Claiming Passion, Daring Compassion

 Donna Markham, OP

Nazim Hikmet, the Turkish revolutionary and poet who wrote many of his verses from prison, captures the sentiments I find myself having from time to time:

-- Oh, to be able to go to sleep now
And to wake within a hundred years,
No, not that; I am not a deserter.
My century does not frighten me.
My miserable, scandalous century,
My spirited, great, heroic century.
I never complained of being born too soon.

I am happy to be where I am:
In the midst of our people
And fighting for a better world…
My agonizing and renascent century.
My century, whose last days will be beautiful,
This terrible night that crushes the shrieks of dawn,
My century will be ablaze with the sun.

Nazim Hikmet captures, at once, the passion and the anguish of our times. I’m sure that we have each had those moments when we wish we could just go to sleep and wake up sometime later, hoping against hope that what had happened was just had a bad dream and everything was really all right. At other times, we awake in awe at the incredible reality that is unfolding all around us and are filled with gratitude that we have lived to celebrate this day. We carry both experiences within us, as likely does every human being alive today. Our great privilege as Dominicans is to claim our communal mission to probe the signs of the times, to study the current realities, to search for the truth of the Word of God as it is enwrapped in the mystery we confront daily, and to take action on behalf of the reign of God’s justice and peace.

The awakening of our passion and the daring to be compassionate happen in the naked face of our confrontation with our contemporary reality. This is what happened to us at the General Chapter as we listened to our many experiences of having come up against and been immersed in the global suffering of our times. We span many venues and encompass many perspectives on areas of critical need. We ignite passion in one another as we stretch the limits of our compassion for a broken world.

The theological optimism of our tradition is our very best inheritance in establishing our relationship with our global reality. Even in the face of all the violence, ecological devastation and seemingly impossible conflicts, this world of ours is God’s creation, the place for all of us and all living beings to inhabit, a home ultimately of incarnation and redemption. It is a world that we get opportunities to glimpse in new ways through one another’s eyes. This week, we will have opportunities to do that in a very intentional way. Each of us has walked the walk; no one way is the right path. Together we walk in God.

So, for us Dominicans as for the poet Hikmet, we cannot take on our communal mission from a place of despair or defeatism, even as we recognize that our planet is deteriorating ecologically and inhabited by people who are spiritually and psychologically troubled. We engage this reality — as have our ancestors — from the perspective of hope, passion and profound compassion.

Sarah Conn, a Cambridge clinical psychologist, gave a report to the Center for Psychology and Social Change at Harvard. She said, “The world is sick. It needs healing. It is speaking through us, and it speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us.” I think she might well be issuing a challenge to us as members of the Order of Preachers — for us so sensitive to issues of justice, and grounded in a tradition of prayer and careful study, to speak courageously about what is happening and determine what else we might do to bring about healing.

Some 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates wrote in his treatise “Airs, Waters, Places” that to grasp the disorders in any subject, we must study carefully the environment of the disorder: the kind of water, the winds, humidity, temperatures, the food and plants, the times of day, the seasons. Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer.

So, we who are therapists and spiritual directors are equally bound to listen to the client or the directee who says, “I’m in a bad space,” and hear that statement not simply as a testimony of spiritual dryness or clinical depression but also as a possible commentary on working in a sealed up office tower or commuting along a polluted and jammed freeway. Thus, the world herself speaks loudest through the most sensitive of us. We cannot be studied or healed apart from the planet.

Various ecopsychologists have had a try at diagnosing our collective pathology as a planet. Some of these formulations include:

  • Collective autism. We seem not to be able to hear or see or feel the mother’s presence. We’ve become deaf to the voices and stories of our ancestors and blind to the psychic presence of the living planet. This diagnosis worries me. I hope it’s not true because the prognosis would be very poor. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interactions.
  • Addiction. Addictive behavior continues in spite of knowing that it is destructive to the self and all social relationships. The compulsive craving of addictions can only be addressed when powerlessness over it is acknowledged.
  • Traumatic amnesia. The person experiencing the trauma is in a completely helpless position. While the memory of the experience can be completely lost, the physical effects on the body and the symptoms, such as nightmares and panic attacks may remain. We might ask, what are the traumatic events that threatened our planetary sense of belonging and harmony? (Wars, genocides, nuclear bombs, etc.)
  • Repression. Repression is a function of the psyche designed to keep the anxiety from underlying conflicts from emerging. One ecopsychologist, Theodore Roszak, believes repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of the collective madness in industrial society. Open access to the ecological unconscious, on the other hand, is a path to sanity.

