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Compassionate Love: Learning Love from Trappist Monks

Lynn Underwood

From cognitive psychology to Trappist Monks, Dr. Lynn Underwood investigates the meaning of compassionate love.

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
April 25, 2019

We give love, we receive love: It has a flowing quality. Let’s think for a moment about compassionate love: sustaining, up-building love. Not only does this refer to compassion for those who are suffering, but also to love that helps the loved one to flourish. This love can happen with strangers as well as in families, marriages and romantic relationships, and with friends.

One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of this kind of love is, “To set aside one’s own agenda for the sake of, to strengthen, or to give life to the other.” This kind of love centers on the good of the other. It’s the kind of love that feels so good to be on the receiving end of good in a lasting way, one that sticks to the ribs and doesn’t give indigestion. It is a caring love that has a weight, a nourishing quality. To be loved when it is the choice of the other person, and at some cost emotionally or physically, can make a special impact. It is this kind of love, that many call compassionate love, that I would like to focus on here.

Defining Compassionate Love

My work in the area of love has needed to speak to those of many faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists. I developed a framework that would enable scientists to contribute to our understanding of compassionate love. In that context, I developed a working definition and a model in 1999, and this has continued to be useful over the years as many different kinds of scientists do research in the area, and try to communicate that work in a way that will speak to many kinds of people, and engage with other disciplines.

There are 5 key aspects of the definition.

  1. Some element of free choice
  2. Some degree of cognitive understanding of the situation and of self
  3. Fundamentally valuing the other
  4. Openness and receptivity (for example, to the love of God—here is where grace comes in)
  5. A response of the heart (heart defined as “core” where emotions and cognition integrate) 

“But to be respected in the midst of the imperfections of being human, to be known for who you are and still valued, can enable you to truly flourish.”

1. Free Choice

Some element of Free choice for the other. Free choice, although limited by biological, social, environmental, and cultural factors, is a vital component of compassionate love. When we reflect on being loved in this way by another, it is often the fact that the other person made the deliberate choice to “love” rather than to “be indifferent” that touches our hearts. For example, much altruistic behavior in parenting results simply from instinctual or ingrained responses to the child’s need. To cuddle a smiling baby may be instinctual, to stay up through the night with a baby with colic takes us beyond the instinctual response, to choose to give of oneself for the ultimate good of the other.

2. Cognitive Understanding of the Situation

Some degree of accurate cognitive understanding of the situation, the other, and oneself is another feature of compassionate love. This includes understanding one’s self—one’s natural inclinations and limits. It also includes understanding something of the needs and feelings of the person to be loved, and what might be appropriate to truly enhance the other’s well-being. Again, in a parenting situation, a parent will frequently impose his or her own notion of the child’s good on the child. While this is obviously unavoidable when dealing with infants and small children, an important element of compassionate love in parenting involves allowing increasing space for the child or adolescent to choose his or her own notion of the good. And it is also important for the parent to have an accurate perception of their own personality and tendencies that they might need to recognize, such as feelings of jealousy.

3. Valuing the Other

The third definitional feature is valuing the other at a fundamental level. Some degree of respect for the other person is necessary to articulate love rather than pity in situations of suffering, and to enable one to visualize how to enhance human flourishing. People do not generally like to be pitied, although help in those circumstances is usually better than no help at all. To be pitied does not elevate us as human beings. But to be respected in the midst of the imperfections of being human, to be known for who you are and still valued, can enable you to truly flourish. This attitude of respect and valuing also protects the giver some from delusions of superiority, which may get in the way of their love being ultimately centered on the good of the other. 

4. Openness and Receptivity

Openness and receptivity is the fourth aspect of the definition. Although specifically religious inspiration is not a necessary component of compassionate love as it has been used in research, there is an “inspired” quality of this kind of love for many people. The definition of compassionate love needs to leave room for this kind of divine input or open receptive quality that many feel is a central feature of this kind of love. In a religiously diverse group that I interviewed in the inner city of Chicago, for many it was only “grace” that enabled love to emerge in the midst of difficulties.

