Compassion by Henri Nouwen
The following passages on compassion are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1.The Authority of Compassion
The Church often wounds us deeply. People with religious authority often wound us by their words, attitudes, and demands. Precisely because our religion brings us in touch with the questions of life and death, our religious sensibilities can get hurt most easily. Ministers and priests seldom fully realise how a critical remark, a gesture of rejection, or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed.
There is such an enormous hunger for meaning in life, for comfort and consolation, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for restoration and healing, that anyone who has any authority in the Church should constantly be reminded that the best word to characterise religious authority is compassion. Let’s keep looking at Jesus, whose authority was expressed in compassion. (Oct 26)
2.The Poverty of Our Leaders
There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.
We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church—its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes—and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God’s eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn’t be in our eyes either. (Nov 4)
3.The Authority of Compassion
We usually think of people with great authority as higher up, far away, hard to reach. But spiritual authority comes from compassion and emerges from deep inner solidarity with those who are “subject” to authority. The one who is fully like us, who deeply understands our joys and pains or hopes and desires, and who is willing and able to walk with us, that is the one to whom we gladly give authority and whose “subjects” we are willing to be.
It is compassionate authority that empowers, encourages, calls forth hidden gifts, and enables great things to happen. True spiritual authority is located in the point of an upside-down triangle, supporting and holding into the light everyone they offer their leadership to. (April 12)
4.Laying down our Lives for our Friends
Good shepherds are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep (see John 10:11). As spiritual leaders walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we are called to lay down our lives for our people. This laying down might in special circumstances mean dying for others. But it means first of all making our own lives—our sorrows and joys, our despair and hope, our loneliness and experience of intimacy—available to others as sources of new life.
One of the greatest gifts we can give others is ourselves. We offer consolation and comfort, especially in moments of crisis, when we say, “Do not be afraid, I know what you are living and I am living it with you. You are not alone.” Thus, we become Christ-like shepherds. (April 14)
5.Not breaking the Bruised Reeds
Some of us tend to do away with things that are slightly damaged. Instead of repairing them we say, “Well, I don’t have time to fix it. I might as well throw it in the garbage can and buy a new one.” Often we also treat people this way. We say, “Well, he has a problem with drinking, well, she is quite depressed; well, they have mismanaged their business . . . we’d better not take the risk of getting involved with them.” When we dismiss people out of hand because of their apparent woundedness, we stunt their lives by ignoring their gifts, which are often buried in their wounds.
We all are bruised reeds, whether our bruises are visible or not. The compassionate life is the life in which we believe that strength is hidden in weakness and that true community is a fellowship of the weak. (March 17)
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.
1.Monday of the Second Week in Lent (pg 44)
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. . . It is not surprising that compassion, understood as suffering with, often evokes in us a deep resistance and even protest. We are inclined to say, “This is self-flagellation, this is masochism, this is a morbid interest in pain, this is a sick desire.” It is important for us to acknowledge this resistance and to recognise that suffering is not something we desire or to which we are attracted. On the contrary, it is something we want to avoid at all cost. Therefore, compassion is not among our most natural responses. We are pain-avoiders and we consider anyone who feels attracted to suffering abnormal, or at best very unusual. (Compassion pg 4)
2. Monday of the Second Week in Lent (pg 43)
Jesus’ command, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate,” is a command to participate in the compassion of God Himself. He requires us to unmask the illusion of our competitive selfhood, to give up clinging to our imaginary distinctions as sources of identity, and to be taken up into the same intimacy with God which He Himself knows. This is the mystery of the Christian life: to receive a new self, a new identity, which depends not on what we can achieve, but on what we are willing to receive. This new self is our participation in the divine life in and through Christ. Jesus wants us to belong to God as He belongs to God; He wants us to be children of God as He is a child of God; He wants us to let go of the old life, which is so full of tears and doubts, and to receive the new life, the life of God Himself. In and through Christ we receive a new identity that enables us to say, “I am not the esteem I can collect through competition, but the love I have freely received from God.” It allows us to say with Paul, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
This new self, the self of Jesus Christ, makes it possible for us to be compassionates as our Father is compassionate. Through union with Him, we are lifted out of our competitiveness with each other into the divine wholeness. By sharing in the wholeness of the One in whom no competition exists, we can enter into new, compassionate relationships with each other. By accepting our identities from the One who is the giver of all life, we can be with each other without distance or fear. This new identity, free from greed and desire for power, allows us to enter so fully and unconditionally into the sufferings of others that it becomes possible for us to heal the sick and call the dead to life. When we share in God’s compassion, a whole new way of living opens itself to us, a way of living we glimpse in the lives of the Apostles and those great Christians who have witnessed for Christ through the centuries. This divine compassion is not, like our self-made compassion, part of the competition. Rather, it is the expression of a new way of living in which interpersonal comparisons, rivalries, and competitions are gradually left behind. (Compassion 20-21)
3.Monday in Passion Week (pg 104)
How do we know that God is our God and not a stranger, an outsider, a passer-by?
