Sunday May 10th – Practising Compassion

By Rev. Duncan Voice

Dear friends, I hope this finds you safe and well. Today I was supposed to be celebrating with Horsham Unitarians at their anniversary service. Sadly this has had to be cancelled and so my heart-felt good wishes to any friends from Horsham who maybe reading this. I look forward to when we can meet again. This Service follows on from my last one, “Practising Awareness.” I hope you find something here that speaks to your heart and benefits you in your reflections. I invite you to read through slowly and pause whenever you wish.

Opening Words

“Love your neighbour as yourself” – Jesus, from the Gospel of Mark

“Out of the abundance of your heart, cultivate love and compassion for all beings” – The Buddha

“Nothing but good comes to him who loves others as himself” – Lao Tzu, from The Tao Te Ching

“Practice gentleness, seek truth, give up anger, do not slander, and have compassion for all living beings” – Krishna, The Bhagavad Gita

“All faiths insist that compassion is the true test of spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahma, Nirvana or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule: “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you” – or in its positive form: “Always treat other as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group: you must have concern for everybody.”

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, published by Bodley Head

Chalice Lighting

The flame of this chalice is a symbol of the light that is within us all. It is the light of love.
As this flame shares its light with us this morning,
so may we be inspired to share the light of our love with the world.

Prayer

Spirit of Love and Life, source of all being,
we are grateful for all that keeps us together in community,
and for this time of peace and contemplation.
In this moment we seek a deeper connection
with that which is Divine and which dwells within us all.
We remember those who are no longer with us and who’s loss comes to our mind at this time, we are thankful for their lives and for the time we spent with them.
Help us to be healers in the community, to support those in need and to turn away from retaliation and hateful rhetoric.
We offer our heartfelt love those in our community who suffer and are unwell, and to those who care for them.
We open our hearts to you loving spirit and share our troubles and anxieties. Help us to accept help when we need it and to offer it when we can. Amen.

Please sing along with, or listen to, our hymn “Spirit of Life”

Reading: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3

“If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all. If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and even if I let them take away my body to burn, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.”

Before reading this address you may wish to sit for a few minutes in quietness.

Address

“Compassion can be defined in many ways, but its essence is a basic kindness, with deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it…..Not only has it been encouraged as a spiritual and moral pursuit in many religions, but compassion has also been seen as a major healing process for our turbulent minds and relationships.” – Professor Paul Gilbert, The Compassionate Mind published by Constable

Has there ever been a time where compassion and caring has been so visible and at the forefront of our minds? Usually the news we read, listen to or watch is dominated by the rich and powerful, the notorious, and by celebrities (they maybe one and same of course!). But now we are aware of nurses and doctors and other health workers in our hospitals, the hitherto barely noticed groups of people called carers who take care of the most vulnerable in society, and volunteers helping people in various ways, from doing shopping for neighbours to supporting the NHS. The dire situation of the virus pandemic has of course thrust itself upon us, disrupting the focus of our “normal” lives, but we have also had more time to be aware and perhaps reflect on what is important in life.

As I write this, there is an expectation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going to deliver an address to the nation on Sunday 10th May, in which he will unveil a “roadmap” setting out how he intends to “unlock the various parts of the UK economy”; and in doing so, start the process of bringing people out of isolation. Inevitably our thoughts turn to the future, but not without anxiety for some. Aside from health and financial concerns, which of course are huge for many people, some are concerned that things will return to how they were before. Having perhaps for the first time in their adult lives had the chance to slow-down (not everyone has of course!); they fear a return to fast-paced life, to intolerance, to selfishness, to the “rat-race”. They fear the compassionate and caring community will disappear from sight once more.

In an article in the “I” newspaper called “Scared of the end of lockdown? You are not alone”, psychologist Dr Abigael San says,
“It’s been a massive shift to a much slower existence. A lot of people are realising what they can do without, realising how some of what they do is unhelpful to them, superficial or damaging. People are saying this in therapy sessions, how they realise they spend money they don’t really want to spend, that certain things don’t make them happy.” One young mother, for example, having spent time with her young son in lockdown, was concerned about going back to an office job she didn’t like and leaving him in childcare once more. Missing out on that precious time together.

