32nd Sunday Reflection
This is a parable of a wedding banquet, virgin bridesmaids, a bridegroom who is delayed, and a shortage of oil for the lamps at midnight. A story of foolishness, pity, self-pity, and entitlement, “give us…”. This entitlement demands complicity; that is the nature of false compassion, pity, and self-pity. This is a warning of a journey into sightless darkness that can happen to families, communities, and nations.
The foolish virgins were those who were lazy and unmindful. They were foolish because they were not prepared for the future but only for the present. They were foolish because they did not have works of compassion, for the oil symbolises compassion (Epiphanius).
St Bernard wrote in the 12th century, that Christ is our primary teacher of compassion because He willed His passion [the cross] so that we could learn compassion.
Yet, all too often Compassions great popularity tends to isolate this virtue from all those other factors it needs to remain a true virtue. Compassion is rooted in love, takes on the pain of the sufferer, but with the hope that some positive goodwill emerge from this shared suffering. We as Christian believe that suffering is not necessarily meaningless but can be redemptive.
For a Christian to share the suffering of another means that, by so doing, they bring light into the pain and misery of that person’s life. They bless the other persons’ existence with a higher meaning. Christian compassion is thus bound up with the mystery of the Cross.
Every virtue has its phony pretenders. Recklessness passes for courage, timidity for prudence, apathy for patience, obsequiousness for courtesy, and credulity for faith. But there is no counterfeit that is more successful in obscuring the genuine article, especially in the present era, than false compassion and pity.
Pity is more associated with an aesthetic sensibility and moral superiority than with love and is always devoid of hope. Separated from love, light, generosity, hope, patience, courage, and determination, compassion becomes nothing more than a code word whose real name is expediency. Such expediency is complicit in creating dysfunctional co-dependency and enablement.
Humanistic compassion, another variety of false compassion, is based on the illusion that it is possible to free human beings from suffering altogether and supply them with uninterrupted happiness. This illusion is rampant in the present therapeutic culture, which believes that the road to happiness passes through the surgeon’s knife and pharmaceutical companies. But since humanistic compassion is neither realistic nor rooted in love, it is simply another form of pity.
The problem with pity is not that it is inhumane. It is only too humane. Its problem is that it cannot transcend suffering, finds no meaning in it, and is, in fact, overwhelmed by it. Pity, ultimately, is so humane that it excludes God. Ivan Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s great novel, could not believe in God as long as one child was in torment. One of Albert Camus heroes could not accept the divinity of Christ because of the slaughter of the innocents.
The various modes of popular pity mark our gain in sensibility, but at the cost of narrowing our vision to the point where pain is all that we can see. Christianity and the therapeutic culture are at odds with each other on the fundamental question of how we should respond to another’s pain and suffering.
Christianity does not look away from pain or the anguish of the sufferer, and, unlike the therapeutic and avoidance culture, the Christian brings to his suffering neighbour love, hope, and the light of the Cross and resurrection of Christ.
Because of the resurrection, we can dare to hope that our life does make a difference, we can dare to hope in the face of suffering, and we can dare to hope even when the only answer is silence.
Written during WW2, on the wall of a cellar, by a Jew in the Cologne concentration camp.
“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.
I believe through any trial,
there is always a way
But sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter,
to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me, saying hold on
my child, I’ll give you strength,
I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
But I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way.
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace….”
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