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Love in Action through Service

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison’s book “Compassion,” published in 1982.


1. Service (80)

We often think that service means to give something to others, to tell them how to speak, act, or behave; but now it appears that above all else, real, humble service is helping our neighbors discover that they possess great but often hidden talents that can enable them to do even more for us than we can do for them.



By revealing the unique gifts of the other, we learn to empty ourselves. Self-emptying does not ask of us to engage ourselves in some form of self-castigation or self-scrutiny, but to pay attention to others in such a way that they begin to recognize their own value.

Paying attention to our fellow human beings is far from easy. We tend to be so insecure about our self-worth and so much in need of affirmation that it is very hard not to ask for attention ourselves. Before we are fully aware of it, we are speaking about ourselves, referring to our experiences, telling our stories, or turning the subject of conversation toward our own territory. The familiar sentence, “That reminds me of. . .” is a standard method of shifting attention from the other to ourselves. To pay attention to others with the desire to make them the center and to make their interests our own is a real form of self-emptying, since to be able to receive others into our intimate inner space we must be empty. That is why listening is so difficult. It means our moving away from the center of attention and inviting others into that space.

From experience we know how healing such an invitation can be. When someone listens to us with real concentration and expresses sincere care for our struggles and our pains, we feel that something very deep is happening to us. Slowly, fears melt away, tensions dissolve, anxieties retreat, and we discover that we carry within us something we can trust and offer as a gift to others. The simple experience of being valuable and important to someone else has a tremendous re-creative power.

If we have been given such an experience, we have received a precious kind of knowledge. We have learned the true significance of Paul’s words, “Always consider the other person to be better than yourself” (Philippians 2:3). This is not an invitation to false humility or to the denial of our own value, but it is a call to enter Christ’s healing ministry with him. Every time we pay attention we become emptier, and the more empty we are the more healing space we can offer. And the more we see others being healed, the more we will be able to understand that it is not through us but through Christ in us that this healing takes place.

Thus, in togetherness we call forth the hidden gifts in each other and receive them in gratitude as valuable contributions to our life in community.

One of the most impressive examples of this compassionate togetherness is a community of handicapped people in Rome. In this community, founded by Don Franco, handicapped adults and children live together in extended families and call forth talents in each other which before had remained hidden. The beauty of their togetherness is so visible and so convincing that many “healthy” people have joined those who are paralyzed, mentally retarded, blind, spastic, crippled, or deaf and have discovered with them the great gift of community. In this community, there are few people with self-serving complaints, low self-esteem, or deep depression. Instead, they are people who have discovered each other’s distinctive talents and enjoy together the richness of their common life.

This new togetherness is the place of compassion. Where people have entered into the mind of Christ and no longer think of their own interests first, the compassionate Lord manifests himself and offers his healing presence to all who turn to him.



By ceasing to make our individual differences a basis of competition and by recognizing these differences as potential contributions to a rich life together, we begin to hear the call to community. In and through Christ, people ‘of different ages and life-styles, from different races and classes, with different languages and education, can join together and witness to God’s compassionate presence in our world. There are many common-interest groups, and most of them seem to exist in order to defend or protect something. Although these groups often fulfill important tasks in our society, the Christian community is of a different nature. When we form a Christian community, we come together not because of similar experiences, knowledge, problems, color, or sex, but because we have been called together by the same Lord. Only he enables us to cross the many bridges that separate us; only he allows us to recognize each other as members of the same human family; and only he frees us to pay careful attention to each other. This is why those who are gathered together in community are witnesses to the compassionate Lord. By the way they are able to carry each other’s burdens and share each other’s joys, they testify to his presence in our world.

Life in community is a response to a vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means “to call.” God calls us together into one people fashioned in the image of Christ. It is by Christ’s vocation that we are gathered. Here we need to distinguish carefully between vocation and career. In a world that puts such emphasis on success, our concern for a career constantly tends to make us deaf to our vocation. When we are seduced into believing that our career is what counts, we can no longer hear the voice that calls us together; we become so preoccupied with our own plans, projects, or promotions that we push every one away who prevents us from achieving our goals. Career and vocation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, our vocation might require us to pursue a certain career. Many people have become excellent doctors, lawyers, technicians, and scientists in response to God’s call heard in the community. Quite often, our vocation becomes visible in a specific job, task, or endeavor. But our vocation can never be reduced to these activities. As soon as we think that our careers are our vocation, we are in danger of returning to the ordinary and proper places governed by human competition and of using our talents more to separate ourselves from others than to unite ourselves with them in a common life. A career disconnected from a vocation divides; a career that expresses obedience to our vocation is the concrete way of making our unique talents available to the community. Therefore, it is not our careers, but our vocation, that should guide our lives.

The following story about an American family offers a good insight into the difference between a vocation and a career. John, Mary, and their children enjoyed a very ordinary and proper life in a suburb of Washington, D.C. John was a successful researcher in community development. He gave workshops, taught at the university, and produced regular reports like any other good researcher. Mary was a creative woman. She found time outside her family obligations for pottery and weaving. Their children were open and friendly toward the neighbors. All who knew the family respected them as caring people, good citizens, and committed Christians. Yet, in the midst of all their successes, life seemed to lack a dimension that was difficult to articulate. One evening, when John had come home from a lecture he had just given on community, he suddenly realized that his own family was as alienated as most others. The more he thought about it, the more it struck him that he earned his money by speaking about ideals he himself did not realize. He felt like a preacher proudly speaking about humility, angrily pronouncing peace, and sadly proclaiming joy.

