Elaine Olson, a spiritual director and retired pastor, will speak at St. Paul on two Sundays, Oct. 14 and 21, about compassion. Her sessions will be during Sunday morning learning, 10:20-11:05 a.m.
How did you become interested in compassion?
Years ago, during a very difficult transition I was struggling to discern what was next in the work of my vocation as a counselor. To find my way through, I began each morning reading the “Morning Prayer Liturgy” in the LBW and then write “morning pages” as described by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way. I also read these words from the Song of Zechariah, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in to the way of peace.” Each morning I wrote reflections about these words. In time, these words spoke truth into my longing and shaped the vision for my practice.
Years later, in the midst of yet another struggle of faith, I read Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Lived compassion became the path back to the Divine and the guidance to live for the sake of the world beyond myself.
What is something that you’ve learned about compassion that surprised you?
Joyce Rupp teaches that compassion is not so much a feeling, as it is a will. So much of my understanding of the world is through my feeling self. Yet, to live open and to engage the complexity of suffering and evil, more is required than my own emotional reactivity. A commitment, a will, an intention calls me to work beyond my own head and my own heart and my own actions. To live compassion requires me to work with others, to trust others and let them teach me and then mindfully integrate their truth into my own stories to grow and love and then act.
Why is compassion important?
I believe compassion is especially important during these time of extreme polarization and silo thinking. Compassion requires that I see beyond my own greed and safety, to dethrone myself from being the center of the world and put others there instead. It can become the one action that bridges the divide. Understanding the other is no longer a luxury. It is now a necessity for the world to function and thrive. Compassion is an essential component for the transformation of society seeking peace and harmony.
What is hard about practicing compassion?
Having compassion on my enemy and those I see cause suffering is hard. Yet, Jesus asks me to love my enemy. Compassion doesn’t require me to condone bad behavior, but rather to wonder what has happened within someone who is acting toward others with hurt and hatred. Compassion invites me to wonder: “How do they see the world? What makes them so afraid? Where do they hurt?” How do we hold each other accountable in a loving way?” My natural instinct is to judge, dismiss and withdraw. Compassion asks me to see the other as God sees them and to pray for the light and love of God to pour into their lives for transformation.
Just as compassion asks to me to stop judging others, it also gently asks me to stop judging myself, to extend the same gentleness and understanding to myself that I am invited to do for others. Joyce Rupp suggests that the seeds of compassion are non-judgmental, non-violence, forgiving and mindfulness. Living with these actions for both myself and my enemies is hard.
What is one understanding you hope people will come away with from your series?
My hope is that people will leave with a renewed a commitment to live with more compassion for the sake and the care of the world, especially in the turmoil of today’s polarization. An understanding of compassion provides tools to make a difference.
South African archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “What difference does goodness make? Goodness changes everything. Goodness changes how we see the world, the way we see others, and most importantly, the way we see ourselves… Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it.” My hope is to encourage us all to live with kindness.