Jesus The Compassionate God by Henri Nouuwen
Thefollowing passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Letters to Marc about Jesus,” published in 1987. In 1986, he wrote a series of letters to his eighteen year old nephew, Marc.
Monday 17th February
My dear Marc,
Yesterday I went with some friends to Colmar, a French town in Alsace an hour from Freiburg by car. We went there to take a look at the Isenheimer Altar. You’ve probably heard about it al ready. You may even have seen it. For me it proved to be a very profound experience.
The Isenheimer Altar was painted between 1513 and 1515 for the chapel at the hospital for plague victims in the small village of Isenheim, not far from Colmar. The artist was a man of such a retiring disposition, some say very melancholic as well, that historians are still unable to agree who he actually was. According to most authorities, Matthias Grunewald was the creator of this masterpiece. In it the whole pictorial art of the late Middle Ages is summed up and brought to its highest point. This work is not only the most spectacular altarpiece ever made, hut also the most moving.
The altarpiece is a multiple series of panels. The front pane! depicts Jesus’ death on the cross. On the second, Grunewald has painted the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, and his resurrection. On the third, which actually consists of two panels on each side of a group of sculpted figures, you can see the temptations of St. Anthony and his visit to the hermit Paul.
Although I had read two booklets by Wilhelm Nyssen before visiting this altar, the reality surpassed any description or reproduction. When I saw the body of Jesus on the cross, tortured, emaciated, and covered with abscesses, I had an inkling of the reaction of the plague-stricken and dying sufferers in the sixteenth century. On this altar they saw their God, with the same suppurating ulcers as their own, and it made them realize with a shock what the Incarnation really meant. They saw solidarity, compassion, forgiveness, and unending love brought together in this one suffering figure. They saw that, in their mortal anguish, they had not been left on their own.
But they saw too, when the front panel was opened out, that the tortured body of Jesus, born of Mary, had not only died for them, but—also for them—had risen gloriously from death. The same ulcerated body they saw hanging dead on the cross exudes a dazzling light and rises upward in divine splendor—–a splendor which is also in store for us.
The two Anthony panels on both sides of the dramatic statuary reminded the plague-ridden sufferers that sharing in the divine glory of Jesus demands a readiness to share in his temptations as well. Anthony was the patron of the monastic order that nursed the plague victims, and his life showed, without any cheap sentimentality, that those who would follow Jesus are bound to have a narrow and frequently rocky road to tread.
I remained at the Isenheimer Altar for more than three hours. During that time I learned more about suffering and resurrection than from many days of reading. The crucified and risen Christ of Matthias Grünewald is carved so deeply into my memory and imagination now that wherever I go or stay I can call him to mind. I know now in a completely new way that if I am to succeed in fully living my life, in all its painful yet glorious moments,
I must remain united to Jesus.
As we drove back through the vine-covered hills of the Kaiserstuhl, in Germany, I also came to understand better what Jesus
meant when he said to his friends: “I am the vine, you are the
branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, hears fruit
in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”
Remarkably enough, I’d already made up my mind last week
to write to you this week about the suffering and resurrection of
Christ. At that time I hadn’t yet seen the Isenheimer Altar. Now I have a feeling that I had to see it in order to find the words I need for this letter.
The record of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus forms the kernel of the “good news” which Jesus’ disciples intended to make known to the world. Jesus is the Lord who has suffered, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Everyone had to know about that. These were the “glad tidings”; and so they still are. You could say that everything else the four Gospels have to say about Jesus is intended to bring out the full significance of his suffering, death, and resurrection.
When I saw the Isenheimer Altar yesterday, this became clear to me again. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus the gospel is a beautiful tale about an exceptionally saintly person, a tale that might inspire good thoughts and great deeds; but there are other stories of that sort. The gospel is, first and foremost, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story constitutes the core of the spiritual life. GrUnewald understood this and wanted to make it plain to the dying men and women of his time.
It won’t be easy to write to you about the death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that will affect you deeply. True, you’ve had scarcely any proper instruction in religion and have taken only a sporadic interest in the gospel, but the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is such a familiar part of the milieu in which you’ve grown up that it can hardly surprise, astound, or shock you any more. You’re more likely to say, “Oh yes. I know about that; let’s talk about something else.” Yet somehow I have to alert you to the truth that what this is all about (the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus) is the most fundamental, the most far-reaching event ever to occur in the course of history If you don’t see and feel that for yourself, then the gospel can be, at most, interesting; but it can never renew your heart and make you a reborn human being. And rebirth is what you are called to—–a radical liberation that sets you free from the power of death and empowers you to love fearlessly.
