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Talk: Compassion – what does it mean to suffer with?

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Chris Rich
Monday 11th November 2013
Public lecture: Care & Compassion

Firstly, I’d like to say how honoured I am to be addressing you in this, the first lecture of its kind at Guildford Cathedral starting something which I am sure will grow year on year into a quite significant stimulating voice in an ever changing society where Faith has a great deal to contribute to the way we live our lives and the kind of society we try to create.

Secondly, thank you to my colleagues who have contributed to my ministry, work and this talk in so many ways. I am blessed in that my ministry has been notable for colleagues who have encouraged and challenged in order to deliver on the projects we set out to deliver, but also to reflect faithfully upon that work. The thoughts contained in this presentation have emanated from that experience and those reflections.

The Diocesan Communities Engagement Team (CET) evolved from the Social Responsibility Department. Social Responsibility in the Church is by some perceived to be in a tug-of-war with mission and evangelism. An unhelpful and unhealthy image emanating from some with a heart to see more people in our churches on one side and emphasis this above all else, and those who seem to play this importance down and focus on meeting people’s everyday needs in the community. In truth, the two are not mutually exclusive. Our new title, CET, flows from a recognition that for a thriving Church we need to connect our Faith with everyday life. We need Mission that encourages and nurtures growth in engagement with our communities, growth in spiritual maturity and growth in numbers. It’s holistic – not a pick and mix!

Working to promote Social Responsibility over the past 23 years in three different dioceses I came to use a strapline to describe the focus of Social Responsibility:

‘Social Responsibility is … Caring, Compassion, the restoration of Hope – signs of the Kingdom of God coming through Love and Justice.’

Ten days ago CET ran the annual Carers’ Event across the way at the Refectory followed by a service here in the Cathedral. It’s the fourth such event which has grown in size year by year due to the encouragement of Suzette Jones (Health & Wellbeing Adviser) supported by other CET colleagues. The event seeks to recognise the role of carers in our society, to say thank you, and say what you do matters to all of us. The definition of caring is ‘to provide what is necessary’. Our society would grind to a selfish halt without the commitment of so many that provide what is necessary. In Surrey alone the economic contribution of carers is estimated to be £1.595 billion a year, nationally the figure is £119 billion a year. That’s bigger than the annual bill for the NHS which is £87 billion. It is estimated that 6.4 million people in the UK provide care for ill or disabled family members that would otherwise cost the exchequer £326 million a day!

With an ageing population, caring is becoming a fact of life for most families. Yet, while families are meeting this challenge, many struggle while doing so with little or no help, or facing cuts to the care services and benefits they rely on. Unless we urgently rethink how our society supports carers, we shall see increasing numbers pushed to breaking point – forced out of work and into poverty, ill health and isolation. Those on the margins of society rather than central to it!!

Often these carers are family members, though not always. Sometimes the caring can be extremely challenging and sometimes the relationship with the cared for person can change beyond recognition as boundaries and issues like dignity come into the mix. The person being cared for is challenged too and may well find it difficult to accept care for them. Sometimes illnesses like dementia can deprive us of the person we once knew, yet here they are, at least physically. Jenny Frank, a previous colleague of mine as part of her work with the Social Responsibility Department carried out the first study into young carers in Hampshire in order to highlight the role played by many children who care for a parent or siblings or others. The title of the resulting published report was very telling – ‘Couldn’t Care More!’. It has gone on to set a benchmark for the provision of services to young carers, who often get seen as being different by their peer groups.

I want to share some stories that will ring true to examples any of us might know about.

Jordan’s Story

Jordan, 12, does a lot of practical things to help his single mother, Tracey, aged 42, who suffers from bouts of depression.

Jordan goes shopping four times a week and helps with the cleaning, washing and tidying. But he knows that his main job is even more important. "It’s to make Mum, smile and keep her cheerful", he says.

He has learned to recognise the signs of his mother's depressed mood coming on. "Jordan asks me if I’m feeling okay and though I say I am, he knows I am not and starts doing things for himself", says Tracey.

 "I know he needs to be cared for as a child but instead it is him keeping me going with kisses and cuddles and trying to make me laugh." This obviously causes Tracey a great deal of heartache and guilt that she finds difficult to accept. This further compounds her unstable moods.

