This post is a continuation of our series on Henry Nouwen’s ‘The Way of The Heart’. The introduction to the series can be found here.
A Compassionate Ministry
In this sub-chapter Nouwen begins by telling us what happened to St. Anthony after he left isolation: he ‘was blessed by a rich and varied ministry. People from many walks of life came to him and asked for advice. The solitude that at first had required physical isolation had now become a quality of his heart.’ We need space to be on our own with Christ, but once we have faced down our inner most demons and taken off the mask of our false self, Christ rebuilds us in his image, so that we become that image of Christ and we can go out into the world without falling back into our old ways. Yes, the world will in time begin to chip away at this new image, but this is why, for me personally, regular retreats our needed. This idea of being stripped down and rebuilt reminds me of a worship Song by CJM music collective, called Make me Holy, which you can listen to here.
‘Through the struggle with his demons and the encounter with his Lord, Anthony had learned to diagnose the hearts of people and the mood of his time and thus to offer insight, comfort and consolation. Solitude had made him a compassionate man.’ This is how solitude relates to public ministry, it enables us to go out and meet people where they are in their sufferings and to walk with them through it. We will never be able to take away that suffering for them, that is not our task, but we can be with them, so they are not alone, they don’t feel the pain of isolation in their trials. ‘Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that take place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.’ All of us may wish to appear to be compassionate people, and I know I personally would want to do anything for anyone – I’ve had enough bad experiences in my life and I know I wouldn’t wish for anyone to feel the way I have felt in the past. However, I would be lying if I said I found it easy to be that way 100% of the time and it didn’t take its toll on me. Nouwen offers a reason why this is: ‘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… so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.’ God could have removed all our suffering from us, but he didn’t; he came to be with us, to walk with us, to experience the same suffering we all experience, so that we would know we are not alone. Nouwen speaks of this transformation by saying, ‘In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solitude.’ But why does that happen? Why is this incredibly personal journey able to open us up to others? I believe it is empathy, having been through suffering ourselves we know what it feels like and we can then imagine what others are feeling, Nouwen states something different but similar, suggesting that it is because all this suffering stems from ourselves .‘In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice… are deeply anchored in out own heart.’ So, this suffering is an aspect of ourselves, it is the negativity that we have created, and as we have created it why then should we run from it, like a child who runs from their mistakes and bad behaviour? Instead we must face up to it, knowing in our hearts that this is why our Lord came and he is fighting it with us, helping us to fix our mistakes.
Nouwen then goes on to describe how we can put this compassion into service, stating that ‘in order to be of service to others we have to die to them.’ This can be a hard concept to grasp, but he clarifies what he means by that ‘we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of other. To die to our neighbours means to stop judging them’ I love this idea, if you were to go into any church and ask anyone you find, how they know they are a good person so often you will hear that they are good because they do this, that and the other whereas Mrs Whatsherface who sits two pews behind doesn’t do any of that or at least a lot less… so how does that make you good? Very rarely will they compare themselves with someone who is seen to do more than then and quite often there are people who aren’t seen to be doing anything but in fact do so much but without drawing attention to it. That is only one way we judge each other, we have these preconceptions about each other based on things we can’t change like age or gender, and we aren’t quiet about our views, we make judgements based on people’s history whether or not they still do those actions or if they are trying to turn their life around. We treat people as we see them, ‘forcing them in this way to live up to our views. And so, our ministry is limited by the snares of our own judgements.’ We have all heard people say things like ‘if you hear something enough it sticks.’ Well, I know how true that statement is, I know how it can work in the negative, you hear so frequently the different ways you’re going to screw up and you start screwing up but then in reverse, if you hear how well you are doing and how much people think you can do and support you, you start to improve ,you gain motivation and you begin to see it in yourself. This is the secret of ministry: to offer that supportive role, not to do everything for a person but to be there as a safety net, helping them to do it themselves.
Nouwen uses a lot of stories and imagery in this book most but in this chapter my favourite has to be the imagery he uses to describe this action of judging each other. ‘It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead.’ He later then bring us back to the idea of solitude saying ‘Solitude leads to the awareness of the dead person in our own house and keeps us from making judgements about other people’s sin. In this way real forgiveness becomes possible.’ ‘Solitude moulds self-righteous people into… persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry.’ This is how true solitude contracts the all so often image the word brings up as ‘through solitude we do not move away from people. On the contrary, we move closer to them.’
