Reading: Letter III—Jesus: The Compassionate God (p. 23 to p. 36)
I know now in a completely new way that if I am to succeed
in fully living my life, in all its painful yet glorious
moments, I must remain united to Jesus. (p. 25)
We are grateful for the many personal and thoughtful comments that have made the first week of our Lenten journey together both fruitful and rewarding. Our reading this week—Letter III Jesus: The Compassionate God—was written four days after Letter II. I find it interesting that we are reading these letters over a time interval similar to when they were originally written, as if Henri was writing and sending these letters directly to us in the present day.
Henri opens this letter by telling Marc about his trip to Colmar the previous day to look at the Isenheimer Altar. He notes that he had while he already intended to “write about the suffering and resurrection of Christ. . . . I have a feeling that I had to see (emphasis added) it in order to find the words for the letter.” Deep contemplation of art was a spiritual discipline for Henri as is evident in his spiritual classic The Return of the Prodigal Son and his lesser known Behold the Beauty of the Lord—Praying with Icons, published the same year as Letters to Marc. For Henri, to really see an a piece of art is to allow it to “speak to the heart that searches for God.” (Behold, p. 24) Henri writes, “I remained at the Isenheimer Altar for more than three hours.” (p. 25). The insight that appears at the top of this post was among the fruits Henri harvested after seeing the altar.
In his reflections on the altar, Henri emphasizes, “The record of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus forms the kernel of the “good news” about Jesus. . . The gospel is, first and foremost, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story constitutes the core of the spiritual life” and that this is “the most far-reaching event ever to occur in the course of history.” Henri challenges Marc (and us) to allow the truth about Jesus to renew our hearts. Deo volente (or God willing), our discussion this week will help us to do just that.
This is a rich letter. Is the truth about Jesus a reality for you and how does that truth renew your heart? You are encouraged to reflect and share whatever touched your heart. Here are a few thoughts that may help get you started, but please don’t feel limited by them.
- To look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him. (p. 30)
We see this in a brutally graphic and violent way in Ukraine today. Yet this is a universal challenge. Reflect on the crosses and hopes in your life and share to the extent you are willing.
- God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom. (p.31)
What is your understanding of the relationship between are freedom and compassion?
- Living for other people in solidarity with a compassionate Jesus: that’s what it means to live a spiritual life. In that way you too achieve freedom. (p. 34)
How has compassion for others in solidarity with Jesus led to you to freedom on your spiritual journey? What challenges do you face and what blessings were received? If possible, please share your story.
- In the end, my desire is just to get you to read the Bible and develop your spiritual life for yourself. My letters are only meant to spur you on a bit. (p. 36)
Henri shares his objective with Marc. So, how is he doing thus far? Is Henri spurring you on? What questions or inspirations have arisen for you? What actions might you take as a result?
We look forward to another great week of discussion. Thanks to each of you for joining us whether you are posting comments or following along silently.
May the Lord give you peace.
Like most, I don’t relish the idea of suffering (I am struck and unsure of what to do with the saints who did). But, the more I experience the world, the more disillusioned I become with visions of God that are centered in our ideas of triumph and glory instead of Jesus who entered our reality as the Suffering Servant. Henri speaks to this more powerfully than words that I might muster.
The first time I really knew physical suffering happened after college while working at camps in North Dakota. I began having sinus and stomach problems. I still have symptoms that are mostly now managed by medication. But, at that point, I didn’t know what was was happening to me and I often felt horrible. I have two powerful memories of God’s presence: I was taken to an ER in a Catholic hospital. While I am not (Roman) Catholic, the symbol of the Crucifix on the wall above me spoke to me of Jesus’ presence in my suffering. Trying to sleep one night, and feeling tormented, I heard, as clearly as I have ever heard from God, “Psalm 91.” At that time, I was not readily familiar with the text. I cannot express how powerful discovering these words were–I knew that God was with me in my struggles.
Wow, that is really powerful! Thanks for sharing your story. Beautiful!
At first when I was reading about Henri’s description of sympathizing, I wondered whether he meant empathizing. However, looking it up I found, “Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.”
