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Reverence the Sorrows of Others

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”—ST MATTHEW 5:7.

We have dealt with the attitude, the double attitude, of Christian pity in relation to sin. Let us pass on to consider it in relation to sorrow and suffering. Sorrow, suffering, and want are always round us; there is sorrow now in many a home for the cold, which is nipping us all, is a source of suffering to many around us; and beyond is the pain and suffering of the animal world. There are voices of mourning from every side; there is much to move our pity. Let us to-day confine our thoughts to the blessedness of pity for the sorrow and suffering of mankind, leaving the rather different question of the animal world till next Sunday.

Blessed are the pitiful—Blessed are those who bare their hearts and try to help the sorrowing and suffering around them. It needs no words to celebrate the blessedness of pity—it speaks for itself—its absence is the deepest condemnation. But Christian pity is sometimes burlesqued by a mere imitation, by a softness which says ‘poor things,’ and makes no sacrifices, or shrinks from the sight of pain, and will not nerve itself to help the suffering. There is no real pity that is not brave, that is not self-contained. Mere emotional softness, with its easily drawn tears, is a poor and thin parody of it. So that we do well to consider the real nature of Christian pity. What is it which marks it off from this miserable parody?

I. All intense feeling with others has an element of passion in it. We are so accustomed to the degraded use of the word passion that it may be well to note this. It is this element which at once causes intense feeling and enables it to endure. Contact is necessary to awaken pity to the full extent—recital is inadequate. The sorrows of the world at this hour would be unendurable if we could see them all at once. We should sink into dull lymphatic despair, or react into hideous recklessness. Nor can the highest pity be stirred by any recital of woes. When we read of a catastrophe* like that of Wednesday morning, it does not move us in the same way as some great sorrow with which we come face to face and realize fully, e.g., the death of a friend, because the element of passion is necessary to the full development of pity, and only close contact, actual heart-touch, can produce it.

The question is not how much we feel the woes of mankind, but how much we give up ourselves to the sorrow with which we come face to face? Then there is the opportunity for the heart-to-heart touch, whether conveyed by word or look or grasp of the hand, or by a silence which is felt to be the silence of sympathetic reverence, of a feeling too deep for words.

One has felt so starved when one has listened to the thin and hollow words of consolation often uttered by some quasi-religious persons; one knows so well the inevitable reference to the Lord’s Will, which Will, from their point of view, seems to be entirely engaged in manufacturing misfortunes for others; or the eager description of their own feelings under similar circumstances, which strike such a chill on the heart that “knoweth its own bitterness,” or the assurance that all will be made up by-and-bye—the vision of a far-off future, when the intolerable present shall be forgotten (as if it ever could in one sense be forgotten, as if our deepest sorrows will not be found embedded in our brightest joys). One has often wondered, when one has listened to all this stereotyped consolation with some uprisings of the gorge, what is the essential distinction between this and the tender and sympathetic bearing of the sorrows of the Son of Man, and I suppose that the element of passion is to a large extent accountable for it. That intensity of feeling, which so surely conveys itself to others, can only be roused by the actual vision of their wants and woes; it is the passionate sympathy that breathes through Christ’s treatment of sorrow that universalizes it. The sorrow was there before Him; by an instinctive movement He felt, understood and went out to it. He had the power to grasp the whole meaning. We see it in the invitation, “Come unto Me all ye that are weary and heavy laden.” *How deep the passion that is generalized into that single sentence; how intense, how pathetic the expression of it, and yet how severe the self-restraint that stayed at the single sentence and felt that it was enough. This element of passionate intensity characterized His whole life; it comes out in such expressions as “If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink,” or when He wept at the prospect of the ruin of the city while the glory and beauty of Jerusalem was rising before Him. It came out in the supreme agony, “My Father, if it be possible, take this cup from Me.” It came out in the last cry of triumph, “It is finished,” which told of a redeemed world. Through all there is passion in its noblest form, in its intensest expression. Therein lies the lacking element in much that seems weak and vacuous in would-be Christian pity, which has not the strength of passion behind it.

In Christ’s pity there is mingled the balancing element, severe self-restraint. We see it in the story of the sinful woman, when He stooped and wrote on the ground, “as though He heard not,” adds the commentary. We see it in His dealings with the Syrian woman when, by answers apparently rough, by what we should count coldness, He develops and gives expression to a faith of no common order. If there is anything in Christ’s dealing with sorrow more wonderful than the passionate element—the intensity of His feeling, it is the severe self-restraint that He imposes upon Himself. He never gives Himself away. He never wastes His real power by unmeasured expression. He says the right thing at the right moment, not too early nor too late. We are conscious that a fire within is always burning, but we never find hurry nor overstrain; all is calm, measured, strong, because self-controlled.

It is this calm in the heart of passion, it is this repose in the midst of activity, that we miss so sorely in the fussy consolation, in the gushing letter of condolence, in the efforts to improve the occasion. Passion limited by self-restraint is of the essence of Christ-like pity.