5. Response of the Heart

And finally, Response of the “heart” is necessary. The word heart, here refers to “coeur” or the core of one’s being. Some kind of heart-felt, affective quality is usually part of this kind of attitude or action. Not that everyone will feel gushing emotion when giving compassionate love to another, but some sort of emotional engagement seems to be needed to love fully in an integrated way. Motivation and decision-making rely on both cognitive and affective, emotional, dimensions. Moral decision-making has been seen in empirical studies to involve affective as well as cognitive areas of the brain and body.

And this compassionate love can even be directed towards ourselves, when we think of ourselves as an ‘other,’ when we truly want what is essential in us to flourish rather than our more superficial agendas, when we treat ourselves like we would treat a beloved friend.

What we do, our attitudes, shape our character, form us. So by loving, and allowing love to flow, we are transformed. And on the other hand, when we distain or reject or intentionally harm others, not only do we do harm, but our character changes in the process, deteriorating, becoming distorted, and impeding our flourishing. These attitudes and actions also impair our capacity to perceive divine love and mercy and better understand what is ultimately real.

Trappist Monks on Compassionate Love

I have done many interviews over the years on experiences of compassionate love. But the set I would like to focus on here are a set I did with Trappist monks.Based on my interviews with the monks, here are some highlighted features of compassionate love:

  1. Setting aside agenda, for sake of, to strengthen, give life to, the other.
  2. Respect
  3. Mature view of reality
  4. Acceptance of self in order to accept others
  5. Really listening to the other
  6. Giving of self for something greater
  7. Suffering with another
  8. Helping another to become fully themselves
  9. Being aware of own emotions—acting rather than reacting

Again, coming from the interviews, there are attitudes that can get in the way of embodying compassionate love, including:

  1. Need for reciprocal love and affection
  2. Need to be accepted and belong
  3. Desire to avoid confrontation.
  4. Seeing the other as an extension or reflection of my self (ego)
  5. Pleasure in looking well in the eyes of others
  6. Control of the other through their indebtedness
  7. Desire to exercise power over others, and feel superior
  8. All motives are a mixture. How can we encourage other-centered motives?

What practices did they say encouraged compassionate love to be more fully expressed in their lives:

  1. Strengthening your own identity, an awareness of who you are
  2. Quiet and time alone
  3. Living in a community that supports the value of love
  4. Unselfish lifestyle
  5. Balanced life: respect for self, respect for others
  6. Prayer
  7. Spiritual reading
  8. Critique of aware community—e.g.“ do gooder” bugs people—keeps me straight
  9. Listening
  10. Doing compassionate things encourages us to do more.
  11. Learning about people
  12. Avoiding aggression and violence
  13. Cultivating awareness

Love-in and Love-out: The Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale

I have also contributed some to research in this area through a specific set of questions I developed.I am an epidemiologist by training, and am keen that the measures we use actually tap what is of interest. In the context of a larger project measuring various aspects of religion and spirituality for use in medical and social science research, I developed a 16 item scale, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale (DSES). And four of the questions explicitly deal with compassionate love. My questionnaire was designed to measure people’s perception of interaction with and involvement with the transcendent in daily life. In addition to compassionate love in, and compassionate love out, it measures things like feeling thankful for your blessings—in the rough and smooth, finding comfort and strength in your religion or spirituality and being spiritually touched by the beauty of creation.

The questions were designed to work for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and many other religious traditions, but also for those not comfortable with religion. It has been translated into over 40 languages and used in over 250 published studies. The questions work.

The two perceiving love questions ask how frequently you feel God’s love directly, or divine love from other people. They can be asked with number scores—many times a day to never—or as open-ended questions, asking when and where you have felt this recently, or in other times in your life. There are also two questions that ask about the sense of expressing compassionate love: I feel a selfless caring for others. (Many times a day to never.) And “Do I accept others, even when they do things I think are wrong.”

“The fact that loving others is not just a “gritting our teeth and doing it” kind of behavior, is an important aspect of love.”