So far, Nouwen has discussed the argument for withdrawing from society, and the effect of that time in solitude. In this last section, The Compassionate Minister, he brings the argument full-circle, asking the question of how solitude will change us as we re-engage with the world.
And yet this is not a proposal that we should quit solitude, that solitude is intended to be temporary. Nouwen argues that ‘Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end’. So how does out retreat into solitude also become a reengagement with others, and a changed way of ministering? His answer is simple: compassion. Solitude awake our hearts to love. Awareness of the faults in our own hearts is a spiritual counterweight to the secular world’s inclination to judge others.
As I read this chapter, I became aware that Nouwen’s word for this compassionate closeness, solidarity, is similar in sound to the word solitude. To my disappointment, they appear to come from different roots: solidarity descends from the latin solidus, meaning a whole sum, a body; solitude comes from solitudinem, meaning loneliness, being alone, a desert, or a wilderness. Wholeness and wilderness, juxtaposed together. Nouwen’s choice of words here is very deliberate. We are to hold these two concepts as sisters, working closely together. In the sentence, they seem to be saying: I reflect the other.
The compassion we are born to in the desert brings us into solidarity with others because we are no longer isolated by our own sins. In solitude we recognise the flaws and failings within ourselves, and humility grows in place of pride. And so, Nouwen explains, we ‘die to our neighbours’ – that is, the pre-existing judgements, the societal values, and the structures of pre-established relationships. We give up our grudges and prejudices, because we know any failings we perceive in others also to exist in ourselves, and we know them to be loved as totally and completely as we are. The transforming love found in solitude which we have already witnessed we know to be at work in others. Solidarity here does not mean picking a side, but coming alongside. It’s more than empathy; it’s knowing that the same grace of God by which we are made whole is present in those we meet.
Over the last few months, I have slowly been reading Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth, a beautiful and engrossing manifesto of Christian community life. A refrain in Vanier’s writing is the great love of God to the poor and needy; Vanier suggests that we look to the most vulnerable to see salvation. I think this ties in well with Nouwen’s description of solitude. Deep, compassionate solidarity with others, especially at their darkest and most vulnerable points, is as much a part of solitude as finding those places of darkness inside ourselves. I’m not sure we can really forgive ourselves – or allow ourselves to accept God’s forgiveness – until we are as open to forgiving and loving others in their sin. And to love others compassionately, and walk beside them in solidarity, invites them also to walk beside you.
Before I joined the Holywell Community, I had to talk to my extended family and friends about what I was doing, and why. Above all they have been supportive, but of course many questions emerged. One of those questions was how I could do good for others, and serve others, if I seek out a life of isolation. The answer to that question has been building in my heart for a long time, but Nouwen has helped me put it into words. Solitude, despite its dictionary definition, is not the same as loneliness or isolation. It is a ministry where ‘there is hardly any difference left between doing and being’. Compassion bridges the gap between solitude and solidarity. Whether you are called to an active or a contemplative life, Godly solitude can make our lives an act of love given to each other.
We use solitude to escape from ‘a world that victimises us by its compulsions’. It’s a place where we fight our own personal battles and ‘struggle against our anger and greed’, it’s a place where we ‘let our new self be born in the loving encounter with Jesus Christ.’
St. Anthony in his old age returned to his solitude, but into an even deeper solitude ‘to be totally absorbed in direct communion with God.’ God created us and, so it is only natural that we should return to Him, however, although physically apart from other in this time we do not truly leave them we carry them with us on our heart and in our prayers, ‘to solitude we must return, not alone, but with all those whom we embrace through our ministry.’
In this chapter, Nouwen has described the journey we make into solitude, but by doing so he also sets out a model for how to reach others and bring them to Christ. The wisdom and faith of the desert Fathers and Mothers has reached many hundreds of thousands of people since their time, inspiring many believers to seek solitude to develop their own faith.
This series will continue shortly exploring the next chapter of The Way of the Heart, which looks at silence. If this is the first post you’ve read, here are: the introduction, the first part, and the second part. Thank you for reading this far!