This, we must confess, is a rare possession, partly because of the falsity of our methods of moral education. We often demand self-expression from children on moral questions; in some cases where such self-expression is impossible. The things that move us to intensity of feeling—the things that our experience and our sense of a life slipping away make so vivid and real to us—are not as yet to them. We ask them for strong expressions of feeling, gratitude, or love, for which the power is not in them. They feign it to please us, and the result is a false note in the character. Or we encourage in other cases a self-expression which is only too easy and means only too little. It is not always endearing expressions that mean much affection. One has heard a constant and wearisome flow of endearing expressions between children and parents, and been conscious that on the one hand there was a shrinking from the self-sacrifice of not spoiling the child, and on the other hand there was little but the outcome of a vulgar experience, developed only too early, that with some people it pays to talk like that.

Education may do much to develop Christian pity, both by encouraging self-sacrifice for the sake of the suffering, which every child has to learn to feel by passion as well as by experience, and by imposing some self-restraint on the notion so easily implanted, that strong words imply strong feeling. The development of passion and self-restraint should give a strong pity. But then the development of a noble growth of passion is so hampered, the intensity of the soul is so often perverted by the morbid passion portrayed in much of our literature, which fiddles always on one string and treats the passionate side of man’s nature as if it could only be on fire with unholy desire. Let us beware of false gods here. The nobler feelings of our nature are soon dimmed by the acceptance of conclusions to which the vilest writers would commit us. To give a false glory to the violent passion which beats down opposition by strength of will; to celebrate the praise of a morbid passion which is always hankering after self-indulgence—these are the surest ways of dimming and deadening the finer feelings, indeed of preventing all feeling. One can read in the face, in the eyes of some men, that for them a strong pity is impossible and a tender mercy unattainable, because they have blunted all their higher nature. If a man would keep his heart tender, his sympathy strong, he must beware, above all things, of surrendering himself, even in thought, to baser imaginings; all strength of feeling, all the passion of a quick and ready sympathy is dulled and marred by the rotting influences of the common kinds of self-indulgence. This is a necessary warning. But, after all, we learn better by example; let us then study Christ’s pity.

There enter into it these two elements of passion and self-restraint. It was passion that made Him quick to catch the feeling of others, that made Him alive, and sure to say the right thing at the right time. He seized the occasion, He felt the difficulty, because He knew the feeling of it. And then He was quick to act. His feeling was at once translated into action. There was reserve in the expression of the sympathy, save that which goes with deep feeling. There was no mere awkward shrinking from action. The practical outcome was the tenderness which stopped to bless the little children, or that felt in itself the weariness of the multitude and stayed to give them food and rest, or that restored the dead son to his mother’s arms. *How quick to catch the feeling, whether of mother or of apostle—how beautiful the translation into words of their respective sorrows—“Woman, behold thy Son.” “Son, behold Thy mother!” How delicate the reserve, and yet how piercing the home thrust at St Peter in the thrice repeated “Lovest thou Me?”—how creative in its effect on character! All was felt which human feeling would feel till, on the Cross, He exposed Himself to the sorrows of the world that He might be forever in the position to lift them off the heart of man. In that bowed head and broken bleeding form we see the highest development of Christian pity; He is from henceforth a stranger to none of the woes of His brethren.

The beauty, the majesty, the greatness of it all captivates us; how much do we try to reproduce? How much trouble do we take to keep our sensibilities to suffering true and real, to guard them from abuse, to protect them by a real reserve, to preserve the intensity of that clean passion that keeps us alive to them?

Alas, it is to be feared that too often we do nothing of the kind. We try sometimes to do good, perhaps, but we are like men with an infallible medicine that cures every complaint; we ladle out our glassful to each who will take it, regardless of what is the matter with them; too often we wish to be consolers, and end by boring people insufferably. They really wish that we would go and leave them alone, though they may be too civil to tell us so. Or we go as consolers with so little real thought that while we are trying to assure others of our deep feeling, we are only convincing them of our utter insincerity. We think to warm them, but they only shiver as we come near. The reason is because we have never considered others enough, never sat down to think about them, never tried to get inside them, never thought enough about the common details, the every day affections of life; we have never heard Goďs Voice in man’s love for man, or in man’s love for ourselves in little simple every day things, and so men don’t speak to us by what they do; we do not feel with them, we cannot pity, because we do not know.

Encourage within yourself sensibilities in all healthy ways; in common intercourse with the woes and sorrows and feelings of men and women; beware of mere sentimental indulgence, of weeping over imaginary woes; read history a little more and novels a little less; do more for societies that rescue the miserable; read about the real sorrows of life rather than weep over moving scenes when they are portrayed on the stage; thus you will gain the humility of receptiveness, thus you will quicken your nobler passion. Try to reverence the sorrows of others, and so you will see the goodness and the strength of reserve, so you will become Christ-like in your pity.

* The wreck of the Elbe.

* Stopford Brooke on “The Sensibility of Christ.”

* Stopford Brooke, supra.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Merciful (III). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 93–102). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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