Dr. Alice von Hildebrand Compassion, pity, mercy

Today the three words mentioned in the title are often used interchangeably, yet they have different nuances and  meanings that should be distinguished. Since Vatican II, they are in the lime light because John XXIII stressed the importance of compassion toward sinners and heretics.

Taken by itself, the word compassion (which comes from the Latin: con patire) means to “suffer with.” How often  do we meet people deeply afflicted – either physically or psychologically – who feel alone and abandoned? There is no one to hold their hand, and make them feel that, even though the compassionate person cannot relieve them, their suffering is spiritually shared. Moreover, the very presence of the compassionate person communicates a loving message: “not only am I suffering with you, but moreover, you should know and feel that my incapacity to relieve your pain is to me a keen source of grief.” Those of us who have tasted the bitterness of suffering, know how consoling it is to have someone whose love is expressed by his or her compassion. The loving message is “you should know that your suffering vibrates in my heart.” This precious gift – namely presence – compensates for one’s helplessness in offering concrete relief. A loving look can give comfort and consolation to the one who is “bleeding.” Loneliness added to suffering is  particularly cruel. This is expressed in the Lamentations of Jeremiah: “…there is none to comfort her…” (1:l7, 21).

In our society of “doers,” many are those who assume that if one cannot offer efficient help, presence is meaningless. This is“affective atrophy, a sort of affective heresy.”  Silence can be eloquent. It should be added, however, that if the “compassionate” person could actually offer some concrete help, and neglects to do so, his attitude deserves to be qualified as “affective hypocrisy.” This is powerfully expressed in a play of the Austrian dramatist, Nestroy. A very rich man sees a starving beggar on top of the stairs leading to his palace, and says to his servant, “Throw this beggar down the steps; his misery breaks my heart!”

Comments are unnecessary.

It is heart breaking to read in the Gospel that when Christ was sweating blood in Gethsemane, his three favored disciples were sound asleep. Yet, earlier in the Gospel of St. John, Christ  referring to his loneliness, added: “Yet I am never alone because I do my Father’s will.” (John, 16:33) The second Person of the Holy Trinity can never be separated from His Father.

There is a huge gamut in possible degrees of compassion, depending upon our closeness to the suffering one. A mother’s compassion for her suffering child can make her utter words such as: “How happy would I be if I could take your pain upon myself and by so doing liberate you from it,” or “I would consider it a privilege to suffer in your place.”

When we contemplate the Gospel, there is one scene where compassion reaches such a  degree that the compassionate person does not only suffer with, but through the intensity of her love duplicates in herself the sufferings of the loved one. I am thinking of Mary, the Mater Dolorosa. I once read that according to a great saint, her sufferings at Calvary duplicated her beloved Son’s sufferings to such an extent, that it was only through extraordinary graces that she did not die from pain. According to the same author, no human suffering, fearful as it might be, could be compared to what she experienced standing at the foot of the cross. She was totally incapable of doing anything to relieve her Beloved Son’s torture. Her response was to ask for the grace of feeling His suffering as much as a creature could do.

Much more complex are cases in which one person has fallen into some grave sin or heresy, and far from realizing how very “sick” he is, ardently propagates either his perversions or errors. If he were told that people are praying for him, and deplore his moral plight, his response would most likely be ironical. “They feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for them because they do not see that I alone am right and that the teaching of the Church is tainted with error.” “They are “dead” to pleasure, enjoyment and fun. The same  tragic blindness applies to many of the greatest success stories in our society. The list is long: powerful politicians, actors, financial geniuses, television anchors, sport champions. Let us recall the football hero O.J Simpson and  the golf “genius” Tiger Woods –   acclaimed as “heroes’ by millions of fans who go wild in their adulation of their amazing performances. To have their signature, shake their hand, or buy their cap, are viewed as precious treasures.

More troubling still are success stories of young girls who through their “body language” gained fame overnight; they have no credentials except a type of exhibitionism that wins them  innumerable “admirers.” Whereas athletes  have to undergo years of grueling training to succeed, those that I have just referred to have no credentials whatever, except a “sex appeal” that  never fails to attract the masses. Let us think that some “celebrities”  who because of their good looks or beautiful legs, and their “daring,” make more money in a month that many make in a life time. They can be millionaires in their early  twenties. Alas, their private life is often off track, but  their “social image” is brilliant. Blinded by their success, they feel “fulfilled” and satisfied. “Everybody knows who I am.”

