either place: I am too needy of other people’s approval and affection, too jealous of my own misplaced sense of equilibrium.

Perhaps in a search for Compassion in the Encyclopedia I should be looking more at Grace, the active giving “which divinizes the essence, powers and activity of man.”  A gift of freedom in the deepest sense.  As Thomas Merton warns:

…We only have as much as we give. But we are called upon to give as much as we have, and more; as much as we are. ..Love alone can teach us to penetrate the hidden goodness of the things we know.

No Man is an Island

Back, then, to sacredness, to self-giving and realising a huge Oneness, what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “the presence of the entire universe in ourselves.”  Back to meditation. Following the breath and hoping that this will free us from what Martin Laird calls “inner chatter,” from preconceptions and old pains.


Wonderful. But here I am blogging when I should be marking, wondering how useful it would be to mark an essay with the feedback “seeing and loving are one” (Thich Nhat Hahn again) or “We humble ourselves, crying for his mercy and grace” (Julian of Norwich). Of course it would not be what was needed: the compassionate act is to help the student understand what is working in their assignment , and where they might look next for ideas or for techniques to make their work better. Writing “Look at your sentence structure” becomes a more compassionate act than suggesting that “the rays of the sun and of the moon touch the earth, and yet the earth does not contaminate the light”  (St Augustine, if you’re interested).

This is a reductio ad absurdum, I know, but it does highlight a problem I struggled with as Programme Lead at Brookes and continue to struggle with as I talk to people who are still there: how to be compassionate in a system that is not compassionate. Not wicked, not prone to abuse, just that greyest of things: not compassionate: on Twitter tonight (17.12.18) I mentioned how

Lots of teams… can…find it easier to rely on a “just get on with it” culture where student needs are met by frontline staff but those staff are not themselves given regular help.

I am beginning to think that the uncaring or even the cruel system or the oppressive system might be easier to be compassionate in. I’m not advocating we should move to this, just that “compassionate as an act of defiance” is maybe easier to see or to see opportunities for than it is to see compassion or a need to exercise it in a system that talks about caring but actually cares very little: where the see-saw of the task and the group means that management-speak is about staff experience but where the systems leave little room for genuine compassion-focussed practice. This isn’t to say that Higher Education (or any educational project) should give itself over to the needs of the team  (though a hug is nice, sometimes) because teaching needs to happen, budgets need to be balanced, buildings tidied… – but that compassionate practice cannot be an add-on, and cannot be the hobby of a few.

However (and I’ll end here) this comes at a price, a real price that institutions, I think, have to step up to. The Twitter conversation this evening centred on a lovely animation from @KellyCanuckTO in which she asks, really, who looks after the people who do the looking after?  To provide this support in busy working lives takes time, takes people with time themselves, and skills and insight – and who are willing (because this is what Grace does) to risk being hurt, to risk that second asking of “Are you all right?” – and the time to sit and listen when there is an answer that needs an ear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s