You could read this Sunday’s Gospel from the point of view of overworked and stressed disciples. If you did it would be a mistake! Yes, they are back from the mission and the Teacher invites them to go away by themselves and rest. There is a revolving door of so many people with so many demands that the disciples cannot eat. They hop on a boat but the people continue to come to them – walking faster than their oars can push. When they step ashore, Jesus sees the crowds. His Compassion trumps the plan for eating and resting. Those who are suffering must come first. No rest for the disciples. The mission comes first.
Notice how the passage is awash with spiritual symbols. When the disciples have told Jesus about their words and works, it isn’t time for a bit of R and R. It is time for a deeper teaching about mission and how it is to be done. They are invited to a ‘deserted place’ to ‘rest’ and to ‘eat’. Food is not normally found in deserted places. The food that is on offer is learning how to be nourished by God. They are being invited to fall into the heart of God and to be fed there. Also, ‘rest’ does not mean time to splash on the sun tan lotion and pick up a good novel. This is Sabbath Rest. It is the rest wherein I make myself One with all creation and with the Spirit of the Creator. Here, I learn how to receive, from the heart of God, all I will need for the mission that has been entrusted to me.
This is not an easy thing to do. It requires a shift in awareness. So we must ‘get in the boat’ and ‘cross over’ to another way of thinking. This new way does not leave anyone behind. The problem is not the people or their needs. The problem is the way our activity takes us away from the wellspring. On the other shore, with renewed awareness, everything begins with Compassion. Everything is sustained by Compassion. In a world where nobody has any time for those who have nothing to give, Jesus is a magnet. Disciples must learn how to stay in touch with Compassion.
In our own days Compassion is seen as exhausting. We hear of compassion fatigue! When people arrive with their needs, we must find a way to empathise with them. Compassion demands a real relationship. We cannot keep our distance. But living in the world of another’s need can be draining. This is why so many ‘professionals’ complain about compassion fatigue.
Yet, for Jesus, Compassion is a form of rest. How can this be possible? When we think we are in a superior position to someone in need; when we imagine that we are called upon from our greatness or expertise to help another, we very quickly act as if they are a dead weight needing to be lifted up. This is heavy lifting and it is exhausting. For Jesus, Compassion arises from sameness. This cannot be manufactured. It must be genuinely perceived. We must refrain from thinking we have the edge , the possession, the gift, the skill, the knowledge or the luck which makes us better than anyone else. This can only happen in the ‘deserted place’ and with ‘rest’.
Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk lived in India for many years and worked to develop this new awareness. He created the ‘deserted place’ and the ‘rest’ by choosing the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus, Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. This meditation brought him into community with all people. He wrote:
“I unite myself with all human beings from the beginning of the world who have experienced separation from God, or from eternal truth. I realise that, as human beings, we are all separated from God, from the source of our being. We are wandering in a world of shadows, mistaking the outward appearance of people and things for reality. But at all times, something is pressing us to reach out beyond the shadows, to face the reality, the truth, the inner meaning of our lives, and so to find God, or whatever name we give to the mystery which enfolds us“.
When we realise we are the same as everyone else, our actions arise from communion. We are not steeling ourselves to exert influence in the foreign territory of another. Our mission arises from what ultimately unites us, a common humanity longing for a common compassion. Compassion cannot be achieved. It can only emerge when we recognise the deepest truth that we are all one. This new awareness is a place of rest from which mission flows easily. Whenever you find pushing, shoving, pressure or tension, you can guarantee that Compassion has been lost.