November 4, 2013
To be an empath is to be able to feel what others feel. Literally. A lot has been written about this phenomenon in recent years, often by New Agers who think it is some kind of psychic phenomenon. I couldn’t find any reputable scientific studies on it, but rather lots of anecdotal evidence for its existence.
Mothers often say that they are connected to their children and know if something is wrong, even over long distances, and vice versa. Some people can’t serve in the medical profession because they feel the pains of the ill in their own bodies unless they turn away and block it. Watching surgeries on TV is not an option. Watching people receive injections is out of the question. The worst part is feeling the emotions an abused person, child or adult, feels. The fear, anger, confusion, despair, and desperateness, the turmoil and anguish of someone who is or has been victimized are much more than words on a page or audio waves in the air to an empath as I’ve seen the term applied.
Some people might think empaths are crazy, but being crazy and being highly empathetic are not synonymous. If that were the case, we would have to consider that Jesus was not alright in the head, and that is not a possibility except in the eyes of a cold, hard, selfish world. Being an empath, or having a high degree of empathy for the suffering of others, is actually an aid to fraternal charity and to fulfilling the second Great Commandment. It is a great natural gift given to some for the supernatural good of others.
In meditation #64 of Divine Intimacy Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, O.C.D. writes:
Although Jesus was God, He did not hold Himself aloof from men. He willed to feel and experience all their needs, even their temptations, “without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
He shared with them a life of privation, fatigue, painful poverty, and suffering. Therefore, if we wish to attain to an effective fraternal charity, we must feel the sorrows, the poverty, and the material and spiritual needs of our neighbor; we must feel these in order to sympathize with him, help him, and even share in his trials.
We must sacrifice ourselves, our ease and comfort, in order to give ourselves to others. We shall be able to do this only if our love for our neighbor resembles the love of Jesus, that is, if it springs from our love of God. Only one who loves others for the love of God will have that strong, persevering, fraternal charity which never fails.
In other words, we must have the characteristics of an empath in order to imitate Jesus. Whether we come by these qualities by nature or by grace, we must apply them for the Kingdom. We cannot shrink from stink, dirt, filth, and neglect our brothers and sisters may live in. We cannot shrink from their pain even when they themselves are the cause of it. We cannot shrink from the unloved who have no notion of what love is and present themselves most unloveably. Otherwise, we are not walking in the footsteps of our Lord and we cannot bring Christ to them.
No one can ever be a better example of an empath to us than Jesus, because He is so intimately connected with the creation made in the image and likeness of Himself. That’s us. Personally. Not a generic mankind.
His Sacred Heart burns with a love for each of us beyond our comprehension, no matter how intensely we have loved another human being. He is there beside us in every kind of suffering, even in our sinning and when others sin against us. We can hide nothing from Him. He is always reaching out to us, asking us to turn to Him, to convert, to enjoy the peace He gives us even in our misery. He is consistent, never changing in His love. He became sin on that cross, bore the suffering of all times and every person in his body and died for each of us. That is how we must be to others.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote that we are the hands feet, and body of Jesus. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, while seeing the suffering and dying in the streets of Calcutta, saw Jesus in them and thus, in herself, brought Jesus to them. It was the only possible answer she could give to Love that called to her from the gutters and byways. Any other response would have been unthinkable to one committed to God.
It seems to me that all the saints have been unselfish empaths who imitated Jesus no matter the cost. The quality of empathy was supernaturalized in them by grace, enabling them to do great things for God in the imitation of Christ, whether those things were hidden from the world during their lifetimes as with St. Therese of Lisieux or whether they were in full view of the world as with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The suffering in this world they lifted up to God, all the while realizing they could only do so much, and that little only by His power. They were not crazy people, but eminently sane.
If we have been given the gift of being a natural empath, we should not shrink from it because it is too troublesome or painful, inconvenient or uncomfortable. Rather, we should direct its use by the grace of God toward the salvation of souls, following His will for us grounded in Truth, which is Christ. That is a journey of many steps, scraped knees, and broken bones. Ultimately, though, it can be a way God uses us to make us and others saints. In that we can find peace.
If we are not natural empaths, as we get deeper and deeper into a relationship with Christ, we will develop by grace the ability to share the suffering of others in our being. We will find in that the special contribution God is asking of us to bring souls to Him. When we bring souls to Him, we share in the peace and joy of all the saints. No earthly good or honor we might have bestowed on us can trump a single soul we bring to the Lord and whom we will share eternity with.
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