So perhaps our desire to help others and be helped by God is the beginning of freedom…
It’s radical to realize that the suffering of Jesus is the kernel of the Good News Jesus intended his disciples to make known to the world. Cleopas in last week’s letter like me, wishes for something more proactive… like toppling political powers, showing the world Whose In Charge, or at least delivering me from any threat of harm. It’s an unpopular message to folk who like to fix things to say Jesus suffered to companion us in our own suffering rather than rescue us in the moment. I don’t understand. But I know it’s true.
Last night Louisville was under a Tornado threat that sent us all scurrying for shelter. Sirens blatted for 1 1/2 hours straight. The sound was deafening to me and dizzying to my 5 lb Yorkie who spun in circles trying to calm down. I folded myself together and hunched down under a table to protect myself from flying debris. Positioned to pray without planning to, my thoughts traveled to Ukraine and the untold terror these people experience day in and dayout waiting to be bombed, shelled or shot. I thought of the women underground walking crying babies waiting for adopting mothers who may never materialize. And I begged for President Zelensky and his family’s protection.
I didn’t do that because I’m particularly spiritual. But because I was suffering some too. Not nearly as ominous as Unkraine’s ongoing threat by a long shot, I still felt fear. To Henri’s uncommon wisdom, my small suffering took me out of my self centeredness into compassion. My mini cross made me remember the big Cross and the commongood of global neighbors. And that solidarity grounded me in Jesus and gave hope in the storm.
I’m sorry you had that frightening experience. I went to college in Memphis and a tornado came through once at final exams. Studying was calming at the time.
I sure have found new life from knowing Jesus is the God that suffers with me.Terminal death ends life and ends possibilities. Paschal death ends one kind of life but opens us to a deeper ,richer life.Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,it remains only a single grain, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest. I am convinced of God’ love towards me as he has companioned me through hardship. I knew whatever perilous state that was unfolding Jesus had endured by staying close to his Father. Staying with him in Daily suffering , death, and resurrection allows me to call him my friend.His limitless ,tender care so reliable I could be with him without fear. My Pentecost is this new Spirit filling me up.The response to terminal death :preventing, avoiding , denying, shunning, keeping clear of, and ignoring are so unappealing .We choose Jesus paschal death over and over allowing us to explain the Hope that is in us.
It’s funny how difficult it is for me to watch The Passion of Christ film and Jesus Christ Superstar so now I refuse to watch them again. The film was so horrific to watch as an innocent man be tortured for ME. The part in the musical that crushed me was the counting of the lashes received by Jesus ripping his skin to the bone. After reading this chapter, I thought instead of running away from the truth as painful as it may be, it may be necessary for me to enter His passion and endure what he did even though it was with actors and props.
As I sit poolside, I have never experienced suffering. And in reading about it and seeing others suffering, would I turn to God if that was me? Could I become one with them in their struggles as Jesus would? In my dreams I want to be like St. Oscar Romero, found solidarity with the suffering people in El Salvador, courageous people with unwavering faith and trust in Jesus. But in my small world, I still seek freedom daily as I open my eyes to a new day. Jesus, my partner, help me to live and love fearlessly.
What questions or inspirations have arisen for you…
My inclination is much the same as Henri’s imagined reaction of Marc, let’s talk about something else. Guess it’s the aversion to death and suffering.
I tried to remember being introduced to Christ’s Passion and couldn’t. I searched for methods and ages that it might be taught and came up with an isolated lesson plan that stressed covering the resurrection along with Christ’s suffering and death. I also came across a school that offered a different version of the Stations of the Cross for the younger students. I cannot imagine teaching this and wonder if it is taught at Sunday School. Or is it something we just ‘know,’ having heard it in the gospels, Stations of the Cross, and the Rosary.
I agree with Henri that this is the most far-reaching event to occur in the course of history, but this is not something we are taught in history.
“God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom.” (p.31)
Nouwen tells us that compassion and freedom are connected in this letter and in this statement quoted on page 31. In my ministry of pastoral care, I have experienced this connection many times. But it can also involve suffering and pain so that we have freedom. Nouwen tells us what this means, “it means that God wanted to liberate us, not by removing suffering from us, but by sharing it with us.” That is what Jesus did. He became a partner and companion in a person’s suffering. He calls us to do the same for others around us. In Luke 9: 23 Jesus “said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” I have walked with many people over the years who are looking for that freedom in Jesus. In that walk I have suffered together with them. They sometimes do not understand completely what that freedom is. I have been the hands and feet of Jesus in this world and walked alongside them with compassion to help them understand this freedom. That freedom does not mean that they are allowed to do whatever they want to do. It is freedom from this world’s brokenness and sickness that inhibits us and binds us so that we are not who God created us to be. I am only the vessel through which Jesus works. As it says in John 8:36, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Nouwen tells us that we “have to learn to know Jesus as the God who suffers with us.” The God who will free us. This Jesus who partners with us through the suffering brings a connection of compassion and love for us and makes us free.
