Called to Compassion
Reading: Rev. Josh Snyder, commenting upon Henry Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”.
One day I went to visit my friend Simone. As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of a disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been before…. I had just finished an exhausting six-week lecturing trip through the US . . . I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy….
It was in that condition that I first encountered Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son on the door of Simone’s office. My heart leapt when I saw it. After my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced I was looking for home where I could feel safe. The son-come-home was all I was and all that I wanted to be. . . . I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel some sense of belonging, and place where I could feel at home.
Snider comments that Neuwen:
even goes to St. Petersburg where the original painting hangs . . . . He spends two days looking at this one painting. . . . he identifies with all three characters . .. He starts off feeling like the younger son. But then a friend tells him, “You know, you are more like the elder son!” Nouwen is forced to look at his sense of self-righteousness . . . And then there is the father. The father, he says, calls him back home. But Nouwen knows that the father’s home is within himself. It is the call to be compassionate both to the younger, and to the elder son. It is the call . . . to live out one’s life from a place that is in touch with the house of God.
It is the challenge for [all of us] to live everyday out of that place of mutual forgiveness, compassion, and love.
The story of the Prodigal Son has been told for 2,000 years. And for 2,000 years, it has stirred up protest and uneasiness in many of its hearers. Why should the son who squandered his inheritance be welcomed home with a feast that has never been offered the responsible, obedient elder brother? Isn’t the elder brother’s position easy to understand? In his shoes, wouldn’t we feel righteous and resentful?
Who do you identify with most in the story? The brother who didn’t appreciate what he had, and went looking for excitement in the big city, only to learn after hardship how much he longed for home? The brother who was “good” and responsible, and felt resentful that he was taken for granted? The parent who has been broken-hearted by the loss or suffering of a child (or other loved one), and whose love and acceptance has never – or at least rarely – given way to judgment? Or like Henri Nouwen, do you find all of these archetypes lurking within?
My family tree is laden with family members who disappeared, some fearing judgment, some in anger, some from indifference. My mother’s only brother, most of my stepfather’s family, and my own biological father among them. My father only resurfaced when he knew he was dying. I know some of your stories are similar.
My brother Mark was a lost boy, like many of his generation. He ended up jailed for drug possession far from home. Later, as many of you know, he was in an accident that left him in a semi-coma for 14 years. His wife divorced him after a year, and disappeared with her two small children. It seems she was afraid of judgment from Mark’s family because she had “abandoned” him, as she saw it. None of us would have judged her for putting her children first – but she didn’t risk finding out. So her children missed out on grandparents during their formative years.
It was at my brother’s bedside that my call to ministry became clear to me. I experienced a deep sense of helplessness as he lay mute and motionless. There was nothing I could do. Yet as I surrendered my need to “fix” things, my heart opened to compassion, and the room filled with light and joy and love. His vital signs changed markedly. There was no miracle. He did not wake up. Yet I knew in that moment, to the marrow of my bones, that love somehow permeates our reality. Suffering is real. Yet love is stronger. It is even, as Hebrew scripture insists, stronger than death. Words fall far short – as the Tao Te Ching says, “this is a road the chariot of words cannot travel.”
What keeps us from experiencing that profound power of compassionate love more often? I think it is fear – fear of opening ourselves – of surrendering our sense of control, our need to be “right” – our fear of being judged and found wanting. It is also our own propensity to judgment – and judgment starts with being hard on ourselves. For if we cannot feel compassion for ourselves – in our imperfect, human attempt to live according to values we inevitably fall short of much of the time – how can we truly accept and open-heartedly love anyone else?
To return to the story -- if we identify with the elder brother, could it be that in our secret heart of hearts we suspect this righteousness is only a role we are playing? Is it possible that the ne’er do well younger brother is hidden within? What fear is our righteousness defending us against? What could move us to open our hearts like the joyful father?
One of my favourite writers on couples’ therapy considers nothing more important to happiness than the decision to give priority to being loving over being “right”. If we are fortunate and aware, there is a point when the struggle to be the one who is “right” gets old and boring.
My colleague Meg admits: ‘Sometimes I have to stew in righteousness for some time before I realize that such a stew is not actually that nurturing of a place to live.” She describes several years of power struggles with her partner, each of them trying to be “right.” And she remembers clearly the day that shifted for her – the day she realized that she would “rather be happy than right.” “I was in the process of storming out the front door, having shoveled some blame onto her about whatever minor household event was going on at that moment, when I came to a dead halt. Wow.”
In our story, the elder brother’s righteous anger, while understandable, is only hurting himself – he is missing the best party to come along in years! We don’t know if his father’s compassionate explanation opened his heart. Perhaps he chose to hold on to his resentment for years to come. Or perhaps not.
There is a related story about a First Nations grandfather, “talking to his grandson about how he felt after a tragedy. He said, ‘I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful angry violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.’ The grandson asked him, ‘Which wolf will win in your heart?’ The grandfather answered, The one I feed.” ( Holy Ground, Liturgies and worship resources for an engaged community, Neil Paynter and Helen Boothroyd, The Iona Community, pg. 143.) The one I feed. The one I decide to feed.
Our faith tradition clearly calls us to feed the loving, compassionate part of ourselves. A friend of mind titled a recent sermon: “Abandon Hate, all ye who enter here.” Yes, abandon hate, and embrace hope. Abandon self-righteousness, and embrace compassion. Abandon judgment and embrace acceptance of one another.
Another colleague offers a challenge:
I see a need to get over ourselves. We have spent far too much time arguing over whether or not it matters that we use God language or we don't . . .
I think perhaps both sides need more humility. . . .Both sides could benefit from agreeing that the question of religion is not whether we are theist or atheist, but are we giving ourselves away, are we servicing the greater good, are we active in our experience with the world in giving compassion, in offering kindness, of withholding judgment?
Yes, like Neuwen, I find all three archetypes within. It has been my experience that most of us in Unitarian churches are hard on ourselves, and sometimes hard on others, because we set the bar of expectation high. We carry the righteous, responsible brother inside. But those who end up in our congregations have often been judged by people in their lives for not conforming to expectations. No matter how much we know better, we tend to take that Prodigal identity in as well. Our wandering, often bruised selves yearn for a home where we will be embraced in love – and we can only find such a home by finding compassion and acceptance within our own hearts, and offering it to others. I know which wolf I choose to feed, when I am mindful of making the choice. How about you?
I’ll end with my colleague Barbara Merritt’s hope for what our congregations have the potential to be:
A place where love is. A place where people show up and where we learn how to let love in. A place where we are constantly reminded that we cannot be so broken that we cannot be made whole again. A religious community where your truth is welcomed and so is your neighbor’s. A congregation where we are called on to practice virtue – to act on behalf of homeless children and their families – to be community where we are given constant opportunities to remove all the rusty locks that keep others out. A place where no matter how injured we are (economically, emotionally or physically) we find here music and hope, encouragement and acceptance.
A place in which we can truly come home to ourselves – and to one another