As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
Henri J. M. Nouwen was always more interested in working with people, as a psychologist, pastor, or teacher, than in academic research or scholarly writing. In high school, he decided that he would not become a Jesuit priest, “because it required too much study.” Nonetheless, Nouwen spent the next seven years in seminary to become a diocesan priest in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and then went on to receive doctorandi in psychology and in theology (the equivalent of ABD in English). Throughout his life, Nouwen cultivated a deep devotion to pastoral ministry and, through his spiritual writing, reached a wide audience.
Nouwen’s life and work were absorbed by his love for and desire to understand spirituality in the ordinary lives of people, which was evident in his books. Nouwen’s writing got to the heart of the Christian faith in a way that connected deeply with readers — so deeply that his books have been translated into 22 languages and sold over two million copies. Over the course of his short life (he died at age 66 of a sudden heart attack), he wrote 37 books and hundreds of articles and was a popular teacher, speaker, and retreat leader. Even more telling is a 2003 study cited in the Christian Century, which revealed that Nouwen’s are the most read books, following the Bible, by mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy in their work as pastors.
Nouwen’s preference to the personal over the academic is best illustrated by his move to Daybreak. In 1985, after a chance meeting with Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international movement of communities that welcome people with disabilities, Nouwen accepted the position of pastor for the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario. For the final decade of his life, he found deep fulfillment in this community, living out his pastoral calling, writing, and traveling with a core member (person with a disability) who served as a co-facilitator at his lectures.
Woundedness and wholeness, love and acceptance, were perhaps Nouwen’s greatest themes. Nouwen was always engaged with themes of brokenness and “the human side of faith.” He was motivated not only by his pastoral vocation, but also by his own lifelong struggles with depression.
“I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.”
— Henri Nouwen, Catholic New Times, Nov 1986
The following excerpt is from a speech that Nouwen gave during his residency at the Collegeville Institute in Fall 1976. At the time he was an associate professor in pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. This particular talk on compassion grew out of a series of meetings, which Don McNeill (Notre Dame University), Douglas Morrison (Catholic University of America), and Nouwen (Yale University) held during the spring of 1976. Although Nouwen wrote the text, the ideas expressed here were born during hours of dialogue and prayer at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where they met for nine Thursdays. These three scholars published a book on the subject in 1983 titled, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life.
While on campus at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Nouwen also met informally with graduate students at the School of Theology and with undergraduates. “I first met Father Nouwen,” wrote Fr. Rene McGraw, OSB, “when he spoke during a table conversation at the invitation of the Ministry Preparation Group, a group of undergraduates interested in a life of ministry in the church. I don’t remember what his topic was, but I remember his brutal honesty about his interior life and his struggles. That drew us to him. And I think it drew him to us.”
The following speech by Henri J. M. Nouwen was originally delivered as a public lecture on November 5, 1976, and published as “Compassion: The Core of Spiritual Leadership” in Occasional Papers No. 2 (March 1977) by the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. It has been excerpted and slightly edited for length.
Compassion: A Movement through Joyful Solidarity, Voluntary Displacement, and Faithful Discipleship
By Henri J. M. Nouwen
Let me start with an old Sufi story about a Watermelon Hunter:
Once upon a time, there was a man who strayed from his own country into the world known as the Land of Fools. He soon saw a number of people flying in terror from a field where they had been trying to reap wheat. “There is a monster in that field,” they told him. He looked and saw that it was a watermelon.
He offered to kill the “monster” for them. When he had cut the melon from its stalk, he took a slice and began to eat it. The people became even more terrified of him than they had been of the melon. They drove him away with pitchforks crying, “He will kill us next, unless we get rid of him.”
It so happened that at another time another man also strayed into the Land of Fools, and the same thing started to happen to him. But, instead of offering to help them with the “monster,” he agreed with them that it must be dangerous and by tiptoeing away from it with them he gained their confidence. He spent a long time with them in their houses until he could teach them, little by little, the basic facts which would enable them not only to lose their fear of melons, but even to cultivate them themselves. [Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1970), p.207ff., quoted by Sheldon B. Kopp, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1972), p. 8.]
This beautiful story tells us better than any essay the crucial difference between [someone] without compassion and [someone] with compassion. We know too well how great our temptation is to laugh at the fools who do not understand and to create hatred by cutting melons from their stalk. We also know that it is our hard but urgent vocation to become fools with the fools, to live in their land helping them with gentle patience to convert their fears into new expectations. That is the Christian vocation to compassion. It is the vocation to have the mind of our Lord Jesus Christ, who “did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as we are” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Compassion is core [to a spiritual life], and [three questions] need our special attention. The first question is: how does compassion manifest itself? The answer is: in solidarity. The second question is: how is compassion disciplined? The answer is: by voluntary displacement. The third question is: how is compassion lived out in the light of the gospel? The answer is: in discipleship.
