The Option for Compassion
by Brother Bernard Couvillion, S.C.
Selected Readings, pp. 30-37, 40-42
A. In the Spirit, Suffer with Others
At the general chapter of the Religious of Jesus and Mary a year ago, members of our general council served as a panel on the subject of our common charism. When my turn came to speak, I used the metaphor of a storm building up through the Old and New Testaments in the heart of God. It is a storm of anxious suffering provoked by the suffering of orphans. The storm builds to such a point that it leaps down like a bolt of lightning and strikes the heart of André.
When God's compassion for orphans strikes, André interrupts his official duties in order to respond. How? He conducts the lightning to Claudine Thévenet, a laywoman, saying, “My shivering daughters are critically ill.” He conducts the lightning to Guillaume Arnaud, a layman, saying, “My sons in Roanne prison are in critical condition.” He conducts a lightning appeal to lay benefactors: “Help! The children in the streets of Lyon are critically ill.” André charges our predecessors’ hearts with the fire of compassion the Lord wants burning on the earth for the young who are poor and without hope.
André was charged by the Spirit with special powers of empathy for abandoned children which he passed on to his two congregations. He had the gift to experience vicariously what they were going through and to be sensitive even to their unexpressed feelings. The funding appeal he wrote in the first prospectus for the Pieux-Secours is a masterpiece of empathy. His plea comes from within the consciousness of the young prisoners with whom he bonded during his visits and catechism classes. It is clear from the tone of his intercession that he suffers with them.
They [we] are rejected wherever they [we] go.
Honest employers are unwilling to hire them [us].
All the religious’ establishments refuse to admit them [us], despite the fact that substantial sums have been offered to cover the cost of their [our] apprenticeships.
Are they [we] therefore to be left to return to their [our] former ways?
Are all the noble expectations for them [us] to perish? (Coindre 3, p. 30)
His empathy extended to the brothers as well. For example, writing back after leaving
Lyon he wrote, “Day and night you are foremost in my thoughts. I can see a thousand problems ahead of you.” It was automatic: their problems were his problems. (Coindre I, Letter I, p. 49)
So that we can effectively conduct the lightning of André's compassion to colleagues and to students, we could certainly pray for a good dose of our founder’s gift of empathy, which is the ability to contemplate a person so as to arrive at the point of identifying with and fully comprehending him or her. While it is true that André's empathy was a gift of the Holy Spirit, we can develop it as a part of our ongoing psychological and human formation alongside our professional formation. Sharpening listening skills, learning to take appropriate risks in responding to others’ needs, deepening our awareness of our own and others’ feelings – all can help us grow in empathy.
Another gift we could use is more in the order of faith than of psychology. In The Compassionate Trinity the descending Spirit inspires the Father to see in the abandoned man his son Jesus. André Coindre sought to inspire our Institute with similar faith. In our first Rule he wrote, “In the least of the poor who comes to bother you respect the price of the blood of Jesus Christ and let no one accuse you of having despised or rebuffed him.” (Workbook I; p. 22) That imperative has found its way into our present Rule: “show compassion for the suffering poor and wish to serve Christ in them.” (R 10)
Leo Tolstoy, passing through the streets of Moscow during the famine brought by the war, ran into a beggar. Tolstoy dug into his pockets but found nothing. He had already given away his last coin. Moved by compassion, he embraced the beggar, kissed his sunken cheeks and told him, “Don't get angry at me, brother, I don't have any thing to give you.” The beggar’s emaciated face lit up and his eyes became watery as he said, “But you called me brother and that's something I didn't expect!” Tolstoy confessed later to a friend, “I didn't just discover a brother, it was God as pauper that I met. That's what touched my heart.” (Testimonio, N° 183, p. 40)
I cannot say that I have Tolstoy’s – or André's or Vincent's – gift of spontaneous faith to see the face of Christ in the poor. However, I do pray for it at daily Eucharist. Just before the words of consecration, when we invoke the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ I ask the same Spirit to transform poor youth into nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus for me and for the Institute. The dove descending upon the afflicted figure in the sculpture The Compassionate Trinity is a visual illustration of my prayer.
