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3. The Catherines — Portraits of Compassion

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This article is an edited transcript of Susie Hawkins’ audio message on Passionate Faith. Appreciation for the transcription work goes to Deborah Jones.


Maybe you saw the news, about a young woman named Cyd who works with a humanitarian group in Afghanistan. She was just taken hostage a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan. I saw it in the Sunday paper. She is a Christian. She works with a humanitarian group there in Afghanistan. I have been following that story. There was an interesting news release which said that last week, in the city where she was, 500 women fully clothed in their burkas protested her kidnapping with signs and with songs! That is pretty amazing in Afghanistan. For women to take to the street and protest the kidnapping of this woman— who they considered to be someone there just to help them in working with the people of Afghanistan—is quite extraordinary. So if you would, pray for her. Her name is Cyd, and I am sure if you go to, ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ website (I am not saying she is a martyr, and I hope she’s not going to be one!) but they may have information on her if you want to keep up and pray for her.

This brings us to our topic today, as we talk about, “Passionate Faith on Display.” Let me remind you where we were. We are in our minds, visiting an art gallery, and the visiting exhibit is called, “Passionate Faith on Display”, and we are walking through the hallway of this art gallery. We are looking at portraits of significant women, whose lives, ministries, and contributions to the church legacy and to Christian history, have made a difference and a significant impact in our own story, in who we are. There are so many of these women to choose from. We have such a heritage. I grieve over the fact that I think in many free churches or traditional Bible churches we do not emphasize these people. We do not know who they are, and so we do not know anything about them. But, they are our spiritual mentors from afar. They teach us something. They show us the way. They have a testimony, a witness to give to us, and show us something through their lives.

So we are looking at these women, what they did, what was so important, and what was their significant contribution. Then we are looking at Christ, what he did, and seeing what the New Testament tells us that we need to likewise do as we follow those examples. So today I’m talking about two women, and I’m going to have to talk really fast, because I could not decide between the two. So, you know how it is, you cannot really decide between two dresses at Dillard’s, so what do you do? You buy both! So that is what I’m doing. I know you understand that reasoning.

So, I’m doing the Catherine’s today. Two women that lived about 500 years apart, but who were so similar in their lives and their calling. The first one is Catherine of Sienna, the second one Catherine Booth. Now the Catherine’s were portraits in compassion. They were noted for their compassionate work among the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, and the uneducated. They were taking their time, their ministries, risking their health—as we will see— to minister to the helpless, to those who could give nothing back to them. I think it’s interesting that when we look at the lives of these women, we see that people were so drawn to them. And I was reading over their stories, it reminded me of why people were so drawn to Jesus. Why? Because of his compassion, and his empathy, and he would stop and talk to the lowest of persons. The most insignificant person that had no ranking in that culture of that day, he would stop and talk to and listen. He was known for his compassion. So, I want us to think today about compassion.


Now usually when we think about compassion, we think of when they would have all those commercials on television about feed the children. They would show the babies with the big stomachs and the flies on their faces. You remember that. It’s just so awful to look at, and you want to look away, because it just so awful. It would bring feelings of pity and sorrow, and then they would have the number for you to call. But, compassion is more than just empathy. The best definition that I read says that it is more than feeling sorrow or pity for someone, it is empathy in action. It is feelings of sorrow and grief, and pity, but then that results in action. It is not just saying “that is so awful,” and turning around and walking off. When you think about Jesus, isn’t that what He did every time? I challenge you, if do not believe me, to look in your concordance under compassion. I found 5 or 6 instances where Jesus, the scripture says, was moved with compassion. He felt compassion. He saw them and he felt compassion. And every time he felt compassion, something happened. He did something. He preached a message to them. He performed a miracle. He stopped and ministered to them in some way. His feelings of compassion did just not end there with “oh, that’s so sad.” His feelings of compassion ended with some kind of action. That is what we see in the Catherine’s today, and I think that is our challenge.