And, for certain, there are many more ways to try to “diagnose” what is happening to us and why we seem to have such a difficult time as human beings to choose life. For us Dominicans, however, what is of the essence — more than a proper diagnosis, is our conviction to be agents of healing through our word and our work together.

Our Dominican brother, Felicissimo Martinez, identifies six components of the Dominican ideal to which we all aspire and which underscore our desire to address the reality of which we are part. I would like to use this construct as a framework to reflect on this issue of passion and compassion as we work to live our Vision.

1. The ability to see and listen to the historic present; that is, to have compassion.

Passion springs forth from a compassionate heart. Compassion is, perhaps, one of the most difficult virtues to acquire or manage. To live compassionately, we must look into the eyes of the victims. It is a virtue that resides deep in the heart of God. Faced with suffering and with the victims of injustice, Jesus took responsibility. He was moved to suffer with them — which was the first “movement.” But compassion doesn’t end with suffering. Jesus then assumed the obligation take action, to respond to their suffering. Dominic and Catherine walked with those who suffered; and they responded.

Mission is the source of our passion and the grounding of our compassion. Dominic’s compassion exploded in prayer during the night because his passion drove him to minister so totally during the day. Many of us are familiar with that wonderful quote about Dominic: “By day, no one was closer to the people; by night, no one closer to God.”

We have articulated our experience of our historic present through our General Chapter Vision. That is, we have identified those particular venues into which we wish to immerse ourselves. The places of compassion enfold those who have been victimized in one way or another:

  • those who, by virtue of the color of their skin, are discriminated against in countless institutions, systems and venues
  • women who try to survive in systems where we are denied freedom, equality and full personhood
  • poor people who are held hostage by structures that continue to keep them impoverished
  • areas of war, violence, and exploitation where nonviolent peace-making seems so very remote
  • our Church that struggles with the participation of lay persons in leadership and in shared decision-making
  • and our fragile Earth that suffers so profoundly as it strives to stay alive in the face of so many relationships that are neither “right” nor balanced.

These are the places of compassion that we have identified and to which we have bound ourselves to respond. Each place of compassion is a window into collective suffering where God is present. In the desperation of the lived moment, we companion God and dare to become passionate voices that preach words of truth, reverence and peace.

2. The interpretation of events through the perspective of the Gospel; that is, contemplation and study.

If we believe that God is present in the God-forsakenness of the crucified one, then we see God everywhere. We see God manifested in the ravaged forest just as clearly as we experience God broken and shared in Eucharist. When we know what death is, we see life more intensively. We see God in the faces of trafficked women and sexually exploited children just as the mystics experienced God’s presence in the dark night of the soul. And we experience God in the small interchanges and shared journeys with our sisters in the Dominican Life Center in much the same way as we look upon the figure on the cross.

God is present to us everywhere. It is this truth that impels our passion. “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) since “from God and through God and to God are all things.” (Rom 11:36).

As we immerse ourselves in the communal study of these days, let us help one another to reflect on the mystery of God’s presence infusing all the events of our missioned lives.

3. The interpretation of the Gospel through the perspective of our current reality; that is, preaching.

As Dominicans, we know that the efficacy of our ministry arises from the power of God’s word. It is God’s revealed Word, proclaimed by us in the midst of our evolving world situation, that is healing and saving. The Word of God is not static. God continues to reveal God’s self through our emerging consciousness of the injustices of our day. God reveals God’s self in the awe of our deepening awareness of the vast mystery of the cosmos.

