Saturday, October 27, 2007

Compassionate to all His creatures

I hope that you all don't mind the momentary excursus from the Ladder of Humility...

The verse quoted in the title of this post jumped out at me at Vespers on Friday. It is from Psalm 145: 8 (Hebrew/modern numbering). The word here translated as 'compassionate' is one that provokes a certain amount of discussion among scholars of the Hebrew language. The root rhm is clearly related to the word for 'womb' and so there are two theories about how the verb form later comes to mean 'love' or 'have compassion for'. One is clear enough, that a mother has compassion on the children of her womb, cares for them as her own flesh. The second is interesting: that solidarity (the co-suffering implied in com-passion) derives from brotherhood, of being born of the same womb and bearing the same blood.

In either case, our God's compassion is not a mere put-on, in which God bends down to stroke our heads when things get tough. The Lord's compassion is quite literal, seen from the point of view of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ becomes our brother, sharing with us flesh and blood, toil and suffering.

What perhaps provoked the meditation I took with me after this office is a short story by Dostoevsky that I recently read for the first time. In A Most Unfortunate Incident, the 'hero' (Dostoevsky's accurate but ironic word) is one Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky, a young gentleman and General. Leaving a friend's house a bit tipsy late one night, he happens by the wedding celebration of an impoverished subordinate. At the friend's house, he had been trumpeting the wonders of 'humaneness to subordinates' as the solution to all the world's ills. Not thinking clearly, he sees an opportunity to demonstrate his 'humaneness to subordinates' by crashing this wedding party and wishing his fellow man well. His entrance is clumsy and ultimately boorish to say the least; he is simply unable to relate the the company at the party nor they to him; he drinks down two expensive bottles of champagne with no sense of the cost to the families; he is utterly dumbfounded by the fawning respect that everyone feels obliged to show him and the fact that his presence completely ruins the joy of the affair.

You see this sort of thing in monasteries when men from certain types of wealthy background enter and clumsily attempt to mop a floor for the first time or make oatmeal or weed a garden. I certainly had a bit of this in me when I entered, simply from having spent a certain period of time in artiste Bohemia. One of the goals of the practice of humility is to realize what Evagrius said about the monk, that he is 'separate from all men and united to all men'. We cannot by mere sentiment and desire become united to all men; it can only be done by dying to self so that Christ lives in us.

One of the remarkable features of the life of Jesus Christ is the absolute ease He demonstrates in moving in and out of various levels of society. He is as much at home walking along the sea calling to his side fishermen as he is partying with sophisticated tax collectors or parrying philosophical thrusts with the urbane Pilate. Children run to him and so does Zaccheus. There is no sense of a put-on in any of this. Jesus Christ simply is at home with all types of people, and in all types of situations. He has nothing to prove, no 'agenda' that requires Him to play act and reassure people of His 'humaneness'. He simply joins us, and thus incarnates His compassion toward all His creatures.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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