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Cultivating Compassion

In this excerpt, taken from The Paradise of the Soul, Saint Albert the Great discusses what true compassion is, who it extends to, its double purpose, signs of compassion, and a prayer to attain this most necessary virtue in our own spiritual lives.


True Compassion

True compassion in relation to God is to feel constant and sincere compunction in one’s heart for all the injuries that are done to Him, and are still being done to Him and His Church, and also to those who love Him. For God feels such closeness, care, and sympathy for those who are beloved by Him and who love Him, as much as a person feels for the pupil of his own eye. And all the elements of the universe (even those which are inanimate and non-sentient) shared in the appalling sufferings of Christ upon the cross, [thereby exemplifying the compassion due to God, their Creator].

True compassion towards one’s neighbor is to feel sympathy in one’s very bones for all his sufferings, both physical and spiritual. This is exemplified by the apostle Saint Paul, who said, “Who is there who suffered, with whom I also did not suffer?” The Glossa Ordinaria comments on this verse, saying that when Paul says this, he means, “Who was there who did not feel weakness in their faith, or in any other virtue, for whom I did not feel compassion? That is, I felt their pain and struggle as if it were my own. And who was there who was offended or scandalized, for whom I did not burn with the fire of compassion?”

Compassion For The Souls In Purgatory

Our duty of compassion extends also to our brothers and sisters who are in purgatory. We should share in their sufferings in our own hearts, especially for the fact that they do not yet enjoy the vision of God in all its fullness and glory. It is fitting that we constantly intercede with God for these suffering souls, that He may deign to give them relief from the severity and bitterness of their afflictions and may shorten the time of their purgation.

The Example Of Christ’s Compassion

The overflowing compassion of Christ should encourage each of us to cultivate this virtue. As Saint Augustine observes, Christ hastened always to relieve sinners from the torments of their conscience, and felt the sufferings of others with more intensity than He felt His own. And it was not merely a feeling of sympathy with the pain of others—rather, He literally took our sufferings and sorrows upon Himself, for, as the prophet Isaiah eloquently testifies, “ours were the sorrows He bore; ours, the sufferings He carried.”

The Double Purpose Of Compassion

Compassion achieves a double purpose: it confirms the virtue of charity and it advances our sharing in the kingdom of God. Regarding this first purpose, in the book of Ecclesiasticus we are urged, “Do not withhold your compassion from those who weep, and walk with those who mourn. Do not disdain to visit the sick. Through these actions, you shall be confirmed in love.”92 Regarding the second purpose (that is, of becoming sharers in the Kingdom of God), the Apostle writes, “If we sustain [others in compassion,] then we shall surely reign with Him.”93

Signs Of True And False Compassion

True Compassion

A sign of true compassion is not only to share the sufferings of one’s friends but even to sympathize with one’s enemies. Thus it was that Joseph wept for each of his brothers in their need and affliction, although they had previously sold him into slavery. And King David wept with great sorrow over the death of Saul, who had often tried to kill him while he lived. Indeed, David even composed songs of mourning for the Israelites over the death of Saul. David showed similar compassion for his son Absalom, even though he had tried to usurp his kingdom from him. For when Absalom died, David mourned with genuine sorrow, “O Absalom, my son Absalom! How I wish I could have died in your place! O Absalom, my son Absalom!” And Job also testifies about the depth of his compassion, saying, “I wept even over the one who was afflicted, and my soul was moved with pity for the poor.”

False Compassion

A sign of false or counterfeit compassion is when a person offers words of sympathy and makes a show of sorrow in his face and yet feels secret gladness in his heart over the affliction of his neighbor. Another sign of a lack of compassion is when a person is able to easily alleviate the suffering of others but does nothing to do so.

A Prayer To God For Compassion

O Lord, Your compassion is vaster and more profound than anything that we could possibly imagine or hope for. Through this divine compassion, You took our sufferings and sinfulness upon Yourself in Your agony and death upon the cross.

Through that same compassion, I beseech You, O Lord, transfix my own heart with sorrow and penitence for all the innumerable sins and offenses I have committed against You and against all Your servants in this world. Let me be moved to sincere compassion for all the sufferings of body and soul that afflict my neighbors; may I share in their pains as if they were my own, for we are all limbs of one and the same body. May I constantly be mindful of the fact that all human beings are brothers and sisters, for we are each the offspring of the same celestial Father.

Let my compassion extend to the souls in purgatory, especially those whom I have known and loved during this life. May I endeavor to relieve their pains by means of my own prayers and works of penance so that they may quickly come to behold the wonders of Your glory, who live and reign forever and ever. Amen.

This article is taken from a chapter in The Paradise of the Soul: Forty-Two Virtues to Reach Heaven by Saint Albert the Great which is available from TAN Books

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