The Empathetic Spirit

A great deal has been written about empathy from a psychological point of view, particularly in the effort to distinguish it from sympathy.  Far less has been written about its spiritual dimension.

On that score, arguably the etymology of the word remains an important clue to its spiritual significance.  From the Greek preposition en or “in” and the noun, pathos or passion, empathy refers to the capacity to “feel into” or even “suffer into” the experience of another.

It becomes instantly clear that to have an empathetic spirit is to enter into the same spirit that animates the Incarnation of Christ.  In fact, the empathetic human being could be said to extend the benefits of the Incarnation by becoming the hands and feet of Christ.

The example of Christ also serves as a means of testing whether we are being genuinely empathetic.  Certain behaviors obviously fail that test.

When we are self-referential and parade our efforts to be empathetic, we obviously fail the test.  When we wax long and eloquently about the way in which the pain we inflict on others saddens us, we obviously fail the test.  When the focus is on the feelings we experience in the act of being empathetic, or when we limit our care for others to the expression of sorrow for someone else, we also fail.

In other words, the deeply spiritual and empathetic human being enters into the pain of someone else — often completely unseen and unrecognized.  And they do it at an expense to themselves.  It is not a performance.  It is a way of living.

Even the person for whom we care in that deeply sacrificial fashion may not be able to identify the gift that they have been given.  But embraced by the One who enters fully into our struggles, we deepen our acquaintance with God and bless one another.

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