We know this because in Jesus God’s compassion became visible to us. Jesus not only said, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate,” but He also was the concrete embodiment of this divine compassion in our world. Jesus’ response to the ignorant, the hungry, the blind, the lepers, the widows, and all those who came to Him with their suffering, flowed from the divine compassion which led God to become one of us. We need to pay close attention to Jesus’ words and actions if we are to gain insight into the mystery of this divine compassion. We would misunderstand the many miraculous stories in the Gospels if we were to be impressed simply by the fact that sick and tormented people were suddenly liberated from their pains. If this were indeed the central event of these stories, a cynic might rightly remark that most people during Jesus’ day were notcured and that those who were cured only made it worse for those who were not. What is important here is not the cure of the sick, but the deep compassion that moved Jesus to these cures. (Compassion 15-16)
4. Monday in Passion Week (pg 103)
The truly good news is that God is not a distant God to be feared and avoided, a God of revenge, but a God who is moved by our pains and participates in the fullness of the human struggle. . . .
God is a compassionate God. This means, first of all, that He is a God who has chosen to be with us. . .
As soon as we call God, “God-with-us,” we enter into a new relationship of intimacy with Him. By calling Him Immanuel, we recognise that He has committed himself to live in solidarity with us, to share our joy and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us. The God-with-us is a close God, a God whom we call our refuge, our stronghold, our shepherd, our love. We will never really know God as a compassionate God if we do not understand with our heart and mind that “He lived among us.” (John 1:14) (Compassion 18,13,15)
5.Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent (pg 49)
The great mystery of God’s compassion is that in His compassion, in His entering with us into the condition of a slave, He reveals Himself to us as God. His becoming a servant is not an exception to His being God. His self-emptying and humiliation are not a step away from His true nature. His becoming as we are and dying on a cross is not a temporary interruption of His divine existence. Rather, in the emptied and humbled Christ we encounter God, we see who God really is, we come to know His true divinity.
In His servanthood God does not disfigure Himself, He does not take on something alien to Himself, He does not act against or in spite of His divine self. On the contrary, it is in His servanthood that God chooses to reveal Himself as God to us. Therefore, we can say that the downward pull as we see this in Jesus Christ is not a movement away from God, but a movement toward Him as He really is: A God for us who came not to rule but to serve. This implies very specifically that God does not want to be known except through servanthood and that, therefore, servanthood is God’s self-revelation. (Compassion27-28)
6.Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent (pg 67)
God’s compassion is not something abstract or indefinite, but a concrete, specific gesture in which God reaches out to us. In Jesus Christ we see the fullness of God’s compassion. To us, who cry out from the depth of our brokenness for a hand that will touch us, an arm that can embrace us, lips that will kiss us, a word that speaks to us here and now, and a heart that is not afraid of our fears and trembling; to us, who feel our own pain as no other human being feels it, has felt it, or ever will feel it and who are always waiting for someone who dares to come close—to us a Man has come who could truly say, “I am with you.” Jesus Christ, who is God-with-us, has come to us in the freedom of love, not needing to experience our human condition. (Compassion 23-24)
7. Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent (pg 67-68)
In Jesus Christ the obedient servant, who did not cling to His divinity but emptied Himself and became as we are, God has revealed the fullness of His compassion. He is Immanuel, God-with-us. The great call we have heard is to live a compassionate life. . .
