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 so very important. It matters how we say things, how we name things, how we identify what is important to us. Words are precious that way.
The saying, “They’re only words”, points out just how important it is to ensure that our words remain consistent with our actions. That’s also the sentiment behind the old proverb, “Actions speak louder than words.” And that’s true … but it doesn’t decrease the important of words. It serves to increase the importance of actions.
In terms of words, I speak and write English fluently. I have a 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 don’t know much of the other language of the Bible, which is Hebrew. However, I do have some tools which help me work out what the words in the original language of the Old Testament mean and where they come from.
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 it’s at the heart of Christian faith. It describes God’s relation with the world, and it describes how we can learn to live together in that are whole and healthy for all people. It is an essential trait for us if we wish to live in ways that are truly human.
The English word “compassion” comes from two Latin words, “com” which means “with” and “passio” which means “to suffer”. So the Latin root of compassion means to suffer with someone, to be there for and with the other.
I am a strong proponent of living with that kind of compassion, in which we try to walk in the other’s shoes. But that doesn’t mean that we take on the burdens of another. Compassion can’t be a way in which we shelter people from the consequences of their actions. Rather, we walk with another person as he or she seeks to figure out their own path in life.
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 healthy 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 fœtus stays 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 disease.
This helps enrich my understanding of compassion. We show compassion in the same way as a womb is necessary. We 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.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt