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Compassion: The Mind of Christ
By Presiding Bishop Frank Griswoild


In this world of ours, beset by hostility and violence, mercy and compassion
seem strangely out of place, if not altogether irrelevant. Today's readings
invite us to ponder the surprising and insistent ways of God's mercy, and
therefore to give root-room to the divine compassion in our own lives. In
the context in which we find ourselves this invitation may seem remote or
naive. And yet, compassion is God's very nature writ large in the person of
Jesus, who is the embodiment of mercy, and calls us to be merciful, just as
our heavenly Father is merciful.

Paul, the persecutor, in the full force of his violent hostility "breathing
threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," was accosted,
shattered and riven through by God's profligate and unbounded compassion.
His self-constructed righteousness collapsed. All that had formerly given
meaning and direction to his life was overturned. The self-described
blasphemer, persecutor and man of violence was embraced and held fast in the
arms of God's mercy. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, Paul experienced
all at once the overflowing grace of the risen Christ and the love of God
worked into his mind and heart.

God's mercy can be wild and unsettling; it can confute and undermine our all
too limited notions of mercy. The divine compassion may, on occasion, play
havoc with the limits and boundaries we set, albeit in God's name. "My
thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord."

Nowhere does this become more true than in the life of the church where
there is a constant tension between a concern for boundaries and fidelity to
the Spirit whom Jesus likens to the wind blowing "where it chooses." Since
the time of the Acts of the Apostles the Holy Spirit has had the habit of
stretching the community of believers to make room for new realities by
showing up in unexpected places and descending upon those considered to be
outside the household of faith.

The parables Jesus sets before us in today's Gospel reading underscore the
insistence and urgency of the divine compassion as being integral to his own
ministry. The shepherd goes after the lost sheep "until he finds it." The
woman searches carefully for the lost silver coin "until she finds it."
Nothing will stay either of them from finding what is lost, nor will
anything stay God in Christ from drawing all together in the reconciling
love of which mercy and compassion are its most forceful and direct
expression.

Three years ago, on the fourteenth of September, Holy Cross Day, I visited
what has become known as Ground Zero, the site of the Towers of the World
Trade Center. Before going to the actual site, I stopped at the Seaman's
Church Institute, a nearby church agency being used as a rest and feeding
center for the firemen and police and others trying to cope with what had
happened three days before. Before leaving I was asked to preside at the
Eucharist in the Institute chapel. In the gospel reading for the day Jesus,
anticipating his death declares, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself."

Our visit to the scene of the devastation took us by St. Paul's Chapel.
Seeing the gate was open, I asked our driver to stop. The door was unlocked.
I entered. A layer of fine ash covered every surface. Though only a block
away from the World Trade Center no damage had been done, not even a pane of
glass had been broken. The church was empty and silent. Behind the altar
stood an antique crucifix, its tiny brass arms extended toward the
destruction and horror, the grief and rage and madness that lay beyond.

Suddenly the words of the day's gospel came to mind, "And I, when I am
lifted up from the earth, will draw all people ‚- all things -- to myself."
I knew in that moment that beyond anything I could think or feel or do there
was Another whose compassion and mercy were able to embrace it all, and that
it was only in the power of that embrace that we, and our world, would be
able to find the way forward. Sadly, we have chosen a path that only
intensifies the very evil we are seeking to overcome and therefore makes
reconciliation that much more remote.

Compassion is not an abstraction, a fleeting emotion; it is a matter of
having what St. Paul calls "the mind of Christ." Compassion is the work of
the Spirit forming Christ in us and rendering our hearts compassionate. And
what is a compassionate heart? Each of us may have an answer.

St. Isaac of Syria asked this question many centuries ago, and here is his
reply: "It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation ‚- for
humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every
creature. When a person with a heart such as this thinks of the creatures or
looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion
makes his heart grow small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any
suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he
never ceases to pray, with tears even for the irrational animals, for the
enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be
guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a
great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines
again and is glorious like God."

No amount of active imagination or psychological effort on our part can
produce a compassionate heart. Only the insistent and urgent compassion of
Christ, enfolding the demons and reptiles that lurk in the secret places
within us, can render us truly compassionate. And it is only the compassion
of Christ worked in us by the Spirit that can give us the expansiveness of
heart which will allow us to extend our arms with the courageous and
unwavering and all-embracing mercy of Christ himself. It is a mercy that can
embrace even the demons and reptiles, the enemies of truth and those who do
us evil.

The Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday is about compassion. Christ's self
gift in Scripture and under the forms of Bread and Wine is his continual
reaching out to us in order to draw us to himself, and to indwell us in the
radical fullness of his love. Over time the Eucharist conforms us to the
image of Christ and we become signs of his real presence made manifest in
acts of profligate and, at times, provocative compassion.

The Eucharist, therefore, is dangerous. More may happen to us than we
intend. The seemingly safe consumption of a morsel of bread and a sip of
wine may draw us beyond ourselves into the force field of God's mercy. Our
security may be undermined. Our certitudes may be challenged. We may be left
defenseless ‚ and therefore more permeable to the unpredictable motions and
demands of the Spirit.

On 21 May 1996 an Algerian Terrorist group ‚ the GIA ‚ beheaded seven
French Trappist monks who, against all advice, decided to remain at their abbey in
the Atlas Mountains alongside their Muslim neighbors with whom they had
established deep bonds of affection. Their compassion and their vow of
stability led them to stay put in spite of all dangers.

Five days after their assassination, on 26 May, the Feast of Pentecost that
year, the testament of one of the slaughtered monks, P√re Cr√tien was opened
and read. It was dated 1 January 1994, two-and-one-half years before his
kidnapping and murder. To me, it is a profound expression of what St. Isaac
describes as a compassionate heart, and what it means to live one's life
"hidden with Christ in God" through word and sacrament. It reads in part:

If it should happen one day ‚- and it could be today ‚-
that I become a victim of the terrorism
which now seems ready to engulf
all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN
to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact
that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me:
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death
with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.

I would like, when the time comes,
to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart
the one who will strike me down.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me na√ve or idealistic:
"Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!"
But these persons should know that finally
my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, please God:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret
joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing
with the differences.

P√re Cr√tien then addresses his assassin, the one who will do him evil: And
also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were
doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this "A-DIEU" to be for you, too,
because in God's face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in
Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


Here is the witness of a contemporary: a man who allowed the compassion of
Christ to inhabit the whole of his being. Was he perfect? No. Those who knew
him could tell you of his thorns and imperfections. Like the Apostle Paul,
the Patron of this great Cathedral Church, P√re Cr√tien was captured and
transformed by Christ's unbounded compassion. Love overleaps all boundaries
and his deadly enemy is declared, "my last-minute friend."

While hostility and violence remain very much with us and almost daily
assume new and more hideous forms ‚- as we have just seen in Beslan, Russia
‚- let us draw strength from the witness of St. Paul, Isaac of Syria, and
P√re Cr√tien. Let us pray that Christ, through the Bread and Wine we are
about to receive, will so draw us to himself that his mercy and deathless
compassion will become our own. Let us pray that we ‚- wherever we find
ourselves ‚- may be signs, agents and ministers of his all-embracing love
for this fragile and fractured world. Let us pray also that we may be signs,
agents and ministers of his love within the church, whose mission is to
proclaim and live the costly and all-demanding mystery of reconciliation.

"Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can
ask or imagine."

Amen.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
St. Paul's Cathedral, London
September 12, 2004

Readings: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10