When I saw Grünewald’s paintings of the tortured, naked body of Jesus, I realized anew that the cross isn’t just a beautiful piece of art decorating the living rooms and restaurants of Freiburg; it is the sign of the most radical transformation in our manner of thinking, feeling, and living. Jesus’ death on the cross has changed everything. What is the most spontaneous human response to suffering and death? The words that spring immediately to my mind are these: preventing, avoiding, denying, shunning, keeping clear of, and ignoring. All of these words indicate that suffering and death don’t fit into our program for living. We react to them as uninvited, undesirable, and unwelcome interlopers, and we want to show them the door as soon as we can. If we get sick, our primary concern is to get better as quickly as possible. If that doesn’t happen, then we try to persuade ourselves or each other that it may not he as had as it looks and to convince one another, often against all odds, that everything will be all right again. If, nevertheless, death does come, we are often surprised, taken aback, deeply disappointed, or even angry.
Fortunately, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others have worked hard to bring about a change in this attitude and to offer a more realistic view of suffering and death; but my own experience has been that, for most people, these are still the chief enemies of life. They really ought not to exist. We must try, somehow, to get them under control as well as we can and, if that doesn’t work the first time, we must try to do better the second time.
Many sick people don’t have much understanding about their sickness, and often they die without ever having given much thought to their death. About a year ago a friend of mine died of cancer. Six months before his death, it was already obvious that he hadn’t long to live. Even so, it was very difficult to prepare him properly for his death. He was so surrounded with tubes and hoses and busy nurses, that one got the impression that he had to be kept alive at any price. No one did anything wrong— it was all according to the rules. But so much attention was given to keeping him alive that there was hardly time to prepare him for death.
The result of this for us is that we no longer pay much attention to the dead. We do little to remember them, to make them a part of our interior life. How often do you visit your grand mother’s grave? How often do your mother and I visit the graves of our deceased grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends? In fact, we behave as though they no longer belong to us, as though we have nothing more to do with them. They no longer have any real influence on our lives. Not only have they gone from us physically, but they have also left the world of our thoughts and feelings.
Jesus’ attitude was quite different. He encountered suffering and death with his eyes wide open. Actually, his whole life was a conscious preparation for them. Jesus doesn’t commend them as desirable things; but he does speak of them as realities we ought not to repudiate, avoid, or cover up.
On a number of occasions he foretold his own suffering and death. Quite soon after Jesus had commissioned his twelve disciples, he was already telling them: “The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to he raised up on the third day.” Not so long after, he repeated this prophecy with the words: “Have these words constantly in mind: The Son of man is going to he delivered into the power of men.” That even in those days people wanted to ignore reality is surely evident from Peter’s reaction. “Taking Jesus aside, Peter started to rebuke him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord,’ he said, this must not happen to you.’ “Jesus’ reply is cutting. It would even appear that he regards Peter’s reaction as the most dangerous of all for those in quest of a truly spiritual life: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks hut as human beings do.” After that he tells his disciples yet again, and very plainly that a person who wants to lead a spiritual life cannot do so without the prospect of suffering and death. Living spiritually is made possible only through a direct, un-cushioned confrontation with the reality of death. Just listen to what Jesus has to say: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Finding new life through suffering and death: that is the core of the good news. Jesus has lived out that liberating way before us and has made it the great sign. Human beings are forever wanting to see signs: marvelous, extraordinary, sensational events or people that can distract them a little from hard reality. It isn’t without reason that we keep on looking for signs among the stars, whether they are stars in the skies or stars in the movies. We would like to see something marvelous, something exceptional, something that interrupts the ordinary life of every day. That way, if only for a moment, we can play at hide-and-seek. But to those who say to Jesus: “Master … we should like to see a sign,” he replied, “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign! The only sign it will he given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.”
From this you can see what the authentic sign is; not some sensational miracle but the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The great sign, which can be understood only by those who follow Jesus, is the sign of Jonah, who also wanted to run away from reality but was summoned back by God to fulfill his arduous task to the end. To look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him. It is the sign of the cross: the sign of suffering and death, but also of the hope for total renewal.
