Compassion by Henri Nouwen

Compassion by Henri Nouwen October 27, 2008

Compassion – by Henri Nouwen
a short review by Tim Suttle

This short book plainly titled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison[1] delivers a provocative and moving take on the life of compassion. The authors have no illusions of producing a theological treatise, this book actually grew out of the conversations of three friends who gathered weekly to discuss the concept of compassion as it relates to the Christian life. Compassion, they begin, literally means to “suffer with,”[2] not in a masochistic way, but in a way which is truly foreign to pain avoiding human beings. Linking individualism to the drive toward human competition the authors take on the pragmatic assumption that this simply describes the way things are. Compassion is, in a sense, to be good to those who are injured by the competitive people and forces of broken humanity. This is a radical calling.
The book is organized in three parts: The Compassionate God, The Compassionate Life, and The Compassionate Way. Three parts with three sections each. Each Section probes deeper and deeper into the life of compassion.
Part one serves to root all compassionate impulses in the God who is compassionate. Here the authors remind us that compassion is not primarily making oneself “useful,” but it is a kind of “entering in” which is intimately linked to a real presence. The natural result of this presence will be true solidarity.[3] God’s link to the poor and oppressed is one of solidarity. Human competition subverts this impulse and can only be overcome by the “new self” which is created in Christ.[4] Therefore the first movement in compassion isn’t achieving but receiving a new identity which is free from greedy competitive impulses. Only then can we enter into solidarity with the poor.
Next the authors remind us that Jesus was a servant God. Jesus did not reach down and lift up the poor, Jesus become poor himself. His first movement was self-emptying – a downward movement. Thus a life of compassion is not defined by virtue or even attitude but by a way of being which is not concerned with self preservation. This is a violation of instinct and can only be done in the power of God. Thus all true compassion must be rooted in the search for God, not just in the desire to bring about social justice or change. This is extremely important.[5] The natural result of this will be a life of joy, not suffering, because the basis for joy is rooted in the presence of God. When we see true compassionate service we always see joy because God is present.[6]
Finally, the authors teach that Jesus’ compassion was rooted in obedience. They point out that that if we separate servanthood from obedience, “compassion becomes a form of spiritual stardom,”[7] which will only lead to more competition. Jesus desire was to hear the voice of God and respond. This is where compassion is rooted in God.
Next the authors turn their attention to the Compassionate Life which is rooted, they say, in community. Here they reveal to us how relationship with Christ is always expressed in relationship with Christian brothers and sisters. Walking the same path is the way of compassion, not individual achievement. They point out that though mass communication can serve to dull an individual to pain, the community will not allow this. Though exposure to many pictures of suffering could produce “psychic numbness” or even hostility,[8] the community will help us to be moved to compassion without panic or numbness. Where Christian community forms, compassion just happens, and it happens in a more complete way because community can transcend individual human limitations.
Next they explore the idea of displacement and its relationship to compassion. The community is a people “being-gathered-in-displacement,”[9] which means a movement away from what is comfortable toward what is uncomfortable. Even the Greek for church ekklesia comes from two words meaning “call” and “out.”[10] Voluntary displacement makes everyone a pilgrim on the same plane and thus community is strengthened. Displacement won’t naturally illicit compassion, though. But voluntary displacement which occurs with a view toward sameness produces the right kind of soil for compassion and solidarity to grow.
Finally they turn their attention to togetherness in the compassionate life. Togetherness is rooted in sharing, even of our own gifts and talents, with the whole community. This movement is away from competition and jealousy and toward gratitude. True Christian togetherness is rooted in the “common need for healing.”[11] This attitude transforms work into vocation and can only be supported in Christian community.
The last part focuses upon the compassionate way. The authors begin their discussion of this “way” by talking about the discipleship required for compassion. Discipleship is rooted in discipline and is indispensable for the compassionate life.[12] One of the more important disciplines they focus on is patience. The unfortunate associate of patience with powerlessness, passivity, and dependence serves to distort this virtue when the true meaning of patience connotes an active entering into the suffering around us. Patience is to really know what is happening in the world resisting the instinctual temptation toward fight or flight and to choose to stay in the thick of things. Patience allows God to work in the “fullness of time,”[13] without our becoming anxiously buried in an inner restlessness which robs the present moment of any significant meaning.
Prayer is another important discipline along the compassionate way. Here the authors argue that true prayer is a discipline focused upon removing all that might stand in the way of God speaking to the believer. Prayer does not bring God to our side nor is it our way of making contact with God. Prayer allows us to overcome the impatient life and creates a welcoming space for those God would have us approach with compassion.[14] Ultimately, prayer produces solidarity with all human beings powerfully orienting our lives away from self and toward the other.
Ironically, only at this point, almost at the very end of the book, do the authors begin to address the idea of action. The have thereby rooted all action in what has gone before in this book. Actions take on the role of active faith or the very presence of God impacting communities in which we live and work. This is not possible unless the previous two and two-thirds of the book have been put into practice. Actions are merely a concrete evidence of the compassionate God, the compassionate community and the compassionate way which is rooted in patience and prayer. The church should give visibility to God’s compassion, nothing more. This may need to take the form of a gentle and humble “No,” and must always be done with gratitude toward God. Gratitude no matter the outcome of our efforts will confirm that indeed our actions have been suitably rooted in patience and prayer.
Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison have done a great service to the church in the writing and revision of this book. Never have I read a book dealing with justice and mercy which so unequivocally roots all of it in a communal experience of God’s goodness and compassion. The picture of true compassion as a community who can hear the voice of God and respond, whose roots are in a deep experience of God in prayer and patience, this is the church’s call to compassion. Without a harsh tenor, the authors rightly critique compassionate efforts which are overly focused on conquering problems and getting hard results. They focus our attention once again on the heart of the God who is all compassionate. Our efforts must be rooted in community and not just any community but one that is fully submitted to hearing God’s voice and acting. This community seeks first to find solidarity with the poor through loving presence without fear of displacement and through disciplines such as prayer, patience and activism. This book is a gift – read it.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, New York: Image Books – Doubleday, 1983.
[2] Ibid., 4.
[3] Ibid., 12-13.
[4] Ibid., 19.
[5] Ibid., 29.
[6] Ibid., 30.
[7] Ibid., 36.
[8] Ibid., 52.
[9] Ibid., 61.
[10] Ibid., 62.
[11] Ibid., 78.
[12] Ibid., 89.
[13] Ibid., 97.
[14] Ibid. 107.A11]

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