The same can apply to famous writers. Let us recall the tragedy of Oscar Wilde. He is not an isolated figure; there always are and always will be Oscar Wildes. History repeats itself: one can go from  blinding success, and then within days, find oneself on the edge of an abyss that leads to destruction. Fame, like strong liquors, goes to a man’s head. Their downfall can be predicted. They radiate a false “joy” that most people envy, not realizing that their wine cup contains poison. Their philosophy is reduced to: “Carpe diem.” “Enjoy life, and grasp every occasion of satisfying your wishes.” “A non-satisfied wish is a defeat.”

In a Christian culture, this type of adulation should be reserved solely for God’s heroes: the Saints. “Tell me whom you love; I shall tell you who you are.” This is a basic rule of wisdom.

Moreover, shiny stars are often narcissistic and live in illusion.

It is conceivable that, deep down, they know that they are lying to themselves, but in order to perceive the pitiful state of their souls, they would need to go into their “depths,” or create a silence in themselves that terrifies them. They fear to face their “nakedness.” But the very word “silence” will inevitably trigger panic in their souls. (Let us think of Father Calloway’s amazing conversion, and the “horror” and fear he experienced the day that, for the first time, he faced the eloquent voice of  “silence.”)

A radical atheist  actually “feels sorry” for those who feed themselves on “unscientific myths,” and fail to understand that scientific knowledge alone (observation and induction) can give man certainty. Contemporary atheists feel themselves to be the heroes of “tomorrow” when finally the Christian world will “come out of the Middle Ages.” They have convinced themselves that they are the “victors” because they have unmasked the illusions in which “believers” live. Are they ever concerned about their fate at the inevitable moment of death?

Today, innumerable  people “hook-up,” claiming that they have finally liberated themselves from the oppressive shackles of a mediaeval past. They are “free.” Some homosexuals now openly parade their life-style and claim their legal rights to be granted “marriage:” finally they have come out of the dark closet in which prejudices nourished by an undiagnosed  homophobia, had imprisoned them.

It seems that in such cases, the word “con patire” is not an adequate one for the plain reason that subjectively such people do not “suffer.” Even though they are “sick,” they are totally unaware of the seriousness of their disease.

The word “pity” then seems more appropriate. Pity in this sense differs from compassion because it is one-sided. Compassion is shared suffering. Pity is not reciprocal. It is a clarion call  to do something for the “sick” person. In fact, when John XXIII insisted on the importance of “compassion” toward heretics and sinners, he was, when properly interpreted, reminding us of the famous words of St. Augustine: “interficere errorem; diligere errantem.” Kill the error; love the erring person.” Both are essential, and belong so deeply together that there is no love of the sinner without an anathema on the sin.

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Alas, too often the condemnation of sin and heresy has not been sufficiently “lined” with  loving concern for the sinner. Yet, this attitude is clearly highlighted in the parable of the shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep searching for the lost one. It is movingly highlighted  in the parable of the Prodigal son. By hastening toward his “lost child,” the father proves that he has never for a single moment, forgotten him. The warmth of his welcome proves it eloquently.

That both condemnation of the sin and love for the sinner are required by Christian love is luminous to anyone who has read the Gospel on his knees. (as recommended by Kierkegaard) The difficulty is to live it. Some are so horrified by heresies and sins that they “forget” to show their loving concern for the heresiarch and the sinner.

Today the tide seems to be turning in another direction. The “climate” of the time – due in part to indifferentism to the sacred dignity of truth and a tacit endorsement of “dictatorial relativism” – and  also under the influence of  “social sciences” (which offer a “scientific” explanation for every single sin, error and perversion), explains why the word “anathema” has become “anathematized.” This is true whether we are thinking of an open rejection of Catholic dogmas and crucial moral issues such as homosexuality,  pornography, or “gay” marriages. All these grave aberrations have become more and more “acceptable;” this is “requested by charity.” In fact, the secular world has discovered that its mission to teach Christians what Christian charity is.

