The Compassionate Way (Part 2)
Posted by Laura K. Cavanaugh
It’s our final day with Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.
Last week in The Compassionate Way (Part 1), we talked about what it looks like to live a life of compassion through voluntary displacement, the individual choice to move ourselves (both inwardly and outwardly) out of what is comfortable and familiar in order to answer the unique call of God in each of our lives. We established that we cannot act — rightly, timely, compassionately — if we have not first established a lifestyle of prayerful listening to the loving voice of God through the discipline of patience.
More on The Compassionate Way
It is not just the practice of prayer that positions us for compassion. It is also the celebration of the Lord’s Supper:
When we eat bread and drink wine together in memory of Christ, we become intimately related to his own compassionate life. In fact, we become his life and are thus enabled to re-present Christ’s life in our time and place. (111)
[O]ur praying together becomes working together, and the call to break the same bread becomes a call to action. (113)
This is one reason I am in favor of the open table, which allows everyone (even those who may not fit into our neat categories and labels) to participate together in one of the most sacred and intimate sacraments of the Christian faith. When we pray together — listening for the loving voice of God — and eat together — with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in our minds and hearts — we cannot help but be drawn together toward compassionate action as the unified body of Christ.
The authors are adamant that we need both prayer and action to live the Compassionate Way:
Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. (114)
But our actions — like our prayers — must be tempered by the discipline of patience that marks the Compassionate Way. It is only through this patient action that we can truly experience the Compassionate Life we have been called to by our Compassionate God.
Patient actions are actions through which the healing, consoling, comforting, reconciling, and unifying love of God can touch the heart of humanity. (115)
Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of the compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian….Precisely when we live in an ongoing conversation with Christ and allow the Spirit to guide our lives, we will recognize Christ in the poor, the oppressed, and the down-trodden, and will hear his cry and response to it wherever he is revealed….So worship becomes ministry and ministry becomes worship, and all we say or do, ask for or give, becomes a way to the life in which God’s compassion can manifest itself. (119)
It is important to remember, above all, that when we choose voluntary displacement, guided by the loving voice of God, we are merely joining in with what the Spirit of God is already doing in the world. The Compassionate Life is really an invitation into the fullness of life that we have been promised. It is the ushering in — as well as the recognition of — the kingdom of God:
Our action, therefore, must be understood as a discipline by which we make visible what has already been accomplished. (121)
At the end of The Compassionate Way, the authors add that a compassionate act may also require confrontation — both of the sin in ourselves as well as the harmful competition and pursuit of power in the world. Without this confrontational voice, we would not be able to be defenders of God’s justice. If compassion is the daily act of kindness toward those individuals hurt by competition, then compassion is also the confrontation of systemic injustice in the world:
Compassion without [humble] confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration. (123)
Confrontation always includes self-confrontation…each attempt to confront evil in the world calls for the realization that there are always two fronts on which the struggle takes place: an outer front and an inner front. (124)
Only when we voluntarily displace ourselves, listen to the voice of love, and follow that unique calling into patient prayer and patient action will we truly experience the freedom offered to us as children of God because of the compassionate obedience of our incarnate God. The Compassionate Way is the way of grateful, free, and even joyful action:
[T]he compassionate life is a grateful life, and actions born out of gratefulness are not compulsive but free, not somber but joyful, not fanatical but liberating. (125)
This is the deepest meaning of compassionate action. It is the grateful, free, and joyful expression of the great encounter with the compassionate God. (127)
[Compassion] is hard work; it is crying out with those in pain; it is tending the wounds of the poor and caring for their lives; it is defending the weak and indignantly accusing those who violate their humanity; it is joining with the oppressed in their struggle for justice; it is pleading for help, with all possible means, from any person who has ears to hear and eyes to see. In short, it is a willingness to lay down our lives for our friends. (136)
In the conclusion, the authors restate the message of Compassion as the true mark of the Christian life precisely because compassionate action is larger than any one person or organization. Compassion is the collective activity of the body of Christ in the world to bring healing, justice, wholeness, and completion to the broken world our incarnate Christ died to save. Compassion is living into the kingdom of God:
[W]e can only live the compassionate life to the fullest when we know that it points beyond itself…There is a new heaven and a new earth for which we hope with patient expectation.(131)
How are you ushering in the kingdom of God?
What do you think of Nouwen’s perspective on the Compassionate God, the Compassionate Life, and the Compassionate Way? Is he right?
Listen to the loving voice of God in your life. What is God revealing as your unique calling to the Christian life of compassion?