"Join the Human Race"
When I first read Sister Müller's description of her sculpture, I balked at identifying with the miserable figure in the center. I think of myself as a self -sufficient man in vigorous health, achieving most of my goals. A sense of my frailty did shake me, though, when my brother, a father of four and chief executive officer of a successful finance company, sustained a serious brain injury after being hit by a car in 1998. During a conversation in the hospital, after a week of keeping vigil while he was in a coma, my sister became very upset at me and my brothers for playing down the seriousness of his condition. She felt that we were denying our own humanness. In tears, she called us "arrogant" and asked, “When are you going to join the human race?”
I acknowledge now that she was right; I am quite capable of considering myself, like the Pharisee, to be “not like the rest of men.” Therefore, for me an essential passage in developing a spirituality of compassion is admitting that within me there is a pathetic figure like the one in the sculpture. I need the humility to ask for help and then submit to compassion, especially when I am stripped down by weakness. The figure is lying in the fetal position; I sometimes regress to infantile and adolescent behaviors. I try to hide my nakedness. At these times my only prayer is a borrowed one:
Lord; attentive nurse,
you who challenge the self-destructive,
I was full of life; now I'm afflicted.
I’ve fallen into dark times,
stripped of my spiritual grace and dignity
and left half-dead, covered with wounds.
I beg you, anoint me with the oil of pardon
and pour over me the wine of desire for you.
And if you pick me up to place me on your mount,
you will be lifting a poor man .from the dunghill.
Gather me into the hostel of your Heart;
console me with your body and blood.
I need for you to walk alongside me
the whole distance of my life.
Have mercy on me,
show me your tenderness. (Pope Gregory the Great)
I prayed this prayer in my brother’s name when he couldn’t pray. I now pray it also for myself during times of moral breakdown and personal desolation.
During the spring of 1826, André Coindre was the pathetic figure. Progressive mental incoherence, delirium, and extreme exhaustion were preparing his ultimate break down. For nearly a month he lived a humiliating passion during which he tasted, like Jesus, the bitterness of abandonment and eventually death in disgrace.
His example shows that another movement of the spirituality of compassion which I must expect is the experience of my own passion and death – possibly accompanied by mental anguish. I am aware that many of you reading these lines are enduring your passion right now through sickness or breakdown. It is your turn to be the figure at the center. I am sure it is not easy for you to believe in God’s tenderness at a time when consolation seems a thing of the past.
Just as the Father incarnated his compassion in Mary’s suffering on Calvary, divine compassion filled the heart of Claudine Thévenet during André's passion. He was in Blois; she received news of his illness in Lyon early in May. One of her contemporaries testified: “Mother St. Ignace especially was experiencing extreme affliction. On May 30 the level of her anguish doubled. ‘I don't understand what I'm going through,’ she told us, ‘but I sense a tragedy happening. I want to note today's date.’ Immediately she wrote the date in her diary.” (Annuaire 90: 38) Three days later a letter from Blois confirmed her intuition of her spiritual director’s death agony. She is a sign to us that God suffered anguish with André.
If you are in his situation, I hope you can be consoled by the belief that, far from sending you suffering, God is suffering in profound solidarity with you. May you receive a sign confirming this truth. I also hope you have compassion on yourself. Jesus defused a classic trap into which the infirm often fall, namely the idea that suffering is systematically linked to a fault that they may have committed. (cf. Jn 9:1-5, Lk 13:1-5)
I hope that you will trust Jesus when he teaches that the Father never inflicts suffering as punishment.
Three Rule articles invite us to make ourselves vulnerable to God’s tender ministry
135. Examen of conscience. I appreciate the priority which this article gives to the “discovery of the Lord’s merciful goodness.” I also take solace in the fact that the word “sin” appears only once in the Rule of Life. And when it does in this article, it is not an accusation. God does not accuse us but instead respects our freedom and waits for us to “express sorrow for our sins.” In Sister Müller's sculpture, the Father is bending close; in my life he has been content with my faintest murmurs of remorse, my weakest calls for help.
