Contemplating Compassion

The beauty and value of the word compassion is threatened by overuse in our society. That’s why I often go back to the Latin roots of the word— com (with) and pati (suffer). Compassion is the capacity to suffer with another, coupled with a strong desire to mitigate that suffering. In an important sense, compassion is a quality of presence that makes us vulnerable.

Childers001Compassion for me is beautifully illustrated by the concept of “pieta.” Pieta is a subject in Christian art most famously depicted by Michaelangelo, portraying Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradling the dead body of her son after his death. According to Karen Mains, author of the book Comforting One Another, the name pieta has come to mean any kind of vigil over the dead or someone experiencing radical brokenness.  She calls pieta a “lap-type lamentation” and views it as “the emblem of the desire of all humanity to be held at the moments of their greatest need.”

I soon recognized the pieta as an archetypal image in our society. Images abound of individuals providing safe holding for others in distress. Consider the 911 operator who stayed on the line with a cell phone caller in the World Trade Center on Sept 11, providing final conversation and blessing on one whose life was about to end. A more recent example would be the photo of the migrant child whose body was found on a beach in Turkey after a boat carrying refugees capsized.

Childers002An image doesn’t have to be catastrophic to qualify as a pieta. I remember once being a scared young child who had just moved to a different state and left all my friends behind. My family was visiting in the home of some people we had just met. A woman there coaxed me up into her lap and rocked me in her rocking chair, helping me feel safe in a very unsettling time. I always remembered her name after that: she was Ms. Helderman, and I had been “held by her.” This too, is an example of a pieta.

Chaplains encounter pietas regularly in our ministry and often embody pietas. If not physically, we are emotionally and spiritually providing a safe holding space for individuals to face their loss, to die, to grieve, to decide to live, to regain hope, to forgive, to start fresh, or whatever they might need to do. In our willingness to be fully present and suffer with them, compassionate chaplains honor  the sacred even in tragic situations.

– Rev. Melanie Childers, BCC, is Director of Pastoral Care at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC


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