"Jordan will say: ’Come on, Mum, let’s have a game of cards.’ He knows he can’t cheer me up fully inside but he can put a smile on my face for ten minutes once a day. He’s my teddy bear."

Jordan confesses he "gets a bit fed up" when his Mum is sinking into a depression which renders her unable to function for several days but he happily takes on the chores. "I know Mum needs time to herself to go for a walk or visit my Nan and I don’t mind doing things around the house.”

Jordan’s school work is suffering as he is sometimes tired during the day having been worrying about his Mum, and he does not always manage to get his homework in on time. He is also not always able to go out and play with his friends from school, depending on how his Mum is. He often feels out of things as far as his friends are concerned. They see him as being different!

Jodie's story

Jodie is a 14-year-old young carer. she cares for her brother Rocky who is 8. Rocky suffers from a very rare genetic condition called Peters Plus Syndrome.

This condition mainly affects the eyes but Rocky has many health problems. He has dwarfism and is about the size of a 2-3 year old at the moment. He was born with a cleft lip and palette and a malfunctioning kidney so he had half a kidney removed shortly after birth. Rocky cannot eat so he is fed through the abdomen into the stomach. He also has a delayed mental age of about a 4 year old. He is incontinent so he has to wear a nappy. Throughout his life he has had over 40 operations and there are still more to come. Most of these operations are on his eyes because he has Peters Anomaly of the eye. He is registered blind but he does have some basic vision.

Most 14 year olds know nothing of such conditions but Jodie is only too aware of them through her brother Rocky.

When Jodie gets up in the morning she has a number of jobs to do. She gets herself ready and helps her Mum get Rocky and the two younger brothers ready for school. Rocky is very dependent so he requires 24 hour care and has to be helped doing the most basic of things.

At school it is sometimes hard for Jodie to concentrate. Rocky has to go to hospital a lot and it is usually a long way from home. Jodie always worries about him but knows he is being looked after in hospital. Jodie can’t really talk about it with her friends because they don’t really understand what it is like being a carer. Jodie is seen as different and one who doesn’t join in.

When Jodie gets home, her Mum is usually out picking her two younger brothers up from school. She has to get home for when Rocky comes home on a minibus supplied from school. Jodie has to immediately change his nappy and his clothes and put him on his feed.

Jodie’s Mum is a single parent – Dad left - so it can be hard for her to get all the jobs done. If Jodie’s Mum is busy Jodie will cook a meal and give Rocky or the younger brothers a bath. The house also needs to be tidied up because if something is left on the floor Rocky wouldn’t see it and would trip over.

Jodie’s Mum doesn’t have a car so it is hard for the family to go out as a family. If they do go out for the day it is quite rare and it also needs a lot of organisation because Rocky has to have a lot of things with him where ever they go.

When Jodie tries to talk to people like doctors or social workers or people at church some of them don’t really listen to her because they think she is too young to discuss such things and she finds it hard to talk with members of the family about her worries and concerns.

Heart-rending stuff! Recently several reports and news generally has shone a light on some of these issues.

It’s perhaps of no surprise that there’s been such a heartfelt response to a recent interview with 83-year old – Sally Lebanov – after she talked with great dignity and stoicism about the nature of her home care visits. “They used to be half an hour,” she said. “But by the time the care visitor had booked in and out (most aren’t paid until they’ve booked in) there was usually only ten minutes left.” Time enough perhaps to choose between having her commode emptied or hot water bottle filled – but not both. She had not had a bath for three years.

Her situation might have been exacerbated by cuts to public services, but, as she pointed out, her concern wasn’t just about money. This remarkably uncomplaining woman admitted that whilst she would like to have some basic physical needs met – her legs exercised, her toenails cut, her bed changed more often - what she really wanted was time to have a meal with her visitor. Or even just a chat. Or maybe a trip to the shops. Time to be a human being. She was lonely, she said, and missed the companionship of others. She wanted company as much as care – the kind of care that can’t be legislated for. Real community ~ a theme which I’ll return to.

For me this story, and the whole thing about compassion and care, raises the fundamental question about what kind of society do we want, what are the essential qualities of our human relationships, what does our faith have to contribute to the kind of life we live and expect for others?

