By Victoria Marie (2006, 2013)
Some of the current theoretical perspectives are seriously questioning “taken for granted” dichotomies and dualisms such as: mind/body; intellectual/emotional; and, public/private. Many of us acknowledge that the dividing lines are getting blurry, if not disappearing altogether. Yet when it comes to spiritual/physical one of three things happen. The spiritual is severed from the physical, denied existence, or wedded to religion. Religion may be the way some of us choose to express our faith but spirituality is where love and compassion reside. Love and compassion are not necessarily concomitant with religion but they cannot be separated from spirituality. Someone once said, “religion is like a monument; spirituality is like a river.” Spirituality is alive, changing, flowing, joining.
…spirituality concerns the experience of striving for self-transcendence, to be in relationship with the Other, a quality that goes beyond religious affiliation. It is a striving for meaning, purpose, and knowledge of the Transcendent that has personal, communal and public aspects (CHAC, 1996:13).
The way that we strive for meaning, purpose and knowledge of the Transcendent is rooted in our theological perspective. One’s theology, articulated or not, influences the external expression of the interior spiritual self. What follows is an attempt to formulate a constructive theology of contemplation and compassion for today’s world from the perspective of my own cultural and religious community. To do so, certain preliminary issues must be addressed. For example, some background material is supplied to make clear the “standpoint” from which I speak. Further, Michael Blastic (1998), noted Franciscan theologian, suggests a theology for today should explore the following questions which I have used as a framework for exploring a theology of contemplation and compassion:
- what does it mean to be human?
- what is the value and role of social institutions?
- and, how are we to deal with difference, with otherness?
What is expressed here is not meant to be dogmatic or proselytize a particular faith or denominational point of view. The purpose is to share a Christian view of compassion and contemplation, which is influenced by Saint Francis of Assisi. For example, in early Christian monastic tradition, compassion and contemplation corresponded to the physical-spiritual dichotomy with the corresponding hierarchical attribution of value or virtue. Contemplation practiced as a life of prayer away from the world was seen as a “holier” way to live than compassion as practiced in good works in the world. According to Franciscan teaching, this too, is another false dichotomy. Contemplation provides us with the space for reflection and self-reflection that awakens us to our connectedness to God, stirring in us the compassion to act with others according to our transformed awareness.
The definitions of theology, compassion and contemplation, as used here, must precede any further discussion. For a definition of theology, I look to John Duns Scotus as interpreted by Ingham (1994:227):
…theology is praxis and its goal is not simply a way of doing, but rather a way of being human in the image of the divine trinitarian mystery of personhood and communion. This way of being unites us with God and with one another in a communion of love as an imitation of the love which Christ embodied.
Compassion entails being willing to suffer with another person by being there in whatever way possible, sharing the circumstances of the other’s life as much as one can. Compassion includes realizing that being there is the best we can do sometimes. Compassion means being there as a companion to the person who suffers not as a “fixer” for the person who is suffering (Palmer, 1990:84).
Contemplation, according to Palmer (1990:17), is understood as “any way that we can unveil the illusion that masquerades as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks.” The Reality behind the masks is our longing for God, God’s love for us, and that we are social beings meant to be in right relationship with God and each other.
Yet, no one approaches theology with a clean slate. We all bring our own perspectives formed by our unique backgrounds and experiences that can affect us in at least two ways. First, it is a life’s work to overcome certain habitual ways of thinking that hinders us in love. Second, a few experiences give us an understanding of some people or situations that allow us to follow Christ and serve our neighbour in unique or special ways. Hence, it is worthwhile to take inventory of ourselves so that we are aware of those things about ourselves that with grace can be transformed and/or enhanced so that we may fulfill the two commandments of Jesus.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40 NRSV).
Contemplation and compassion reside in those two commandments. One could view this paper as a blueprint for how I am to do theology, given my background and experience.
I am a cradle Roman Catholic who attended a parochial grammar school and Brooklyn’s diocesan high school. I come from a family in which one side was Roman Catholic and interfaith on the other. The pre-Vatican II years in which the church was not above the societal “ism’s” of the day, including racism, were my formative years. At that time, most images of the sacred were based on a eurocentric world view.
