September 2007 – On Compassion

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2007

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

A contemplative attitude paired with a compassionate heart is the powerful combination that enabled Saint Francis to minister to the poor so effectively. Both are indispensable to his spirituality; together they represent a unique charism that is urgently needed in our Church’s missionary outreach.

God’s loving action in the world—made concrete in the Incarnation—is the Franciscan model of ministry. It flows from love, finds meaning in love, and is ordered to the establishment of a Kingdom of Love.

Last month’s reflection on contemplation underscored the need to approach others without the slightest tinge of condescension. Rather, the presence of God in all persons obliges us to approach others respectfully and fraternally. Such a stance promotes compassion, as distinct from indifference or pity. This path is characteristic of Saint Francis. Using a contemporary term, we might say that this is the Franciscan trademark. Michael Blastic OFM Conv. Declares, “Compassion as the fruit of contemplation is ministerial and can be read as a synonym for ministry in the Franciscan tradition.” (Contemplation and Compassion: A Franciscan Ministerial Spirituality) In effect, Saint Francis links, perhaps unconsciously, the passion of Christ, which is the object of his constant contemplation and his compassion for those for whom Christ suffered.

Of course, the mission of compassion is not exclusive to Franciscanism; it is generally understood to be an integral part of the most foundational definitions of Christian discipleship. But not all Christian ministries follow this path. In fact, much of what the church does has a hierarchical character. This is true both of Catholic and Protestant tradition because the top-down dynamic can be present for a variety of reasons. This is a core issue and goes to the heart of how we prepare people for ministry. Jesus provided clear evidence of what model God applies in ministering to humanity—the Incarnation, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the Good Samaritan, washing the feet of the apostles, etc.

One theologian has remarked that the power of Jesus’ preaching came from his compassion for people. Edward Schillebeeckx writes, “The competence to proclaim the gospel is only part of a more complete, all-embracing reality, expressed in Jesus’ life and praxis and ratified by his death. That reality is his turning toward those around him, the foundation of which was the ‘compassion’ he had toward the crowds.” (Cf. Mt.9: 36)

Blastic makes it quite clear that the “horizontal ecstatic” produced by a contemplative attitude along with the compassion, which is its logical outcome, is necessary to the transmission of the Franciscan charism. This was vital to the early brotherhood that used the leper colony as a kind of noviciate.

The early Franciscans, at least until September of 1220, were formed by journeying with the friars as they moved about the world—they learned what it meant to be a Franciscan by working side by side with friars and sisters minor, and lay people in the world. They were not formed in the rarefied environment of a house of formation. And it is quite possible that the move into houses of formation went hand in hand with a domestication of the Franciscan charism by the hierarchical church. Separated from the lepers, how does one turn toward them? One might learn contemplation as a method of prayer in a house of formation, but how does one learn contemplation as a way of being? (Blastic, Ministerial Spirituality)

If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.

– St. Francis of Assisi

+ + +

An interesting application of contemplation and compassion in ministry can be found in a thesis presented at the University of South Africa in 2003 on the interaction between Franciscan spirituality and clinical pastoral education. The author is John Henry Brice. “From researching and writing this dissertation, I have become aware of some areas of mutual enrichment for both Franciscan spirituality and clinical pastoral supervision.”

We can marvel at the theological coherence of such an approach as well as the pastoral value of its application to the circumstances of daily life. But at the end of the day, the task of applying it more broadly is an urgent one. It is often observed that the Church has not made serving the needs of the poor its preferential option in practice. That’s a charitable statement, some would say; some might even use words like neglected or ignored. Had the Church targeted social outcasts more explicitly, we might have appreciated the special merit of the Franciscan approach to ministry earlier.

Margaret Guilder, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Joliette, Illinois, wrote a doctoral thesis in 1993 that addresses the question of presence as a theological model for ministry in the case of prostitution in Brazil. In an article derived from it, “Foundations for a Theology of Presence: A Consideration of the Scotist Understanding of the Primary Purpose of the Incarnation and Its Relevance for Ministry in the Underworld of the World Church” (The Cord, 1993), Guilder argues that “contemporary approaches to ministry often are informed by a theological understanding of the Incarnation that is conceived primarily in terms of God’s response to humanity’s need for redemption.” She proposes that “the insights of (John Duns) Scotus make it possible for us to reconceive our understanding…In accord with the thoughts of Scotus, the primary purpose of the Incarnation finds its expression in the divine will as it is moved by love for the highest good.”

According to Scotus, God’s primary purpose for becoming human is not our need for salvation but that we might dwell in the presence of God. This has huge implications for pastoral ministry. It suggests that our imitation of Christ ought to take the form of love made concrete by being with others. Such an attitude flows from contemplation, promotes solidarity and expresses compassionate charity.

“I find it necessary,” declares Guilder, “to be even more explicit about my commitment to engage in speculative theological reflection that serves not only the world church as it is broadly conceived, but more specifically, the underworld of that world church. To this end, I assume as my particular responsibility the retrieval of foundational insights from within the Franciscan theological tradition that can inform and sustain those who by charism and conviction embrace a preferential option for the poor and oppressed.”

The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion and the will to help others.
– Albert Schweitzer

+ + +

Of the spiritual traditions familiar in our day, Franciscanism is the one that most directly links contemplation and compassion as a charism for ministry. But it was not the first to arrive at this insight. In fact, we know that Saint Bonaventure is the first person to develop the spiritual intuitions of Saint Francis into a systematic theology. But while spiritually inspired by the poverello, his theological thought was markedly shaped by the mystical tradition of the Victorine school.

Steven Chase has written a book that, by its very title, makes this claim explicit. In Contemplation and Compassion: The Victorine Tradition, Chase explains that the Victorines were a group of Augustinian canons from the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris. To the Victorines, knowledge and love were the two fundamental powers of the soul. Philosophy, the arts and even secular studies were important for understanding truth in the scriptures. The Victorine tradition, heir to Augustine’s spirituality, followed “a middle way between static formalism in prayer and unbridled sentimentality in devotion,” and strove above all to be true to the Christian virtue of charity.

Hugh of St. Victor, sometimes called a second Augustine, entered the Paris monastery in 1115 and became its abbot 18 years later. He hoped, through his writings, to explain mysticism rationally and to organize biblical and patristic thought into a complete, systematic, doctrinal body. His student, Richard of St. Victor, entered the monastery when he was quite young and was made prior in 1162. Richard was the author of exegeses and of theological treatises that influenced St. Bonaventure and other Franciscan mystics. Richard’s major works include Benjamin major and Benjamin minor, which outline the stages of contemplation, the end of which is absorption into the divine beloved. De trinitate presents the necessary reasons for faith, based on experience.

Contemplation of God’s Love leads to compassion for others while the free expression of compassion leads back to contemplation of the presence of Love in human activity that is authentic and good.

Contemplation is the free, more penetrating gaze of a mind, suspended with wonder concerning manifestations of wisdom.

– Richard of St. Victor, The Mystical Ark

+ + +

May God, who is Love, bless you. May Love, incarnate-among-us, grant you peace. May compassion bring you joy



crib and cross Franciscan Ministries