Mrs Labanov’s story is one that makes so many of us worry about old age. Bette Davies memorably said that old age wasn’t for sissies!! In general it’s seen as a negative experience, commonly described as a burden. Mrs Labanov herself joked about being in God’s ‘Waiting Room’ and it sometimes seems that society sees waiting to die as the main purpose of life’s final stage. Despite there being many good carers doing the best they can, we continue to see failings in meeting the needs of the elderly. It is for this reason that CET gives a very high priority to supporting ‘Dementia Friendly Churches’. If you want to do something about this and aren’t already please contact the CET office at Diocesan House.

Jane’s story

Jane has cared for her husband of 45 years for over 10 years, during which time his Parkinson’s has progressed considerably and he now needs a lot of physical care.

He is now very unsteady and has limited mobility. He requires help to move around the house and Jane has had to bring a bed downstairs. There are carers from an agency that come in morning and evening to help get her husband in and out of bed but otherwise Jane has to do everything for him.

They used to have a very full social life, enjoying going out to meet with family and friends and often would go on holidays abroad. However, now they get out hardly at all. Jane has a very good neighbour who will come and watch over Jane’s husband for an hour or so to allow her to get out to get the shopping. She misses socialising with others and her husband’s condition makes it very difficult to find someone to look after him while she goes out and many of their friends do not come around as Jane’s husband can be quite difficult and it can also be quite embarrassing.

She finds the physical work of helping her husband quite hard and often has sore arms and an aching back. If he needs to lie down during the day she is the only one on hand to help. They are coping financially but it is tough. Jane’s husband was the main bread-winner but after contracting Parkinson’s disease he had to take early retirement and only gets a small pension.

Perhaps this failure is connected to the difficulty we have – unless we’ve already got there – in imagining what it is to be old. More than empathy. In the minds of care-free youth, old age is something that only comes to – well – old people. The old inhabit another country or world. Whilst the middle aged – facing increasing insights into what lies ahead – would rather not think about it, preferring to deny its inevitability. Both attitudes can harden us to the needs of the elderly, even blind us to the fact they exist.

When the Psalmist (71:9) cried out to God “Do not cast me off in old age,” he was afraid of being left alone. God didn’t promise to stop the aging process but He did promise to be with him in his last days. God encourages us to respect the elderly for their wisdom and experience; and asks that we give them our care, time and love. Most of us will be old ourselves one day. It’s so important to listen to the voices of those who’ve already got there, both for them and for us! Shutting off our compassionate responses stunts our own spiritual growth!

Mrs Labanov points the way towards care being something more than straightforward provision of ‘what is necessary’, for them and us.

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) is a very familiar story known to almost everyone. To those Jesus was addressing there was a real understanding of the dangers and challenges faced by hanging around where someone else has been mugged on a near deserted dusty road through a hilly region. They may have felt uncomfortable at the challenge presented by those who walked by at a safe distance, but were probably thinking they’d have done the same.

I heard a story about a sail-ability group, where disabled people get the chance to participate in sailing. The boats used are very stable because they have a fixed keel to act as a stabiliser. However, for some reason this good practice was not followed by one group some years ago and the boat capsized with terrified disabled people clinging to whatever they could. The first person to help was the sailor who’s care they were in and he was grabbed by those splashing in the water and found they were below the surface in no time. Others nearby had a decision to make … and quickly … Thankfully they enabled everyone to be rescued.

But in Jesus’ story He then sharpens the point by having a Samaritan behave differently from how His listeners might have behaved. The Samaritan knew what it was like to be on the margins of Jesus’ listeners. The Samaritan found the empathy to ‘provide what was necessary’. The listeners might have cared but thought the price was too high, the risk too great. Something more committed the Samaritan to his actions.

Caring and Compassion, like mission and social responsibility, should not be mutually exclusive. ‘Providing what is necessary’ needs heart to it too. Compassion is defined as ‘to suffer with’. In Jesus’ story the Samaritan knew what it was to suffer and was personally challenged to ‘suffer with’.

In one New Testament story “When Jesus saw the crowds He had compassion on them.” – Matt 9:36

The expression for compassion is very strong. All that is within Jesus (in latin the root word is ‘animarum’ – He was animated) He was stirred by the sight before Him. He was full of emotion and showed it in His whole person. There was to be no holding back, no counting the cost.