It is hard not to view the world through the lens of marginalization in a society and a church that does not deal equitably with its female members. My education tends to make me suspect among non-dominant groups, while the colour of my skin and my gender often set me on the margins of the dominant group. Yet, instead of making me bitter, I see the benefit for service of having one foot on either side of the bridge. I have been graced with the ability to understand the language of the mainstream and that of the marginal groups to which I “belong” or have been assigned.
I was a member of a Franciscan ecumenical order founded in 1996 after 10 years of birthing. We live a vowed life, including the vow of poverty which for us includes owning no real estate, individually or in common, and living in solidarity with the poor. As a pastoral assistant for three inner-city parishes, I wore a variety of hats, including coordinator of adult religious education, pastoral care and numerous other duties. I am a founding member and resident of the Vancouver Catholic Worker House, a place of hospitality for people with nowhere else to stay, which opened in June 1998. Currently, as a Pastor, the time spent in paid and voluntary ministry, explorations of contemplation and compassion are not only a scholastic exercise but a reflective necessity for me.
The preceding is a snapshot of what formed the lens through which I view the world and through which I reflect on the questions that follow. It influences the material chosen and the way it is interpreted. Most of all it helps and sometimes hinders my honest desire to achieve that union with God of which Blastic spoke when he stated that, “Union with God comes from the intersection of desire for God and compassion for others (Blastic, 1998).
What Does It Mean To Be Human?
Pope John Paul II has called our modern culture, a “culture of death” for understanding human potential exclusively in terms of a person’s ability to produce and to purchase goods and services. Our Franciscan theological tradition offers an alternative interpretation of what it means to be human.
To be human is to be made in the image and likeness of God; to be a part of the universe, not master of it. Suffering, limitation, vulnerability and weakness are also part of being human. Being human means being created as a result of the infinite love of God. Francis tells us that it is in embracing our humanity, our suffering, limitation, vulnerability and weakness, we follow in the footsteps of Christ. In Christian tradition, God is the Trinity. According to Stravinskas (1991:942-3):
The central mystery of the Christian Faith is that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Three Persons sharing one nature. Although the term “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture, the reality of the Triune God is unmistakably present in Christ’s references to the Father and the Spirit. For example, Christ says: “When the Counselor comes, who I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bar witness to me” (John 15:26). The central conviction of historic mainstream Christianity ̶ hammered out over the course of three centuries of doctrinal controversy … ̶ is that Christ is describing not merely the external relations of God but the very inner life of the Triune God.
The procession of the Word [Son] from the Father (called “generation) and the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (“spiration”) are eternal and immanent. The only distinctions in the otherwise perfectly undifferentiated Divine Nature are those that arise by reason of the two processions. If the processions are real, then the relations to which they give rise must be real. However, since whatever is real in God is identical with the Divine Nature, the relations, though distinct from each other, are not distinct from God. The Three Persons of the Trinity are subsistent relations, each fully divine, each consubstantial with the other.
Thus, the inner life of the Triune God is a life of pure mutual interrelation in knowledge and love. The astonishing destiny of every created being (human and angelic) is to share in this union both through love of other persons and consummately in the Trinitarian life itself. This is mystery in the strictest sense, knowable only through the revelation of the Triune God.
The second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ who is God, so loved us that he took on our human condition so that we might come to know God. John Duns Scotus delves deeper into this Mystery and posits that Jesus Christ would have donned our human form even if our first parents had not broken their covenant with the Creator. He suggests that the Incarnation was always part of the Divine plan. Because of God’s love for us his creatures, Jesus was always destined to be the mediator between the Creator and the creature. Ingham (1994) describes the relatedness between God and humanity as “mutuality” because it depends upon a free choice among persons, in this case God and humanity, to enter into relationship.
Mutuality between God and human persons is a freely chosen act initiated by God, foreseen from all eternity, begun in the Incarnation, and fully realized in the future when Christ will bring all things together and God will be “all in all.” The summit of creation is the communion of all persons with one another and with God. This is made possible by the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. . . . He [Christ] embodies the covenant between God and humans (Ingham, 1994:222).
