The Elegance of Compassion

In 2010, as I filmed the people of Cité Soleil in Haiti, I realized the poverty of my own service to the poor. I questioned if I was doing enough, and wondered what more I could do. I felt overwhelmed and inadequate. I sensed my own poverty and brokenness. Yet despite the agony I filmed, I didn’t sink into despair and could sense God’s grace mysteriously at work within me. I can’t explain it, but being in Cité Soleil somehow brought me closer to the heart of God.

Our very woundedness is waiting to be transformed into compassion. Our emotional and physical pain helps us understand and respond to the suffering of another. Compassion is as elegant as any cathedral. Through the eyes of compassion we begin to look at the world in a very different way and we slowly imagine a different world, a world where God’s compassionate presence is fully manifested in us and through us.

We view the world around us, with its spirit of self-indulgence, through the eyes of Christ, and we see things differently than our materialistic and militaristic society prefers we see them. We see, for instance, how we have turned medical care into a commodity that feeds the greed of soulless corporations more concerned about their bottom line than our well-being. We see how our culture, in blind pursuit of power and greed, has forgotten God. With God removed from our cultural consciousness, we have no need for fidelity to God’s relational way, we have no need for thankfulness to a faithful God.

With God gone, neatly put into a box labeled fairytale or myth, or worse, reduced to a comfortable, unthinking dogmatic formula, we as a culture begin to sink into a sea of self-indulgence. We slowly forget that life is a gift. We begin to live without a spirit of gratitude. We no longer see a world of abundance and life is reduced to a commodity and a series of market transactions. We even begin to leverage social goods, like medical care and education, into profit centers. And of course, we no longer hear the plaintive cries of distress from the poor. But God hears, and God is faithful and God responds and makes transformation possible. When we begin to really hear God, we too will hear the cries of the poor and become part of God’s mysterious response.

At Easter, we proclaim in song that “Christ is risen.” And he truly has. But yet, when we look at the reality of the world around us, we see death and destruction, revenge and retaliation. Our culture of death dominates our spirit of life. We have lost our prophetic voice and we no longer defend the stranger, the widow and the orphan, those who are hurting and have no voice.

In the slums of Girardoville (where I lived) and Cité Soleil (where I filmed extensively) the mystical dignity of the poor as emissaries of God is abundantly clear…if you take the time to really look. Cité Soleil and places like it exist because we as the human family have forgotten God and turned our backs on God’s children.


The Risen Life

The great English artist and mystic,
Caryll Houselander,
suggested that we lead a Risen Life,
that is
“a life of love,
love that creates,
love that fills up
the measure of each life with joy.
Love that is light and peace.
Love that forgives and
heals and sustains,
that makes us one.
Love that gives life to the world
and beauty to life.
Love that is food and clothing
and water for thirst.
Love that is bread.”

It is the love given to us by God,
a love which God wishes we embrace for ourselves
and give to one another.
It is Easter Love
that animates the Risen Life.

Good Friday Prayer

Lord, help me crucify all empty desires within me, all vestiges of my self-will, and all traces of pride. Lord, help me put to death all vice and whatever is within me that is not pleasing in your eyes. Lord, as I surrender to your love and give up my spirit of rebellion, allow me to grow in virtue and holiness. Lord, only by your wounds can I be healed, and so I humbly ask You to allow your precious blood to wash over me and renew me.

Washing the Feet of Another

I spent Holy Week of 2010 in Haiti with Fr. Tom Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who has been working in the worst slum in Port-au-Prince for more than 20 years. The following reflection is a scene from my film Mud Pies & Kites.

When I met Fr. Tom on Holy Thursday, he seemed a bit down. He told me that some gang members from Cité Soleil had threatened to kill two of his top staff people, both Haitians and reformed gang members, as well as the security guard at the compound. It is all impossible to fathom. Living with the destruction and profound need is hard enough, but adding the element of vengeful violence intensifies the situation to the breaking point. Yet, Fr. Tom still has this gentle calmness about him…softly walking through an endless valley of death, fearing nothing, his eyes fixed on God. It took Fr. Tom two days to defuse the threat of violence.

