In order to be a presence of compassion in the world, collectively we need to learn to hold and be present to ourselves as the starting point, writes Gabrielle Sinclair.
Restlessness is such a familiar feeling, a relentless out-of-sorts, uncomfortable, and tired sort of longing – longing – that tug.
John Cassian, a monk and theologian, wrote in the early 5th Century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia – “a listlessness and yawning hunger” 1.
Acedia has modern associations with the vice of sloth, but the older understanding has a deeper meaning. It is essentially a spiritual boredom that causes or leads to the seeking of all sorts of distraction, much like procrastination, steering suffers from their purpose.
Recognising and naming acedia helps to claim agency over this unsettling state that can hinder our openness and communio. Cassian’s advice on acedia became the basis for St Benedict’s prescription in the 6th Century that his monks live out a rhythm of prayer and manual labour, finding remedy in a stability and structure of ora et labora 2.
A compassionate renewal of purpose is required, a dose of integrity and a reminder that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), and that our deep longing connects us to a deeper knowing beyond this restlessness to a freedom we desire but can’t quite attain, for we are from this world but not of it (Jn 17:14).
I remember coming home from school when I was about 11, going to my mother seeking comfort and telling her that I had had a big fight with my best friend. It wasn’t true; I made up the story as a cover for a magnitude of emotion and restlessness I had no idea how to name or explain. Comfort seeking, recognised by marketers, has sparked industries and expos a plenty. Yet, our discombobulation and our society’s compassion deficit continue to grow and morph as the symptoms and effect of our disconnection splash across the news daily.
A lack of self-compassion and self-awareness means we don’t process the accumulation of restlessness and hurts, and unprocessed hurt is passed on as a way of finding relief, often seen as spotlight shifting and throwing shade. Collectively, we need to learn to hold and be present to ourselves as the starting point, to ensure we are not contributing to passing on hurt, that we may instead be a presence of compassion in the world.
The radical compassion of Jesus is no small personal challenge, yet it is also a call to communio; by making space to more intentionally integrate our whole selves, we are called to re-establish the bonds of neighbour by recognising the holy in the other. Which other? Every other! Recognising the dignity in everyone and all of creation means acknowledging the image of God.
Sadly, ongoing political and social debate, from refugee detention, Black Lives Matter and toxic masculinity, continues to divide. Too often, politicians try to advance issues by setting goals based on dehumanising criteria instead of recognising the need for all to be inherently valued. The Rule of Benedict offers a clear guide for setting goals and working together precisely by acknowledging need and honouring dignity.
“Everything should be arranged so that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from” (RB 64,19)
Compassion is a verb; it requires something of us to go and think beyond ourselves. It is to be in a relationship with another, as equals. Though the necessary kind of action is not to fix, to change, but to be present, recognising them and thereby connecting them to the body of Christ. Thomas Merton OCSO spoke of this reality, that the very idea of compassion “is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are part of one another and involved in one another”. Being genuinely present, being in communio, is like a circuit breaker that calms our restlessness and our longing as God’s presence and image is acknowledged within.
Good Samaritan Sister Jacinta Shalier’s adaptation of Isaiah 35 illustrates the way of life and faith before us, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love (RB Prologue 49), as we go about being the compassionate presence in our communities and to ourselves.
A roadway will stretch before us, called the holy way.
It is for us who have a journey to make,
And on it, the weary will travel with hope.
Those who hear the call of life will enter with hearts enlarged
singing their song of joy.
All tears will be wiped away, as with an upward singing spirit,
the cosmic symphony of compassion
resounds throughout the land.
Based on Isaiah 35, by Jacinta Shalier SGS
Wildflower Journey Prayers
1 St John Cassian, The Institutes, translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey. Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press of the Paulist Press, 2000, p 219.
2 Amy Freeman, Remedies to Acedia in the Rhythm of Daily Life: Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2013, p 37.