Different is the case when a person – like the good Samaritan – encounters a stranger who,  severely wounded, lies on the side of the road. We do not know whether he is conscious – and therefore suffering – or unconscious. But the Samaritan’s heart is wounded by pity. The other’s plight resounds in him and activates his desire to help the victim. This “foreigner” understands that he is morally called upon to act, that is, to do everything in his power to save the man’s life. He gives him what is today called “first aid,”  brings him to an Inn, telling the Innkeeper to provide for his needs, and promising him to repay on his way back whatever expenses he had incurred. His pity is a response to a moral call to help, and in so doing, he teaches us to imitate him. The wounded man did not ask him for help. All that the kind Samaritan needed was to perceive the gravity of the man’s plight, and the “privilege” offered him to care for an anonymous “brother.”

In the Gospel, we are told that while in Naim, Christ encountered a widow whose only son was on his way to burial. The Divine Heart is moved by both compassion and pity: He witnesses her immense grief, and this loving feeling motivates Him to restore the young man to life, and give him back to his mother. She did not know who He was. She did not ask for help, but His divine Heart – fons ardens caritatis – performed a miracle: being Life itself He brought the young man back to life.

Different again are the cases of sufferers appealing to Christ’s pity. Let us recall the blind man of Jericho who, hearing noise and tumult, inquired for its cause and was told: Jesus of Nazareth had just arrived. He was granted faith in Christ’s divine power, and cried to attract His attention. He was told to keep quiet, but cried all the louder. The Savior came to him and asked him “What do you want?” The answer was: “Lord, that I may see.” All men, except the Blessed one among women are, since original sin, afflicted by partial  moral blindness while mostly unaware of the gravity of this disease. Blessed are those who realize it, and keep begging Christ “to make them see.” The tragedy is that those physically blind, know that they are affected by a grave deficiency. But how many of us, while morally blind, fail to say to Christ: “Lord, that I may see,” or “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Particularly moving is the story of the Roman Centurion  begging Christ to cure his sick servant. When the Savior promises that that he will go to Capharnaum, he uttered the sublime words: “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Say only a word and my servant will be healed.” Christ marveled at his faith, and wondered whether such faith was to be found in Israel. The man was a “pagan.”

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Different again, but often confused, is mercy.

The parable of a servant heavily indebted toward his master, and totally insolvent comes to mind. In other words, he finds himself in the weak position of a debtor toward a man who is morally and legally entitled to be paid. The creditor is in the strong position, the debtor in a very weak one. But perceiving his servant’s plight, the Master generously remits his debt. The servant is now debt-free. But he has incurred another debt, (alas, often forgotten): the debt of gratitude toward his benefactor. The merciful man has practiced the noble virtue of generosity. Alas, the servant takes his gift for granted as proven by the fact that soon afterwards, he encountered a fellow servant who has incurred a small debt toward him and treats him ruthlessly, for exactly the full payment of his debt. The man is sent to jail. Deeply grieved upon hearing this, the master now “pays him back with the same coin;” he is now compelled to pay his debt. Which one of us is not shocked by the servant’s attitude? What a lesson for those who call themselves Christians: they know that Christ is Mercy itself, and we assume that in His divine goodness, He will remit their debts – debts that all of us accumulate day after day, while often refusing to remit the debt that another might have contracted toward us.

How dangerous it is to take God’s mercy for granted, as cynically expressed by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Certain that God will, of course, forgive him, he wrote: “after all, it is His job to be merciful” (“c’est son metier” – he wrote this in French). This is ungrateful arrogance.

One of the most overwhelming cases of divine merciful love is the story of Mary Magdalene: a public sinner who was convinced of Christ’s holiness, pours costly perfume over His divine head, washes his feet, and dries them with her hair. She is humiliated, repentant and loving. The shocking response of the disciples and of the host challenges Christ to utter the divine words: “Much will be forgiven her, for she has loved much.” This is the most poignant illustration of Divine mercy in the Gospel.

It is so eloquent that no comments are necessary. The point which deserves stressing is that Mercy is essentially a Divine Virtue, and only secondarily a human one. I do not mean to say that we are not  morally obligated to “remit debts,” even though we are not God. But whereas we can and should forgive any type of harm done to us, we cannot forgive the offender’s sin. For the sin is against God: “…tibi soli peccavi…” as formulated by the Royal Poet. (Psalm 50) This is a crucial truth that the best pagans could not perceive. Socrates and Plato had a deep understanding of moral evil.