That’s why Matthias GrUnewald had the courage to confront the dying patients in the Isenheim hospital so directly with the terrible suffering of Jesus. He dared to show them what we all prefer to shut our eyes to, because he believed that suffering and death no longer barred the way to the new life but had become, through Jesus, the way to it. If you look carefully you see that the cross painted by Grünewald looks like a drawn bow with an arrow. That is in itself a sign of hope. The tortured body of Jesus is bound to an arrow pointing toward the new life.
So what, in concrete terms, are we to make of Jesus’ suffering and death? In telling you the story of Cleopas and his friend in the previous letter, I wanted to show you that freedom is an essential aspect of the spiritual life. From the story of Jesus’ suffering and death it will be clear to you now that compassion must be added to freedom. The spiritual life is a free life that becomes visible in compassion. I now want to help you to see and feel this more clearly.
God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom. That is a great deal more radical than you might at first imagine. It means that God wanted to liberate us, not by removing suffering from us, but by sharing it with us. Jesus is God who-suffers-with-us. Over time, the word sympathizing has become a somewhat feeble way of expressing the reality of “suffering with” someone. Nowadays, if someone says, “I have sympathy for you,” it has a rather distant ring about it. The feeling, at least for me, is of someone looking down from above. The word’s original meaning of “suffering together with someone” has been partly lost. That’s why I’ve opted for the word compassion. It’s warmer, more intimate, and closer. For me, it’s taking part in the suffering of the other, being totally a fellow-human-being in suffering.
God’s love, which Jesus wants to make us see, is shown to us by his becoming a partner and a companion in our suffering, thus enabling us to turn it into a way to liberation. You’re probably familiar with the questions most frequently raised by people who find it difficult or impossible to believe in God: How can God really love the world when he permits all that frightful suffering? If God really loves us why doesn’t he put an end to war, poverty, hunger, sickness, persecution, torture, and all the other misery that we see everywhere? If God cares about me personally why am I in such bad shape? Why do I always feel so lonely? Why am I still without a job? Why do I feel my existence to be so pointless?
I’ve been preoccupied continually with these questions my- self, especially since I got to know the poverty that exists in Central and South America and saw how innocent Indians are kidnapped, tortured, and killed in the most cruel fashion.
Paradoxically, it was there that I found the beginning of an answer! I discovered that the victims of poverty and oppression are often more deeply convinced of God’s love than we middle-class Europeans are, and that the question of the why of suffering was raised less by the people who had tasted suffering themselves than by you who had only heard and read about it. Seldom have I seen so much trust in God as among the poor and op pressed Indians of Central and South America. While it seems to be getting more and more difficult for a lot of people in the Netherlands, who have become increasingly well off during the last few years, to have a sense of the nearness of God in their day-to-day lives, many men and women in Latin America, whose suffering can be read on their faces, are filled with the Spirit when they tell how God gives them hope and courage.
You will appreciate, of course, the deep impression this has made on me. I’ve gradually come to see that these people have learned to know Jesus as the God who suffers with them. For them, the suffering and dying Jesus is the most convincing sign that God really loves them very much and does not leave them uncared for. He is their companion in suffering. If they are poor, they know that Jesus was poor too; if they are afraid, they know that Jesus also was afraid; if they are beaten, they know that Jesus too was beaten; and if they are tortured to death, well then, they know that Jesus suffered the same fate. For these people, Jesus is the faithful friend who treads with them the lonely road of suffering and brings them consolation. He is with them in solidarity. He knows them, understands them, and clasps them to himself in their moments of greatest pain.
The statues of Jesus that I saw in the churches of San Pedro in Lima, and in those of Santiago at the lake of Atitlán in Guatemala, present an exhausted man, scourged, crowned with thorns, arid covered with wounds. I often found it horrible to look at; but for the Peruvians and Guatemalan Indians, this broken human being was their greatest source of hope.
Perhaps all of this seems a bit remote, yet you and I too have experiences that make us sensitive to the compassion of Jesus. A real friend isn’t someone who can solve all your problems or who has an answer to every question. No, a real friend is some one who doesn’t walk off when there are no solutions or answers, but sticks by you and remains faithful to you. It often turns out that the one who gives us the most comfort is not the person who says, “Do this, say that, go there”; but the one who, even if there is no good advice to give, says, “Whatever happens, I’m your friend; you can count on me.” The older you become, the more you discover that your joy and happiness depend on such friendships. The great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.