Hundreds of people attended the Holy Thursday liturgy. Their joyful spirit of prayer and worship was on full display before Fr. Tom even had a chance to welcome them. Before the liturgy actually began, all in attendance were fed a meal. Fr. Tom assisted in distributing the food. For me, the most impactful moment was when Fr. Tom washed the feet of the poor. I had anticipated that a few people would come up near the altar and he would wash their feet as representatives of the gathered community. But no, that is not what happened.

When it came time for the foot washing, Fr. Tom got down on his knees and crawled along the concrete floor from person to person seated in the long, front row, removing their shoes and lovingly washing and drying their feet. Most of the people in the front row were old. It was inspiring to watch Fr. Tom struggling to move from person to person, clearly in some degree of discomfort from the heat, the hard ground and the sheer physical exertion. He washed at least fifty pairs of feet.

In the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus we begin to learn about true sacrifice and true servanthood. God is not interested in human or animal sacrifice. Nor is God interested in the sacrifice of fasting from certain foods on certain days. The sacrifice that God seeks is the letting go of all that is ungodly within us, the letting go of our ego, the false self that always puts ourselves first. To “pass over” from an ego-centered life to a God-centered life, from a self-centered life to another-centered life, requires a sacrificial surrendering of all that binds us, all that needs to die, so we can walk freely into the mystery of God.

Suffering and sharing are the gateways to divine intimacy. And to become intimate with God means to become the humble and loving servant of all. By washing the feet of another, God’s love moves from an abstract theory into a concrete reality.

Jesus came to be a servant, to sacrifice himself for us. We must do likewise, by sacrificing ourselves and serving others.

The Human Face of Jesus

Saint Francis of Assisi understood we all are the human face of Jesus; he knew that all of humanity comprises the divine face.

God assumed flesh and was born into a world of oppression and persecution. Can we ever grasp the reality of the divine presence dwelling in a depraved humanity and that subsequently every man, woman and child is uniquely precious, equal and blessed, all brothers and sisters?

Jesus is hungry and naked. Yet we build and decorate elaborate churches in His name, but do not feed or clothe Him. Every day, God comes to us in a distressing disguise, clothed in the rags of a tormented and neglected poor person, in hopes that the encounter will provide a place for healing and hurt to meet, for grace to embrace sin, for beauty to be restored.

As my friend Fr. Daniel O’Leary writes: “It takes a great love, and many deaths, to transform the eyes of our souls so as to see God’s face in every face. And inevitably, inexorably, this love, this hope, will lead to a crucifixion.”

Looking to Heaven

While many people have dismissed the idea of heaven, many others are obsessively concerned about salvation and the afterlife, but for the most part those concerns are merely distractions from this life, where so many are denied access to the basic things required to sustain life on earth. More important than salvation and the afterlife is that we love God with the fullness of our attention and love each other as God loves us. If you encounter a hungry person, and out of your love of God, give that person something to eat, you have begun to experience salvation in its purest form. The road to authentic salvation is to empty ourselves of all desire except for the desire for God.

Making All Things New

The interior life is the beginning of eternal life. Heaven does not begin after we die. It starts here and now as we respond to God’s grace by making all things new and creating paradise on earth. Today, sadly, many people seem to have forgotten or have dismissed heaven, thereby ignoring the idea of eternally living with God. We are so preoccupied with the surface of life, we do not pay attention to the divine call to enter more deeply into the silent streams of a God-energized life of the Spirit which transforms us into more loving and compassionate beings who see beauty in everything, who love the truth, who thirst for justice and who embrace and protect all of creation. We watch TV, we shop, we fight, we ignore the common good, we applaud the rich and the powerful, we snub the poor and the weak, and we rape the environment.

“No man who ignores the rights and needs of others can hope to walk in the light of contemplation, because his way has turned aside from truth, from compassion, and therefore from God. …The obstacle is in our `self,’ that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egocentric will.”
-Thomas Merton
New Seeds of Contemplation
[New York: New Directions, 1961]

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