Compassion manifests itself in solidarity, is disciplined by voluntary displacement and is lived out in discipleship. I hope to discover some clues about how to avoid becoming unwise melon hunters!
Compassion manifests itself in solidarity, the oneness of the human race, the intimate knowledge that all people, however separated by time or space, are bound together by the same human condition; the profoundly felt experience of human sameness.
This solidarity is hard to find in a world where greater value is attached to distinctiveness than to sameness. The world in which we live tells us that we are the difference we make. We are more or less intelligent, practical, strong, fast, handy, or handsome, than others. It is according to these differences that we are recognized, honored, rejected or despised. It is upon these positive or negative distinctions that our self-esteem depends. In fact our world makes us believe that we are our differences. It does not take much to realize that in all family conflicts, race conflicts, national and international conflicts the consciousness of human sameness has been replaced by the awareness of dividing lines. Indeed, we invest much if not most of our human energy in defending the differences between people and groups of people and, therefore, in maintaining definitions of ourselves that allow us to keep distance from each other. We all are very protective of our real or imaginary trophies. After all, who are we when we cannot point to something special which sets us apart from others?
The great news of the Gospel, however, is that this way of self-identification is an illusion, an illusion that makes us violent, competitive people who are constantly concerned to maintain our differences and to defend them at all costs. The Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals to us that our real identity is not on the edges of our existence where we can brag about our specialties, but in the center where, by the acceptance of our basic human sameness, our solidarity with all people can be affirmed, and our individual talents can be received as gifts to each other. Christ calls us, therefore, to let go of our false identity and to recognize humbly as well as joyfully who we really are.
It is in the celebration of our solidarity as broken people in need of healing that compassion manifests itself. The word compassion means literally: to suffer with. To be compassionate, therefore, means first of all to confess our part in the suffering human condition and to recognize that the anchor points of our identity are in the common experience of a broken existence.
When Thomas Merton came to the existential realization of this human solidarity, he experienced such a joyful sense of liberation that he cried out: “Thank God, thank God, that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others… It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race…” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image Books, 1956, p. 261). Important here is not Merton’s recognition that after all he was not so different from other people, but the realization that in the full affirmation of this sameness his deepest sense of self could be found.
Solidarity, as the manifestation of compassion, does not mean resignation to the sad fact that we are about the same as other human beings, but it means desire to participate in our human sameness as fully and deeply as possible. Paradoxically it asks of us not just to be the same but to be more of the same, that is, to live out our basic human condition in the most articulate way possible.
Having considered how compassion manifests itself, the question arises: Is there anything we can do so that compassion will become more visible in our own daily lives? Is there a method or technique by which we can become more compassionate? Is there any rule for those who want to strive for a compassionate way of living? In short: Is there a discipline for compassion?
Let us first of all realize that compassion cannot be learned. Compassion is not a skill which can be mastered by arduous training, years of study, or careful supervision. You cannot get an M.A. or a Ph.D. in compassion! Compassion is not a human quality which can be acquired, but a divine gift which must be shared. If there is any discipline of compassion, therefore, this can only be understood as a way of discipleship by which the divine gift of compassion which is already present can be made visible and available.
Discipline in the spiritual life is the human effort to unveil what was covered, to bring to the foreground what had remained hidden and to put on the lampstand what was kept under the bushel. It is the removal of all obstacles to the life of the Spirit in us.
The discipline of compassion is displacement, voluntary displacement. Displacement, according to the dictionary, means “to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place.” That is an excellent definition when we recognize the extent to which we are preoccupied with adapting ourselves to the prevalent norms and values of our milieu and becoming ordinary and proper people who live ordinary and proper lives. But by seeking what is ordinary and proper, we lose touch with our inner brokenness as well as with the brokenness of our fellow human beings. The result is a tendency to reduce the human family to a collection of interesting characters trying hard to outdo each other in politics, sports, business, meditation or even torture.
Voluntary displacement is the discipline necessary to prevent us from being caught in the net of the ordinary and proper. It is the discipline which is essential if we are to remind ourselves who we really are and so remain in touch with our great gift of compassion. The discipline of displacement is a discipline by which we can unmask the illusion of having it together and thus experience our real condition, which is that we, like other people, are pilgrims on the way, that we are broken in search of healing, that we are sinners in need of grace. In order for displacement to be a real discipline however, it must be a voluntary displacement, a displacement which we can affirm from within even when we have little or no control over the external circumstances.