Now compassion doesn’t come easily to everyone. You know, not everyone has just the “bleeding heart,” as we say. I have two daughters, and the older one is very black and white, get to the point, bossy, you know, just not emotional. The second one is just big hearted, soft hearted, you know, just feel sorry for everybody and everything. Well I remember one day, years ago, sitting at the table. I was telling them a story of a friend of mine whose daughter had gotten into bad, bad trouble with drugs and the wrong crowd. It was really a heart breaking story. I was sitting there telling this story. My younger daughter, she had these big brown eyes, and she had these tears just spilling out. She said, “what are we going to do? What are we going to do? How can we help her?” I look over at my other daughter, who was sitting stolidly. She said. “it is her own fault. She has no one to blame but herself. I do not know why I have to do something.” So we had a little lecture on compassion. So, I do recognize that compassion doesn’t come easily to everybody. Yet I want to tell you that it is a sign of the Christ-life. So if you do not naturally have it you need to cultivate it. You need to work on that in your life, because it is characteristic that Christ had. These women had it, and it is part of seeing people as God sees people. I think that is a good definition of compassion also: seeing others as God see them. Not with presuppositions, or prejudices, or biases, or “it is their own fault”— but seeing them for their own condition.

Catherine of Sienna

Now, these two women were known for their work among the poor. Catherine of Sienna was born in Tuscany Italy in 1347. She was the 24th child out of 25 children. Yes, people think about that for a while! She was born into the middle class, during a time when there was a transition from a feudal society to an “economic democracy” so to speak. It was a time of a lot of social upheaval. Let me say something about these women, and really all the women we talk about. I think when you study historical figures like this, you find some odd things that they did. You know, some things that are very much out of our tradition that we do not understand. Especially Catherine of Sienna, she had some weird stuff, she was a mystic. She was a medieval mystic. These people that had vision and raptures and going into ecstasy. They would always want to identify with the sufferings of Christ. They would focus on self denial and self deprivation to an extent you and I could not imagine. But my point is that I just want to tell you what they did. This is what their life was like. This is what they did within the context of their time. She was a real mystic. When she was age 7, she felt that she had a visitation from the Holy Spirit, and she announced her determination to have a religious life. She did not want to marry or have children. Her parents tried to persuade her differently, but she would not do it. She had this familiar image you will often see of medieval mystics: going into raptures or ecstasy during prayer and seeing visions of Christ. She would write a lot of these experiences down. She wrote a book called ‘Dialogues,’ in which she recorded a lot of her mystical visions.

Editor’s Note: It should be noted Scripture gives the standard by which to examine all things. Anything that contradicts Scripture will lead one astray from truth. This we may— and need to— be discerning about.

But the interesting thing about Catherine, is that even though she would live alone in a little house, and deprive herself of food and sleep and all of these other things, that is not all she did. She did not just devote her life to contemplation or to activity— but to both. So she would have these experiences, but they always led her to service. That is one reason I like her. She did not just stay by herself for 25 years, and not have anything to do with anybody. All of her experiences drove her to minister to the poor and the sick. She had her theology, basically, had 3 points. Her big thing was truth, virtue and love. This is what she preached and taught wherever she went, serving the poor.

She took the 3rd way. You did not really go into a convent. There were form orders. But you could preach to people and you could perform services. She directed at home, and she learned to read and write with another priest, who taught her to read and write. For four years, the first four years that she did this, she dedicated her life to serving the poor and the oppressed.

Now, four years later Europe was hit by the black death, or the bubonic plague. This you may remember from world history was one of the worst scourges of the earth. One third of the population of the world was killed, from Iceland to India. It started with a flea that was probably on the back of a rat that came into port in Italy, and it just spread like wild fire. Because you are eating lunch, I am not going to tell you all the details, but the symptoms were: headaches, aches, rapid pulse, slurring of speech, fatigue, apathy, swelling of lymph nodes, tissues would swell causing hemorrhaging, collapse of the nervous system, terrible pain, and then in the last stage your skin would blacken. That is why it was called black death. This quote was given by a historian: “People went to bed healthy and would be found dead in the morning.”

