Tag Archives: Compassion

Incarnation and compassion


passion medieval imageAnother “mini-post” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Compassion

A renewed incarnational awareness will also give us a renewed and particular energy toward compassionate ministry, as it did for 12th-13th c. Christians in the “charitable revolution” of those centuries – and indeed in the whole long Christian growth and development of the hospital. But more broadly in all forms of compassionate ministry. Medieval Christians’ acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Especially as they began to enter emotionally into the events of the Passion, that horrific demonstration of God sharing in our embodied suffering, the compassion for Jesus that this stirred in them became “enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again.

We have seen how attention to the humanity of Christ and his presence in others’ humanity encouraged hospitality and pastoral and even medical care, in Benedict’s and the Benedictines’ emphasis on “Christ in the guest,” in the particularity of the seven corporal (and spiritual) acts of mercy, in the specificity and concreteness of Aquinas’s ethical thought, and of course in the history of the innovative Christian institution we now call the hospital.

The Enemy of our souls will do anything he can to raise our eyes from the physical needs of others in a false super-spirituality, keeping us from achieving that incarnational awareness that would pour out from our hearts in compassionate ministry. As Screwtape tells the junior demon,

“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer’, humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. You will, of course, conceal from him the fact that the prayer for daily bread, interpreted in a ‘spiritual sense’, is really just as crudely petitionary as it is in any other sense.”[1]


[1] Screwtape Letters, letter 27, in Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 263-4.

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Medieval lay ministry to the sick – joining in their sufferings to meet Christ


medieval-doctorsAnd here is a bit more from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis on the “charitable revolution” in late medieval Europe, with its outpouring of personal care to the sick – founding of hospitals, waiting upon the sick hand and foot, entering into their sufferings with compassion, and finding in all of that the personal presence of Jesus Christ, just as Matthew 25 promised.

A paragon of the new model of lay involvement in healthcare was Elizabeth of Hungary. A wealthy laywoman on the model of the ancient Roman Christian hero Fabiola, the 13th-century lay saint Elizabeth began, after her husband’s death, to feed, wash the feet of, sew clothes for, and bury the sick poor. No arms-length philanthropist, she delighted in the unpleasant, humiliating labor of personally attending – after the manner of a modern nursing assistant – to the basest and messiest physical needs of her charges.

One might interpret such devotion to healing tasks as self-interested, since the theology of the day at times seemed to virtually assure salvation to those so engaged. No doubt this was a motivator, but theologians also stressed the attitude of the heart in ministering to others. Because Matthew 25 clearly showed that charitable acts to the needy were, in fact, done to Christ himself, physical charity wove itself into the fabric of one’s heart relationship with God (see “affective devotion” chapter).

In fact, Elizabeth’s actions represented (and promoted) a new, strongly affective theology of healthcare: in com-passion, the empathetic experiencing of others’ pain and suffering, she—and increasingly the Western church at large—found redemptive value because it brought them closer to Christ. By helping the sick and poor, they were not only imitating the example of Christ, but at the same time pouring out their love to him “in the most intimate and sacrificial way.”[1] Continue reading

C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body


Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1] Continue reading

“Oh, yeah. Jesus did THAT too . . .” A story about mercy and the gospel


Jesus wept

Well, I’ve gotten a bit behind on posting – been busy writing the chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis about medieval compassionate action – through the case study of a thoroughly medieval institution: the hospital. Did get the whole thing written, so I’ll be posting it bit by bit over the next few days.

I don’t think I have to start this chapter on how medievals pioneered the hospital by making a case that compassion, mercy, and healing are good things. I’m pretty sure people of every age and religion will agree on that one. Nor will I indicate some flaw in evangelical culture on this matter of compassionate ministry. The healthcare system, schools, social services departments, and NGOs are full of compassionate evangelicals, as well as compassionate non-evangelicals and compassionate non-Christians. But as I have researched the ancient and medieval development of that innovative institution in world history—the hospital—I have wondered more than once: do modern Christians really “get” the relationship of mercy and the Gospel the way medievals did?

So, allow me to open this case study in Christian compassion with a question . . .

How central is mercy to the Gospel?

We know the story. Mary the sister of Lazarus got to where Jesus was. She fell down at his feet, overcome with grief and just a bit of accusatory anger: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He saw her crying. The others with her were also crying.

What was Jesus’ response? Continue reading