146. The sacrament of pardon. I am grateful for this article’s positive portrayal of personal confession. Especially at my vulnerable moments, I welcome the hope it gives of “encountering the loving mercy of Christ.” André Coindre, on a day when his mind was clear, asked a seminary professor who was his junior to hear his confession. During a period of great humiliation, he bared his soul to a peer. When I fear doing likewise, I get courage from something Catherine of Sienna recounts in her Dialogue. One day she cried out: “Where were you, my God and Lord, when my heart was full of darkness and filth?” The answer she heard was: “My daughter, did you not feel it? I was in your heart.”
174. Spiritual direction. I don't have Catherine's gift of hearing God, but during periods of unworthiness I have been blessed through “close friendships, interviews and spiritual direction” to hear human words which contained divine whispers. Many understandings I share in this circular came from those precious encounters.
B. Like the Son, Suffer Because of Others
We’ve seen how desolation and wrath perturbed the heart of God after receiving evil for good. Like God, we suffer because of others. There is no need here to recount episodes when others unjustly manipulated, rejected, cheated or abandoned me. Each of us has stored up a whole bank of stories about undeserved scars. Three incidents from André Coindre's life may help us recall some of them.
Soon after our founding, the Valbenoîte pastor Father Rouchon betrayed him by seizing control of the house and half of the brothers he had recruited. André's letters show that Brother Augustine's resistance, shown through passive aggression, was a particular trial for him. At one point Augustine even insists that the founder pay a ridiculous boarding fee to defray expenses of his visit to the Monistrol community despite his enormous financial commitments to sustaining the brothers. In the apostolic sphere, André was particularly afflicted by the shameful conduct of one of the older pupils at Pieux-Secours, Lespinasse, who sneaked out at night to commit some unnamed scandalous behavior .
The figure in The Compassionate Trinity at the left represents the Son. It also represents each of us in our option to be “a sign to [others] of the compassion of Christ.” (R 118) A central practice of Jesus' spirituality of compassion was to pardon those who treated him ill. At the washing of the feet, he elected to treat Judas and Peter with magnanimity instead of vindictiveness although one would betray him and the other deny him. Jesus caressed the feet that would kick him. Pardon of friends and enemies was one of the most astonishing characteristics of his compassion.
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C. With the Father, Suffer for the Sake of Others
In his preaching notes entitled “The Compassion of God,” André the orator amplifies the uplifting passage from Hosea which describes the maternal gestures of the Father, going on to praise “the prodigies of mercy” of a God who labors to convert us to new life. God, with maternal and paternal traits, tolerates our tantrums, carries us tirelessly despite the weight of our ingratitude, stoops down to feed us and to teach us to walk. (Notes, p. 272- 273, Hosea 11:1-4) This sermon confirms that André would be right at home with the representation of the Father in The Compassionate Trinity.
As a matter of fact, he was that kind of father. He incarnated the same attitudes. His biographer reports that he once walked for three hours in the dark of night to strengthen a discouraged young brother in his vocation. On another occasion, noticing that a brother was not with the community, he went immediately to the kitchen to express his affection and the joy he felt for the thankless service the brother was providing. (cf. Life, p. 86-87)
Besides showing tenderness, the Father in the sculpture is also doing heavy lifting, demonstrating the “blend of gentleness and firmness” which the CIAC team identifies in our founder. The team also points out that André's fatherhood went beyond mere emotional compassion. He followed through with hard work which called into play all of his faculties: his lively intelligence which understood situations, anticipated future needs, imagined possible solutions; his decisiveness which led to realistic and effective works; and the quality of his relationships which impelled him to work with and appeal to others, often letting them take the lead. And work he did! He once wrote to Brother Borgia, “I am laboring away like a slave.” (Coindre 1, Letter XX, p. 131)
As men and true sons of André Coindre, we probably express our compassion for young people more often through hard work than through gestures of tenderness: our history is one in which we get our hands dirty doing works of compassion by teaching, building, forming, correcting, supporting, creating.