Priest and doctors who came to care for the sick would contact the plague with a single touch and die sooner than the person they had come to help! Because of that you can see why people were so hesitant to visit. Would you not be as well? Yes. They did not know what to do, because even the slightest contact was so contagious. But Catherine miraculously was able to—truly miraculously—avoid this illness. For several years she worked among the poor and the dying of the black plague. She said, “I built myself an inner cell in my soul, where I would minister from that place, and somehow God gave me the grace to not see the awful physical condition and the smell.” Somehow she was able to hold peoples’ hands while they were dying. There was one account that said, that she would just go all day long just holding peoples’ hands or heads in her hands until they died. She would then put them down, cover their face and go to the next one. Somehow she did this while eighty thousand people died in that outbreak of the plague. There were other outbreaks. She lost her sister, brother, and eight nieces and nephews. She would go without food, drink, and sleep for days to minister in the smallest way to the sick and dying. She would be praying over them and holding their hands until they died.

But interestingly enough her concern for the physical and emotional well-being of people was not just limited to the physical but of course to the spiritual. She understood, that while it was so important to alleviate suffering here in the world, what was more important was a person’s spiritual destiny. That was more important than even their physical needs. So her love for others, her compassion for their poverty of spirit, for their sick and poverty stricken lives, drove her to serve in a way of preaching. She would go on crusades, and that’s what they called them. Just remember in the terminology of the day, the middle ages, crusades were very accepted. That was a very accepted term to go and “preach a crusade.” She was given permission by the priest in her local area to go. She went on a crusade to Pisa Italy. She would go to places and crowds would gather because they had heard of her. She would talk about Christ and presented the plan of salvation. She was unafraid of that bold witness.

Not only that, but she was also known for her reforms, pushing for reforms in the church. Now this was just prior to the reformation. There had been a big schism in the Catholic church where there were actually two capitols, two Vatican’s, if you want to call it that. The French government got involved—there was no separation of state and church, remember. So they had moved “Rome,” or the head of the Catholic church to France. So there was about 40 years where you had these two sides warring. You had Rome and France arguing. This is Catholic history, and I do not understand it.... Except that she just went off on this, and she would write these letters. You should read these letters. She is saying, these people are poor and dying yet you are taxing them to death! You are taking money for indulgences, and they do not have money to feed their children. She just was relentless. These men would write her letters back and say, basically, “shut up, you are a woman, go away”, and she would not do it. She just kept on, and there are records of her. You can read her letters and her writings challenging the Pope, saying “What are you doing up there in France? Get back down here! We got things to do besides your petty little power plays and your arguments.” She criticized the churches expenditures for luxuries that were paid by the taxation of the poor. She condemned the vices of all the immorality that was going on. She prayed and worked for justice. She was criticized for meddling in church affairs, and she was criticized for promoting missions. She told them you need to get home and instead of having your arguments about that, we need to start a work over in this area of the city where no one is ministering to the poor. We need to do this. She was a ball of fire. She was known as a reformer as well as a women. Why could she say all that, and why did people listen to her? Because she had gained her credibility by ministering to the poor. She was not too important to minister in this way. I love that. I love, love, love that. Her service was the platform for her ministry for spiritual needs. It was the platform for ministering to the spiritual needs of people around her.

I want to read you one of her prayers that she prayed in her journal. It is just one of her daily prayers of her quiet time. And tell me if you could not pray this yourself today.

“Oh Holy Spirit come into my heart, drawn by thy power to thee, true God. Grant me love with fear of thee. Guard me from evil thought. Warm me and enflame me with thy love. Holy my father and sweet my Lord. Help me now in all my labors. Christ you are loved, Christ you are loved.”

That’s Catherine of Sienna, really an amazing woman, who had compassion not only on peoples physical needs but their spiritual as well.

Catherine Booth

Now about 500 years later another Catherine came on the scene, Catherine Booth. Who is known as the mother of the Salvation Army. She was born in 1829 in England. She had Christian parents, and married William Booth who was a preacher. They established the Salvation Army. They felt the calling to the poor. He was a pastor, and they would go out to teach, preach, and pray among the poor and lowly. Then they would invite them into the church. There is this story about one day when he was preaching at the church. One of the church leaders got up to him and said, “We need to stop these undesirable from coming into our church, it is a very nice church and we just do not need those people.” William started to answer, but Catherine was on the front row of the balcony. She stood up and she held her fist up and said, “Never, never, never will we ever deny anyone access into the church of Jesus Christ because they are undesirable!” And she said to one of her friends sitting next to her, “the more I see of fashionable religion, the more I despise it.” Oh, I love that woman! She was strong. After a few years William decided he would not mess with the church. They never did come around to understanding his ministry. They wanted to start an itinerate ministry which concerned her on how they were going to live. They had eight children. Eight children who all went into the ministry.