When the contrast between his successful career and his unsuccessful life became too obvious to deny any longer, John and Mary took the courageous step of taking their whole family on a one-year retreat during which they lived with very little money, social security, and “success.” And there, away from their ordinary and proper place, they discovered life anew. They saw nature as they never had seen it before; they listened to each other as they had never listened before; they prayed as they had never prayed before; and they wondered why it had taken them so long to see what had always been right before their eyes. In this new situation, they began to hear more clearly the call inviting them to live free from the compulsions of the world, but close to each other and their neighbors, and in continually searching for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of life. Here they discovered their vocation, a vocation which had always been there, but which they had not been able to hear before because of the noisy demands of their successful careers.

One of the most remarkable, and in fact unexpected, results of their “conversion” was that, when their vocation re-emerged and moved to the center of their attention their whole world became transformed. Words such as family, friendship, and love became new words expressing new experiences of living. Research was no longer an aspect of a competitive academic life, but the expression of the ongoing search for meaning. Leadership became service, an argument to convince became an invitation to join, and impressive lectures became compelling challenges. Most of all, their new way of being together uncovered in the heart of many other people deeply hidden desires that were never expressed until they were lived out in the concrete life of this American family. What for many had been conceived as only a romantic dream suddenly became real enough to be a reachable goal, an ideal that could be realized. The compassionate life was no longer a fantasy but a visible reality in the vital community of people who had discovered, through displacement, a new way of being together.

A vocation is not the exclusive privilege of monks, priests, religious sisters, or a few heroic laypersons. God calls every one who is listening; there is no individual or group for whom God’s call is reserved. But to be effective, a call must be heard, and to hear it we must continually discern our vocation amidst the escalating demands of our career.

Thus, we see how voluntary displacement leads to a new togetherness in which we can recognize our sameness in common vulnerability, discover our unique talents as gifts for the up building of the community, and listen to God’s call, which continually summons us to a vocation far beyond the aspirations of our career.


4. Service is an expression of Our Search for God (31-32)

     Radical servanthood (service) does not make sense unless we introduce a new level of understanding and see it as the way to encounter God himself. To be humble and persecuted cannot be desired unless we can find God in humility and persecution. When we begin to see God himself, the source of all our comfort and consolation, in the center of servanthood, compassion becomes much more than doing good for unfortunate people. Radical servanthood, as the encounter with the compassionate God, takes us beyond the distinctions between wealth and poverty, success and failure, fortune and bad luck. Radical servanthood is not an enterprise in which we try to surround ourselves with as much misery as possible, but a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose the way of servanthood to make himself known. The poor are called blessed not because poverty is good, but because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; the mourners are called blessed not because mourning is good, but because they shall be comforted.

Here we are touching the profound spiritual truth that service is an expression of the search for God and not just of the desire to bring about individual or social change. This is open to all sorts of misunderstanding, but its truth is confirmed in the lives of those for whom service is a constant and uninterrupted concern. As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. When results do not appear, when success is absent, when we are no longer liked or praised for what we do, we lose the strength and motivation to continue. When we see nothing but sad, poor, sick, or miserable people who, even after our many attempts to offer help, remain sad, poor, sick, and miserable, then the only reasonable response is to move away in order to prevent our selves from becoming cynical or depressed. Radical servanthood challenges us, while attempting persistently to overcome poverty, hunger, illness, and any other form of human misery, to reveal the gentle presence of our compassionate God in the midst of our broken world.



Joy and gratitude are the qualities of the heart by which we recognize those who are committed to a life of service in the path of Jesus Christ. We see this (service) in families where parents and children are attentive to one another’s needs and spend time together despite many outside pressures. We see it in those who always have room for a stranger, an extra plate for a visitor, time for someone in need. We see it in the students who work with the elderly, and in the many men and women who offer money, time, and energy for those who are hungry, in prison, sick, or dying. We see it in the sisters who work with the poorest of the poor. Wherever we see real service we also see joy, because in the midst of service a divine presence becomes visible and a gift is offered. Therefore, those who serve as followers of Jesus discover that they are receiving more than they are giving. Just as a mother does not need to be rewarded for the attention she pays to her child, because her child is her joy, so those who serve their neighbor will find their reward in the people whom they serve.

The joy of those who follow their Lord on his self-emptying and humbling way shows that what they seek is not misery and pain but the God whose compassion they have felt in their own lives. Their eyes do not focus on poverty and misery, but on the face of the loving God.

This joy can rightly be seen as an anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s love. The hymn of Christ, therefore, does not end with the words about his downward road. Christ emptied and humbled himself:

But God raised him high

and gave him a name

which is above all other names

so that all beings

in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld,

should bend the knee at the name of Jesus

and that every tongue should acclaim

Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:9—11)


Without these final sentences we would never be able to grasp the fullness of God’s compassion. God’s compassion as revealed in Christ does not end in suffering but in glory. The servanthood of Christ is indeed a divine servanthood, a servanthood that finds its fulfillment in the lordship of the risen Christ who received the name that is above all other names. The resurrection of Christ is the final affirmation of his servanthood. And with the servant Christ, all servanthood has been lifted up and sanctified as the manifestation of God’s compassion. This is the basis of all our joy and hope: Our life of servanthood is lived in union with the risen Christ, in and through whom we have become children of the compassionate Father. Thus Paul can say, “And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory. I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us” (Romans 8:17—18).

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