“Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who left the convent to study literature, becoming one of the most provocative and original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world, and a leading international authority on faiths, religious fundamentalism and monotheism.
Her poignant and captivating talks have sparked worldwide debate and healthy discussion. Her bestselling books, including Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and A History of God, examine the differences and the profound similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and their impact on world events.
In 2008, she was awarded the TED Prize in recognition and support of her call for a council of religious and spiritual leaders to draw up a “Charter for Compassion” that applies shared moral priorities to foster greater global understanding based on the principles of justice and respect. The project has grown to a considerable international following, and a network of Compassionate Cities is emerging that endorse the Charter and find ways to implement it practically, realistically and creatively.
As a speaker and writer, she asserts that all major religions embrace the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule, and also emphasizes that many of today’s religions bear similar strains of fundamentalism borne of frustration with contemporary life and current events.” ( – Official Biography of Karen Armstrong.)
On our tiny island, a group recently finished its study of Karen’s book, “Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life”. The same group seized an opportunity, on March 22, to share a live video of Ms. Armstrong accepting a prestigious award from the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In recognition of her exceptional work with Compassion, Vancouver dedicated 12 days in which to dialogue about compassion, in a variety of ways, throughout the city.
The Charter for Compassion begins:
“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
(The complete Charter is available here.)
Those of us who watched Ms. Armstrong’s acceptance of the SFU award, discussed, at its completion, how we envisioned enhancing compassion in our community. Though time may provide a more profound conclusion, most of us agreed that Compassion is an inner condition through which each of us may filter our actions and exchanges throughout the community. In support of this commitment, the local book club, one of 500 worldwide, will again offer a study of Karen’s 12 steps to compassion.
Our group may have been influenced by the Rev. Alisdair Smith, Deacon and Business Chaplain for Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver. As he introduced Karen, he shared a phenomenal story about a dear friend – a woman who suffers from severe bouts of depression. She gave Alisdair permission to share her story with us.
In my words:
The depression became severe enough that the woman knew she had to go to the hospital. With all the courage, will and determination she could muster, she called an ambulance.
A male attendant rode quietly beside her in the back of the ambulance. As the vehicle wound its way through traffic, the man remained silent, but dutifully attended to any concern for comfort or safety.
After some time, he turned to face her. He held her hand and looked into her eyes. He said, “We are almost at the hospital. I want to tell you that while I have been in your presence, I have discerned that you are a very creative, kind and intelligent woman.
Therefore, when we arrive, I will step out of this ambulance and wait for you to take my hand so you may step down on your own. We will walk together to Emergency and you will hold your head high with the dignity that is yours to claim. There is no reason or need to be or feel embarrassed.
Are you willing?”
The woman did exactly as he suggested. Her life was transformed.
Though she is still plagued with depression, it only takes a moment to reflect on this incredible act of compassion, performed by a stranger, that dispelled and diminished the degree of debilitating power that depression would otherwise demand.
I watched Karen Armstrong’s Ted Talk in 2008. I became a member of the Charter for Compassion in 2009. I committed to being a compassionate person.
Big deal, I thought. That’s not doing much for the Charter.
I found out it is.
Especially if we each do our best with every opportunity that inevitably comes our way.
I keep forgetting about the hummingbird and the forest fire.