Compassion and Truth

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Back when I was still teaching full-time, I was, for a period of time, the Acting Dean at a Theological College. In that role, I received one day a phone call from one of the local parish priests. The conversation went something like this:

"Are you the Dean of theology at the College?"

"Well, I'm filling in for the dean who's on sabbatical."

"God, your students are a pain in ass! They take a couple of courses, come back, and terrorize the parish! Nothing's ever right for them. They roll their eyes at everything: how we do liturgy, my preaching, the parish's priorities, at our ecclesiology in general. I don't doubt they're right most of the time, but that's not the point. It's their arrogance that's destructive. Don't you teach them any compassion?"

There's a challenge: Don't you teach them any compassion?

Truth must always be yoked to compassion. Growth in our lives (be it intellectual, spiritual, psychological, professional, or moral) should not lead to arrogance, elitism, or the false judgement that we, now so free and enlightened, are stuck among the ignorant and unwashed. Rather any genuine growth should lead to a concomitant growth in compassion, respect, gentleness, and the capacity to be more understanding of what's in opposition to us.

Jesus said as much when he instructed us to speak our truth in parables, lest our speaking it causes more harm than good. In essence, what Jesus tells us is that truth is not a sledge-hammer, and simply having the truth is not enough. Our truth must be right, but so too must be our energy. For the truth to set us free it must come with an equal dose of compassion, otherwise our being right will only lead to more divisiveness inside the community and lots of personal bitterness.

An example might be helpful: Imagine a marriage within which, at a point, one partner begins to grow in ways that the other partner cannot share. Often this leads to divorce or, more commonly, to a lot of resentment and bitterness in the partner who is trying to grow in a new way and now is left with the feeling: "I'm stuck with someone who doesn't understand or support what I'm doing and is an obstacle to my growth and happiness."

What's true inside a marriage is true inside all families, religious communities, parishes, and circles of friendship. At a certain point, one member or the other, begins to grow in a way that becomes a threat to the others.

What's to be done? Stop going down that path for the sake of peace in the family? Plough on ahead, regardless of consequences?

There is no fully happy solution here, but some of the tension can be undercut if there is an equal effort to grow in compassion. A little learning can be a dangerous thing. That's true for all of us and sometimes (perhaps most times) our personal quest for achievement, enlightenment, holiness, justice, or straightening-out the church, is fraught with more than a little illusion and grandiosity and we need precisely the type of grounding that a partner, a family, a parish, or a circle of friendship is so willing to provide. And, while that's true, it's not the whole story.

Each of us too hear deep personal calls which, if not responded to, will lead leave both ourselves and our Creator frustrated. We are being called always by God, personal charism, circumstance, injustice around us, and the daemons inside us to grow in ways that will not always please our partners, our families, our parishes, our communities, and our friends. To not respond is to incur the biblical wrath reserved for those who hide their talents; but, conversely, to respond badly, with less than proper compassion, is to make our truth a sledge-hammer which drives the community apart. It's a tough choice and we risk a certain bitterness either way.

A marriage partner, a family, a parish, a community, or a circle of friends functions in a double way: On the one hand, it's a floor, a certain safety net that keeps us from ever falling too low. It protects us so we can't free-fall into any kind of major degeneracy. In every family and community there's a certain unconscious support that won't let you fall too low. But, there's also a certain ceiling, a roof, that defines how high you can grow. In all but the very best marriages, families, parishes, communities, and friendships, there's an unwritten, unspoken, unalterable law: "You may grow this far, but no further!" And that's not always bad. While it threatens us with being levelled to a common denominator, it also, as we saw, challenges us not to grow in ways that are one-sided, half-baked, and self-delusionary.

It's not easy to grow and not cause tension. And so it's important that any new growth in truth radiates an equally new growth in compassion. We must, as Jesus says, speak our truth in parables.