An ancient Jewish tradition speaks of the Lamed Vov, thirty-six hidden Just Men upon whom the continued existence of the world depends. They are indistinguishable from other human beings except for the heartbreaking depth of their caring. When one of them dies, another has to take his place, for only so long as these thirty-six Just Men exist, just so long will God allow the world to continue to exist.
A young boy was informed by his grandfather that one of the Lamed Vov has just died and that he has to take his place. He can soon expect to attain the glow that is the aura of his coming ascendancy. The boy was bewildered as to what he should do. The old man assures him that he need only be himself. The boy worries about his role and fantasizes doing tortures and self-sacrifices, starting with holding his breath as long as he can and holding a match to his hand.
The old man teaches the boy that a Just Man need not pursue suffering. It will be there for him as it is for each human being. He need only be open to the suffering of others, knowing that he cannot change it. He must let himself experience their pain so that they need not suffer alone. This will change nothing for human beings, but it will make a difference to God.
Later that day, the boy catches a fly whose life he held in the hollow of his hand. He knew a sudden sympathy for the terror and the trembling of the fly. When the fly’s anguish became his own as well, the young boy became one of the Just Men. Setting the fly free, he suddenly feels the glow of the Lamed Vov.
It is only when we have evolved to be human beings with a heartbreaking depth of compassion that we can love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Matthew 5:48 says: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but Luke 6:36 reads “merciful.” In Luke, since the very character of God is compassion, Jesus commanded his disciples to live lives of a totally different quality, lives characterized by a caring that would surpass even those of their religious leaders.
Jesus widened the obligation of Jewish law with powerful images of generosity. He invited his disciples to move beyond ordinary boundaries, to transcend their nature and reach out with his message of reconciliation even to adversaries and rivals. A disciple’s ultimate goal is to serve, to think about others ahead of oneself in order to bring his or her relationships to God’s intended purpose.
Pray for those who persecute you
When the scavengers in Smokey Mountain marched and rallied to force the government to close the garbage dump and provide them with medium-rise housing, people with vested interests organized other scavengers to ask for a house and lot for each family. The area of the dumpsite would not have been enough for the 5,000 families for their kind of housing program. And the prices of the units would have been astronomical. They persisted, although they were a tiny minority.
I tried to explain, but they held rallies against me in the office of my Provincial Superior and in the house of His Eminence, Jaime Cardinal Sin. The opponents of the housing program lambasted me in tabloids and newspapers, saying all kinds of nasty things. I had to go to court and sue them. Our lawyers won the suit and the Justice of the Peace trying the case ordered them to make a public apology in writing. They smiled and shook hands with me, and going around with their big Bibles in hand, went on to destroy me continuously.
In hindsight, I knew I should have lived out compassion more, not going to court, and not worrying about the injustice done to me. I should have lived out the patience and forbearance in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and most of all by the Nazarene, but I have not yet evolved to the depth of caring of the Lamed Vov.
Compassion and Hope
As the scavenger families were being transferred to temporary relocation sites, the other group fought the police with stones and homemade pistols. During the melee, one of the leaders of our Basic Ecclesial Communities tried to save the recyclables he had gathered from the trash heaps. Ric Villorente took refuge in the chapel during the violent confrontation and was hit in the nape by a stray bullet. With spirit crushed, I celebrated his funeral Mass. Then I suddenly realized that I became a little less unworthy, because of the pain I experienced, to pronounce the words of consecration, “This is my body broken for many…”
Compassion, according to Sophie Scholl, who fought the Nazis in a non-violent way, is often difficult and soon becomes hollow, if one feels no pain oneself.
Pain can be a form of prayer and a profound source of insight and conversion. Sorrow can be a way of worship, a path where a person can be drawn more deeply into the mystery of the Trinity’s redeeming compassion masquerading as pain, loss or failure. These can help hollow out our hearts so that we will be indistinguishable from others except by the heartbreaking depth of our compassion, even towards our adversaries and rivals.
If enough of us can pay the price for compassion and mercy in blood and tears, there will be hope for this nation in peril.