The Desert of Compassion

After I wrote my last entry, I started ruminating about detachment, non-clinging, patience.  I am so grateful to you because our dialog helps me go deeper, become more real.  The thought came to me Sunday morning as I lounged in that state between waking and sleeping.  Detachment and non-clinging is not my destination…In fact, achieving that frame of mind would probably make me terribly judgmental of everyone else who is struggling in difficult circumstances–the couple waiting to find out if their housing bid went through, the young man grieving his broken heart, the old man who must surrender his driver’s license and independence in one fell swoop…It’s not easy being human, subject to ten thousand things beyond our control.  I’m realizing afresh that my struggle with fear, attachment, even compulsion, is pure gift, cracking my hard heart open to compassion for my neighbor…I do not think it is possible to become enlightened–to enter paradise–in isolation from my neighbor.  We arrive together or we do not arrive at all.  Detached,  non-clinging perfection is not my path–compassion is.

Compassion comes from two Latin words passio and com which mean “suffer with.”  And the person I must first learn to suffer with, to love, is my self–not the perfect, idealized version but the cracked and chipped one, the only one I’ve got…Do you know I must have checked my email at least 15 times on Friday?  I reached a real low point that afternoon, so desperate for someone, anyone, to acknowledge my existence…can I have compassion for my lonely, ashamed, email-addicted self?

Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart writes that the compulsive self is the false self who looks outwards for what can only be found within, in the divine.  He also says that this inner solitude is not a vacation from the stresses of life, but a place of encounter with our demons–our nothingness, our helplessness–an encounter that opens us to God, in ongoing, fiery transformation.  And so I climb back onto the abandoned bench of my heart to encounter the only One who can make me whole, the Love that adores my emptiness and longs to fill it to overflowing…

What is my new desert?  The name of it is compassion.  There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid, and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion…It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things.  There are no bounds to contain the inhabitants of this solitude in which I live alone, as isolated as the Host on the altar, the food of all men, belonging to all and belonging to none, for God is with me, and He sits in the ruins of my heart, preaching His gospel to the poor.  Do you suppose I have a spiritual life?  I have none, I am indigence, I am poverty, I am solitude, for I have renounced spirituality to find God.  – Thomas Merton (from The Sign of Jonas)



2 thoughts on “The Desert of Compassion

  1. Christen Mattix says:

    Yes, it’s supposed to be desert as in wasteland. Because compassion is a wild, difficult terrain to navigate…How do we respond to the pain in our own lives, and others? By accepting the desert.

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