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Posted November 24, 2010

Gratitude and Compassion

Taken from Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen
Book is already posted on our website

How can we cultivate a ministry community? Mutuality in ministry can be characterized by two words: gratitude and compassion. We minister together through paying attention to expressing our spirit of gratitude and our compassion for others. If you are looking for a community to belong to, look for these characteristics.

Gratitude basically means “to receive the gifts of God and others” --- to say thank you. It is an essential part of community to recognize and receive the gifts of others and to say thank you to them for being who they are and for offering what they have. We have a desire to give things to people so that we can be on the giving side. We forget that the greater joy for other people is to realize that they have something to give to us. For example, I can care for handicapped people for the rest of my life, and they need a thousand things, but the greater joy is for them to be able to do some things for themselves and to offer their special gifts to others. When I take Bill or others from L’Arche on a lecture tour with me, it’s not to show other people how much I care for them; rather, I do it so they can offer something and together with me share the good news.

Ministry is recognizing and receiving the gifts of others. I recognize in you a divine presence. You are the Christ who comes to me in the stranger, the prisoner, the one who is naked, who is hungry. It’s not because of your needs, but because you have special gifts to share. Through you and your giving, I receive the gift of love and see the face of God. I am grateful. And I hope you recognize how beautiful you are!

One of the greatest temptations of life is to become resentful. Resentment is the opposite of gratitude. The world is full of resentment. What is resentment? Cold anger. Anger toward inward. We say, “I’m not angry at him. I’m angry at this. This is not the way I want it.” Things do not turn out as expected, and we resent it. The older we get, the more chances we have to be resentful. I mean, what would we talk about if we had nothing about which to complain?

Ministry happens when we move from resentment to gratitude. The spiritual life is one of gratitude. Can you be grateful for everything that has happened in your life --- not just for the good things but for all that has brought you to this day? Remember, it was the suffering of God’s Son that brought forth a family of people known as Christians. My own suffering is what God used to bring me to where I am today.

Our ministry is to help people and let them help us gradually to let go of resentment and to discover that right in the middle of the pain there is a blessing for which we can be grateful. Right in the middle of tears, the dance of joy can be felt. Seen from below, from a human perspective, there is an enormous between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. But from above, in the eyes of God, sorrow and joy are never separated. Where there is pain, there is also healing. Where there is mourning, there is dancing. Where there is poverty, there is the kingdom.

In ministry together, by our simple joy and grateful presence, we can help people become more grateful for life even with pain. Ministers, disciples of Jesus, go where there is pain, not because we are masochists, but because God is hidden in the pain and suffering of the world.

Compassion is the second word that makes service through ministry possible. Compassion means “to suffer with.” In Latin, com means “with” and passion means “suffering.” In the Old Testament, the principal words for God’s compassion and ours are variations of the Hebrew word rachamim, which literally means “bowels,” “womb.” Or “gut.” The corresponding Greek word for compassion in the New Testament is splachmizomai, which means “to be moved in the bowels, in the guts.” Compassion is visceral.

For example, when Jesus raised a widow’s only son from the dead, he did so out of a broken heart of compassion:

Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out --- the only son of his other, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her, and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Jesus moved with compassion, felt the pain of that mother in his guts. He felt it so deeply in his spirit that his compassion called her son back to life. Likewise, those who are moved with compassion “to suffer with those who suffer” witness to God’s suffering presence and solidarity with those in need. God’s name is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

But what if we cannot solve the problems or change the circumstances of those we seek to help? Alleviating pain and suffering may sometimes be the fruit of our being with those who suffer, but that is not primarily why we are there. Ministry takes courage to be with the sick, the dying, and the poor in their weakness and in our powerlessness. We can’t fix their problems or even answer their questions. We dare to be with others in mutual vulnerability and ministry precisely because God is a God who suffers with us and calls us to gratitude and compassion in the midst of pain. You cannot solve all the world’s problems, but you can be with people in their problems and questions with your simple presence, trusting that joy also will be found there. As Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “Jesus does not call you to be successful, but to be faithful.”