But as pagans, they could not understand the nature of “sin” because they did not have (and could not have) a notion of a Personal God. This is illustrated in Plato’s “Republic.” Here we face the abyss  separating Christianity from the “world” of a noble pagan. A Christian who lives his faith, knows that he should forgive those who have offended him, even though the offender does not ask for forgiveness. That is to say, the Christian, aware of his personal sinfulness, knows forgiving to be a strict Christian duty. It is the condition set by God to forgive us as stated in the Our Father. (“as we forgive those who offend against us”) Not to forgive is to harm one’s own soul: it is a subtle poison more harmful to the soul than the damage that had been done to us. Plato might have had an inkling of this when he wrote in the “Laws” that man is his own worst enemy. Others can harm us in all sorts of ways: theft, slander, murder etc., but they cannot harm our soul unless indirectly; that is if we let ourselves be poisoned by our refusal to forgive. To care for the good of our soul is true self love. Alas, only the saints truly love themselves.

Another key issue is that whereas man should always forgive, recalling that he too is a sinner, God – the all Merciful – can only grant His ever ready mercy if the sinner is repentant and begs for forgiveness. Being Love itself, we can “imagine” that He almost “begs” the sinner to ask for mercy, because He is so eager to be merciful and to remit debts. But a sinner who refuses to do so, seals his own fate. Kierkegaard has seen this in his great work: “Sickness unto death.” Referring to a man threatened by despair and desperately in need of help, knowing that this help is in fact offered to him, he refuses it, preferring to suffer the tortures of hell than to be indebted to his benefactor. C.S. Lewis had a profound insight in mind when he wrote that “the doors of Hell are locked from the inside.”

Is this not the  fearful situation of Judas? He knew that Christ was all forgiving. I recall vividly that while in grammar school, the nun brought to the classroom a little pamphlet that she had received from a priest working in the Parisian slums. This priest related to the little ones the fearful betrayal of Judas, and his abominable death. There was a deadly silence, and then a small little boy raised his hand and said: “Father, why did not Judas hang himself on Christ’s neck?” This story which I heard  as a child,  made such an impression upon me that I never forgot it. A small child coming from the slums was teaching us a sublime lesson: the alternative for all of us, sinners, is to hang ourselves on a tree, or on the Divine Savior’s neck. Wisdom is indeed given to the little ones.

Human “forgiving” is clearly incapable of cleansing a man from his sin. This is clearly stated in the Gospel: when Christ said to a man: “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” The Pharisees took offense and said rightly: “God alone can forgive sins.” But in their tragic blindness, they failed to understand that by the very fact that Christ did so, He was proving his divinity.

Alas, which one of us would dare claim that he fully partakes of Christ’s charity for sinners? The saints alone (“I live, not I, but Christ lives in me”) truly and fully love their neighbors; they alone are willing to suffer for the sinners’ sake, because they alone are real lovers.

What is dubbed “secular charity” is only a form of indifferentism to both truth and natural morality. “Let him live the way he chooses, if that is what makes him happy”, is something we hear ad nauseam.

While taking to heart the words of Good Pope John, we should realize that the Devil delights in hijacking whatever the Church says, does or recommends. This is grave indeed: when a Catholic prelate is legally prohibited to condemn homosexual practices in the pulpit, it should make us aware that we are on the brink of a moral abyss. When the President of a powerful country declares officially that he favors “gay marriages” in the name of justice and fairness, the moral death knell of a society has sounded.

Love is a many faceted Jewel, the beauty of which comes from God who is Love. Compassion is one of its facets, but when it is infected by secularism, it will inevitably degenerate into its caricature.

A comparison might shed light on this point. Let us assume that a patient is afflicted with a deadly disease. His doctor is a man with a “golden heart.” He spends hours at his bed side, shows his compassion, love, affection, holds his hands, shares his patient’s tears. But let us assume that in his long career, he has never succeeded in healing a single one of  them. When a patient urgently needs an operation, he refuses to perform it, because the patient is “so dear to him” that he does not want him to “suffer.”  Would we recommend him to others?

If a person has endorsed heretical views which he not only defends, but spreads, love (caritas) – while ardently praying for him – would betray its mission if it failed to warn the sheep of how dangerous his teaching is, and failed to warn the heretic of the spiritual dangers he is exposed to. (see St. Francis of Sales' “Introduction to the Devout Life,” Book III, chapter 29) Love is as strong as death, and if “compassion” ignores this factor,  it is bound to degenerate into “sentimentality.”

