Andrew Purves, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has become one of my favorite authors. In reading his more recent bestsellers, The Crucifixion of Ministry, and The Resurrection of Ministry, I found that he had written a book in 1989 entitled, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry. It is a classic and deserves to be better known. Here are some extracts from it.
“Life is hard. Certainly, there is more to life than suffering, but suffering is inevitably part of the story. The case for our exposure to suffering hardly needs to be made.
It is evident that what we and everyone else in the world need in our suffering and sorrow are people who will care for us. It may not be the only thing we all need, but it is always a part of what is needed. Wolterstorff, in his book, remarks:
‘But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, p.34)
Wolterstorff’s plea is for a renewed compassion.
How is a renewed compassion possible for us? It is probably a matter of time before the intensity of suffering in others leads us to harden our hearts against it. After all, there is only so much suffering any of us can take before we are simply overwhelmed by it. We can only sit on the mourning bench for a while. We who would suffer with others can become casualties of the very acts of our love. Our compassion recoils, as it were, making us its victims. We begin to realize, perhaps, that exposure to too much suffering will destroy us as well. It will drive us mad. And so we shut off, or at least very carefully control, our sensitivity to the suffering of others, often being unaware that we are doing so.
There is a profound confusion over the nature of ministry. The ministry of the clergy is in a state of deep and damaging confusion. What is a clergyperson supposed to do? He or she is a worship leader and a preacher, a teacher, a student and theologian, an administrator, a program director, a pastor, and, if possible, a pastoral counselor, a community organizer, and perhaps even the person who fixes the boiler and turns off the lights at the end of the day. He or she should also be a paragon of virtue, constant in prayer and study…In the face of all this, many clergy today suffer from a plummeting sense of personal self-respect and an acute loss of professional identity and satisfaction.
The practice of compassion is the practice of ministry. Compassion means ministry. It is not simply sympathy or the expression of well-meaning good intention. Compassion means getting involved in another’s life, for healing and wholeness.”
Purves describes how compassion featured in the ministry of Jesus through a treatment of five miracles. He concludes:
“Compassion, as we see it in these texts, is a ministry of presence. To be present for another is to be available for him or her. It is to relate to another with all of one’s attention and energy. And it is to invite that other into a relationship with oneself.
At various times all of us have been on the giving and receiving end of both presence and lack of presence. To experience presence is to feel that another is really taking you seriously. You matter to that person. His or her attention is really on you. You feel that you are significant to that person. This gives you the feeling of personal worth. To experience lack of presence is to feel that your personhood has little value. It is to feel self-esteem diminish and anger rise. You feel put down.
Compassion as presence involves patience. As patience, presence is the gift of one’s quality time. One gives away one’s time to another. One ‘wastes’ time in compassionate presence. Patience is presence with fortitude. It is walking with another and not giving up when the going becomes difficult or even dangerous.
Simone Weil once wrote,
‘those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” This way of looking is first of all attentive.’ (Simone Weil, Waiting for God, p.75)