The Compassionate Way (Part 1)

We’re coming to the end of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.

Last week we looked at what it means to live a Compassionate Life through voluntary displacement.  We established that displacement is not something to be achieved but to be recognized and that we can only recognize displacement within the community of God and when attentive to the loving voice of God in our daily lives.

But what does it look like to live a life of compassion through voluntary displacement?

Part Three: The Compassionate Way

Now the authors take their argument into the practical action of our daily lives.  What does a compassionate life look like? In a word: discipline.

In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on the lamp stand what has been kept under a basket. It is like raking away the leaves that cover the pathways in the garden of our soul. Discipline enables the revelation of God’s divine Spirit in us. (88)

Learning to listen to the loving voice of God — and heed God’s unique call on our individual lives — is a practice that requires the discipline of patience.

Discipline is the effort to avoid deafness and to become sensitive to the sound of the voice that calls us by a new name and invites us to a new life in discipleship…The compassionate way is the patient way. Patience is the discipline of compassion. (89)

This is what Eugene Peterson would call A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  Compassion isn’t something we can obtain through an easy three-step formula or a crash course. Compassion is a lifestyle choice, one that takes our entire lives to learn to live out effectively.  In a world of quick fixes and instant gratification, the last thing we are drawn to is the discipline of patience.  God’s call to the compassionate life is radically counter-cultural.  Before we can hope to act compassionately toward those who are hurt by competition, we have to learn to live a life marked by patience.

But this patience practice is not one of passive existence but passionate action:

Patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us….In short, patience is a willingness to be influenced even when this requires giving up control and entering into unknown territory. (91)

[T]he New Testament presents the discipline of patience as the way to a life of discipleship which makes us living signs of God’s compassionate presence in the world. (93)

We aren’t, by nature or by culture, very patient people.  Especially Americans who are used to keeping careful track of time and valuing punctuality and efficiency above all — we are trained to push and rush and make deadlines and fill every moment of our time with busy productivity to earn and to accomplish and to succeed and to finish first.  But as Christians, we are invited into a very different experience of time with a paradoxical definition of productivity and accomplishment:

The discipline of patience is the concentrated effort to let the new time into which we are led by Christ determine our perceptions and decisions. (93)

In God’s management of time, patience is productive:

[Patience] is the experience of the moment as full, rich, and pregnant. (96)

As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation…. [T]hrough patience we can live in the fullness of time and invite others to share in it. (98)

[W]e are constantly preoccupied with our free evening, free weekend, or free month and lose the capacity to enjoy the people we live and work with day in and day out. (99)

The Compassionate Way calls us to learn to pay attention to life around us.  When our lives are defined by the discipline of patience, we find more opportunities to hear God in the daily movements and activities of our lives and answer our unique call to voluntary displacement we might have missed in our rush from one busy productivity to another.

Our culture has done us a genuine disservice in this area, which is why developing cultural discernment is so important to body theology. When we allow culture to dictate our values and assumptions, the lens through which we view the world is skewed toward the value of competition.  Even within Christian culture, our lenses could use a good cleaning:

[W]e have accepted the idea that “doing things” is more important than prayer and have come to think of prayer as something for times when there is nothing urgent to do. (101)

Prayer is an expression of the discipline of patience and is the medium through which we hear the loving voice of God and experience intimate relationship with God.  Rather than a last resort or a convenient time-filler, prayer

as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus Christ, from speaking freely to us and in us…we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglement in our impatient impulses…[and] allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-3)

[P]rayer as a disciple of patience is the human effort to allow the Holy Spirit to do re-creating work in us…It involves the constant choice not to run from the present moment…the determination to listen carefully to people and events so as to discern the movements of the Spirit…the ongoing struggle to prevent our minds and hearts from becoming cluttered with the many distractions that clamour for our attention…[and] the decision to set aside time every day to be alone with God and listen to the Spirit. (104)

Prayer is hard work, but it is also as simple as sitting (or standing, or dancing, or running) with our bodies, minds, and hearts focused on attending to the Holy Spirit — the loving voice of God.  Prayer as the mark of the compassionate life is a truly counter-cultural practice because it requires the most difficult voluntary displacement of all: prayer displaces our own voices, desires, and actions with the voice, desire, and call to action of God:

To listen patiently to the voice of the Spirit in prayer is a radical displacement. (105)

We cannot hope to be effective as the Mother Theresas of the world if we cannot first achieve this inner displacement through patient, disciplined prayer.  We cannot act — rightly, timely, compassionately — if we have not first established a lifestyle of prayerful listening to the loving voice of God. Only through prayer are our actions molded to the compassionate way:

[Prayer is] a growing intimacy with God [that] deepens our sense of responsibility for others…requires deep and strong patience…[allows us to] discover a limitless space into which we can welcome all the people of the world…[and] is the very beat of a compassionate heart. (107)

To be concluded on Wednesday!

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About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on October 22, 2012, in Spirituality and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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