God has become human so as to be able to live with us, suffer with us, and die with us. We have found in Jesus a fellow human being who is so completely one with us that not a single weakness, pain, or temptation has remained foreign to him. Precisely because Jesus is God and without any sin, he is able to experience our sinful, broken human condition so thoroughly that we may say he knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us more than we love ourselves. No one else, however well disposed, is ever in a position to be with us so completely that we feel ourselves to be understood and loved without limit. We humans remain too self-centered to be able to forget ourselves fully for the other person’s sake. But Jesus does give himself fully, he holds nothing back for himself; he wants to be with us in so total a fashion that we can never again feel alone.
Jesus is the compassionate God who comes so close to us in our weakness that we can turn to him without fear. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it in incomparably profound words: “He has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin. Let us, then, have no fear in approaching the throne of grace, to receive mercy and to find grace when we are in need of help.”
I hope that you can grasp something of all this and take it to heart. In the end, I think it is only through prayer that you can come to understand it. When you stand before God, vulnerable as you are, and let him see all there is of you, you will begin gradually to experience for yourself what it means that God has sent Jesus to be, in all things, God-with-you. Then you will begin to know that, by becoming a human being in Jesus, God is offering you his divine life. Then you can ask yourself in a new way how you wish to conduct your own life.
In my previous letter the key word was freedom. In this one it is compassion. When you come to see Jesus more and more as the compassionate God, you will begin increasingly to see your own life as one in which you yourself want to express that divine compassion. What can happen then is that you feel a deep longing grow within you to make your own life a life for others. The better you learn to know and love Jesus, the more you find yourself longing to lead your life in conformity with his. You already discovered some of that for yourself when you read Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. You observed then that it involved something quite radical, hut also very inviting. Living for other people in solidarity with the compassionate Jesus: that’s what it means to live a spiritual life. In that way you too achieve true freedom.
Before I finish this letter I want to show, as in my previous letter, that the account of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection is not just a story about the past. Like the Emmaus story, it was written from within the Christian community. In this community the Eucharist was and is celebrated. That’s why the account of the Last Supper belongs to the Passion story. It’s there you read that before his suffering and death Jesus took the bread and the wine and said to his friends: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.”
You’ve heard these words so often already that, for you, they no longer carry their full and proper weight. But consider what is taking place here. Jesus is saying, “I want to give myself to you totally. As intimately as food and drink are united with your body, so would I be united with you. I don’t want to keep anything for myself. I want to be eaten and drunk by you.” You could best translate Jesus’ words, therefore, as: “Eat me, drink me.” What you have to hear and feel in this is the completely self-giving love of Jesus. The suffering and death that follow the Last Supper are a way of making visible that self-giving love. The agony, scourging, mocking, crowning with thorns, the crucifixion and death of Jesus allow us to see in the most drastic manner possible how utterly Jesus gives himself to us when he says, “Eat me, drink me.” In that sense, you might say that the account of the Passion makes plain to us what has already taken place at the Last Supper.
The Eucharist was and is the center of the fellowship of those who put all their trust in Jesus. It was within the setting of the Eucharistic celebration that the first Christians retold to one another the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. It was also from within this Eucharistic community that it was recorded by the gospel writers. This is so very important for you and me because we are able to celebrate the Eucharist day by day. With every celebration, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are made present. The best way to put it might be like this: every time you celebrate the Eucharist and receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, his suffering and his death become a suffering and death for you. Passion becomes compassion, for you. You are incorporated into Jesus. You become part of his “body” and in that most compassionate way are freed from your deepest solitude. Through the Eucharist you come to belong to Jesus in the most intimate way. Jesus suffered for you, died for you, and is risen for you so that you may suffer, die, and rise with him.
Do you understand better now why Matthias Grünewald chose the altar at Isenheim as the appropriate place for his moving portrayal of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection? He was showing these mortally ill people what it was that the Eucharist really gave them. They had no more need to endure their plague alone. They were incorporated into the suffering of Jesus and so could trust also that they would he allowed to share in his resurrection.
I will leave it at that for now. There’s so much more still to be said. As I was writing this letter I became aware of how much I would have to restrict myself; but then it is not necessary to get everything down on paper. In the end my desire is just to get you to read the Bible and develop your spiritual life for yourself. My letters are only meant to spur you on a bit.
A friend of mine arrived yesterday from Boston to spend a few days’ vacation with me. His name is Jonas, and he arrived at the very moment I was writing to you about the prophet Jonah. Today we’re going to look around Freihurg; tomorrow we’re off to the Black Forest; and the day after that we go via Paris to Trosly, a small French village where I am staying until the end of August. So I shall send you my next letter from France and tell you something of my work and my life there.
Greetings and love to all the family.
Until next time,