Our predecessors were men of hard work who built and staffed lasting institutions. In Lyon Brother Xavier lived through an experience of heroic compassion motivated by his fidelity to the founder’s work during very frightening and trying times. Brother Polycarp groaned in pain at how overworked the teaching brothers were during his time. In our day the Rule of Life is not timid in calling us to transform our compassion into work. (83, 150) But we must be careful because not all work is compassion, just as not all compassion is expressed through work.
The general chapter wants us to re-examine our existing works and to identify new ones. (1.4, 1.5) To help us, it gives important criteria based on the options of our founder. (Lord; When Did We See you? p. 14) We must simultaneously take into account the criterion of financial self-reliance (3.3), also a guiding principle of our founders, which brings us back to the need for hard work. Getting the right balance among the criteria is important. Here is how I would synthesize them: the chapter wants us to insure that our hard work and commitments result in sustainable works of compassion benefiting youth who are poor and without hope.
Only discernment can insure that our work and our works express a spirituality of compassion. Discernment requires personal and communal prayer: “In the Lord’s presence we examine our lives as men of action.” (R 134) Frequent prayerful review of our work can help us purify it of self-serving motives such as the perfection of our institutions out of pride, the desire for control, the psychological need for activism, or paternalism. The good news for us is that the Holy Spirit hovers near, as in the sculpture, during our efforts to discern, teaching us teachers how “to find the motives and strength for our activity.” (R 130)
Descend into Hell
The Compassionate Trinity evokes Holy Saturday’s descent into hell: the Father and the Son collaborate in the Spirit of compassion to pull Adam from the grave. There is also something of the descent into hell in André Coindre's spiritual itinerary. In 1818 the vicars general of Lyon testify, “Everyone knows that he dedicates himself totally to good works, notably in the prisons and in that institution so vital to young boys which he has recently founded in part with his own funds.” (Coindre 3, p. 141) Hell in his case was prison, where a criminal atmosphere of perverse men was contaminating boys.
Last February I had the feeling of descending into hell when Brother Alphonse Delvordre drove me to visit the Cité de Solidarité in Conakry, Guinea. This housing development for the blind and handicapped, built with good intentions by a communist regime, has degraded into a hell hole where misery and filth contaminate about 200 severely handicapped adults and from which they send their children out to beg or steal food. The resident leader insisted on walking us around three overflowing cesspools which need desperately to be emptied. These lost souls who have nothing to eat today are being poisoned by the scraps they ate yesterday.
Brother Alphonse, 72, ex-provincial, former teacher at College Ste. Marie in Conakry, presently local superior of the community there, continues to work by tutoring students in difficulty and teaching catechism at the school. But after having descended into the hell of the Cite some years ago, he was moved to compassion like André Coindre and like God the Father. Again like them, he decided to rescue young people from its contamination. Thanks to his empathy, his personal austerity, and the funding he got from acquaintances, he manages with care and without sentimentality to provide uniforms and tuition for a certain number of the children of the Cite. On a daily basis at Ste. Marie, he gives moral support to those students who earned a place there. He even arranged to have one cesspool emptied.
I know these lines may embarrass Alphonse. Nevertheless, I can’t resist telling you about his efforts to rescue some of the young people from the hell near his community because I believe he understood well before the general chapter what compassion means.
Alphonse understands that the chapter's call to develop a spirituality of compassion is not a call to abandon existing works in favor of more exotic or charitable ones. He understands that André Coindre did not abandon his preaching and teaching ministries, but gave room to compassion in his existing heart and integrated it into his existing mission.
He understands that the compassion of Jesus was not invasive, that Jesus did not organize his life around others’ sufferings nor let himself be overwhelmed by it to the point where it would interfere with his living joyfully with his brothers.
He understands that compassion is not blind, that the human heart must keep a certain distance in its relations with those who are suffering. He knows that steering clear of a messiah complex means making refusals that are beneficial and avoiding attachments that are unhealthy.
