By Ellen Romer
If you haven’t picked up James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage yet, you really ought to. Without going into a full review for a book I haven’t even finished yet, reading this pilgrimage of Martin’s leads me into prayer and contemplation each time I pick it up. The chapter on parables helps me to pray and ponder more deeply about what Jesus tried to tell us about the Kingdom of God – exactly what a parable ought to do.
When I got to the parable of the prodigal son, Martin brings up the Greek word used when the father sees his son returning-esplangchnisthe. I remember hearing about this word for the first time in my course on the synoptic Gospels over two years ago. This word indicates being moved so deeply that one would feel it deep in their guts, in their deepest insides. Different images of how God loves us – the good Samaritan, the father of the prodigal son – use this to show how God feels love, mercy and compassion as deeply as one possibly can. Jesus also feels this deep love and compassion when he sees the hungry multitude. Mercy isn’t shown merely to teach a lesson but because Jesus deeply loves and cares about His people. I can’t help but wonder at how amazing and awesome it is that God loves in such a way.
Then I found myself with another thought – Why don’t I feel this way? So many children flood our southern border. Fighting in Gaza seems to have no reasonable solution. Christians face exile or death in Mosul. Why do I not feel deep compassion in my guts over these things? Why am I so unmoved? Why are so many people so incredibly unmoved, untouched, unaware, uncaring of atrocities that happen near and far? Why do I feel more outrage over a sports game than I do over starving children and people dying from absurd violence? Why don’t I have the guts to do anything more than wonder and worry?
I went to chat with Tom Stegman, SJ about esplangchnisthe, as it was in his class I first heard the word. I knew I wanted to write this post but wanted to revisit my starting point. He left me with even more to ponder: feeling and loving that deeply hurts. Experiencing love and being moved by tragedy and the effects of sin does not come without pain. Such deep and loving response also cannot be ignored – it calls for action. Human beings avoid it, put up great barriers and create distance from it. Such love and the action it calls for are scary, terrifying even.
But there are people who do experience esplangchnisthe, who risk so much of their lives out of love for God and others because that love moves them so deeply they must act. Somehow they move past fear and find that even in the pain of esplangchnisthe there is also incredible courage. I remember visiting the Jonah House community when in college. Sr. Ardeth Platte told me that when she really wrapped her mind around the effects of nuclear weapons, she had to act, had to do something instead of just living her life as she had. Sr. Ardeth and others who give their lives, literally and figuratively, most often are branded as radicals, or dismissed as crazy. Despite their persecution, despite any fear, the esplangchnisthe gives the courage to continue on anyways. Esplangchnisthe may be painful and scary but when we give in to it, we find courage as well: courage to act and to trust in God as many prophets have before.
I have no answers or solutions. Any questions or possible routes end up seeming more like excuses than responses of love. I think maybe my lack of courage comes from a lack of esplangchnisthe. So what is keeping me from this love? How can I open myself to compassion and mercy so deep I feel it in the depths of me, in my bowels, in the places so deep within me I am not even aware they exist? I sometimes find bits of it in prayer; sometimes in courageous women like Sr. Ardeth and her community, Dorothy Day and Sr. Dorothy Stang. I try to remember that God will always love greater than I can. But I cannot stop trying to love harder, to dig past the barriers that keep me from being moved by the sorrows in the world. Maybe if I keep trying, the love will sink in deep enough that I love so hard and painfully that I finally have to stop trying and find the guts to do something.