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Constructing Empathy

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Constructing Empathy* Karl F. Morrison / Rutgers University—New Brunswick In my wanderings, I lately came across a double hologram (ca. 1950). Turn it one way, and you see a bust of Jesus, emblazoned with a heart circled with thorns. Turn it another way, and you see a bust of the Blessed Virgin, with a heart circled by roses. Though the faces are sweetly passionless, flames crown both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The busts are so placed that each is visible, shad
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  264   2004 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.0022-4189/2004/8402-0005$10.00 Constructing Empathy* Karl F. Morrison /   Rutgers University—New Brunswick  In my wanderings, I lately came across a double hologram (ca. 1950).Turn it one way, and you see a bust of Jesus, emblazoned with a heart circled with thorns. Turn it another way, and you see a bust of theBlessed Virgin, with a heart circled by roses. Though the faces aresweetly passionless, flames crown both the Sacred Heart of Jesus andthe Immaculate Heart of Mary. The busts are so placed that each is visible, shadow-like through the other, overlapping exactly. Instead of layering, the hearts intersect.Rachel Fulton recovers the story behind this image with four hands,two hearts, and one identity. Her magisterial book constitutes a distin-guished contribution to the history of empathy. It concentrates on theinvention—over a long space of time and by numerous minds workingindependently—of a devotion keyed to empathy between the Crucifiedand his Mother so complete that it transcended the separateness of their persons. In their piety, worshipers discovered, not a comminglingof persons, so much as a subsuming of the Blessed Virgin in the all-enfolding divine energy called “love,” specifically as it worked on Gol-gotha. By compassion, the Virgin suffered, died, was entombed, androse with Christ. This apotheosis of humanity into divine love camefrom workshops of male monastic culture; the artifact was accom-plished, by stages, between the ninth and the late twelfth century.Human nature gave the medium of this bonding, and, in fact, thekey was the one feature of humanity that seemed most invincibly divid-ing: the body. And yet, in Fulton’s account, human flesh was exactly the essential medium of empathy; for, having only one human parent,Christ had no flesh but his mother’s. The flesh of Christ and the fleshof his Mother were one.Fulton delivers, in abundance, elements of the doctrine of the Virginas co-redemptrix with Christ, nailed to her Son with the spikes that fastened him to the Cross, pierced by such force with the sword of compassion that his death became her own. Still, I miss—though they may be there (see pp. 202, 226, 239–40, 339)—anticipations of a fur-ther, logical enlargement of the doctrine of co-redemption, conspicu-ous at least in seventeenth-century devotion: namely, that the Virgin * Rachel Fulton,  From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), xvi  676 pp., $40.00 (cloth).  Constructing Empathy 265 mediated between her Son and believers in such as way that Jesus andhis Cross might be imprinted in believers through the Virgin, and that the very sword of grief that pierced her soul would wound theirs.The first and shorter section of Fulton’s book (chaps. 1–3, 185 pp.)traces a transformation of the devotion to Christ: that is, how, betweenthe ninth and eleventh centuries, the conception of Christ shifted fromtriumphant warlord and righteous judge to weeping sufferer. In themaster narrative of religious drama, the role assigned to believerschanged reciprocally with that of Christ. Ninth-century doctrines calledfor gratitude, awe, and terror. These responses persisted. In their src-inal setting, they had excluded empathy; but, continuing them, elev-enth-century meditations on Christ’s human nature, in all its physicaland emotional vulnerability, opened the door to empathy between be-lievers and Christ grounded in the common bond of flesh and sus-tained by love. Eucharistic disputes brought the focus of attention tothe actual fleshliness of the Incarnation and thereby to the Blessed Virgin, the donor of Christ’s flesh. Anselm of Canterbury’s prayers tothe Blessed Virgin (and writings by some of his disciples) were thehinge on which this door opened to a changed devotional world.The second, and longer section of   From Judgment to Passion   (chaps.4–8, 287 pp.) carries the story of transformation to the end of thetwelfth century. Writer after writer ramified the “new ways of feeling”called forth in the eleventh century and articulated by Anselm into a wider monastic consciousness. The result was an ornate understandingof how empathy closed the divisions of individual selfhood between the Virgin and Christ as the Mother appropriated her Son’s physical painand mental suffering to her own mind and heart. A change occurredfrom the conception of the Virgin as a Queen, bearing the agony anddeath of Christ stoically as the price that had to be paid for the world’ssalvation, to the Virgin as co-sufferer (p. 206). The deeply theatricalexperience of liturgy trained the minds of worshippers to invent imag-inary dialogues between Mother and Son at the Crucifixion. Giving freerein to their “quest for narrative,” with virtuoso manipulations of met-aphor and allegory, three commentators on the Song of Songs inventedelaborate romances of the Crucifixion, extravaganzas of pious eroticismthat fanned out portraying the Virgin with ever greater refinement of detail as the mother and spouse of Christ, fully one in flesh with him,beginning with her consent to the Incarnation and continuing throughevery stage of his