Your comment resonates with me, Rick. Thanks for expressing language that includes experiences and theology and Henri Nouwen’s insights. Well put, in my opinion.
Letter III was a much more difficult read for me than the previous 2. That’s partially because Henri feels the suffering of the sick portrayed on the Altar, as well as Jesus’ suffering on it as well. The physical representation of these events is enough to connect one to one’s own suffering, and therefore the suffering of others, especially the less fortunate.
This is a complex chapter to get my mind wrapped around and yet I realize it carries such profound meaning for me and everyone and the many family and friends I know who don’t like to think of such things very much. The key words are, I believe, on page 32 “more deeply convinced of God’s love” and couple of pages earlier, Henri Nouwen writes of human responses we are likely to make to suffering and death—preventing, avoiding, denying, shunning, keeping clear of, ignoring. The things that he writes of, realistically dealing with suffering and death in art, embracing and extending compassion to others who are suffering, and learning from and imitating their faith; in walking with others, humbly acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers, being prayerful, mindfully and with our hearts participating in the Eucharist. I think Henri Nouwen is writing letters to Marc which will lead Marc to study scripture more avidly and anticipate joining a congregation with more hope and interest than Marc otherwise might have had, and me being already in the faith community more aware than I maybe was before and understanding maybe more deeply how I too can help others—family and friends—who are in many respects seeking to be convinced of the love of God.
So often we forget as believers in God… memento mori.
This Letter is a harder one to discuss. Thank you for adding a picture of the Isenheimer Altar. What interested me were Christ’s arms which looked to me like twisted vines with the thinner stems as fingers, empty at that moment.
I still have a difficult time corelating compassion with freedom spiritually. Corelating it with spiritual strength or spiritual action definitely. Several years ago, my husband and I lost a son. It was a long multi-year process of experiencing him spiral down the path of addiction leaving us, his young wife and family and his sisters and brothers to deal with the inevitable fallout. It was quite a challenge; with disappoint every time a treatment would end, and he would relapse. It was very stressful on all of us, and I don’t think we could have made it through without Jesus. We all did our parts including tons of prayer, as we still do, to shore up his family. Somewhere along the line, I prayed to Jesus to do His will with our son, but please to let the grandchildren be freed from the disfunction around them. Eventually He did just that, calling our son home. Sad but inevitable. The fruits that were reaped are seeing our grandchildren happy and thriving again and knowing he is safe now in Heaven.
Thank you Kathleen for your personal story. May the Lord continue to give you and your family peace.
I am so sorry for your loss. I too lost a son–to suicide. Thank you for being so brave to share your story. I hope you, your daughter-in-law and your children are doing well.
I wish to share an experience that I had one time I got admitted at ER in the Philippines. After I was assigned to a room, I immediately felt asleep. In my sleep, I had , what I personally claimed because it really happened, a vision . I was shown a flashback of my life. Seeing all what I have been doing stired up a sense of fear if that will be my death time. Then I saw a shadow speaking to me, if you want to live in the ever lasting happiness of the life after, walk the way of the cross. It is only by it that you enter heaven. After that, the shadow showed put up its hands on me and I felt a very deep peace and joy which I could see sparking stuffs like small stars falling down gradually. It was an extraordinary feeling I had never felt in my entire life on earth.
Anthony, This is awesome. How blessed you are to have this life- affirming vision. Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience.
Thank you Anthony, for this special intimate share of your experience. What a beautiful invitation to “walk the way of the Cross.” It sounds like your heart went along in agreement with the Sacred invitation and the covenant was sealed by the laying on of hands flooding you with peace.
Beautiful encounter with Christ. Thank you for sharing it, Anthony.
Thank you so much, Anthony, for sharing your experience. I hope it has helped you to have a more meaningful, fulfilling life.