God’s love for us goes beyond the generality that God loves humanity. God loves each of us specifically and in particular. The Hebrew Scripture says:
I have called you by name, you are mine. . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you (Isaiah 43:1, 4a).
We cannot separate reason from feeling in our response to what it means to be human. To be compassionate is to feel what the other feels. To share the other’s suffering, one must be compassionate. Our reason should tell us that we are not able to “fix” every situation and that “being with” a person in a time of need is sometimes more mutually healthy than “doing for” the person. It is through contemplation that our understanding, our hearts and our eyes become open to compassion. Through contemplation, we become open to God’s love for us and to the knowledge that we show our love for God through loving our neighbour. The Trinity, a communion of love, is the model for human interaction and human community/society.
The exemplar of [T]rinitarian communion and divine initiative reveal divine love as agape, or other-centered. The very act of creation is a sign of divine perfection, and to view the created order as a freely chosen divine act endows all nature with heightened dignity. The outpouring of love beyond the three persons of the Trinity into the covenant with Israel and the Incarnation reveals the inclusivity of the divine dynamic of love. God does not desire to be the private possession of any one person or group, but to extend the reality of love to all persons (Ingham, 1994:228).
Francis knew that being human also meant being in relationship or community with others. He knew that his way of following in the footprints of Jesus could be shared not just with his brothers but with everyone. He makes this impassioned plea in the Earlier Rule,
And all of us lesser brothers, useless servants, humbly ask and beg all those who wish to serve the Lord God … all the small and the great, all peoples, races, tribes, and tongues, all nations and all peoples everywhere on earth who are and who will be¾that all of us may persevere in the true faith and in penance, for otherwise no one will be saved (Armstrong and Brady, 1983:132).
Francis is saying we are all in this together, and we must strive to become, who we are called by God to be, regardless of our marital and professional status. In our time, the church is no longer one, catholic, and apostolic but many, each claiming to have The Truth. On the secular level people no longer think of the village, the community, or even the state as a rallying point. Concern for profit seems to have replaced concern for people. Even less concern is shown for our non-human brothers and sisters, including our planet, the earth on which we live, the air we breath and our waters. Hence, we seem to have lost faith in our institutions both secular and religious.
What is the value and role of social institutions?
Palmer (1990) describes what he calls the “scarcity assumption” and posits that the quality of our lives depends on whether we act from the assumption of a world of scarcity or a world of abundance (Palmer, 1990:124). The scarcity assumption consists of assuming that basic needs like food and shelter as well as the intangibles like love, a sense of competence, and power are in short supply. It assumes not only the survival of the fittest but of the fastest and the strongest.
Each of us is an incarnation of the holy, posits Palmer. Hence, each of us can live a life that evokes the power inherent in the community we have with each other and with God. Further, each life lived out of holiness can evoke the power of corporate abundance that lies behind the illusion of scarcity (Palmer, 1990:136). “Corporate” as used here means communal. Therefore, corporate abundance is the natural outcome of shared resources. The reality of corporate abundance could replace institutional structures founded on the assumption of scarcity, such as hierarchies which,
are always rooted in the belief that power itself is or ought to be, a scarce commodity, rooted in the belief that few people are qualified to hold power, or that few should be allowed to hold it, lest the threatening abundance of power known as “democracy” come to pass (Palmer, 1990:126).
Rohr and Feister (1996) describe the outcome of our participation in the assumption of scarcity at the institutional level. They state that it is money which drives our governmental, social policy and other institutions. Rohr and Feister (1996) state,
Some people say politics is the driving institution, but people often are naïve politically, ignorant of the power and reality of politics.
The dominant institution in our society is the system of production and consumption. The central value of our culture is buying and selling. It pervades everything. . . .Commercialism is invading everything because the entire system is built on the commandments, “Thou shalt produce” and “Thou shalt consume” (Rohr and Feister, 1996:68).
The deception of the scarcity of resources and power are dependent on a religion of the captive God. Brueggemann posits this is a religion in which all opposition is dissipated and the status quo is at ease in the presence of God. When the tension concerning God’s freedom is eliminated, especially God’s freedom to be the court of appeal for the marginalized, religion becomes one more dimension for the maintenance of order in society, no matter the cost (Brueggemann, 1978:36).
