Relationship and Empathy

Monday, August 22, 2011 — Week of Proper 16, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) 4, 7 (evening)

1 Kings 1:5-31

Acts 26:1-23

Mark 13:14-27

As I read the horrifying descriptions of the time of trial in today’s passage from Mark, my mind turned to recent accounts I’ve heard from survivors of the Tsunami in Japan and of the attack upon the World Trade Center. From the gospel: “flee… the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat… Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!”

Last week I heard some interviews with Japanese survivors. They were looking at damaged photographs that have been retouched and restored by volunteers from around the world — generous photo restorers, giving their time to reclaim images of loved people and places. The survivors were remembering those who were lost, whose images now remain on the photos. One in the photo went back to get something precious from her home, and was swept out to sea. Another was pushing a relative who was wheelchair bound, and they were both too slow. Now their faces look back from the past. The memories were poignant; the suffering palpable.

This weekend my friend Fred Burnham visited our parish. He was just a few feet away from the World Trade Center on September 11. His visit brought back images and memories from that day. In the darkness and smoke, surrounded by percussive sounds, Fred and the group with him in a nearby building were certain that they would die that morning.

At one point, huddled in a dark, smoky stairwell, Fred had an experience of bonding love with a circle of friends who believed that they were all about to die together. He said that moment expanded into a transforming experience of the presence of God, the Source of love. He had no fear of death. Instead he was overwhelmed by the interrelatedness of Being, transforming this experience of terror into an experience of infinite love.

We asked Fred to reflect on what he has learned in the ten years since that experience. He talked about his twin passions for science and theology. He spoke about how interrelated all things are. He raised up two particular realities as key insights — relationship and empathy.

Relationship is at the core of being. Relationship is as fundamental to existence as the individual properties of the things (or beings) in relationship. Fred offered a reinterpretation of the Great Commandment — “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; this is the first and great relationship; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two relationships hang all the structure and the order of creation.”

At the heart of our capacity for relationship is our capacity for empathy. Fred said, within our neurological structure are mirror neurons that allow us to look at another face and to interpret what they other is experiencing. We can feel what another feels. From this comes our ability to live with compassion, to be in empathetic relationship with another. Out of that relationship comes the call to love and to serve the other, because we can identify with them, we are in relationship.

Out of the ashes of 9-11, Fred has experienced an expansive sense of relationship and empathy for all humanity. It is on this foundation, he says, that Jesus invites us to live in the Kingdom of God, participating in what God is doing in the world. The whole story of the Bible, culminating in the Incarnation, is the story of God’s empathic relationship with humanity. Insofar as we live, we live in relationship to this fundamental reality — loving God, loving neighbor and loving self.

From the ruins of all our disasters rises the spirit of empathetic compassion in relationship — resurrection in action. If we as individuals, and as a nation, are to share in the divine work of reconciliation and resurrection, we will have do embrace our fundamental calling to be in empathetic relationship with all humanity. How can we bring that vision to the next crisis? How can we bring that vision to our own time of trial?

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