I have several friends who are authors.
Not that I’ve ever met them, you understand. They don’t even know who I am. Yet I count them as friends because their words have helped me to learn and grow. And so I carry deep gratitude and affection toward Madeleine L’Engle, Frederick Buechner, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few. I thought of Nouwen in particular tonight when I got email today about The TED Prize that was awarded to Karen Armstrong (also an author) in 2008 and culminated today in the launching of the Charter for Compassion. Armstrong is a former nun who has become one of the world’s best and best-known religious historians and probably one of the few people in the world who actually understands Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Charter for Compassion is her initiative to call people together by beginning with the understanding that compassion and interconnectedness lie at the heart of most all of the world’s religions. The charter begins:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
I still haven’t gotten to how Henri Nouwen fits in to all of this. Well, I have to back up a few years.
Try twenty-five years.
In the early eighties, Nouwen wrote a book called Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life that I bought and read and read again. In it, he gave me the best working definition of compassion – voluntarily entering the pain of another – and he made the case for that compassion being a “uniquely Christian virtue.” As one blurb explains:
At first sight compassion seems to be a natural, instinctive, human response to others’ pain and suffering. But on closer inspection the authors conclude that for the Christian true compassion is born only out of prayerful reflection on the implications of the Incarnation and the demands it makes on all who would follow in the footsteps of the Man of Sorrows.
As I listened to Armstrong talk, I wondered what he would do if he were here to read her offering. Would the priest and the former nun find they were on the same page? The question is fun to think about, but it’s not the one driving me to write tonight. Listen to Nouwen:
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.
The Fellowship of the Broken. Yes.
As I read his words again, I realize I understand what he is talking about because of the Incarnation, because of my faith in Christ and the lessons I learn from Jesus’ life. When I listen to Armstrong, I understand the Fellowship of the Broken is not limited to Christians any more than we can claim to have a corner on the truth (or the Truth). We are called to care for one another because we are all God’s children.
God’s broken children.
Nouwen was compelling because he lived a life of true compassion, actually entering pain he could not comprehend. He asked to be sent to the poorest parish in the world to work even as he was becoming a well-known writer and speaker; he also spent years as a part of the L’Arche Community. No doubt his faith was what compelled him to make those choices. The same was true for Gandhi, yet the faith that led him down the same path of brokenness was not called by the same name.
Before we even join churches or mosques or synagogues, we are a part of the Fellowship of the Broken. Coming to terms with that connection and committing ourselves to compassionate living is what will begin to put us back together.
Take a minute and watch the video.