Contemplation and Compassion

Mark 6:30-34, 45-56

It is a commonplace prior to take off for the flight attendant to counsel, “In case of loss in air pressure, put on your oxygen mask first before assisting someone else – a child, grandchild, or vulnerable companion.” The first time I heard that counsel, I was surprised. Wouldn’t common sense dictate to reach out to your child or grandchild first? But, think again, how could you help them if you lost consciousness? How could you assist the person next to you if you passed out from lack of oxygen?

Today’s reading invites us to consider the relationship between contemplation and action, rest and work, and refreshment and compassion. Jesus’ disciples have just come back from a preaching mission; they healed the sick and preached good news, and now people are coming to them, bringing with them their problems of body, mind, and spirit. Mark notes that the people were coming and going and the needs were so great that the disciples had barely enough time to eat.

Some of us sit at our desks or kitchen tables, feeling compelled to multitask. We wolf down a sandwich, while checking our e-mail, reading the paper, watching the news, making notes, or listening to our phone messages. We are so busy we don’t even taste our food. We are like a group of young adults I recently observed at a local bistro – the food had been served but each one had their phone on their laps and was texting away, oblivious to aroma and flavor.

Life is meant to be savored, food a source of delight and meals a source of companionship. Yet, often we are too busy to “taste and see that God is good.”

Jesus, however, took another path. Sensing that his followers are close to burnout, Jesus takes them on a retreat, a sea cruise to a deserted place. He doesn’t ask them to do one more thing, but closes shop for the afternoon so they can go on holiday. They need time away – to laugh, play, and refresh their spiritual lives. The needs are great, but if they burn out, the disciples will have nothing to offer hurting people in search of their healing touch.

We don’t know how long they’re away, but when they return to shore, Mark notes that the crowds are waiting for them and that when he sees their neediness, Jesus has compassion on them.

Recently, especially among caregivers, the term “compassion fatigue” has surfaced to describe what happens when we are so depleted that we lose our human heartedness. When we are close to burnout, persons in need become nuisances; we’re running on empty and our emotional reservoirs are dry. We go through the motions of helping, but our heart isn’t in it. We look like we care, but we are so worn that we really don’t. And compassion fatigue is not just a problem for professionals – it can affect grandparents, spouses with sick husbands or wives, parents, and children taking care of parents.

Health professionals have discovered that one of the most effective antidotes against compassion fatigue is a combination of rest, retreat, and spiritual refreshment. Sabbath moments refresh our spirits and renew our sense of compassion.

Along with compassion fatigue, many of us suffer from what physician Larry Dossey calls time or hurry sickness. We always seem to be on the run, our days are full as we go from one thing to another, with little clear sense of our personal priorities. Hurry sickness leads to unhealthy levels of stress which may eventuate in diseases of body, mind, and spirit.

Jesus shows us another path. He is profoundly busy. His life is filled to the brim, healing, teaching, and welcoming, but he finds wholeness by balancing action and contemplation. In the reading from Mark, Jesus goes on retreat with his disciples, returns to teach, heal, and feed five thousand, and then dismisses his disciples so he can go to a quiet place for prayer. He embodies the rhythm of prayer and action, more prayer, and then further action.

Jesus takes Sabbath time to refresh, renew, and rediscover God’s perspective on his life and work, and so should we. It is not selfish to care for your well-being. The great commandment asserts that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, love your neighbor and be available to support her or his well-being, but also love yourself and care for your own well-being. As Rabbi Hillel, thought to be a contemporary of Jesus claimed:

If I’m not for myself, who will be?

If I’m only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

We can be activists, committed to feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, welcoming the forgotten, and caring for the voiceless, who also take time for rest and prayer. This is what it means to act as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.

How can we find this balance? Let me suggest a few spiritual practices to gain greater perspective and transform your understanding of time from “not enough” to “always enough”:

First, take time each day for prayer and devotional reading. You can pray or meditate while sitting, walking, or even working. But, take time to draw near to God in silence.

Second, take time for short prayers as you go from one activity to another. For example, take a deep breath and open to God as you log onto to your e-mail, answer the phone, start your car, greet a friend, or lock your door. Weave your day together with ceaseless prayer. Prayer connects us with God and God’s resources are infinite and always available to us.

Third, note how you are feeling throughout the day. Are you anxious? Feeling pressed? Bored? Stressed? Do you feel excited or depleted? Are you at your limit physically and emotionally? Let your overall sense of well-being or weariness inspire you to pause for a moment or simply call it a day if you are running on empty.

There will always be persons in need and we will be tempted to solve every problem. But, remember: put on your oxygen mask first, find a deserted place – as Jesus did – for spiritual refreshment, trusting that God will find others to take your place. You can run on plenty, not empty, and have all the time and energy you need to flourish and faithfully respond to God’s call to bring healing and beauty to the world around you.