The Spirit Moves Us to Places of Pain

“To be wounded by the suffering of others is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Gregory Baum

The Spirit moves in places of pain. Not because suffering is sacred, but because people are sacred. And in that movement, there is an invitation to compassion, for us to suffer with the sufferer.

My heart swells with a mix of sadness and anger when I remember that the word “compassion” has, for so many, become a merely sentimental idea. An ephemeral word about feelings in the moment. A sort of cathartic wave of piteous fondness that leaves as quickly as it arrives, like an ejaculation of condescension.

While word meanings should never be shackled to etymology (after all, words derive their meaning from use, not from the dead or from publishers of dictionaries), the history of the word is powerful.

Compassion comes to us via Old French from the ecclesiastical Latin word compassio, from the Latin root compati which means “suffer with.” And, at it’s best, that’s what compassion is—it is to be moved by the suffering of others to such an extent that their pain becomes ours.

However, in a society like ours, with our siloed lives awash with alienation and anxiety, where institutions and systems conspire against us to keep us numb, it is hard to feel the pain of others sometimes. And harder still to consummate that stirring into action.

Today, the word compassion is almost entirely understood to be an interpersonal word. A word to describe your personal feeling towards a person or a group of people or some other living thing(s).

Which is why it is helpful for me, whenever, I write about compassion to keep her sister solidarity nearby. Solidarity also comes to us from the French with roots in Latin. And that root word hidden within, gives a hint as to it’s meaning. It is a modern word, first used in the 16th century to speak of various people or groups coming together to form a whole. Something solid. One new whole joined in common cause.

Of course, when we use the word solidarity today, it is almost always political. It’s a union word. A word used to describe class struggle. Or to talk about joining with a political cause or social movement.

If compassion means to be linked in feeling another’s pain. Solidarity means to be linked in the struggle of others.

Compassion without action is dead. Just like faith without works is dead. And insofar as someone’s suffering is caused by oppression, the needful action is one of solidarity.

If Gregory Baum is correct when he writes “to be wounded by the suffering of others is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” then, if that suffering is caused by oppression, love requires solidarity.

Of course, the form that solidarity takes is a matter of discernment. It is easy to let our imaginations immediately jump to street protests or voting. But action is nearly infinite if we allow our imagination to break free from fetters our politically unimaginative society.

However, if we are committed to love, if we are committed to compassion, if we are committed to solidarity, we need to get specific, particular.

From the stirring in our depths, to the warm surge of feelings rising into our chest, the Spirit becomes flesh when compassionate thoughts and feelings engage the tangible complexities of our world. The Spirit becomes flesh when we discern a meaningful choice and then make that choice. The Spirit becomes flesh when we act. It is in this way we are the Body of Christ.

Jesus is uniquely present with those who suffer. Wherever the Spirit moves, the Spirit subverts. And authentic spirituality moves from abstraction to presence.

When we move from presence to abstraction, it is called “spiritual bypassing” and that is a malady afflicting so many today, particularly white middle to upper class people.

Any spirituality that nurtures abstracted love, generic unity, and vague justice is worse than useless. I know that sounds really snarky and needlessly hyperbolic. It is not.

For me, as someone dedicated to a spirituality informed by Jesus, I believe that a Jesus-shaped spirituality moves me to love specific people, to struggle for tangible solidarity, and challenges me to work for particular justice. I know a bit about other religious and spiritual traditions, so I don’t want to overstate things, but I suspect things work similarly for those as well.

If our spirituality provides positive feels and comfort because it helps us cope with the pain of the world, without ever addressing that pain, then it is, ultimately, an imperial sort of spirituality. That’s why it is worse than useless. It provides a sort of emotional release, a catharsis, without change. As James Baldwin so poignantly wrote: “People can cry much easier than they can change.”

And, in the case of abstracted commitments to abstracted ideas, a spirituality that pathologically avoids particular commitments resists change and reinforces the status quo.

Gregory Baum was a German-born Catholic Priest. Born of a Jewish mother, he fled left Germany as a refugee in his adolescence. He was an LGBTQ+ advocate, a gay man, and was an admirer of Liberation Theology. He was a man who lived at the intersection of very complicated and particular struggles. He wrote:

“…Preachers and teachers know very well that they do not make enemies when they lament the suffering in the world and demand greater justice in general. People want to be seen as favoring justice. It is only when preachers and teachers name the plague that people get angry. In North America and Europe, academic theology tended to shy away from such outright political judgments because they transcend the discipline. Instead, it advocated love, justice, and peace in general terms, sometimes so general that they could be used by speech writers for the government intent on defending its policies. Calls for justice and peace cannot be used in this ideological way when they name the social evil. If Archbishop Oscar Romero had not named the plague, if he had only demanded greater peace and justice in general, he would not have been shot…”

Gregory Baum, “The Creed That Liberates,” Horizons 13, No. 1 (Spring 1986)

What good is a spirituality that cannot name the plagues that oppress? That refuses challenging social evils by name? That cannot stand with the oppressed because that would require saying “no” to the oppressor?

No matter how we dress it up with theological or spiritual language—by calling it a “third way” or insisting that “Jesus loves everybody” or asserting a mystical wall of division between spirituality and politics—this runs the risk of what Matthew referred to as blaspheming the Spirit.

However, to be wounded by suffering of others is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift because it invites us to collapse the distance caused by alienation. In this we receive and give a kind of healing. It is a mustard seed that can grow into a mighty shrub giving life to chittering birds.

In this wounding begins the work of healing social evil, which twists like a worm in our own consciousness and coils like a chain in the systems of our world.

Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk
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