God provided and they worked together to establish the Salvation Army. I wish you all could read these stories about Catherine Booth, and these women of the temperance movement. This is around the temperance movement time too. They would just go into these bars. And remember this was London, and there were no child labor laws. There were no Labor Unions. Women would work 12 hours a day. Children would work. Conditions were horrible. There was such a peasant poor class. Alcoholism was rampant because of the misery of their lives.

These women like Catherine Booth, her women of the Salvation Army and these other women of the Temperance movement would walk into bars with their Bibles. They would stand in front of the table, as if God had come right there, and read the scriptures to these drunk men. And, say “You bums, you’ve got a wives, you’ve got children, they’re poor, they’re hungry!” They had no fear. You want to talk about not afraid to offend. They were not afraid to offend.

William Booth came up with, as some people have called it, a social reconstruction plan for a nation. England was just burdened with alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, and families that were split and uneducated. This man was a visionary like few other men. Catherine was the intellectual one. She was trained in theology and philosophy. She gave the movement its theological and philosophical basis. They liked the army terms. Here again that is not something we would use today, but that was big in their day. The had military terms, like the “Salvation Army,” the General, and the Captain. They had crusades. They had drills. All of their organization was structured around those terms.

One of her interest was reclaiming the lives of women from lives of prostitution. Over a period of something like 10 years, they gathered over 350,000 signatures on a petition to the British Parliament to outlaw prostitution and the slave trade for these poor girls. Just like today these girls had no future. They are taken and sold into slavery. She worked tirelessly to end the white slave trade. She worked for labor laws for women. There were factories where women did the same amount of work, but were paid half the amount of men. Imagine such a thing.

One of the big things for all the poor people were match factories that would make matches. They would work with phosphorous . Apparently you’d dip the end of the match in phosphorous. Well it is very, very, very poisonous and lethal. These people that worked in these factories would contract these horrible diseases, I am telling you, it sounds worst than the black plague. I do not even want to tell you, it is so awful. The cancer, and the illness, the distortion of the neck and the face, and bones, that would happen to these people. She and William decided. We can think of something better than that! They came up with an alternative way to make matches. They started their own factory. Somehow they managed to pay the women as much as they did the men, and they did not use phosphorous. Not only that, but they advertised about how detrimental the phosphorous was to the health of the women. They put the old match factory out of business. Do you not just love it? It is so great. They had no fear and no end to the means they would go to, to alleviate the suffering of others.

Interestingly enough, that the Salvation Army was one of the few large institutions that welcomed women preachers. I have to say that, just because I think it so interesting. They would separate on Sunday morning. William Booth would go one way, she would go the other. They would gather crowds and they would preach the gospel.

When they came to America, William Booth chose seven women. He called them his splendid seven. Seven women that he thought could bring, and they did, the Salvation Army to America to get it organized. When they were getting on the ship to go over he prayed, “Lord, these ladies are going to America to preach the gospel. If they have fully given their lives to thee, be with them and bless them and grant them success. If they are not going to be faithful, just drown them.” (Laughter) I do not know how those ladies felt about that prayer! Hmm, better catch up on my quiet time. He said my best men are women. He was unafraid, he saw no difference there.

Conclusion: Amos, the Law, the Good Samaritan and Us

Here is the thing I loved about these women. Both of them married compassion for the poor with compassion for spiritual darkness. They did both. What a testimony. They had no fear ministering to the poor and no fear in proclaiming the gospel and the truth of the word of God. They cared for physical needs and spiritual needs.

Now what does the Bible tell us. I am sure you know, the Bible set such a precedence on this, as far as compassion. In the Old Testament, Amos was a minor prophet. He was just a farmer. He was a nobody. Yet God chose him to be a prophet at a time when Israel was at its lowest ebb. There was terrible sexual idolatry and sin. There was exploitation of the poor. There was extreme taxation. It was truly one of the darkest times in Israel’s history. Amos’ message was justice and compassion. That was his message. We do not have time to read some of the scriptures. However, on some of the things he was quite hard on. To people that would exploit the needy, he bluntly said, “You oppress the poor and you crush the needy.”