Recently I wrote a book for a wider audience on the 16 questions: Spiritual Connection in Daily Life.As people ask themselves, in an open-ended way about the 16 questions, it can help to articulate and bring to light, among other things, some of the process of the flow of love in their lives. And in the book I also describe a number of themes in life that the Daily Spiritual Experience questions can help us explore. One of those is the flow of divine love, compassionate love.

Two of the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale questions deal with ‘love in’—God’s love for us, divine love for us, directly or through others. And two ask about our sense of compassionate love and mercy towards others—valuing others and giving of self for them.

Many people are good at giving of self for the good of the other, but just cannot seem to allow others to love them, including God. This can particularly be the case for those that are drawn to the caring professions. The fact that loving others is not just a “gritting our teeth and doing it” kind of behavior, is an important aspect of love. The questions in the scale help people to identify where divine love is there to be received in their lives. Some of the answers in my interviews in developing the scale showed people seeing God’s love in a hand-knit scarf from their sister, a backrub from a spouse, a kind word from a colleague.

And when we reflect on another DSES question: “How frequently do you feel God’s love, divine love, for you directly? When and where does this happen?” Perceiving that direct love too is often hard for many of us, even though we cognitively know that ‘God loves us.’ I know that has been an area where I have personally struggled. We have barriers to perceiving the love of God in our days—not trusting God to love us as we are, or not wanting to admit need.

Hearing how and when others perceive this direct love of God, and the barriers they have, can help us. Examples of when people feel God’s love directly came out in the interviews I have done using the questions. Times were as diverse as when: “looking at an icon of Mary and the Christ child” “reflecting on good things that have happened to me in my life” “When singing a favorite song or hymn,” and even hearing Mr. Rogers say “I like you just the way you are.”

By identifying moments like these, we open ways for love to flow that is beyond cognitively knowing that God loves me, or knowing that I ought to care for others in the abstract. And it is our hope that this love can fuel our love for others.

Compassionate Love in Poetry

Some poetry can help to bring love home to us, helping us in expressing compassionate love, and also in perceiving and receiving it. An example of this is St Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell.5

The bud 

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   

as Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   

began remembering all down her thick length,   

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,  

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

I have found for myself, and others, that somehow this poem touches us with a kind of divine loving acceptance. The love that speaks to us in the midst of our ordinary circumstances. The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas wrote: “Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the Heart.”6

Sometimes words from another religious tradition can help to bypass our resistance. Tagore, the Indian Nobel prize-winning poet speaks to God in this poem:

By all means they try to hold me secure who love me in this world. But it is otherwise with thy love which is greater than theirs, and thou keepest me free.

Lest I forget them they never venture to leave me alone. But day passes by after day and thou art not seen.

If I call not thee in my prayers, if I keep not thee in my heart, thy love for me still waits for my love.7

Love that waits for me, even when I ignore the lover…

And one final poem: I lived in Belfast for ten years, and have a particular affinity for the Irish way of using language. This poem by the northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney is nested in the particulars and I think it captures the flow of love particularly well.

St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney8

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

You might want to take a moment sometime today to reflect on a time when you gave of self for the good of another at cost, when you found yourself perhaps overextended like St Kevin. Where did you find the grace, the strength, to love?

I know that in my own life, and in the lives of many I know, the practice of reading poetry, watching certain films, listening to various kinds of music, viewing inspiring visual art—these can open our hearts, and enhance our understanding of ourselves and others. The arts have the capacity to get under our skin and activate love for us in powerful ways.

Giving of self for the good of the other is something of value. You know that you appreciate getting that kind of love from others. Love is such a central feature of the Christian tradition and also important in many other faith traditions. What kinds of practices, awareness, and attitudes can you engage in that might help you experience love from others and see the love for you that God is expressing in your life? Think of all the things that are there in your social, cultural, and personal world—are there ways that you can see that can help you to contribute to the fullness of life for others in the nitty gritty of daily life? It could even be by becoming more aware of your motives, or something as simple as developing your capacity to really listen to others.