Book Review: Compassion
Posted January 29, 2013on:
Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, drawings by Joel Filartiga, Doubleday Books, 1982, 137 pp.
This book came recommended in connection with my Macedonian Ministries group’s ongoing work on compassion and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. Several of my colleagues have used it as study material for small groups in their churches.
The best description of the book is that it is a deep meditation on compassion in the tradition of Christ. Nouwen, McNeill and Morris begin not with what it means to act compassionately, but with the compassion of God. What does it mean to say that God is compassionate? How is that compassion shown, given the obvious reality of evil and suffering in the world? They contrast compassion with competition. We humans are motivated by competition with one another, but God (and Jesus) are able to show compassion because they are not in competition with us. This realization about competition really struck me. Competition is not just about being better than others, it is also about being distinguished from others. It is when we strive for distinction (in contrast to humility, not sameness) that we move away from compassion. For example, they discuss being a servant:
Service is an expression of the search for God and not just the desire to bring about individual or social change. … As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. (29)
That connects service to obedience to God, because “whenever we separate service from obedience, compassion becomes a form of spiritual stardom.” (36)
After the meditation on the compassion of God, the authors move through the characteristics of a life shaped by compassion.
- Community—a compassionate life is not lived alone, but within a group of others “walking on the same path” (49)
- Displacement—a voluntary response to being called out of our lives, recognizing we are sinners in need of grace
- Togetherness—letting go of our desire to be special so that we can create healing space for others
- Patience—patience provides discipline to the life of compassion, making us open to God’s time and others’ time
- Prayer—opening our hearts to the needs of others, shaping our spirits
- Action—may include confrontation, and emerges from deep joy and gratitude from God, not from a need to be noticed
There are many beautiful expressions and spiritual insights throughout the book, but the chapter on prayer captured one of the best theologies of prayer I have ever heard.
Prayer is not an effort to make contact with God, to bring God to our side. 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. The discipline of prayer is the discipline by which we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglements in our impatient impulses. It is the way by which we allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-103)
I found this book to be rich and moving on a multitude of levels. It address the whole of the spiritual life, not just the “acts of justice and mercy” that are on our spiritual to-do list. I think it could work well in a group, for clergy or laity, for people in various places in their discipleship journey. I anticipate returning to it many times in the future.