In Hebrew law, we see compassion in the law in Leviticus. The Hebrew word, “chesed” which we translate usually loving-kindness, mercy, or compassion has this idea. Translators say there is so much in that word it hard to find one English word that describes it. Mercy, loving kindness, compassion, all is tied up in that word, “chesed.” Remember in Leviticus, (I am sure you all quite caught up on your civil laws in Leviticus…). But if you remember there were always laws for the poor. When people would glean in their fields, you leave a little for the poor. When you would pick the grapes from the vineyard, you leave a little bit for the poor. You know the interesting thing I noticed in these laws was that there was simply “this is what you do to care for the poor.” There was never any statement about “did they deserve it or not?” There is never any statement on whether they deserved it or not. It is just, the poor you will always have with you, and it is our job to care for them— whether they deserve it or not.

Jesus all through the gospel was moved with compassion. He even taught the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember the rich young ruler who came to him? The man who said, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus said, let me tell you a story. Then He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saying this is the neighbor: a neighbor is anyone nearby. It is someone who is right there in front of you. In contrast, they were thinking, “We are the people. So the ones I need to help are the people that look like me.”

I read an interesting story last night. I wish I had time to do it today, but it was on a contemporary telling of the good Samaritan. Basically it went like this. We all understand that story and think, “we cannot believe the Priest and the Levite went by the man who was beat up and about to die on the side of the road!” Then a Samaritan came by and took care of him. But to them it is as if I tell a story for us and I say. A man was dying on the side of the road, and a Baptist preacher and a professor from an evangelical seminary walked by him and said, “I have a meeting to go to.” Then an atheist stopped, and got out of the car and said, “:somebody’s got to do something!” Then shepherds him and puts him in his car and takes him to the local emergency room. Now would that get your attention? Yeah, that is what Jesus was saying. He was saying it is our job to care for those who are near us, our neighbor. It is this command we have. James tells us:

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the father, is to visit the orphans and widows of this world in their trouble, and keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27)

Remember this. He goes on to say, If a brother or sister is naked or hungry, do not just pat them on the back and say, “Well, bless you! Have a good day!” No. It is pity plus action. Give them something to eat. Give them something to wear.

Let me tell you this as we conclude. You cannot meet every physical need of people. There is no way. Of all the Christian charities there are in the world, we cannot even begin to meet all the needs. But I would challenge you to ask yourself, ask the Lord to show you if you are not involved in any kind of ministry like that. What can you do, a little, just right now. You personally.

I’ve found a great outlet for that in World Vision. I just went to an exhibit last week on AIDS, children with AIDS, whose parents have died of AIDS. Whether it is that, or whether it is a church benevolence ministry, let us find something.

I have a friend that we travel with sometime, and he would always stop and give beggars on the road some money, a dollar, no matter what. People in our group would say, “Do not give that to them. You know, they are alcoholics.” But, he would wait until everybody was not looking. After a few times, he was kind of rebuked. I would notice him lagging behind. He would hand them some money. So, I told him I will be your beggar alert. I will see the beggars, and I will alert you so you can get your money out. This last year we went to Israel, we did that. Just thinking about him, that was a good example to me. I do not know why they are poor and they are beggars. Maybe they are sick and alcoholic. I do not know, but you know that is not my job to fix them. All I know is that they are hungry and they need money, and God knows. You know what? God knows.

However, I think our challenge is also to realize. It is not just enough to minister and have pity on their poverty or their needs, but also on their spiritual needs. Sometimes compassion is not just to the poor of the world that are dying and uneducated and all of that. It might just be the person in the cubicle next to you, who needs some compassion. They need somebody to extend a little grace, a little understanding, a little kindness their way. Compassion is not just reserved for the poor and the needy. Sometimes I think we can romanticize that. There is something we can do with the people that are nearby, our neighbors.

Related Topics: Comfort, Messages, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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