passion, death, and resurrection. With jubilant, fla-grant anachronisms, commentators created these romances to catapult themselves and their intended readers into the ecstatic kiss of the In-carnation, the transactions on Golgotha, and the glorification of the  The Journal of Religion266 flesh, uncontaminated by decay, at the consummation of the Virgin’smarriage with her Son in heaven.From time to time in this story, I thought I noticed the gravitationalpull of bodies conspicuous in the constellation of empathy but invisibleon Fulton’s star chart. That was particularly true regarding antecedents.The classical tradition is one such unlocated body. Aristotle’s doctrineof catharsis—that for audiences the pleasure of tragedy lay in beingsmitten with pity and fear by the representation of suffering enactedbefore them—required the communication of pain. However satirically Terence srcinally intended his famous tag, “I am a human being; Ithink nothing human foreign to me” [homo sum; humani nil a mealienum puto] owes its comic bite to ideas long and gravely taught by philosophers. Moreover, the biblical command to love God and neigh-bor (Lev. 19:18) had been subject to much rabbinical study before andafter Christians assimilated it, and, though centuries of christologicaldisputes lay ahead, some Christians in the late Roman world, close tothe beginning of their faith, characterized Christ’s humanity—his fleshand blood and susceptibility to temptation—as essential to the workingout of God’s compassion toward the human race (e.g., Heb. 2:14–18;4:15). Antecedents aside, I also observed a gravitational pull by unchartedforces exactly at the point where Fulton begins her story: the Carolin-gian empire, the locus of “judgment.” Celia Chazelle’s enlighteningbook,  The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ’s Passion   (Cambridge, 2001) was in press about the same time as  From  Judgment to Passion  . Under evident constraints, Fulton found it possibleto consult Chazelle’s book, but not to take her general findings intoaccount.Still, some of Chazelle’s evidence was readily available and might have indicated modification of Fulton’s starting point: Carolingian por-trayals of the Crucified as a triumphant warrior-king and avenging judge. That evidence includes pictorial representations of Christ on theCross that deliberately portray Christ’s mortal humanity in extreme tor-ment and the helplessness of death. It also includes critics of PaschasiusRadbertus, whose triumphant glorification of the Crucifixion Fultonexpertly analyses. Those critics included Hrabanus Maurus, whom Ful-ton considers, but not as a critic of Paschasius. Indeed, in some texts,Paschasius himself took Christ’s sufferings as a way in which corrup-tions in our humanity were transfused into the pure humanity of Christ and redeemed. Even before Chazelle’s meticulous study, it was plainthat, while Carolingians did characterize the Crucified as Victor and Judge, they also developed a keen sense of his suffering, mortal hu-  Constructing Empathy 267 manity. Passion and compassion are already present among them, witha lively conviction that meditation on Christ’s humility in life and suf-fering unto death—in short, participating in his humanity—was part of assimilating oneself to the Savior.This amphibious portrayal of Christ suggests that, even at the begin-ning, the “image of Christ” was compassion as well as judgment, andthat later reciprocal exchanges between the image of Christ and that of the Blessed Virgin were more complex than simple priority in time would allow (cf. p. 214). Consequently, Anselm of Bec’s devotion to the Virgin does not serve as the exclusive pivot on which Christ the divine judge turned into Christ the human sufferer. At any rate, a large de-posit of ancient, patristic, and Carolingian reflections on compassionbefore Anselm of Bec lay behind Remigius of Auxerre’s (d. 908) ob-servation on the fifth Beatitude: “a man is called merciful if . . . hetakes others’ sufferings, and grieves for them, as his own.” I did not find these pre-Anselmian experiments in compassion in  From Judgment to Passion  .Though essentially a chapter in the history of empathy, Fulton’s bookalso brings welcome contributions to the history of scriptural exegesis.There is something playfully ironic about her contrast between the gen-res of history and commentary (e.g., pp. 292–94, 429). For her book isexegetical, and Fulton leads readers into the dynamics of her subject by techniques of Scriptural exegesis ingrained in monastic culture, ap-plied in the texts she analyzes, and, in fact, movingly celebrated by herin concluding remarks (p. 465): that is, rumination, reading and pon-dering over the same texts again and again, locating them in variedcontexts, spiraling around them, meditating on them in different lightsand many perspectives. This is exactly the method of exposition Fultonexpertly applies, as she moves across the space of four centuries (but consulting sources from the patristic age onward), insisting always onruminating on each text in the contexts of its tradition, of the author’slife and associations, and of the literary constellation in which she lo-cates it, spiraling on tenaciously through its chambers until she reachesher hermeneutical objective, which Teresa of vila called “the main´ A dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and soultake place” (“First Dwelling-Place,” chap. 1, sec. 3, in  The Interior Castle  ,trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez [New York, 1979], p.36).Some sections—for example, those on Peter Damian and Anselm of Canterbury—constitute little monographs.True to ruminative tradition, Fulton places great emphasis on visu-alization, especially on the discipline of visualizing as one reads.
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