One of Jesus’ stories was about a religious man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (Luke 18).

You must obey the commandments Jesus told him – but the man, believing he was doing all this, obviously felt this was falling short of something. Jesus returned to His theme. “Go sell everything, give your money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower”. When the man heard this he was sad, because he was very rich. The cost was too great!

On another occasion Jesus was being questioned by some religious leaders trying to play tug-of-war over religious observance. They referred to a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6). Jesus looked with ‘compassion’ on him. Indeed, the root of the greek word suggests another very strong reaction on the part of Jesus – Jesus looked with anger … this has justice at the heart of it … something was wrong and needed putting right. This is precisely what a relationship with God is all about, not simply religious observance which seeks to keep the status quo.

The strength of Jesus compassionate response is quite clear – leading to Jesus’ whole persona exuding His response. This is more than ‘providing what is necessary’. Echoes of St Ignatius Loyola’s words:

“To give, and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labour, and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will”.

Compassion. Com … PASSION.

In T S Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday he uses the words:

“Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to be still.”

Quite apart from what we may or may not do for others stillness and reflection holds a mirror before our actions. Don’t just ‘provide what is necessary’ but, in order to have a spiritually mature faith, the Christian response needs to be moved by ‘suffering with’. It has to be from my whole being. My spiritual life is fed by my dealings with others. Remember the rich man who had apparently kept all of the commandments and knew something was still missing!

“Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to be still.”

Yes care – ‘provide for what is necessary’ but we need to reflect on whether it is just an act of provision or whether we are moved as a human being spiritually. We need ‘to be still’, to reflect on this, to grow spiritually. We need to come to a place when it is not enough to ‘go through the motions’; we need to seek the Kingdom of God.

It goes without saying that Christians care. Baron von Hugel in a collection of writings entitled ‘Letters to a Niece’ wrote, “Caring is the greatest thing. Christianity taught us to care.”

We take on responsibilities inherent in life and find ourselves assigned to positions in our communities. People show up at these community crossroads lost, discouraged, fatigued, and confused, like the rich man. It is an incredibly challenging place, traffic hurtling this way and that, and there are a lot of accidents, a lot of injuries, and therefore much caring to be done. To ‘suffer with’ people in the real world, taking time to ‘be still’ – “to care but not to care”.

This word care is at the heart of our community traditions. ‘Cura animarum’, the cure of souls, is a phrase which occurs over and over again in Christian history. We have already noted the ‘animarum’ – the animated response of Jesus. Cura combines meanings that have been pulled apart. The word ‘cura’ combines our words cure and care. Cure is nurturing a person towards health; by care is meant being compassionate towards the person in need. Cure requires that we know what we are doing. Care requires that we be involved in what we are doing, we give of ourselves. Applied knowledge is necessary, but it is not enough on its own. Empathy is necessary, but it is not enough. Cura combines both these dimensions, the curing and the caring. And in an animated way – connecting with sorrow, joy, anger, thirst for justice/righteousness. The ‘anima of God’ – the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There is a huge irony here in our own times. We know more about caring than any other generation that has ever lived on the face of the earth. We have more women and men professionally trained in the skills of caring and committed to professional lives of caring, and yet reports come back of poor experiences of people in the hospital, church, with a social worker, at school — a seeming alarming deterioration of care on all fronts.

Instead of being cared for, people sometimes find themselves abused, exploited, organised, bullied, condescended to, ripped off. There is nothing new in this, of course. People in need of care are vulnerable and some, sadly, are abused in that vulnerability. Dante and Chaucer, between them, told the stories that pretty much cover all the failed dimensions in our caring work. It’s not new.

But I want to consider a different aspect of the failure of care. One more endemic to the Christian community, something more subtle and far more likely to involve the well-intentioned than the ill-intentioned. We need to recover the essential sacredness of all of our vocational living, that is, this Christian life as it becomes lived out in the community in relationship to others.

