As the most sacred week in the Christian calendar begins today with the celebration of Palm Sunday, Christians around the world ponder the mystery of how God, incarnate in the person of Jesus, who out of love for humanity voluntarily chose to endure suffering and pain and death on a cross.
Although it is always a temptation to turn away from the sufferings of others, this divine identification with all of those who suffer challenges each of us to respond to the pain and suffering of others with compassion and concern. I am reminded of the truth of what the poet John Donne once wrote:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne’s famous reflection on our interconnectedness, is an invitation to reflect not only on our common mortality but as Holy Week begins, on compassion and on our call to solidarity with those who suffer. Although the causes of suffering vary from person to person and place to place, suffering is an inevitable dimension of the human experience. The suffering each of us undergoes in the course of our lives may be the consequence of national or international events, such as a war, economic depression or a natural disaster such as last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Or our anguish may be the consequence of a personal misfortune such as a physical injury or illness, the breakup of a marriage or the loss of a job or the death of a family member or a close friend. Our suffering may be the consequence of social or political inequity or injustice or it may be the result of our own poor choices and actions. Or our suffering may be a sacrifice we make on behalf of another, such as the pain a mother willingly endures to give birth to her child.
While it is always appropriate to take steps to alleviate physical and emotional suffering — I think here of the compassionate work of hospice to relieve the pain of those who are dying — there is always pain in our lives that is ultimately unavoidable. Solidarity with those who suffer calls on us to first of all identify with the pain and suffering of others. The bell that tolls for the suffering of our brother or sister truly does toll for each of us, because none of us is immune from pain and suffering in our own lives.
Compassion means to “suffer with” and to live and act compassionately is both work to relieve suffering but also to accompany our brothers and sisters in the oftentimes difficult and painful circumstances of their lives. From my perspective and as a Christian, I am inspired by the example of Jesus and how he exemplifies the love and compassion of God. In faith I believe that all human suffering is a participation in his redemptive passion and death. But the imperative to respond to the pain and suffering of this world with compassion is a universal one which can be found in all of the world’s religions and ethical philosophies. Thus, compassion for those who suffer is an essential starting place for dialogue and understanding among religious believers and people of good will.
This lived out compassionate solidarity we see all around us in the generous support this community gives to the Glory Hole, to the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill, to Hospice, to the AWARE shelter and other programs that advocate for the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, to the Food Bank and to many other institutions and initiatives in Juneau that seek to alleviate the suffering and distress of our friends and neighbors.
The compassionate work that we are called to, together and as individuals, not only is a benefit to those who we serve, but transforms us as well. For as we understand and practice the virtue of compassion, we become our best selves.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.