Just last night, as I was easing my way into my day-off today, I had the chance to meet with the parents of an elementary school down here in Los Angeles. I was sharing with them my experience of faith in the family. Really a striking thing for me to reflect on as our Bishops our gather in Rome to really tackle the problems of evangelization and open up to the Holy Spirit’s movements in the immense beauty of the family in God’s plan. I was drawn to the promise and the covenant that God made with Abraham that his decedents would be filled with faith as the sky is just covered in stars, as one can see it in the desert away form the city (Genesis 15) and how Abraham was faced with the gravest encounter a parent could face: what do I trust and long for more, my God’s promise to me or my own child? Only to realize that they are mysteriously one and the same.
The challenges of this promise from God, lived out so imperfectly by us, not just as biological parents, but as spiritual parents, sharing the faith, planting the seeds of faith in others, led me then to walk with these elementary school parents through the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).
That’s when things started getting serious and real for me.
I came across the way that the Father’s reaction is described. Go read it! It said he “was filled with compassion.” And it struck me that that word, compassion, is so weak! Here’s a Father whose been rejected and doubted and pretty much told by his son that he would be better off if he were dead. Still, this Father sees his son crawling back to him, and before he can even cross the property line, the Father embarrasses himself and runs out to him, out of compassion. Well, the actual word used in the original language means a compassion that one feels in the gut. A churning of the gut, something that makes us hurt because we love so much, something that make us almost ill because our love for someone is so real and so tangible, that when we see them in pain and we want them to know they are loved and not forgotten, that we physically feel it and it almost doubles us over. That kind of compassion.
That’s what our God feels. That kind of compassion. When we run away from him. That’s how he looks at us. That’s how he welcomes us back. Not like, I told you so, but with that gut-churning love, that deeply felt pain, knowing that we have been in pain and lonely and unfulfilled.
I got a glimpse of this, I think, in real life, just the other day. Or rather, I should say, I think I felt this. I didn’t plan on sharing this with the parents last night, but I was just so struck as I was reading this story I’ve read so many times by that word, weak as it is in our language: compassion. So I couldn’t help but to share briefly that I’d been following one of our priests around on sick calls to the hospital. We came into a room where a lady had just been diagnosed with a scary disease. I left the room as she was able to go to Reconciliation with Father, but I still got to hear part of her story. I felt that churning in my gut as she described what I won’t go into detail about. About that struggles with her family. And I was just struck by the way sin creeps into our communities, especially our families, and even into our own lives, and tries to tear things apart. It’s not like this was happening to her because of something she did wrong, as if God was punishing her like a petty, vengeful judge.
No, this was our human condition, our struggle with sin, being made real and terrible, and it disgusted me. I was not disgusted by her, by no means! I was saddened by how such a beautiful life could be so hurt by the loneliness and division caused by sin. And so the greater healing she needed was not physical healing, though that is one thing we prayed over her for. Yet, it was the healing of her heart and her family that was most important. That compassion the priest must have for his people can sometimes be a physical, gut-churning hatred for sin. But, so beautifully, that anger and frustration with sin, that we all must feel, especially for our own sin, can lead to a deeper care and love for those we see around us and those we encounter face to face. Then, compassion, in our families and in our friendships, and for those we’ve never met before, becomes more than a fleeting feeling, but something that digs its way into our very being. That kind of compassion. God’s kind of compassion.