Our Franciscan tradition and Palmer teach us that if we convert from buying and competing to giving and offering ourselves, both community and abundance will result. Abundance does not necessarily mean that we have embarked on a world without pain and suffering but that in community we replace the assumption of scarcity which placates the powerful few with satiation at the expense of the majority of God’s children by reducing them to poverty. Abundance is arrived at through individuals filled with passion who make up a compassionate community.
Passion as the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality. Imperial economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God (Brueggemann, 1978:41).
In the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, Jesus gives thanks to God, acknowledges that he and the others are dependent on gifts that have been given and expresses his trust that there is a power other than his at work. This empowers Jesus to act (Palmer, 1990:135).
Without our active cooperation, God’s abundance remains in the realm of potential, always there, always available, but forever untapped. To put it into Christian terms, we are called to incarnate the Christ-life (Palmer, 1990:135).
The value and role of our institutions is that they should work for the common good. The more we become aware of the illusions and opt for the reality that Jesus is showing us, the better able we will be to form and reform our social institutions. In keeping with the definition of contemplation as any way that we can unmask illusion and reveal reality, we are able to act out of our contemplation. We will be empowered to be prophets as individuals and as communities, who can critically evaluate our society’s commitment to social justice. We will be empowered to guide our institutions. The prophet is not concerned with the success of the mission as such but is concerned with living and being who they are before God. Brueggemann writes:
The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister (1978:50-51).
How Are We To Deal With Difference, Otherness?
Francis tells us “We must never desire to be over others; rather we must be servants and subject to every human creature for God’s sake” (Armstrong and Brady, 1982:70). In this regard, Jesus is our prime example of inclusiveness. To Jesus women, even foreign women such as the Syro-Phoenician Woman (Mk 7:24-30, Mat 14:21-28) and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42), were worthy of his attention. Societal outcasts, such as Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10) and lepers (Luke 17:11-19), were shown to be loved by God through Jesus’ friendship and ministry. Jesus demonstrates God’s love for each of these people.
We must not overlook the fact that the Syro-Phoenician Woman and the Samaritan Woman at the Well demanded to be heard. They were bold enough to step out of the role that the dominant society had set for them and asked for what they needed. These women did not just “stay in their place”. Often when questions of inclusion or exclusion are considered the potentially (often actually) excluded are not part of the discussion.
Exclusion from the dignity due the human person, made in the image of God, is injustice. Oppression, repression, murder, violence, and all the “isms” are the result of ignoring the dignity and spark of God inherent in each and everyone of God’s creatures. Keeping silent on issues of injustice, refraining from involvement when another is being unjustly treated, are ways of passively participating in the violence itself. Palmer touched a chord in my conscience and my soul as I read:
If we—people like me and perhaps you—really believed in resurrection, believed it not just in theory but in our bones, we would have no choice but to risk all that we have by taking action for justice.
Bone-deep knowledge of resurrection would take away the fears that some of us presently use to justify our cautious, self-protective lives. Death-dealing fear would be replaced by life-giving faith, and we would be called to do God-knows-what for God-knows-who. Perhaps we would be compelled to take in a homeless person; to go to prison in protest of nuclear madness; to leave jobs that contribute to violence; to “speak truth to power” in a hundred risky ways. In the process, we might lose much that we have, perhaps even our lives—and that is the threat of resurrection (Palmer, 1990:153-4).
Living as if we believed in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus would put us right where contemplation and compassion intersect, the union with God that we seek.
Our institutions have a role and value only if they work from a bedrock based on truth instead of perpetuating life and love defeating lies and myths. We need to heed the prophets of our time who show us that “the emperor has no clothes” instead of the corporate public relations spokespersons telling us to spend what we do not have to buy what we do not need, to imprison ourselves in enclaves that keep out those who might need what we have in our storehouses. Jesus cured lepers, Francis kissed, nursed and befriended lepers, we can at least break bread with the lepers of our time. In a nut shell, a viable theology of compassion and contemplation has three components: love God, love God in and through our neighbour, and act like we do. For as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says, “The failure to put love into practice, even if we are faithful to the Church in all other ways, is a rejection of salvation itself” (Huebsch, 1997:37)
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