Western Roots of Compassion

Not much more than a  retweet, really.

I was chuffed to be asked for a contribution to the blog #365daysofcompassion  and responded with this piece. The idea that compassion is a new phenomenon is the West is a bit silly, and i wanted to turn a rather random spotlight on a few authors and ideas. There is much more to say, of course – so much so that I can’t help thinking that there is a richer seam here than might first appear, books and books of stuff. I would have liked to explore St Ambrose more, or look at the world of Julian of Norwich, not just her writings, and then maybe looked at the charitable orders of the period immediately prior to and post the Reformation. Or gone beyond my own Catholic point of view to look at the Salvation Army, the Friends (Quakers) such as Elizabeth Fry or Christian Socialists such as the McMillan sisters – or to look at movements and people in different ways?

As Philip Sheldrake puts it,

The pages of Christian history are strewn with marginalized people and traditions as well as forgotten or disparaged ideas.

and looking at a range of compassionate practices in detail would require a meticulous exploration of   people we sometimes overlook, from Beguines and Eudists to Leprosaria.   Some of the institutions have changed in purpose or patronage and some of this has been in response to changes of understanding in what suffering is and where it can be alleviated. The biggest thing I think I’d want to add, therefore, is something about how our realisation of suffering changes and has changed since the writers I explored in the 365Days blog, and how a critical appraisal of the “history of compassion” needs to take this into account. 

I said in my 365Days post that “compassion… appears in all sorts of different guises.” As we become aware of the pressure or demands on that compassion,  perhaps we do need to look back more, to find some sense or strength – or simply answers to problems – to create the kind of opposition to the looming clouds of intolerance we seem to be facing in uncertain times.  This cannot be something that a positive overview such as my 365Days blog can achieve, and Sheldrake concludes this section in Spirituality and History by noting that 

…cataclysmic events such as the Holocaust have caused much heart-searching about Christian history and have heightened our consciousness of its ambiguity…It seems that we can no longer avoid the need to approach even our cherished spiritual traditions and their history in a much more critical fashion.

That this dehumanisation also occurred in the Middle Ages (and earlier) is not the issue here: it’s how our hearing and seeing now brings about a different response.

Or can do. We are faced on one hand with compassion fatigue, on another by the celebritisation of charity – and on a grimmer side by holocaust denial, or the outpouring of hatred when an enemy is seen suffering. Slower communication means less frenetic communication, perhaps?


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