Growing in Empathy
BY ERIN MCDONALD, C.S.J. | September 16, 2019
“He was lost and has been found.” Today’s Gospel reading is rich with images and stories of loss, sin, and separation as well as forgiveness, hope, and love. As I read today’s scripture, I could easily imagine myself in the shoes of each of the characters. I imagined myself as the father who had “lost” his son and the joy he felt at his wayward son’s return. I also imagined myself as each of the sons too because the humanness of their stories probably rings true for many of us. Who hasn’t had experiences of making mistakes that cause hurt or division? Who hasn’t had experiences of feeling overlooked or underappreciated, like the older son?
Jesuit spirituality uses imaginative prayer as a way to enter into scripture in a very powerful and personal way. It invites me to empathize with the lost son because his story brings forth the places in my own life that long for forgiveness and unioning love. It also invites me to rummage for God in my own feelings of resentment and judgment towards others as I imagine myself as the older brother. Imaginative prayer can come with a lot of emotions but it can also come with a lot of graces too.
I believe this style of prayer has helped me to enter more deeply into the experiences of others who are different from myself and to empathize with their stories. As people of faith, we are called to live in solidarity with all of God’s creation and to always strive for a more just and inclusive world. How can I be more empathetic with those who have different political beliefs than myself? Are there places in my heart that need to be forgiven or people whom I need to forgive? If I “lost” a friend or family member would I be as welcoming as the father who’s wayward has returned? Would I leave the ninety-nine to go after the one lost sheep or would I say “good riddance?”
Erin McDonald, CSJ, is a Sister of St Joseph and the university minister for service and social justice at the University of Detroit Mercy. She holds degrees from Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia University, and Loyola University New Orleans. She previously served as director of the Service for Social Action Center at Wheeling Jesuit University, as a humanitarian aid worker for Jesuit Refugee Service in Rwanda, and as a social worker at Freedom House, a shelter in Detroit, Michigan, for survivors of torture and persecution who are seeking asylum in the U.S.
I was particularly struck by the idea of imaginative prayer. I am going to the beach next week and plan to use your reflection to help me gain new focus as I reflect on my life.
Thanks, Sr Erin : ) I love the idea of “rummaging for God in my own feelings.” This flip encourages me to own my responses, recognize judgement, and perhaps embrace discernment. I could imagine creating a quieter Welcome Home celebration amongst the brothers, rather than a feast?
Thanks Sr Erin. Imaginative prayer is indeed uplifting.