I often say to people, “I will pray for you.” But how frequently is my prayer one of pity or sympathy rather than compassion?
My dear friend Pat is fighting brain cancer. She spends most of her days on a recliner chair in her bedroom, and often when people come to visit her, they sit across from her—and, as she describes it, “silently stare” at her. I laugh when she tells me these stories. But when I witness it with my own eyes, it baffles me.
What bothers her most of all, however, is that it is clear to her when people approach her with pity and sympathy rather than compassion.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s always obvious to me,” Pat says. "The love is different."
For author Henri Nouwen, compassion is at the heart of our prayer for others. Literally meaning to suffer with another, compassion necessarily entails becoming close to the one who suffers. It means opening up our own heart to feel their pain as if it was ours. It means seeing Christ in their suffering eyes.
“When God became as we are,” Nouwen wrote, “that is, when God allowed all of us to enter into his intimate life, it became possible for us to share in his infinite compassion. In praying for others, I lose myself and become the other, only to be found in the divine love which holds the whole of humanity in a compassionate embrace.”