As long as we live on this earth, our lives as Christians must be marked by compassion. But we must (realise) that the compassionate life is not our final goal. In fact, we can only live the compassionate life to the fullest when we know that it points beyond itself. We know that he who emptied and humbled himself has been raised high and has been given a name above all other names, and we know too that he left us to prepare a place for us where suffering will be overcome and compassion no longer necessary. There is a new earth for which we hope with patient expectation. This is the vision presented in the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, “You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone.” (Compassion 133-134)
The passages below are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
1.Prayerful Action (pg 120)
Prayer and action can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in Him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.
Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of the compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian. Such acts do not stand beside the moments of prayer and worship but are themselves such moments. Why? Because Jesus Christ, who did not cling to His divinity, but became as we are, can be found where there are hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked, sick, and imprisoned people. Precisely when we live in an ongoing conversation with Christ and allow His Spirit to guide our lives, we will recognise Him in the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden and will hear His cry and respond to it wherever He reveals Himself. (Compassion 116-117)
2.The danger of Withdrawal (pg 115)
Yesterday I shared with John Eudes some of my thoughts about prayer for others. He not only confirmed my thoughts but also led me further by saying that compassion belongs to the center of the contemplative life. When we become the other and so enter into the presence of God, then we are true contemplatives. True contemplatives, then, are not the ones who withdrew from the world to save their own soul, but the ones who enter into the center of the world and pray to God from there. (Genesee Diary, pg 123)
3. Grief, a Birthplace of God’s Compassion (pg 40)
It might sound strange to consider grief a way to compassion. But it is. Grief asks me to allow the sins of the world—my own included—to pierce my heart and make me shed tears, many tears, for them. There is no compassion without many tears. If they can’t be tears that stream from my eyes, they have to be at least tears that well up from my heart. When I consider the immense waywardness of God’s children, our lust, our greed, our violence, our anger, our resentment, and when I look at them through the eyes of God’s heart, I cannot but weep and cry out in grief: “Look, my soul, at the way one human being tries to inflict as much pain on another as possible; look at these people plotting to bring harm to their fellows; look at these parents molesting their children; look at this landowner exploiting his workers; look at the violated women, the misused men, the abandoned children. Look, my soul, at the world; see the concentration camps, the prisons, the nursing homes, the hospitals, and hear the cries of the poor.”
This grieving is praying. There are so few mourners left in this world. But grief is the discipline of the heart that sees the sin of the world and knows itself to be the sorrowful price of freedom without which love cannot bloom. I am beginning to see that much of praying is grieving. This grief is so deep not just because the human sin is do great, but also—and more so—because the divine love is so boundless. To become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been, and forgive them from the heart. (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 129-129)
The passages below are taken from John Garvey’s book, ”Circles of Love” published in 1988, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
1.A Downward Pull (pg 28)
Jesus’ compassion is characterised by a downward pull. That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward pull, an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement. . . .Here we see what compassion means. It is not bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation. . . .It is the compassion of a God who does not merely act as a servant, but whose servanthood is a direct expression of His divinity.
The great mystery of God’s compassion is that in His compassion, in His entering with us into the condition of a slave, He reveals Himself to us as God. . . .His self-emptying and humiliation are not a step away from His true nature. . . Rather, in the emptied and humbled Christ we encounter God, we see who God really is, we come to know His true divinity. (Compassion27,28,29)
2.God’s Servanthood (pg 27)
It is not said of Jesus that He reached down from on high to pull us up from slavery, but that He became a slave with us. God’s compassion is a compassion that reveals itself in servanthood. Jesus became subject to the same powers and influences that dominate us, and suffered our fears, uncertainties and anxieties with us.
“Being as we are, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” Here the essence of God’s compassion is announced. . . .In this humiliation, Jesus lived out the full implications of empting Himself to be with us in compassion. . . .It was a death that we “normal” human beings would hardly be willing to consider ours.
In the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healings, we sense how close God wants to be with those who suffer. But now we see the price God is willing to pay for this intimacy. It is the price of ultimate servanthood, the price of becoming a slave, completely dependent on strange, cruel, alien forces. We spontaneously protest against this road of self-emptying and humiliation. We certainly appreciate people who try to understand us. We are even grateful for people who want to feel with us. But we become suspicious when someone chooses to undergo the pain that we would avoid at all costs. We understand conditional solidarity, but we do not understand solidarity that has no limits. (Compassion 25,26)