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God wove a web of loveliness,
Of clouds and stars and birds.
But made not anything at all
So beautiful as words.
So wrote the late 20th century poet Anna Hempstead Branch. In a certain sense, she captures an overlooked truth. Certainly in the hands of a true wordsmith, words become things of beauty. We might think, for example, of Shakespeare, Milton and so many others. She also hints at another truth: since words ultimately have their foundation in the Word, they are instruments which can lead us to true Beauty.
It is in the latter category that we might place many of the words and phrases of our spiritual tradition. And among such words, one stands out: compassion, the virtue mentioned in my previous column.
To create a spirituality of compassion, we might note an interesting phenomenon. Author Henri Nouwen, among others, translates Luke 6:36 as “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” (Others use the word “mercy.”) Whatever may be the correct translation linguistically speaking, I believe the word “compassionate” is better suited for our purposes.
In our reflection upon the verse, we might highlight the word “Father” as used by Jesus, especially in Luke’s Gospel. Though we usually avoid scholarly interpretations, I believe the insights of Father Eugene La Verdiere, SSS, are very much a propos to our reflection.
As applied to God, the address “Father” acknowledges that he is the source of life...Our tendency is to approach this relationship from the fact that we have a human father and, in relation to that father, we are children. Consequently, our calling God Father is ordinarily based on the experience which we have of our human father.
In both Matthew and Luke, the address “Father” is surely based on a parent-child analogy. However it may come as a surprise to find in both Gospels the image for father comes not so much from our experience of having a father, as of being one.
The point to be emphasized is that the Christian who calls God “Father” must be conscious that, in imitation of Him, we are called to transmit life to others. And this means life in all its many dimensions and potentials. The foundation for a compassionate outreach is found throughout sacred Scripture.
We read in James 2:14-17, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you! If a brother or sister is naked or lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply them bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
St. Paul tells us, “bear one another’s burdens, and you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). In many ways, the apostle’s statement goes against many trends in our culture, especially our emphasis on individualism. He emphasizes our interdependence and he reminds us that in accepting Christ we must accept and welcome into our hearts all who belong to Christ. This includes the poor and hurting of our present-day world: “...as long as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
Whether we conceive of the Church as a communion or as the body of Christ or as the people of God, this idea of our relationship with one another, or better, our dependency upon one another must be emphasized. Pope Paul VI in introducing the revised rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation emphasized the fact that we are involved in what he called a “law of supernatural solidarity.” He went on to explain how on a mystical but real level this meant that our growth in holiness helps the weaker members of the body of Christ. The reverse is also true. Our sins can do harm to the weaker members of Christ.
I believe that his idea of supernatural solidarity must also spill over to the social realm. Concretely, we cannot ignore the crying needs of our brothers and sisters.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.