Compassion has become the focus of the upcoming 22nd annual Festival of Faiths, a five-day event held in Louisville that examines real-world issues from a spiritual perspective.

Through the use of panel discussions, TED-style talks, contemplative practices and the arts, the festival seeks to increase interfaith “understanding, cooperation and action” in order to address common difficulties experienced in both our local communities and our daily lives.

We’re not talking about superficial conversations here. You know, the kind where everyone sips tea, nods their heads in agreement and speaks only of rainbows and butterflies. The discussions at the festival run deep and center on important topics like racism, environmental concerns, sexism, poverty, personal introspection and nonviolence.

Best yet, individuals come as they are to the festival with no reason to sacrifice any aspect of their belief system. Instead, programming allows for common ground to be found among different religious, spiritual and cultural traditions.

Likewise, shared human values like kindness, love and generosity are stressed as a way to connect with one another while remaining true to our own sacred principles.

And, of course, there’s compassion, one of the most effective ways to bring unity to any given situation.

Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” But the word means more than this. Compassion, when fully employed, is action. The need to relieve the suffering of another transforms into taking steps to help it happen.

Embracing this value, the Festival of Faiths’ theme this year will be Compassion: Shining like the Sun. This was inspired by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton’s heart-awakening epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers,” Merton would later write of his downtown experience in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud... But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” he wrote.

Merton can sound mystical. He was a contemplative monk, after all. Yet his lesson remains simple. Merton believed, at our core, that we are human. To connect to that humanity in each of us is a way that we can better understand one another.

Compassion can help us in this quest. And so, it’s important to examine the value in-depth and discuss the individual, social and political ramifications of its use.

“In the light of today’s challenges and opportunities, how do we more deeply engage, understand and define what compassion really means and entails in order to move compassion from aspiration to reality?” asked Mustafa Gouverneur, director of communications for the Festival of Faiths.

Through a variety of performances, contemplative practices and world-renowned speakers, the Festival of Faiths will try to provide answers to this inquiry.

Be warned. The work won’t always be easy. These are hard discussion to have. (I’ve been helping on several projects with the Festival of Faiths. Trust me. Even documenting compassion takes effort.) But we must partake in these conversations to counter the growth of incivility, isolationism and distrust in today’s age.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries,” the Dalai Lama once said. “Without them humanity cannot survive.”

Festival week passes and individual session tickets for the April 19-22 event are on sale now at the Kentucky Center for the Arts Box Office. A full schedule of the programming can be found at festivaloffaiths.org.

— Amanda Hillard Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com.

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