The Rigorous Practice of Self-Compassion

Some years ago, I attended a professional conference in Denver, Colorado for marriage therapists and educators.  The hotel that housed my workshop was located just one hour from the Jesuit retreat house where I had taken my month-long, silent retreat twenty years earlier.   

At the conclusion of my workshop, I arranged to revisit that sacred ground for several days of prayer and reflection.  As I reacquainted myself with that holy landscape, I felt like a character in one of Madeline L’Engle’s childhood novels who could transport himself through time.  In the midst of the sweet smelling junipers, and scrub oaks, I was able to instantaneously step back into the shoes of the young man who wandered the pathways of that Rocky Mountain retreat house in his mid-twenties.  

At that time, the central question that occupied my waking hours had to do with the discernment of my vocation.  I believed that my answer to the decade-long question about how to invest my life could be found with the aid of The Exercises, a rigorous, four week long retreat program written by Ignatius of Loyola almost five hundred years ago.

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13: 22-30), Jesus invited his followers “to enter through the narrow gate” (vs. 24).  As a young retreatant, I was convinced that the “narrow gate” Jesus was talking about in this passage had to do with rigorous, ascetical practices of self-mortification.   

In addition to the luggage I carried with me, come to find out, I was also packing some serious spiritual hubris.  The unconscious messages banging around in my head went something like this, “Ignatius’ Exercisesare not for light weights.”  I had come for spiritual boot camp.  If my director demanded fasting, I would have gladly dropped thirty pounds.  If I had discovered a Medieval, scratchy, horse hair shirt laying around, I would have slipped it on when no one was looking.  I wanted to work out with Christ’s cross—the heavier the better.

When I met Father Vince, he looked nothing like a drill sergeant.  It didn’t take long for his smiling blue eyes to take full measure of the adolescent who sat before him.  He thoroughly resisted my efforts to turn my retreat into a superficial four-week workout session. 

Instead, he imposed a much harsher discipline than I could have imagined.  He insisted that I adopt the rigorous methodology of self-compassion and understanding.  Each time that I tried to turn a meditation into an occasion for a harsh approach to myself, or the spiritual life, Fr. Vince would gently, but firmly redirect my meandering footfalls back to the pathways of compassion and self-understanding. 

Since the time of that retreat all of those years ago, I have come to see the centrality of compassion and understanding in living out a fully spiritual life.  I have also discovered that compassion is not the way of the world.  It is much easier to superficially and harshly judge someone from a distance than to really seek to understand and to hold that person in compassion.  For just a week, as you read or watch your sources of information, ask yourself if the one delivering this information is interpreting the person or people they are talking about with a sense of compassion and understanding.  My prediction is that you will discover how rare it is for people to truly live out the rigorous mindset of Christ’s compassion.

 This week, could you choose the “narrow gate” of Christ’s compassion in all that you do?  Would you consider utilizing compassion and understanding as the central criteria for discernment?  For example, if you read a piece of scripture and find that your interpretation of it is harsh or lacking in compassion for yourself or another, would you consider reading it again with an intention of finding the missing ingredient of compassion?  Monitor your thoughts with a sense of awareness this week.  If you find that you are harshly judging yourself or someone else, ask Jesus to be the friend who helps you to have a good, compassionate laugh at yourself.  Can you allow yourself to be schooled one-day-at-a-time in the sacred and rigorous arts of deep compassion?

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