T S Eliot’s conversion to Christianity was a scandal among the cultured despisers of religion, a betrayer of the new religion of sophisticated despair. He worked his emerging Christian faith and hope into new lines of poetry, even more skillfully than he had in his pre-Christian skepticism and despair. He wrote ‘The Wasteland’ proclaiming the death of God and the emptiness of the world. This was converted when he wrote ‘Ash Wednesday’, praying this prayer about broken lives, and weaves them in poetry and prayer into a marvelously, powerful poem. He takes the experience of communities, where we have our being, intersections where all these collisions, accidents and wreckages occur. And our communities can be the shop, the street corner, the workplace, the bedside, anywhere where human life has its’ being.

To be open to God is to be open towards our neighbours. We can only be whole and healthy in so far as we do this. When we are in need, when first-hand experience documents our inability to be whole beings on our own, the first thing that can happen is that we will become more authentically human. Need rips through our self-containment and opens us up to others. Need blows holes in our self-sufficiency and opens us to God.

Our Diocesan Bishop wears a pectoral cross with words from 1 Corinthians 1:25, ‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’. Reminding us that it is in weakness, on the Cross, that God opened up the world.Cross references:

  1. 1 Corinthians 1:25 : S ver 18
  2. 1 Corinthians 1:25 : 2Co 13:4

Compassion. Com … PASSION. To live out our own opening-up to others. To love God and love our neighbour as ourselves requires this ‘suffering with’.

We Christians are scattered through the communities that make up our society, standing on street corners, intersections, all over the place. We are the ones who have a chance to say, “Oh, look! Listen!”

For many years I was inspired by Bishop John Taylor’s monthly articles in the Winchester Diocesan Newspaper. His page was entitled ‘Rose-window’. Rose windows were a feature of gothic architecture with segments of the round window acting as a reminder of the tenants of the Christian faith. However, Bishop John was referring to a particular rose-window in the chapel of the Bishop’s palace when the then Diocese of Winchester extended to the south bank of the Thames in London. Next to the palace was the prison – The Clink. The idea was that by looking at and through the rose-window those in ‘The Clink’ might reform their ways. The phrase began of looking at the world “through rose coloured spectacles”! It was not intended that this would provide a way of seeing the world as we would like it to be, but a way of looking at the world and life as God would have us look.

I want to end by returning to words from T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, as he leads us through prayer and poetry into the rhythms of God’s Creation, a redeemed Creation, a Creation which is always being shaped by the powers of the Cross and a sacrificed Christ working His will in the world. We begin to look around with fresh eyes to see the world and all that is within it through that lens. Perhaps our very own rose-window! He prays …

Teach us to care: Teach us to use all these occasions of need that are the agenda of our lives as access to God, as access to neighbour. Teach us to care by teaching us to pray, to pray so that human need becomes the occasion for entering into and embracing the presence and action of God in this life. Teach us to care by teaching us to pray so that those with whom we come into contact are not less human through our caring but become more human. Teach us to care so that we do not become collaborators in self-centeredness, but rather companions in God-exploration. Teach us to use each act of caring as an act of praying so that this person in the act of being cared for experiences dignity instead of condescension and blessing and healing of God, and not driven further into neurosis and the wasteland of self.

And, teach us not to care: Teach us to be reverential in all these occasions. Teach us humility so that we do not use anyone’s need as a workshop to cobble together makeshift, messianic opportunities that inflates our importance and indispensability. Teach us to be in wonder and adoration before the beauties of Creation and the glories of salvation, especially as they come to us in these humans who have come to think of themselves as violated and degraded and rejected. Teach us not to care so that we have time and energy and space to realise that all we do is done on holy ground and in your holy name. Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still, even among these rocks.

So, to summarise …

Care. We would do well to remember that the Christian tradition talks about ~ the cure of souls - ‘Cura Animarum’. The word ‘cura’ combines words cure and care. Cure requires that we know what we are doing. Care requires that we be involved in what we are doing, we give of ourselves. ‘Animarum’ the root of animated.

Compassion ~ to suffer with. Remember too how the gospels record strong compassionate animated emotions from Jesus ~ from tears to anger.


I am reminded of words from the South American bishop Aldo Moro assassinated in May 1978.

“If I give bread to the poor they call me a saint.
If I ask why the poor are poor, they call me a communist!”

The words of St Ignatius Loyola perhaps pull all these thoughts together. What does it mean to suffer with?

“To give, and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labour, and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will”.

… Caring, Compassion, the restoration of Hope

- signs of the Kingdom of God coming through Love and Justice.