Thomas Merton once wrote: “My monastery… is a place in which I disappear from the world as an object of interest in order to be everywhere in it by hiddenness and compassion” (Preface to the Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, p. II). This sentence expresses beautifully the discipline of voluntary displacement. To disappear from the world as an object of interest in order to be everywhere in hiddenness and compassion that is the basic movement of the spiritual life.
The fact that this meant for Merton going to a monastery is secondary. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant returning to Germany and becoming a prisoner of the Nazis; for Martin Luther King Jr. it meant leaving the “ordinary and proper” place of blacks and leading protest marches; for Mother Theresa it means caring for the dying in Calcutta; for Jean Vanier it means living with the [intellectually disabled], and for many, if not most people, it means acceptance of their factual displacement and faithful perseverance in their unspectacular daily lives. But whatever displacement means in the concrete life of the individual person, it is a necessary discipline of our spiritual life when we desire to live in this world not as an object of interest but in hiddenness and compassion. For this Jesus prayed on the evening of His death: “Father I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one… As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17: 15-18).
We now come to the final and most crucial question: Is compassion a real human possibility? This might sound like a strange question after all that has been said about solidarity and displacement. Still this question keeps presenting itself in many different ways. When you speak about compassion, the objection easily arises: How much can I take, how much can I handle? I am only a limited human being! I know that there is poverty, hunger, war, and violence in the world but I just cannot undertake more than I already have. Please do not overburden me!
This complaint is realistic and quite understandable. But perhaps there is an illusion underneath this complaint, namely, the illusion that ideally we should be able to carry all of each other’s burdens. Maybe we feel somewhere that we should be able to save the world, to put things in order, to take away all human pain. Faced with the immensity of this felt obligation, we ask for the recognition of our limitations by saying that one has to be “realistic” and do what one can. We say: “Do your best and God does the rest.”
The problem, as you already know, is not that we cannot do it all, but that we want to do it all. I am increasingly convinced that many of our guilt feelings are based on our Messianic aspirations, our desire to be God and take over his work. Spiritual leaders such as Thomas Merton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, did not say: “Try to do what you realistically can, and leave the rest up to God.” No, they said: “You can not do anything at all, but God can do everything in you.” God indeed has made all human suffering in time and place part of his most intimate life by accepting the death of his Son as the expiation of our sins. In the resurrected body of Christ, marked with the wounds of the Cross, all human pains have entered into the center of the Divine Life. In Christ, God revealed himself to us as a compassionate God because in Christ, he suffered fully with us and became fully present to us. Therefore, only of Christ can it be said that he knows what suffering is, that he really understands. Therefore, only of Christ can it be said that nothing human is alien to him and that there are no limits to his solidarity with the human condition. Therefore, only Christ, who did not sin, can be called compassionate in the fullest sense of that word.
Every human attempt to be compassionate independent of Christ is doomed to failure. The discipline of compassion only makes sense as an expression of discipleship.
When we speak about discipleship, we do not speak about following Jesus as a good example who can teach us how to behave. That would not only be a superficial but also a false understanding of discipleship. What it really means is that God’s compassion is the source of all human compassion, and that our compassion is therefore nothing more or less than a participation in and a reflection of this divine compassion. Discipleship in the Christian sense is the realization that without Christ compassion is indeed impossible, but that with, through, and in him it has no limits. Just as the moon depends for its light on the sun so all of our compassion is dependent on God’s compassion in Jesus. In Christ, there are no boundaries to our compassion. In Christ, we can carry the burden of the whole world. But his burden is a light burden.
Once we can see and experience this great mystery, our concrete work of every day changes dramatically. Because then we can see that the work we are doing is not “as much as we can handle,” but a manifestation and concretization of the great compassion which God has shown to our world in his Son, Jesus. When we care for a lonely man, teach an ignorant child, spend time with a sad woman, offer food to the hungry, and work for justice and peace in our own house, city, state, country or world, we are in fact giving visibility to God’s boundless compassion. In Christ, there is no place for guilt feelings or complaints. In Christ, we can “do a little thing” while doing much, we can show care without being crushed and we can face the pains of the world without becoming gloomy, depressed, or doomsday prophets. As long as we act as if the task to save the world rested on our own shoulders, we have to ignore a lot of pain or we become depressed. But when we begin to realize that we can do nothing ourselves but everything in Christ, our solidarity with our neighbor can be a joyful solidarity, a solidarity through which the great compassion of God can bring new life into the hearts of people.