Nevertheless, many will be keen to at least begin a journey that they hope will recover much of their old life, to see family and friends, to earn a living once again or to simply to enjoy some familiar pleasures. We are warned to expect a “new normal” by politicians, although no one really knows what this means and where it will lead. Undoubtedly it will be a slow unravelling of restrictions though, too slow for some businesses to remain viable. Most organisations, including churches, will have to adapt to doing things differently for some time, perhaps a long time. Another thing to lament? Maybe. But instead of being a problem though, are we presented with an opportunity to do things differently? Can we begin to build the caring community that we would like to see? Can we live more compassionately? Well, only if we can begin to change our minds and our attitudes.

Changing attitudes in society probably sounds beyond what any of us could, or indeed, would want to do. Especially we few liberally minded Unitarians, we wouldn’t want to go around telling people how they should live their lives! But it is less a question of telling people what to do, it seems to me, than as Ghandi put it, “being the change we want to see in the world”. In other words, we start with ourselves and then our relationships to those we personally come into contact with, our family, friends and other associates.

Most people wouldn’t normally consider extending compassion to themselves. But often though, we are our own harshest critics, we blame ourselves for our failures and perceived shortcomings. However as clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert explains in his book “The Compassionate Mind” things are not always how they seem, he says,

“Much of what goes on in our minds is not our fault – or even our intention. This was a fundamental insight of the Buddha nearly 3000 years ago.
When we realise how and why we did not design much of what goes on in our minds, we can take responsibility in new ways and learn how to live in and work with such a mind. This may seem odd but it’s not really so strange. After all you didn’t build your physical body – your genes did – but learning how your body works means you can train it to be fit, working on different muscles groups or your cardiovascular system and eating a balanced diet….
Before we begin to train our minds however, we need to capture the right spirit of non-blame and kindness. We really need to grasp why we are not to blame for much of what goes on in our minds, and why developing compassion is the road to a better regulated mind.”

Not only did we not create our physical body, we had no control over our upbringing either, the other important factor in our development. Whether our upbringing was privileged, loving or miserably abusive, we didn’t choose it. Take these two factors alone (not to mention anything else that may have befallen us!) and we can surely see that we can offer ourselves some compassion, if we don’t live up to some perceived ideal. That we maybe a bit messed up! And if we accept this as true for us, then it is true for all humans. Behind each of us is a complex chain of events and circumstances that have shaped us, much of it beyond our control, which can sometimes lead us to make bad choices or to hurt others.

In her book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong reminds us how each religion values compassion. She invokes the so-called Golden Rule that we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves, and later in her book reminds us that there are two sides to that aphorism. In other words that “if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either.” However, she also recognises how difficult practising compassion towards ourselves and others is, and so she has divided her book into twelve steps to develop a gradual understanding and practise. Self-awareness is challenging, and so is having self compassion, but if the if the wisdom of religion, as well as modern psychology, is to be believed it is eminently worthwhile practising. For our own well-being and the well-being of others.

We have seen during our pandemic lockdown how important compassion has been in a very real and practical way. How it gives hope and encouragement, giving us a sense of what loving community can be. It is something we can take with us into whatever the future holds, to encourage us in our faith and our personal practise. Perhaps then, one day, our “new normal” may be a compassionate and loving world.

May it be so.

Prayer by Elizabeth Tarbox (abridged)

Spirit of Life, I give thanks for the opportunities to love that present themselves in the turmoil of life.
Where the light catches the tears in another’s eyes, where hands are held and there are moments without words, let us be present then, and alive to the possibility of changing. Let us seek to make another’s well-being the object of our concern. Let us seek to be present to another’s pain, to bathe another’s wounds, hear another’s sadness, celebrate another’s success, and allow the other’s story to change our own.
Let us not defend ourselves against the discomfort of unruly emotion, nor seek to close down our hearts for fear a new love will come to shake our foundations. Let us instead be open to discovering a new way of seeing an old problem, or appreciating the perfection of a seashell, or the possibility of friendship. For in giving ourselves to what we do not understand, we receive life’s blessings, and in taking care of another, we are cared for. Amen

Closing Words: The Meaning of Namaste by Ram Dass

I honour the place in you
Where the entire universe resides.
I honour the place in you
Of love, of light, of truth, of peace.
I honour the place in you
Where, if you are in that place in you,
and I, am in that place in me,
There is only one of us.

As we end this time of worship may the stirrings of compassion sing in our hearts, and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen

As we commemorated VE day on Friday there was really only one song I could finish with. I hope you enjoy this version (may need your tissues ready though!)

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