He understands that after descending into hell, we must not stay there, but through education and human achievement we must liberate young people from the grips of hell so they will know the possibility of Christian hope.
He understands, as André Coindre did, that he cannot act alone but must build up a network composed of local people and benefactors to create a community of compassion.
Brother Alphonse is certainly not the only brother who understands these things and who acts to incarnate the Father’s compassion for young people in situations of distress.
Numerous entities and communities as well as many individual brothers have identified a “new urgency of youth who are poor and without hope” and initiated a response. (1.5) In the present round of visitations, general council teams are bringing to each community an impressive album of new and existing works in the Institute benefiting the young in need whom the chapter identified. It is just that as I write this Guinea is the last place I visited. By calling attention to this example I wish to recognize the discernment and the boldness that are making compassion real throughout the Institute.
Ascend into Heaven
I began Act III by referring to Jesus’ Ascension. We must beware of visualizing the “rising” symbolism in a spatial way. It signifies a spiritual reality which transforms not just Jesus but us as well; in fact the opening prayer of the feast says that “our humanity is brought close to the Father.” I visualize the Ascension this way: Jesus goes to heaven to integrate our human potential into the heart of God. But not for the reason of giving us “eternal rest.” Quite the contrary, he wants to make our heart beat in urgent rhythm with the divine heart alongside those who are suffering as Mary’s heart did on Golgotha. Her example shows that the ascent into the heart of God is never romantic, rather it obliges us to endure moments that are difficult, self-effacing, even overwhelming.
Ascending into heaven means consecrating ourselves “for greater availability” (vow formula) to God so that divine compassion penetrates our human enterprises. Let us take one last look at Sister Müller’s sculpture. In the eyes of the general chapter the anguished figure in the center is young people who are poor and without hope. The “ascent into heaven” of our Institute means that the Father incarnates in us his maternal and paternal suffering for their sake; the Son incarnates in us his suffering because of them; and the Holy Spirit incarnates divine empathy in us so that we suffer with them.
As long as one tear is left
in the corner of your eye,
as long as the desert has not parched
the wellspring inside,
you will be close to the heart of God.
Is not God that tear in your eye?
As long as a flame still burns
on the margin of your heart,
as long as the winter has not put out
the embers within,
you will be close to the heart of God.
Is not God that flame in your heart
As long as there's still a smile
in the hollow of your hands,
as long as bitterness has not completely
closed the doors, you will be close to the heart of God.
Is not God that smile in your hands ?
(Michel Scouarnec, Fiches Internationales G 292)
Finally, the ascent into heaven means that prayers of Eucharist and praise rise daily like incense from our hearts in gratitude for the “salvation, forgiveness, and tender compassion of our God.” We can be sure that André Coindre unites himself with us every morning as we pray those words from Zachary's canticle. He expressed his desire to do so a long time ago:
If I could speak with each of you personally
so that you could recount to me the prodigies of compassion
which you have received;
we would never grow weary
of admiring together and blessing
the inexhaustible tenderness
of the God of love.
(Notes, p. 272, 273)
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Rule of Life
Articles 118, 122, 152
Article 118. Love of Neighbor
“I have come to bring fire to the earth.
and how I wish it were blazing already.”
This ardent desire of Jesus can only
enkindle our hearts and excite our zeal.
The love for our brothers
and the young people entrusted to us, then
radiates from Jesus’ love for us.
Our dedication to others, marked by respect,
pardon, and unconditional love, will be a sign
to them of the compassion of Christ.
Luke 12: 49
Article 122. The fundamental virtues of His Heart
The brothers learn from Jesus the fundamental virtues of his heart: humility, gentleness, and compassion.
Article 152. Limitations of the Apostle
Our apostolate roots us
in the hidden but powerful action of God.
Despite the resistance of evil,
the indifference of our society,
and the experience of failure,
we must persevere with faith and trust.
The experience of our personal limitations
gives us greater sensitivity
toward the spiritual
and material sufferings of others.
Our unselfish and dedicated concern can reveal
to them the compassion of the Lord
and draw them to him.