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Learning the Attitude of Compassion
“As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against any one; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Colossians 3:12-13
Since I left my island home at nineteen, many older people abroad have become close, warm friends. Sometimes an older friend, who can see linkages between the past, the present and the future, offers a deeper quality of friendship. Henry was such a friend. A distinguished Connecticut businessman, he was also a very spiritual man, an elder in my church. I was around thirty years old and Henry was about seventy.
Henry seemed to know when I was struggling and going through a difficult time. I was running a research unit at Yale Medical School, and every two weeks or so Henry would call and invite me to lunch. We always ate at the same place, Chuck’s Steakhouse. (Henry came from Scottish stock and felt it offered the best value for money!) Henry would pick me up in his stately Cadillac, and we would drive together to Chuck’s. Over lunch he would talk about his life, and I would share the issues in my life. He had a kind manner and was always very understanding. I saw him as a contemplative and holy person; he seemed to have a tolerance for failure and people who did not agree with him. Having a love for the young people in the church, he would make time to be involved in their lives and offered to help them as much as he could. He had particular interest in helping young men going into business. Henry and his wife Shirley were very close, and it was a beautiful sight on a Sunday morning to see them walk together into church. They were one, a wonderful married couple.
I returned to the Bahamas in 1980, but when I visited Yale on business three years later, I was keen to return the kindness that Henry had shown so I invited him to Chuck’s Steakhouse for lunch. When I picked up Henry that morning, he was very quiet and seemed sad and worried. We didn’t say much as we drove along to the eating place. After we sat down Henry said, “David, I would like to share something with you that is very painful but extremely important to my life. Sunday morning about three weeks ago, Shirley woke up, looked at me in bed and asked who I was and what I was doing there. She claimed not to know me.” After fifty years of marriage, this was a dreadful shock. To cut a long story short, Shirley was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Deteriorating quickly, she was placed in a special nursing home. Henry said the parting was extremely painful because for fifty years they had worked together, played together and of course prayed together. After a very long silence, Henry reached over, looked me straight in the face, and said, “David, I have to make a very important decision. When Shirley became ill and had to go to the nursing home, I decided to move to Florida. As a healthy eighty-year-old, I felt there was a lot of life in me yet. Being well off, I could enjoy the final years of my life not being bothered with the pain of a wife with Alzheimer’s. But during my time of contemplative prayer a few mornings ago, I became convicted God wanted to teach me compassion before I died.”
As Henry reviewed his life, he realized that although he had been a very successful businessman, he was a hard man who would not take slackness or nonsense from an employee. He had fired many young men because of a single failure or lateness. He said, “I was not compassionate or kind in business. I had a totally righteous outlook and as far as I was concerned, there was only one way: the right way. If you didn’t do it my way, you could get out!” His conviction, through the spirit of God, was that before he went home to be with the Lord, God wanted to teach him compassion. Looking at me with tears in his eyes, he said, “I’m not going to go to Florida. This very morning I put my house on the market and I am moving into the nursing home to care of Shirley. This is a very hard decision for me because I am such an independent person. I don’t know how to care for a sick person or someone who rejects me. She pushes me away when I try to read to her or pray with her or feed her. But I feel strongly I should be with her.”
A few weeks later I had the chance to speak with a social worker at the nursing home where Shirley and Henry were living. She said it was touching to see how lovingly Henry tried to feed Shirley. Sometimes Shirley would push his hand away, shouting, “Leave me alone!” Sometimes he would try to read the scripture to her and she would push the Bible out of his hands. But regardless of her resistance and obstinacy, Henry lovingly took care of her. About a year later I learned that Henry had died from a heart attack, leaving Shirley still living in the nursing home.
Thinking about this great man of God, I will never forget Henry saying that he felt the spirit of God showing him that although he had been very successful in business, active in the church and committed to his spiritual journey, he lacked compassion. God convicted him, “You need to learn compassion. Your soul needs to grow in the air of compassion before you come home.” The witness of the social worker indicated to me that my friend Henry was learning compassion in caring for his sick wife. And after learning the lesson of compassion, he was called home.
Contemplation is not some isolated sentimental experience; it is opening to the vision of God and then bowing in deep commitment to follow the mission of God’s love in the world. Whether seen in the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or my friend Henry of Connecticut, the love of God always expresses itself in compassion for those around us. Compassion is always the validation of true contemplation.
– Dr. David F. Allen,
‘Contemplation: Intimacy in a Distant World’
Used with Permission of the author.
®Allen’s Institute of Training and Treatment 2013