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"With Open Hands"

This excerpt is from the 1972 publication by Henri J.M. Nouwen, a psychology professor at University of Notre Dame and later a pastoral theology professor at Yale. This book is product of combined writings of a group of Dutch theology students.


Noticing the sinking feeling of overwhelm I've been experiencing while on social media more and more often, I resolved to abstain for this last weekend. Instead, I found myself gravitating to reading material which brings about feelings of elevation and expansion. Here are some words I thought might add value to the conversations happening across our country, given the nature of recent events. (I stayed true to the text which uses the words "man," "fellowman," and "God/He." However I'm of the belief that one can absorb the same meaning by envisioning words which may be more relatable such as "person," "fellowhuman," or "Source/Universe." Interpret as you will.)



"Compassion includes various moments. In the first place, it shows you that your neighbor is a man who shares his humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are still one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws and destined for the same end. With this compassion you can say, 'In the expression of the oppressed I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressed, I recognize my own hands which speak of powerlessness and helplessness. His flesh is my flesh, his blood is my blood, his pain is my pain and his smile is my smile. There is nothing in me that he would find strange, and there is nothing in him that I would not recognize. In my heart, I know his yearning for love, and down to my entrails I can feel his cruelty. In his eyes, I see my plea for forgiveness and in his hardened frown, I see my refusal. When he murders, I know that I too could have done that, and when he gives birth, I know that I am capable of that as well. In the depths of my being, I know that I am capable of that as well. In the depths of my being, I have met my fellowman for whom nothing is strange, neither love nor hate, nor life, nor death.


Compassion is daring to acknowledge our mutual destiny so that we might move forward all together into the land which God is showing us. Compassion also means sharing another's joy which can be just as difficult as suffering with him. To give another the chance to be completely happy and to let his joy blossom to the full. Often you can do nothing more than present a bleached smile and say with some effort, 'That's really good for you,' or 'I'm glad to see you made it.'


But this compassion is more than a shared slavery with the same fear and same sighs of relief, and more than a shared joy. For if your compassion is born of prayer, it is born of your meeting with God who is also the God of your fellowman. At the moment when you grant that God is God who wants to be your God, and when you give him access to yourself, you realize that a new way has been opened for the man who is beside you. He too has no reason to fear, he too does not have to hide behind a hedge, he too needs no weapons to be a man. The garden which has been unattended for so long is also meant for him.


Conversion to God, therefore, means a simultaneous conversion to the other persons who live with you on this earth. The farmer, the worker, the student, the prisoner, the sick, the black man, the white man, the weak, the strong, the oppressed and the oppressor, the patient and the one who heals, the tortured and the torturer, the boss and the flunky, not only are they people like you, but they are also called to make themselves heard and to give God a chance to be the God of all."

Here on Earth, we get to choose which laws we live by. Our choices are demonstrated in our actions. As one's spirit grows, we become conscious of love as the highest law. We cannot grasp the full meaning of this if we don't acknowledge that forgiveness is the other side of that coin. You can't really have one without the other. Those who can act in love, but cannot forgive or allow themselves forgiveness are limiting their spirit.

We can work on cultivating all the compassion and empathy we want, but where does this take us if we have not known the unconditional giving and receiving of forgiveness?

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