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Returning to the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” we might focus on a scene where Jesus finds himself in a deserted, rocky place. Suddenly a living mosaic of misery is painted on the stage. From caves crawl the lepers, the blind and the lame. All clamor to touch him and be healed. Soon the Lord appears to be buried in this mountain of pain. And with palms sticky with anxiety and other emotions, he begins to push them away and shouts: “It’s too much! There are too many of you.”
“It’s too much!” In these few words, the authors locate the basis of compassion-fatigue. Quite simply, the enormity of the sufferings of our day combined with our frequent exposure to them through television and the media so attacks the psyche that we feel helpless. Unconsciously, for our own well-being, we begin to ignore them. We develop a defensive detachment. For our own psychological equilibrium, it is easier to erect an invisible quarantine line in our psyche rather than allow the sights and often the painful, struggling sounds to penetrate our hearts.
Such a problem is not new. And many have tried to develop an in-depth profile of it. In my mind, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” best captured its psychological contours: “Up to a certain point, the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill...when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual success, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.”
It is incumbent in our day that we address the spiritual causes of compassion-fatigue in ourselves so that we as individuals become perceived as icons of compassion and that our Church communities become known for their outreach to the hurting, wherever found. In our day, this must be looked upon as a key spiritual-stepping stone in our climb toward eternity. Contemplating Christ on the cross, we must learn to see in his outstretched arms his silent appeal to embrace the whole world.
It was Pascal who said: “Jesus Christ will be in his death throes till the end of the world; we must not sleep during this time.” Bringing this insight with us as we gaze in silence at the crucifix, we begin to understand that part of our vocation is to un-crucify the suffering Lord, now enfleshed in the world’s hurting.
There is also a eucharistic dimension to developing a true and lasting compassion. We must pray, as we receive Communion, that our hearts may be absorbed in Christ’s heart so that his blood may pulse through our whole being. As our intimacy with the Lord grows, we also become more conscious of the challenge of our time: Christ came that all would have life and have it to the fullest. We must work to fulfill his desire.
Obviously, there is no simple antidote to compassion-fatigue. I would simply use the following as helps or aids to incorporating compassion into a permanent redemptive life-style. Above all, I would highlight the need to incorporate our imaginations into our prayer life. We should think, for example, of parents burying a young child who died of starvation. As we do, a certain passion enters into our prayers for the poor and suffering. The Canaanite woman might be seen as a model of one who petitions the Lord while truly feeling the pain of another--in this case her daughter.
In the redemptive life, there are no abstractions. Thus we might try to realize that in our outreach to the hurting we are in truth reaching out to Christ. I have found re-interpreting the parable of the good Samaritan a help in this regard. We are familiar with its outline: how the Samaritan sees a beaten and robbed individual on the roadside. Others had ignored him. But the Samaritan reaches out to minister to him. Generally, we focus on the Samaritan as the Christ-figure. And indeed he is--modeling himself after Christ who went about doing good.
But if we interpret the parable through the lens of Matthew 25, we also see the hurting figure on the roadside as an image of Christ: “...as long as you did it to these least of mine.” In the context of our life, we must also come to see Christ in the hurting and poor. Moreover we must appreciate how they confer a blessing upon me as I reach out to them, because they make Christ real and present to me.
Finally, we must pray for the grace of perseverance -- a perseverance based on the hope that my acts of outreach can be part of the redemptive dynamic which will change the world.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.