It's not where I'd normally look if I were in the market for a great big Bucket o' Compassion, but the May 2000 Neiman Marcus catalog sports a sincere, moss-green cover, embossed with a cream-colored card, which proclaims "Compassion: A Tribute to Loving Hearts and Minds." The font alone is so noble you want to cry.

Inside, in purple type on cream, appears an inscription whose intermittent capitalization and oversized words convey the kind of urgency associated with teenage girls:

"COMPASSION can be defined as our capacity to care for other living beings. Yet it goes a little deeper than that. Compassion REQUIRES ACTION--giving of our time, money, or experience wherever there's a need. Since it's available in SUCH ABUNDANCE, we sometimes take this feeling for granted. But, oh, its power! Compassion is the ultimate salve we can place upon the UNIVERSAL FEELINGS of despair, pain, or regret. Which means that even sometimes the simplest act of KINDNESS CAN define a moment. Or CHANGE A LIFE."

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What kind of a Scrooge could object to a message like that? Well, the kind who notices that the first thing offered in the catalog is a pair of $1,400 earrings. A few more pages and you're up to the $12,000 watch and the $36,000 necklace. Apart from a growing feeling that it would be darned compassionate of someone to give me these things, I'm not sure how the cover's sentiments relate to the interior.

On page 40, the mystery is made clear: Each year, the NM Foundation donates "a portion of the proceeds" from the sale of a NM-exclusive item to a few select charities. This year the offering is a "Compassion Bracelet," which "explores color therapy by mixing crystals, seed beads, and semiprecious stones." (A bargain at $55.) This year's recipient(s) will be disclosed later this Spring; previous years' recipients included organizations that provide meals to kids, shelter to homeless women, and guide dogs to the blind. "Religious organizations" are never considered, "to avoid conflicts of interest."

In a note opposite the title page we get another opportunity to admire the store's wondrous compassion. A group of company associates volunteers each summer at a camp for children with cancer, while others serve different causes as donors or committee members. The chairman and CEO of the company are shown in an adjoining photo, looking valiant, though they're probably not volunteering at a summer camp, judging from their attire. Unless it's Camp Junior Tycoon.

Admittedly, this kind of thing is easy to make fun of--try and stop me!--but shouldn't we be celebrating the fact that Neiman Marcus has embraced the concept of compassion? A catalogue titled "Compassion" seems better than one titled "Avarice" or "Loot." The juxtaposition of noble sentiments and $36,000 jewelry seems jarring initially, but perhaps this is only a matter of perception: we aren't used to business and spirituality mixing. We are used to compartmentalizing the two; we still presume that spiritual things are for once-a-week piety, and the rest of the week is every-man-for-himself. It's the separation of faith and life, which is bad for both. Faith gets attenuated and vague; life gets grimy, bent around the edges.

In his new book, "Bobos in Paradise," David Brooks offers a new view of the culture wars. The corporate types, he says, have won. Sure, at first glance it looks like the stuffy old Establishment is dead, with flower-child philosophy sprinkled victoriously over all, like beads from Nieman Marcus's "color therapy" bracelet. Yet, Brooks says, that wasn't really what the "war" was about. Since early 19th century France, the conflict has been between stylish bohemians and stolid bourgeoisie--a philosophical war between art and business.

The fighting crossed into the 20th century, if anything worsening. In the 1960s, hippies railed against soulless consumerism; in the '80s, "greedy" corporations were objects of loathing. But the fact is, business offers security that can't be matched elsewise, and gradually moneymaking won the field. Now we're both bourgeois and bohemian--"Bobos," in Brooks's coinage. Now it's okay to be smart in business, even okay to be rich. Dot-com billionaires have become folk heroes. If, in the struggle, some spiritual awareness rubbed off, if business is getting religion, is that a bad thing? If spiritual and temporal things have been mingling, perhaps it's produced a healthier balance. The "Naked Public Square" has at least got its shoes on.

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The problem is not that compassion has become part of the lexicon at Neiman Marcus, one of the old bourgeois monoliths: the problem is they won't shut up about it. Projects like this have the odor of spray-on virtue, a bouquet of smugness and self-satisfaction. Compassion, says the catalog, gets taken for granted because "it's available in SUCH ABUNDANCE"--as if they picture themselves overflowing with it, like Lady Bountiful.

Yet the Latin root of the word--"to suffer with"--intimates that real compassion is a great deal more costly and wrenching than that. True compassion is not so self-congratulatory; true compassion "vaunteth not itself." As Jesus warned, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them. ...When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do; truly, they have received their reward. ...But do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

That hand, right there. The one with the $12,000 watch.

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