Passion and Compassion

It needs a Saint to understand the Passion, let alone to enter into it. The rest of us can do little more than stand by the roadside and look on. We are among the crowd while the grim procession passes by; we are seldom part of the procession. Sometimes, it is true, we follow after, "a long way off"; we have a haunting desire "to see the end," but we wait till the shouters have dispersed, and there is little or no fear of our being taken for "one of them." We are interested sometimes; sometimes, when the picture is beautifully painted, or the story is vividly told, we are moved and even affected. We feel sympathy; perhaps we have tears in our eyes and a choking in our throats, but usually this is the farthest we can reach. The gathering breaks up and we make our way home, to our dinner, to our newspaper, to our next amusement, to our daily routine and occupation; we are much the same after as before. I do not say this in blame; I only say it is the matter of fact. The most appalling event in history can leave us thus unchanged, in spite of our declared faith and love.

It is true we do not lose everything. Lookers-on in the crowd gain something from the Passion, if it is only a soul-scorching memory; but only a Saint, who walks side by side with the Master, who shares the stripes and the insults and the cross, and knows the Man Who is its centre figure, can have any real understanding of all that the Passion means.

He alone can read the nature of that Heart Whose every fibre was made for suffering - sensitive to right and wrong, to good and evil, to harmony and discord, as that of the finest artist; meek and enduring, because it felt in itself every strain on the heart of another; spotlessly sinless, and therefore all the more appalled and sickened at the sight of sin; past-master in the school of suffering, because, from its very nature, it drew to itself every suffering of every human soul.

He alone can grasp the depth of that ocean of suffering in which the Victim was engulfed - foreshadowed from the beginning in successive type and prophecy, in Abel and Isaac, and the Paschal Lamb, in Moses, and David, and Isaias, and Jeremias, and John the Baptist; foreshadowed and emphasized in every step of His career, from Bethlehem, and Egypt, and the Temple, through the long years of prayer, and loneliness, and silent waiting, the days when men handled Him roughly, and "would not"! Over all His life, over all the lives of the people who prepared for Him the way, even we can watch the dark cloud gathering; what, then, must not a Saint discover!

Only a Saint, again, can put himself completely in the place of Christ, can suffer alongside or in His place, can be truly and perfectly sympathetic and compassionate, so that his own fevered heart, and every quivering nerve in his body, responds to, reproduces, the throbbing of pain in the body of the Master. Such was the suffering of Mary on Calvary; to have been nailed upon the cross that stood up before her - how great would have been her relief! Such was the compassion of Saint Catherine of Siena, of Saint Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, and of many more of their kind, whose power of compassion has stamped the marks of the Passion on their bodies. Such was that of Saint Francis of Assisi, of Saint Francis Xavier, of Saint Philip Neri, of Saint Theresa, whose hearts must needs burst their natural bounds since the Heart of Christ had been broken. And such is the secret of countless hidden Saints, in this generation when hidden Saints are many, who are in agony, they know not why, and it is because they cannot suffer along with Him as they would; or find joy in the midst of sorrow, again they know not why, and it is because their soul then most responds to the soul of the Man of Sorrows.

We need not look far afield for confirmation of this truth; we have experience of it in ourselves, we see it in our friends, we know it in every pang of life that lifts us upon its wave. The suffering of others affects us in different degrees, according to the nearness of those who suffer. A stranger may merely interest; an acquaintance will at least win a word of compassion; a connection will stir us to relieve; one we love will rouse our whole being, will drive us frantic, will make our sympathetic pain even greater than that which gives it. A child is dying in great suffering; but what is the suffering of the child compared with that of the mother, who merely sits and looks on? A son or daughter is disgraced; but what is their shame to that of the father whose good name has now for the first time been tarnished?

So great an agony is true compassion. Given perfect love, then we know the suffering that it will entail; but only those know the one who have known the other. The time may even come when they will know what it is for human nature to be crushed beneath the weight of its own cross of sympathy. By the suffering of one it loves human nature is first drawn and then is repelled; first it revels in companionship, and then breaks down and would fly. In the extreme of sympathetic sorrow, by the bedside of one who to us is very dear, or in the company of one who has been cruelly wronged, there comes a moment when we seem unable to endure any more, when our gorge seems to rise against the very pain itself, when a sense of sickness comes upon us, when the strong man must stand up, and pace about, speechless, aimless, apparently torn with rage, while the woman sits still, lifeless, staring into space, incapable of any attention, with a weird look of wrinkled age upon her features.

"Stabat Mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa
Dum pendebat filius."

Have we ever in our lives gone through anything like this? If we have, let us thank God for it; it is a possession for all time. It is an experience that has brought us one stage nearer to Calvary; now we know a little better what the compassion of the Saints must be. In this lies their secret; this explains why suffering had for them so great a fascination, why they "delighted that they were accounted worthy to suffer," why one Saint cries: "Either to suffer or to die!" and another: "Not to die, but to suffer!" Their delight was to them no narcotic; if they joyed in suffering, they suffered none the less on that account. None were greater sufferers than they, even though none were more happy. But as to every man that has a heart suffering of our own is a right and a privilege when we stand beside a friend who suffers, so, and much more, do the Saints claim suffering as their right, and rejoice when their claim is heard, because of their suffering Lord with Whom they are in love.

So it is that the Cross of Christ has transformed the world of suffering. "I, when I shall be lifted up, will draw all things to Myself "; He has drawn to Himself, and has nailed to His Cross along with Himself, all the suffering of all mankind. It has given suffering a new meaning, given it a new significance, actually made it the greatest delight on earth to those who completely understand. To those who do not, and to us in so far as we do not, suffering is still a problem and an evil. To the Jews Christ crucified is still a stumbling-block, and to the Gentiles He is still foolishness. But "to them that are called" He "is the power of God, and the wisdom of God;" and even a little of this wisdom is a treasure beyond all price.

Still it must be remembered that this joy is the fruit of the Cross; it is not the Cross itself. Happy though we may be in carrying it, carry it nevertheless we must; the happiness will not heal the galling wound, nor lighten the weary feet, nor lift the load of depression. Often, perhaps always, for us the light goes out in the midst of suffering; it is only before it begins, or after it is over, that we see the good thing it is. Nor, we may reverently think, was it different with our Lord. Before His Passion He "had a baptism wherewith He had to be baptized," and He could not be restrained from hurrying towards it. When it was over, He could glory in it all, and rejoice that it had been necessary. But during it, we are expressly told, He was "sorrowful even unto death"; He was "amazed and depressed"; He prayed that the chalice might pass from Him; He cried out with a loud voice: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

In this, more than in anything else in the Passion, earnest souls come near to Him in sympathy; here, more than anywhere else, might they, if they would, find joy "that they are accounted worthy to suffer something" for His sake. Yet how strangely they fail to recognize the fact. Likeness to Christ our Lord in His depression is no less a proof of His love than is any other likeness which He condescends to give; it may be that it is the greatest proof of all.