This has been powerfully expressed by Paul Evdokimov in his book on “The Problem of Evil in Dostoievski.” Referring to the lovable figure of Prince Mychkine (this thoroughly “good” man) – the very incarnation of “compassion” – the Russian author shows that because his compassion is a crippled love, this “saintly man” only succeeds in harming those he intended to help; he triggers a series of disasters, and ends by himself falling back into madness. It is a danger confronting us today when love is confused with languid inaction, when action is called for. Not to condemn heresies and perversions is a lack of charity toward the heretic, the perverse, and all those they infect.

There are statements which sound so kind, so loving, so charitable, but are dangerously equivocal. The Zeitgeist tells us not to condemn, not to anathematize, not to challenge and refute. We are – in the name of humility and charity – urged to keep in mind that we conquer evil with mercy. Alas, Christ’s divine love did not save Judas from perdition. Yet, Christ died for him, as He did for all men.

Human mercy is but a pale copy of God’s mercy – it is limited: to “remit” a debt to an insolvent debtor. God alone can forgive sins. We should therefore be very careful in using the word “mercy.” To be merciful toward sinners is not man’s mission. Only God, the incarnation of Mercy can show his mercy toward sinner. Sin offends God and God alone. Man is called to lovingly pray for heretics and grave sinners, but neither heresy nor sin call for mercy. Mercy cannot be shown toward sin; but God always offers it to the sinner. He alone can remit the terrible debt that the sinner incurs by his sin. That divine mercy can be rejected by heretics and sinners is the mysterium iniquitatis that remains for us human beings, a mystery.

When speaking about heresies and moral perversions, mercy is totally inappropriate: there is nothing to be merciful about. The only appropriate word is: anathema sit, a blessed word which we find the New Testament, mostly in St. Paul, but also implicitly in St. John. (the apostle of love) He writes in his second Epistle that we should not even greet heretics. (2:10) The word anathema sit  has been used in all the great ecumenical councils of the Church.

True, there are cases when a saint’s love and charity has been the instrument chosen by God to bring a sinner back to Him. I recall  reading the story of a saint who lovingly urged a sinner to abandon his evil ways. The man’s response was to brutally slap him in the face. The saint’s response was: “beat me all you want, but do not offend God.” This was for this sinner the moment of grace and he found his way back to God. The saint was not “merciful” toward the sinner: he was practicing Christian charity.

Because “mercy” is essentially divine, it embraces all the perfections of both compassion and pity. When we feel a compassion for one who is suffering, we are not creditors, he is not a debtor. The good Samaritan, in lovingly treating the wounded man, was not “remitting a debt.” He did not know who the wounded man was.

Toward God, we are all debtors in various degrees, but knowing God to be immensely merciful we should never hesitate to appeal to His mercy. Simultaneously we should hope that all sinners would do the same. Which one of us would not be happy if we had even a faint guarantee that several political monsters produced in the terrible 20th century, had, at the very last second of their criminal lives, begged God for mercy. The message of Sister Faustina is luminous: “He will never turn down our request for forgiveness, Woe to us – daily beneficiaries of God’s divine mercy – if we refuse to remit the minimal debts that our neighbors have toward us.”

How deeply “mercy” transcends both compassion and pity (while including their virtues) is strikingly shown by the fact that whereas both compassion and pity can be shown to mammals, mercy does not and cannot apply to them: for not being persons, they cannot  be in our debt; they cannot sin. This is true not because they are “above” man but because they are below him. Not being persons, they “cannot” sin. But we can and should show compassion and pity toward mammals – the highest animals in the realm of creation.

Toward sinful men we should be animated by a holy pity. (as opposed to an hypocritical  condescending one) This holy pity challenges us to go on our knees and ardently pray for their conversion. This is the magnificent meaning of many penitential orders. They are based on the trust that God’s infinite goodness will listen to the prayers of the innocent for their guilty brothers.

Christ has delegated the merciful power to forgive sins to His Church. It is clearly a  mark of the true Church.

The conclusion we wish to draw is that to identify compassion and pity with mercy is dangerously misleading. May this brief essay shed some light on this grave confusion.

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