One of the most profound aspects of relationships, and our communication within those relationships, is the ability to empathize with one another–to see others in all of their humanness and seek to understand them. When we interact with the full humanness of another we have no possible alternative response than to empathize with their pain or hardship. We cannot look the other way; we cannot merely offer sympathies or stereotypical responses. This way of “knowing” another may happen in the context of public relationships as well as more intimate ones, and when it occurs it is a soothing balm to wounded humanity.
Martin Buber (20th century Jewish religious philosopher) gets at this concept with what he terms the “I-Thou” approach to relationships and dialogue between ourselves and others. An “I-Thou” approach to relationships (contrary to an “I-It” perspective) views both yourself and others as whole persons.¹ Neither one can be reduced to a caricature or stereotype; neither should be viewed as an object to be manipulated or categorized. Others are whole beings, just as the self is a whole being; and all human beings’ thoughts, emotions, and experiences are worthy of consideration. In short, Buber is emphasizing that true relationships (existing with others) and true dialogue (communicating with others) means that we cannot objectify another person; we have to know them with an empathetic love. At least that is the primary call of Christianity — to respond to God’s empathic love for us and love others that way in return.
Many who are resistant to the Christian faith will often cite the problem of pain in the world. They (usually for significant reasons) cannot grasp how a God who supposedly loves us would allow pain and evil into our lives. The problem of pain is not one I wish to tackle today, and others have certainly done a far superior job to anything I could say on the subject.² Instead, realizing that pain and evil do wound us, I would offer that the Christian faith and tradition provides a soothing balm — the grace of the empathy of Christ and His Blessed Mother. When in relationship with both of them we can experience being known by two people who have suffered the like of any pain we will ever experience.
Monday, on the Catholic liturgical calendar, was the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. It was a day for memorializing and reflecting on the sacrifice of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her sorrow at the foot of the cross that held her beloved son. The day before, Sunday, was The Exultation of the Holy Cross, a reminder to Christians of the instrument on which Christ was sacrificed for the world. As I reflect on these sequential memorials, I cannot help but notice the amazing grace that is symbolized in the picture of Christ on the cross looking down at his mother. The grace to us — the moving realization to me — is that we have been offered a relationship with Christ (and with his mother) that embodies perfect empathy.
What is the worst pain or evil that has been inflicted on you personally? Whatever it is, Christ has experienced its equal. He empathizes; He knows you in that pain. In fact the only thing worse (to me) than such personal pain would be to witness such pain inflicted on the one(s) you loved the most. Have you lost a child? Have you walked with a spouse through a ravaging disease that finally ended that dear one’s life? Mary knows you in that pain. She watched her son be nailed to a cross and stood there until the end. She can intercede for you with empathy. We may never be satisfied as to why such horrible pain exists in the world, but by divine grace we may be consoled; we may be soothed. We have been offered a relationship with a God, and his mother, who know our pain intimately.
Even if you are a Protestant, and you do not venerate Mary by the Catholic practices or ask for her intercession, realize that the Saint of all saints in heaven has walked the most lonely road too. Perhaps you haven’t considered whether the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that have gone before us to the Father intercede for us to Him. Maybe you have, but you haven’t thought of what kind of relationship we have with them through prayer. Because of my Catholic faith, I am consoled that not only am I loved empathetically by Christ, I am prayed for empathetically by Mary (and all the saints). All I need do is to ask for her intercession on my behalf; for she knows my pain and the needs of my heart. Hopefully, this grace imparted to me will help me to better love others and seek to know them with the same empathy.
1. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937).
2. See, as one example, C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1944).