Costly Compassion and the Hard History of Love

“What he saw in her face would remain with him forever. It was pity, but it was more than that. It was hurt love that seemed to include entirely the hurt man. It included him and disregarded everything else. It disregarded the aura of whiskey that ordinarily she would have resented; it disregarded the blood puddled on the porch floor and the trail of blood through the hall.

“Mat was familiar with her tenderness and had thought nothing of it. But now he recognized it in her face and in her hands as they went out to the hurt man’s wounds. To him, then, it was as though she leaned in the black of her mourning over the whole hurt world itself, touching its wounds with her tenderness, in her sorrow.”

“Loss came into his mind then, and he knew what he was years away from telling, even from thinking: that his mother’s grief was real… and this was a part, and belonged to the deliverance of the town’s hard history of love.

The hurt man, Mat thought, was not going to die, but he knew from his mother’s face that he could die and someday would. She leaned over him, touching his bleeding wounds that she bathed and stanched and bound, and her touch had it in the promise of profound healing, some profound encouragement.

It was the knowledge of that encouragement, of what it had cost her, of what it would cost her and would cost him, that then finally came to Mat, and he fled away and wept.” (Wendall Berry, “That Distant Land,” 135-135)

Matt’s mother had lost two children before he came to bless their home. He had been largely unaware of their existence, acquainted as he was by history. Yet their legacy of grief had lived on in his mother’s life. In the mourning that shrouded his mother’s heart. In the compassion she showed for lost and wounded hearts. Somehow, from the ashes of mortal suffering, a new woman had emerged. One who was kind and full of sincere compassion. One who, awash in her own weeping, could not bear the anguish of another. And it was this new woman who had risen to meet the bleeding stranger at her door that day. She knew nothing about him; who had hurt him or why. It didn’t matter. He was suffering and that was enough. His cry corresponded to her own hidden hurt and she moved to relieve his pain. This is the way of the Kingdom of God. This is the way of the Cross and the mark of God’s divine nature. For, “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you…” (1 Corinthians 1:3-6)

Compassion is a costly endeavor; a partnership of Divine touch and broken heart, and both — God and man — pay a price. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Tears are hard won and sympathy comes — for the giver at least — with a price. It costs the hands that heal so we must never clasp them lightly. Trace the treasure of compassion, trace its tears back to the source and you will often find some melancholy loss at its heart.

A heart made tender by trial.

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