Editor’s note: This article was written before we started practicing social distancing to avoid the spread of sickness. But the lesson of being compassionate is still timely, if enacted differently these weeks.
Peering through my frozen breath, I gazed at the people happily chatting with steaming cups in hand. Between us stood a thick door. Grasping at the brass on the old weathered wood, I tested the weight. It was heavy. I tried shifting my weight off the crutches solely onto my good leg. Bracing my back tighter, I pulled again. It wouldn’t budge. A warm aroma squeezed out to greet me, but I remained stuck. As I stood there looking through the wavy glass, I felt as if I might as well have been knocking at a wall.
Suddenly, a young woman at a table by the door caught sight of me. She jumped out of her seat and ran toward me. With one swift movement, she threw open the door.
“I remember what that’s like!” she said.
“Thank you so much!” I responded, trying to hide the tears that were starting to well up.
“Really! It’s just a door!” I thought unsympathetically toward myself. “Why am I getting emotional over a door?”
I realized I was not going to be able to carry my own coffee, so I went to find a seat until my friend arrived. A man who was all settled in a prime spot with his coffee and computer motioned to me.
“Do you have a seat?”
“Not yet,” I replied.
“You won’t be able to sit on the tall stools over there. Sit here,” he said with an understanding tone as he rose from his seat.
“Thank you so much!” I said, nodding to him in unspeakable gratitude.
Touched by the gestures of kindness, I lowered myself into the seat to wait for my friend. They were admittedly small gestures, but they touched me profoundly. I cracked open my prayer journal to pass the time. Every Lent, I return to the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatius’s perennial call to pray for the grace of compassion—the ability to suffer with Christ—as we encounter the Crucifixion.
As I reflected, the images of the young woman running toward me and the man offering me his seat would not leave my mind. I tried to refocus my prayer. It seemed there was no resisting these images, so I just sat with them in gratitude. As I sat there, it occurred to me that the Spirit was directing me to these images because they were gestures of compassion.
I often fall into the trap of thinking that compassion needs to be some huge gesture that takes a lot of effort. This makes compassion into something that I can only do if I have extra time and energy. The fact is, though, compassion is a posture that requires open eyes and an open heart. It doesn’t always mean huge actions. It can be manifest in smaller actions. It is a nod of togetherness in suffering. Compassion is a standing-with another in a difficult time, if only for a moment.
In his book, The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien, SJ, speaks of compassion in the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises:
In this phase of the Exercises, we accompany Jesus into the mystery of human suffering…We don’t need to make any big promises or figure out answers to timeless existential questions about the meaning of suffering. We just need to be present to Jesus and continue to have our hearts schooled about what compassion is all about. In this school of the heart, the cross becomes an extension of Jesus’ ministry of loving presence.
Two questions will inevitably arise if we enter this “school of the heart:”
- Where in my life do I see suffering?
- How might I alleviate that suffering, even a little bit?
Even small gestures can open doors—and those gestures can be the difference between leaving one out in the cold and welcoming someone into the warmth of community.