I love to find out about words. Where do they come from? What do the roots of words mean in the original languages?
While there are some people who say things like “They’re only words,” I believe that words are important. How we say things matters. It matters how we name people and things, and how we talk about them. Words are precious because they are the ways in which we identify what is important to us.
The phrase “they’re only words” points out that it’s important for our words to be consistent with our actions. That’s especially true in things like the recent election campaign—many of us are suspicious of the promises of those seeking to be elected because we’ve been burned too often.
However, that doesn’t decrease the importance of words. It serves to increase the importance of actions. In my mind, words become even more important when we hold them up against our actions.
Now, I speak and write English fluently. I have a very rough working knowledge of Greek, which is the language of the New Testament. It’s helpful to be able to figure out what the Greek words behind English translations of the Bible really mean. I know very little Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, but I do have some tools which help me work out a bit of what those words mean.
A few years ago, I learned about the Hebrew root of the word “compassion”. As you might imagine, compassion is a very important word in the grammar of faith. I believe that compassion and love are at the heart of Christian faith. This is how God relates with the world. it also describes how we can learn to live together in ways that are whole and healthy for all people. It is an essential trait for people to be truly human.
The English word “compassion” comes from two Latin words, “com” which means “with” and “passio” which means “to suffer”. The Latin root of compassion means to suffer with someone, to be there for and with the other.
But sometimes I wonder if there can be too much compassion. Sometimes we need to let person take responsibility for his or her own growth. Sometimes compassion can be toxic because we shelter people from the consequences of their actions. When has enough compassion been given to a needy person or circumstance?
Here’s where the Hebrew word for compassion becomes very helpful. The Hebrew word is “rechemet”, which comes from the root “rechem” which literally means “womb”.
This word brings to mind a beautiful image of motherhood and all the amazing and miraculous things that happen in a womb: the womb protects the unborn child; it nourishes, cradles, and prepares the fœtus for life. The baby must stay in that warm and nourishing place just the right amount of time before birth. If it stays too long, unhealthy things happen to both baby and mother. It becomes toxic, and dangerous to both, and sometimes emergency surgery must be performed to rescue both baby and mother.
If the baby doesn’t stay long enough, there is the other danger that he or she may not yet be fully formed, and therefore unable to survive in the world, as well as being highly susceptible to diseases.
This helps enrich my understanding of compassion. In the same way that a womb is necessary, so is our compassion a necessary thing. We need to carry a person who is hurting or needy in the womb of our compassion. We can build the person up, nourish and encourage and strengthen him or her.
But too long, and it turns toxic. There comes a time when a person must be released from the womb of compassion and begin to mature on his or her own.
The other thing about this is that it enriches our image of God, who loves the world with a deep and abiding compassion. God’s love for the world is expressed in this feminine image of nurture and gentle caring. It’s one image among many which we need to recapture and emphasize if we are to return to a more wholistic image of God.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican