April 25, 2017
 
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DR#: 4 Community of Charity: Option for Compassion

Introduction

In the Rule of Life, community-building is a free response to one of the six gratuitous gifts of love (i.e. God, self, community, friends, youth, and the poor) flowing to us ultimately from God. We build community on four foundational pillars:  charity, worship, apostolate and observance (cf. Rule 31-59).  Charity, the first of the “pillars of community,” is a building block which grounds you as a leader of community and enables you to foster the growth of Christian community.

In English, the word charity is problematic because in ordinary usage it is often taken as no more than generous gift-giving or thoughtfulness. To retain the full meaning of this rich word, the English version of the Rule, following the practice of the Jerusalem Bible, often translates it love

In the language of classical spirituality, charity (with faith and hope) is one of the three virtues called theological (i.e. divine, Godly). This means that God infuses it in our hearts directly and presides over our expression of it so that it might accomplish a divine pur-pose. In short, charity is God moving and working through us for the benefit of others. To give us a word more immediately comprehensible in an increasingly secularized so-ciety, the general chapter of 2000 favored compassion. The suggested readings are taken from the 2002 circular of the superior general entitled The option for compassion, which develops the chapter’s conviction that God needs us as human channels of the compas-sion lived inside of the divine community which we call the Trinity.

Through this experience, the participant will:

  • explore the reality of compassion as God’s option and initiative;
  • probe the feelings you have of suffering with, because of and for the sake of  those in your school community and family;
  • pray for faith to believe that God is moving through you as you experience, ex-press and act on those feelings in the interest of “revealing the compassion of the Lord.” (Rule #152)
Readings

Rule of Life: Community of Charity
articles 25-26, 31-40, 152, and 156, paying special attention to the verbs

The Option for Compassion  (Sept 11, 2002):

  1. pp. 9-16       (titles: God’s definition of compassion; The suffering of God; Je-sus’ option)
  2. pp. 29-47     (title: Faithful to the option of André Coindre)
Options for Additional Readings

Compassion, Henri Nouwen, Image Books (New York, 1983)

sections of special interest are Chapter 4: “Community” and pp. 78-84 (“Seeing each other’s unique gifts,” “Self-emptying for others,” and “Ga-thered by vocation.”

Educating for Life, Thomas H. Groome, Thomas More Press (Allen, Texas, 1998)

Chapter 4: “A Community for Life.”  Rule 35 says that we go to the extent of being our brother’s keeper.  Groome opens Chapter 4 by asking the question, “Are We Each Other’s Keeper?” as a “foundational issue” for Catholic schools.  His other questions under the headings “For Reflection” are also interesting.  Also check out pages 184-191; this section outlines a basic Catholic philosophy of community, in contrast to Protestant ones, and lists five essential ministries for building school community.

Suggestions for Journal Reflection
  1. “All compassion comes from God.” This statement might serve as a summary of the doctrine undergirding the circular and article 152 of the Rule. Try to recall and to note down experiences in your life of 
         a) receiving compassion (others suffering with you, or for the sake of your growth) and
         b) feeling compassion (your suffering with, because of, or for the sake of others).
    Pray for the grace to perceive God as the source of all the compassion you noted down.
     
  2. Empathy (circular pp. 30-35) seems to be a key to Father André Coindre’s and St. Claudine Thévenet’s becoming mediums of God’s compassion in Christian com-munity. Call to mind some particular person(s) whom you wish to contemplate for the sake of identifying with them and understanding them at a new depth. With which interpersonal skills might you need help as you develop greater empathy with that person(s)?
     
  3. Study articles 31-40 of the Rule with a view toward giving yourself a specific “rule of life” for building up a community of compassion in your school. Keep the verbs, change the subject from “the brothers” to “I” or “we on the administrative team” and fill in the other details and pronouns with persons and groups which correspond to your school community.

 

Prayer

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 not grow weary of admiring together
or of blessing the inexhaustible tenderness of the God of love. 

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?

Readings

Rule of Life
Community of Brothers

 25. Affirming Each Person

Brotherhood develops first of all
in the local community,
where everything should favor mutual respect
and harmonious relations.
By sharing responsibilities,
recognizing one another's talents,
and cooperating in a work
essential to the Church,
we contribute to the personal development
of each brother.
By “bearing one another's burdens,” (Gal 6:2)
by forgiving others and forgetting self,
by understanding and m
which go as far as fraternal correction. 

 26. Loving Relationships

Many opportunities for knowing,
accepting, and loving each other
arise from our sharing of the same ideal
of life and apostolate.
Differences in age, mentality, and character,
as well as the diversity
of our tasks and talents,
reveal the wealth of the Spirit
in the variety of his gifts.
Through our relationships 
with our brothers and with others,
we find graces of conversion.

Community of Brothers

31. Community life has a social dimension in which the demands of charity are felt and a charismatic dimension in which the freedom of the Spirit prevails. Love is the bond between these two dimensions.

32. The brothers maintain honest relationships among themselves and make every ef-fort to affirm one another's gifts and talents.

33. The brothers accept one another as they are. They bear one another's faults with-out complaint and avoid causing anyone suffering.

34. With gentleness and humility, Gospel expressions of love, the brothers take re-sponsibility for one another to the extent of becoming their brothers' keepers.

35. The older brothers make themselves present to the younger brothers in a spirit of respect, understanding, and encouragement. They change their lifestyle when it is necessary to create a climate conducive to the growth and perseverance of the younger brothers.

36. In a spirit of brotherhood, the brothers support those who are isolated or over-whelmed by their tasks. They keep in touch with the brothers who are far away, show interest in their work, write to them, and welcome them warmly when they visit.

37. The brothers consider their sick confreres to be identified with the Lord in a spe-cial way. They pray for them, visit them, and attend to their needs with sensitivity and kindness.

38. The brothers cultivate a deep respect for their elderly confreres, listen to them wil-lingly, and assure them of an acti ve participation in community life.

39. The brothers willingly participate in provincial gatherings through which they build friendships and brotherhood.

40. The brothers hold regular meetings to explore together what can unite them more closely. They share their joys as well as their human and spiritual experiences.
 

Apolistic Life

 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
        Our unselfish and dedicated concern can reveal
to them the compassion of the Lord
and draw them to him.

 156. The School Community 

Christian education cannot easily be realized
without the witness of a school community
which is built on close relationships
among teachers, parents, students,
and the local people.
We wholeheartedly support the establishment
of programs for participation and animation
         to the school community,
especially through the search
for a common educational vision.

The Option for Compassion
Circular of the Superior General
Brother Bernard Couvillion, S.C.
pp. 9-16

God's definition of compassion 

        At this point I will dare to define key elements of God's spirituality of compas-sion.  The most fundamental one is that God is not averse to undergoing suffering.  In-stead of arranging things in order to protect himself from grief, God leaves humankind free to inflict pain on him.  A first movement of the divine spirituality of compassion, then, is vulnerability to suffering because of human behavior.  For God, compassion means undergoing an ordeal of pain and misunderstanding that can rightly be called a passion. 

       God's option for compassion also involves suffering with us in our human pain.  For example, God recoils at the destruction war will cause: "My breast! My breast! How I suffer!  The walls of my heart!  My heart beats wildly, I cannot be still, for I have heard the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war." (Jer 4:19)  In the same vein, seeing refugees crowding into Jerusalem, God joins a choir of women mourners: "our eyes run with tears" ... "the wail of flutes is in my heart." (Jer 9:17; 48:36)  This second movement of God's "spirituality," living through our anguish in empathy with us, could be written with a hyphen: com-passion

       There is a third movement.  Besides suffering on account of us and with us, God also suffers for the sake of changing us.  Knowing that each generation needs to be created anew, God accepts the pain of a mother giving birth: "I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in; but now I cry out as a woman in la-bor, gasping and panting." (Is 42:14)  "Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me.’ ... ‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?’” (Is 49:15)  This third movement is forward-looking.  God's compassion means more than erasing the sins of our past and accompanying us in the present.  It is also a commitment to bearing us forward into a new future.  This third movement of God's spirituality of compassion has to do with passage in the sense of Passover.  God supplies the labor and the nourishment we need to be reborn.

       God suffers passion, com-passion, and passage. 

 The suffering of God 

        Some of us might find it hard to conceive of God suffering, especially those of us whose formation gave us an engraved image of God as omnipotent.  God is almighty, yet the Vatican theological commission asks us to temper that statement.  In one of its cate-chetical texts for the jubilee year it quotes Thomas Aquinas’ Summa: “God's omnipotence is chiefly manifested through compassion.” 

       St. Thomas’ statement rings true to my human experience, and probably yours too.  Most of us have experienced how much strength is required to endure suffering and how much mastery is needed to control our feelings.  We also know what great force of character we must have to pardon those who have wronged us.  Far from being weakness, God's suffering is a sovereign act of omnipotence.  The opening prayer of the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time confirms that truth: “Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness.” 

       At this point our devil's advocate could jump in to object that all this talk of God with a heart and expressing emotions and suffering is nothing but a form of “anthropo-morphism.”  The limits of human language require us, he would say, to use poetry that clothes God in human likeness; the prophets were simply giving human characteristics to a divine presence whom they didn't understand. 

       I side with the scholars who take the exact opposite position, basing themselves on a passage we all know from Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our own image, after our likeness.” (Gen 1:26)  With them, I am convinced that it is not a question of God acting like us, but of our imitating God.  When we speak of our feelings of longsuffering and compassion, why is it hard to think that our language might be “theomorphic”?  At creation God modeled the ways of the human heart after the ways of the divine heart.  It is we who are “partakers of the divine nature” (Rule #2) and not vice-versa. 

      In fact, one reason the Israelites forbade carving divine images was their belief that God could only be presented as a living, feeling human being.  To reveal himself and his messianic promise, “the Lord sought out a man after his own heart,” David. (1 Sam 13:14)  The fulfillment of that messianic promise, of course, was Jesus, who shows that the captivating humanity of God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament expresses some-thing fundamental to the very being of God.

 II. Contemplation of the wounded heart of Jesus

Jesus’ option 

       I've cast God’s option for compassion as a recurring drama in two acts.  My idea is not original.  It comes from Jesus’ two-act vignette drawn from street theater: 

Children squat in the town squares,
calling to their playmates — 
“We sang you a dirge
       but you did not wail.
We piped you a tune
       but you did not dance!” (Mt 11:16-17)

       Children play-act first a funeral and then a wedding.  Jesus uses this everyday scene to illustrate how decided he is to reconfirm the Father’s option for compassion over judgment: “John appeared neither eating nor drinking and people say, ‘He is mad!’  The Son of Man appeared eating and drinking and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drun-kard, a lover of tax collectors and outlaws.’”  In the first act, John played the funeral dirge of God's judgment.  In the second, Jesus plays wedding music announcing the ban-quet of God's reign.

       Closing the curtain on the last strains of Act I by distancing himself from John’s severe notion of God, Jesus chooses to present God as a father who invites outcasts to a banquet.  He even invites John to join him in Act II: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life and the poor have good news.”  Jesus is not naive about his option; he realizes its risks.  He knows that many will take advantage of his compas-sion as an offer of cheap grace.  Along with the Father, he risks the scandal of weakness: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt 11:2-6)

       Another version of Jesus’ two-act drama is the parable of the prodigal father and his two sons, one faithful and the other a lost cause.  There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus’ Father suffers with the lost one.  Jesus destroys all prior conceptions of how God should act toward lost causes.  God wants no restrictions set on saving the lost, even if it means self-humiliation.  Consider the Lucan litany (cf. Lk 15:1-32) of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, and the lost brother: 

God, a shepherd 
leaves ninety-nine perfectly good sheep
in the wasteland 
follows the lost one until he finds it 
puts it on his shoulders in jubilation
carries it home, calls his friends in 
and shouts to them, “Rejoice with me!” 
God, a poor woman 
loses one of her ten coins
lights a lamp 
sweeps the house over and again
searches in panic 
until she retrieves what she lost 
and gathers her neighbors
to taste a kind of joy 
that the angels have never known! 
God; a soft-hearted father
caught sight of his lost son 
felt his soul leap up
ran out to meet him 
threw his hands around his neck
kissed his grimy face 
brought out a gold ring and a satin robe
killed the feast-day calf 
and what a celebration began! 
God; an expansive host 
tries to coax the exacting brother
to trade in his angry diligence 
for the festive garment of compassion
and celebrates despite his heartache when the option is 
“No!”
 

       Through these and other parables Jesus “wishes to reveal” (Lk 10:22) God as a suffering servant.  He wishes to reveal the passion the Father underwent because of the runaway son’s rejection of him.  He wishes to reveal the com-passion of God’s anguish with the poor panicked woman.  And he wishes to reveal the Father’s travail in confront-ing his older son for the purpose of offering him a passage to joy. 

       Jesus definitively ends Act I and identifies himself with the God of Act II.  His heart and the Father’s are one. (In 10:30)  He shed the Father’s maternal tears over Jeru-salem. (Lk 19:42 ↔ Jer 8:21-23)  This incident shows us that God's compassion takes over Jesus in a bodily way.  A paragraph from the Dominican scholar from South Africa, Albert Nolan, has become the "Rosetta Stone" in nearly every serious scripture commen-tary interpreting Jesus’ incarnation of divine compassion: 

       “What made Jesus different was the unrestrained compassion he felt for the poor and the oppressed.  The word ‘compassion’ is far too weak to express the emotion that moved Jesus.  The Greek verb splagchnizomai used in the gospels is derived from the noun splagchnon, which means intestines, bowels, entrails or heart, that is to say, the in-ward parts from which strong emotions seem to arise.  The Greek verb therefore means a movement or impulse that wells up from one’s very entrails, a gut reaction.  That is why translators have to resort to expressions like ‘he was moved with compassion or pity’ or ‘he felt sorry’ or ‘his heart went out.’  But even these do not capture the deep physical and emotional flavor of the Greek word for compassion.  That Jesus was moved by some such emotion is beyond all reasonable doubt.” (A. Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, p. 35)


 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

The Option for Compassion
Circular of the Superior General
Brother Bernard Couvillion, S.C.
pp. 29-47

III. Faithful to the option of André Coindre

 

Son of Vincent 

       Only now do we get to Act III, the one in which we become the protagonists.  It is still God who directs, but we are the actors.  Our action respects the particular tradition begun with the spiritual itinerary of André Coindre, who in turn drew his inspiration from the life of St. Vincent de Paul.  Like Vincent, André was a preacher who “spoke in the name of compassion”; like Vincent he founded a missionary society and religious con-gregations motivated by “compassion and charity” to adopt abandoned children.  Like Vincent he made his vocational option after hearing this call from God: “1 have wit-nessed the affliction of my people and I have chosen you to be the instrument of my compassion.” (cf. Notes, pp. 187,195,183) 

       Through communal discernment on evidence from his life and writings, the CIAC team distilled a synthesis of our founder’s way of living compassion: 

André Coindre experiences compassion in a sustained way 
       morning, noon and night. 
His heart goes out to needy children and adults.
His words as well as his actions
       generate an energy of compassion 
      which blends gentleness and firmness
      and which inspires mutual trust. 
His life was a single long experience
      of faith in God and in people, 
      of belief in God's love,
      for humanity and 
     for poor young people. 

      In this third part, on the practical living out of a spirituality of compassion, I will use the CIAC synthesis as a measuring stick in conjunction with key articles from the Rule of Life.  Sister Müller's sculpture will serve as an organizing template. 

      As the curtain goes up on Act III we find Vincent and André on stage.  Like the two men in white after Jesus’ Ascension, they challenge us: “Why do you stand looking up at the skies?  The general chapter expects you to transmit the compassion of the Fa-ther, the Son and the Holy Spirit to young people who are poor and without hope.”  I will use three headings we have already seen – suffering with, suffering because of and suffer-ing for the sake of – to translate this challenge into imperatives for us today. 

 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 suffer-ing 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 Guil-laume 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 vica-riously what they were going through and to be sensitive even to their unexpressed feel-ings.  The funding appeal he wrote in the first prospectus for the Pieux Secours is a mas-terpiece of empathy.  His plea comes from within the consciousness of the young prison-ers 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 1, Letter I, p. 49) 

      So that we can effectively conduct the lightning of André's compassion to col-leagues 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 identi-fying 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 1, 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.” (Rule #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 al-ready 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 lat-er 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 Sr. 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 vi-gorous 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 con-versation 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 condi-tion.  She felt that we were denying our own humanness.  In tears, she called us “arro-gant” 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 Je-sus, 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, di-vine 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 systemati-cally linked to a fault that they may have committed. (cf. In 9:1-5, Lk 13:1-5)  I hope that you will trust Jesus when he teaches that the Father never inflicts suffering as punish-ment. 

Accept Pardon

Three Rule articles invite us to make ourselves vulnerable to God’s tender minis-try. 

134. 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 Mülller'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. 

145. 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 Siena 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.” 

173. 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 under-standings 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 par-ticular 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 scandal-ous 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.” (Rule #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.

Give Pardon

       André Coindre pardoned Rouchon, Augustin and Lespinasse and urged Brother Borgia to find the heart to forgive them as well.  “We must treat them with the utmost charity,” he says about the defectors of Valbenoîte. (Coindre 1, Letter V, p. 67)  All the same, it was no easier for him than it is for us.  At the time of his mental breakdown he was still reeling from two painful double-crosses which he had not yet settled with the offenders.  In Lyon Msgr. Cattet was threatening both our Brothers and the Marists with a forced merger under the aegis of the diocese.  And in Le Puy, he had resigned as superior of his beloved missionary Society rather than stand in conflict with the authoritarian Bishop de Bonald, who was dismantling the Society piece by piece by naming its priests as pastors. 

       The option to pardon is itself a painful one, as Pope John Paul II recognizes: ‘For-giveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral cou-rage.  It always involves an apparent short-term loss for a real long-term gain.” (1/1/02)  At a retreat I animated in 2001, I found at my door a letter confirming that reality.  It was signed simply “A brother”: 

Compassion is something complex and demanding.  It’s truly at the height of God.  Having compassion for young people is natural, even easy.  Having compassion for victims, that makes sense too.  But God’s compassion is also for people who do violence.  Violence, abuse, corruption, those things are cyclic.  In my personal life, if I had not had compassion for the abuser – abusers – my growth would not have been possible.  The wounds would not have healed; there would have been place for nothing but hostility.

Compassion for the violent person and the abuser is not a question of justice.  God does not have compassion because it is just.  The compassion of God is for everyone!  Who am I to refuse it to this person or that one? 

If compassion toward those who have done me wrong has been necessary for me to grow, it will also be for the young people whom I am called to help.  I believe that this should have been a challenge presented during this retreat.  I am aware of being only at the threshold of God's compassion, but I hope that with my brothers I will be able to enter it completely. 

       The pope continues to challenge the world, especially since the aggressions in New York, in Afghanistan and in Palestine, to go so far as to pardon violence on a mas-sive scale: “I am convinced that the help that religions can give to peace and against ter-rorism consists precisely in their teaching forgiveness.”  In effect the Holy Father is urg-ing us to present to young people more images like The Compassionate Trinity which make forgiveness conceivable to them despite nationalistic rhetoric which ridicules it, 

       The most convincing image we can give young people is found not on a postcard but in our life as a community of educators giving witness to mutual pardon.  Article 25 of the Rule is my favorite in the chapter on community.  Although it refers primarily to our fraternal relationships, it applies equally to a community of educators. 

       Its last sentence speaks of “bearing one another’s burdens, forgiving others and forgetting self.”  In light of the verse from Galatians which it quotes (6:2), it is clear that the burdens we bear are the sins of others.  When another’s sin offends us, St. Paul urges us to reach out and talk directly to the offender – “gently.”  In Sr. Müller's sculpture Jesus bears the errant feet of the prodigal gently in his hands.  He also caresses the Achilles' heel of his brother.  Pardoning isolated wrongs committed against us is one thing.  Bear-ing others’ personal defects in an ongoing way is a greater burden because it means ac-cepting a permanent character fault which will likely wound us again in the future. 

       Several months ago a brother asked my forgiveness for hostility he had shown towards me.  Words of response did not come to me though I tried to communicate my pardon in a non-verbal way by nodding.  After more words of sorrow, he exposed in a tender way an interior wound inflicted on him by someone in the past and showed me how I had unknowingly re-opened it.  Then he said, “You haven’t answered my question.  Do you forgive me?”  I realized that clear words of forgiveness were needed.  I also rea-lized for the nth time that the hurts which others cause me often originate not from ill will but from scars they bear on their soul. 

 C. With the Father, suffer for the sake of others 

       In his preaching notes entitled “The Compassion of God,” André the orator ampli-fies 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 streng-then 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 his-tory 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 institu-tions.  In Lyon Brother Xavier lived through an experience of heroic compassion moti-vated 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? 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 pres-ence we examine our lives as men of action.” (Rule #134)  Frequent prayerful review of our work can help us purify it of self-serving motives such as the perfection of our insti-tutions out of pride, the desire for control, the psycho- logical need for activism, or pater-nalism.  The good news for us is that the Holy Spirit hovers near, as in the sculpture, dur-ing our efforts to discern, teaching us teachers “how to find the motives and strength for our activity.” (Rule #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 de-velopment for the blind and handicapped, built with good intentions by a communist re-gime, has degraded into a hell hole where misery and filth contaminate about 200 severe-ly 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 Collège Ste Marie in Co-nakry, 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 Cité 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 Cité.  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 communi-ty 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 compas-sion 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 com- passion 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 dis-tress.  Numerous entities and communities as well as many individual brothers have iden-tified 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 humani-ty is brought close to the Father.”  I visualize the Ascension this way: Jesus goes to hea-ven to integrate our human potential into the heart of God.  But, not for the reason of giv-ing 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 overwhelm-ing. 

       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 “as-cent 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 Scouamec, Fiches lntemationales G 292)

     Finally, the ascent into heaven means that prayers of Eucharist and praise rise dai-ly 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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