When we proclaimed, “We Dominican Preachers of Adrian, impelled by the Gospel and outraged by the injustices of the day,” we committed ourselves to be bearers of a word that is liberating, compassionate, and hope-filled. We know in our bones that God’s Word is being revealed to us daily as we address each unfolding crisis. We claim our obligation as members of this Order to speak with courage and passion and the authority of the Gospel about what is happening to our people and our planet.

4. Reading the Word of God from the perspective of poor people; that is, evangelical poverty.

Elaine Prevallet, Sandra Schneiders and others challenge us to break away from a consumer culture where we continue to use up what we actually do not need and deprive others of a chance for life. We know that the compulsive acquisition of material goods, far from making us happy, has engendered in many of us a severe anxiety. The need to protect possessions has given birth to a boon in private guards, security systems, burglar alarms, just as it has deprived many of the right to a decent life. And what about each of us? Do I divest of my abundance or can I dare to let go of what I think I need so that another might have enough?

I was taught a powerful lesson by a friend of mine not so long ago. One day, as I tried to be supportive to a Geneva Convention refugee who was a victim of torture, I realized that he and his wife had no appropriate clothing to wear to their asylum hearing. I was easily able to go to my closet and pull out a spare skirt and jacket for the woman, but wasn’t sure what to do about the man. I decided to call a classmate of mine, Hunter George, to see if he might have something he could loan to the fellow. Hunter said he did and would come right over. When he arrived, he had a brand new, hand-tailored Italian suit, a new shirt, a silk tie, and a pair of socks and shoes. He gave them to the refugee saying, “Here you go. A man needs a good suit.” And, with that, he left. Hunter gave his best; I gave of my excess. I have never forgotten that. Hunter’s compassion preached the gospel to me that day.

“For those who choose to live simply, the goal is not ascetic self-denial but a sort of unadorned grace.” (Alan Thein Durning).

5. Unwavering commitment to justice and peace.

The ideal of our Dominican vocation propels us into the murky territory of a world where people cry out for justice and long for peace. What is to be our voice in the midst of this? We know that every political movement is grounded in a vision of human nature. What makes us do what we do? Reason or passion, altruism or selfishness? Perhaps most importantly, what and whom do we love? Where is our passion?

If we start from the self-righteous assumption that people are greedy brutes, then the tone of everything we say or do will be one of contempt. If we assume people are self-destructively ignorant, then our tactics are apt to become dictatorial and shame-inducing. As for those on the receiving end of our assumptions, shame has always been among the most unpredictable motivations in either politics or religion. It too easily slides into resentment. If someone’s entire way of life is called into question, what is apt to happen is a response of defensive rigidity or violence. The only peace that can come from the effort to oppose terror with terror is the peace of the graveyard!

On the other hand, if we start from the assumption that all are deserving of a sustainable existence, worthy of relationship, our actions take different expression. As we promote the cessation of arms dealing, we commit to personal disarmament of spirit. We work to break the culture of secrecy in our governments, in our church, in our own lives. We pledge to negotiate and mediate for as long as it takes to avoid destruction of life. “Love is the path beyond terror,” says Tolstoy. “Nonviolent resistance is the path beyond terror,” says Dorothy Day. “Reconciliation is the path beyond terror,” says Desmond Tutu. And what do I say?

6. Dominican community and the practice of the reign of God; that is, Common Life.

Our passion as it emerges from our experience of compassion, flows more easily when we are rooted together in places where there is greater suffering, or where suffering is more evident and its consequences more dramatic. Our communal life in mission is the source of compassion. Being in relationship with those who are victimized; being intimately connected to the suffering of
Earth, makes it impossible to be indifferent for very long. Our penchant for sisterly challenge keeps us truthful to the reality around us! Immersed and committed mission gives us the unique opportunity to revitalize Dominican compassion and give expression to the healing reign of God on Earth.


Griffith, Lee. The War on Terror and the Terror of God. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Hikmet, Nazim. The Poems of Nazim Hikmet. New York: Persea, 2002.

Hollander, Nancy Caro. Love in a Time of Hate: Liberation Psychology in Latin America. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Martinez, Felicissimo. How to Live Dominican Compassion Today. Ashram, March, 1992.

Moltmann, Jűrgen. The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. Ecopsychology: Resoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1995.