Part 2 in a Series on JustFaith:
Growing in Compassion

By Stephanie Block

The first weeks of the JustFaith program are designed to help participants feel comfortable with one another, trust what they will learn, and develop an earnest commitment to the program’s reading schedule around which weekly discussions are tailored.

Opening Prayer: One tool to building a sense of community within the group is guiding them in spiritual practices. “The importance of community building during JustFaith cannot be overemphasized …. Prayer has a vital role in the conversion process and in deepening the sharing and bonding within the community. Rituals, symbols and Scriptures have been added to help frame each session in prayer so that it is heartfelt and experiential.”[i]

“Ritualized patterns” will only be used in “roughly half the weeks.” On those weeks, participants begin the session by forming a circle in which a “symbol” is placed. “Like icons, [these symbols] have the potential to reveal different layers of meaning to each person in the prayer circle.”[ii]

The symbols for week one are fire and water, and participants are told they represent, in the case of fire, “light and heat, passion and pain, danger and fear…Pentecost” and, in the case of the water, “life and death, drought and flood, beginnings and endings… Baptism.” Participants are asked to bless themselves – make the sign of the cross –with the water (there is no suggestion that this is Holy Water), read a scripture passage, and then listen to a meditation.

“To pray,” reader A begins the meditation, “is more dangerous than throwing a torch into a dry woodland.”

“In a burning forest you can run for cover,” continues reader B, “but if you begin to pray there is no escape, no place you can hide from the raging fire of God.”

A littler further along, reader B says: “It’s no wonder, then, that many kneel just outside the furnace door – close enough to keep warm, far enough to keep from getting consumed – and call it prayer….it is not prayer.”

Using an image borrowed from one of the desert fathers about turning the self into fire, there are many lines with the form: “To be turned into fire, you must…” do various things. One (tortuously negative) example is: “To be turned into fire, you cannot….pray so that God’s reign may come on earth and do not do all in your power to eradicate poverty, to stand against injustice, to protect human rights.”

But, is this what Jesus actually tells us?

The symbol for session 2 is salt as the opening prayer includes a “commitment ritual.” Participants are told “that salt was used to seal a contract or covenant in Biblical days. We will use salt in this ritual to signify our commitment to each other and to this process.”

The “commitment” being sealed with salt refers to the one-page “JustFaith Group Guidelines” that “commit” the participants to “honoring differences” in each other, to “practicing sacred listening” – which, as explained in part one, is a bit more than being respectful and allowing another his say – to letting everyone have a chance to speak, and to participating fully. One also commits to “respectfully seek clarification” on matters with which one disagrees.

The JustFaith program takes good manners very seriously.

Week 3 uses the symbol a bowl of water (again, there is no indication that this is blessed) and a branch of evergreen, with which the circle of participants are sprinkled and told symbolizes cleansing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The similarity, to a Catholic mind, of this “ritual” and the Asperges of the Mass is disconcerting.

Video, Week 2: Making participants “comfortable” doesn’t mean that that they are not challenged. It means, rather, that the program has been placed in to the context of religious values that participants already accept and wish to practice more fully. Within this context, the choice of the program’s first[iii] video, “When Did I See You Hungry,”[iv] shown at the beginning of week 2, is a hauntingly poignant introduction to where opportunities for works of mercy are to be found.

Reading/Discussion, Week 2: The facilitator’s notes explain that JustFaith has intentionally chosen a highly emotional film to launch into the heart of the program and asks participants to discuss their responses and “How might God be able to use these emotions?”

JustFaith intends to use these emotions as a vehicle for discussing the reading assignment – which for sessions 2 and 3 is the first part of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life coauthored by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.[v] With the heart already softened by images of starving children, the topic of compassion is entirely apropos.

Father Nouwen is a sympathetic author whose battle with his own, personal demons was nothing short of heroic. However, his spiritual life veered disastrously toward eastern mysticism and New Age thought and, like Thomas Merton who he much admired, Nouwen sought their syncretistic blend: “I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God”[vi]

But Father didn’t write Compassion on his own and the subject matter isn’t ecumenism so who knows where we’re going.

The book’s introduction explains where we’re going: compassion is not a natural response to suffering, much as we may abstractly desire to be considered compassionate. In fact, there are those, say the authors, who argue that compassion is actually an anti-social quality, leading “in the direction of collective solutions inimical to individual freedom.”

This is an either/or set-up: either one lives in a competitive, individualistic, free society – inside a competitive, individualistic, free personae – or one lives in a compassionate, divine framework.[vii] One wants to live in a compassionate, divine framework, of course. [viii]

Having just watched the images of destitute, starving people around the globe, one certainly isn’t indifferent to the plight of the individuals whose images are on the screen and one is ready to “do something.” What direction will JustFaith take this compassion?

Closing Prayer: Every session ends with a concluding prayer, the purpose of which “is to re-gather, re-focus and commission the group.”[ix] JustFaith isn’t describing prayer as communication with God, even though the names of God are invoked, but as an organizational means to the end of controlling people. This is disturbing but probably quite honest.

The participant handout for the week 2 closing prayer, which is a meditation on the Our Father, is particularly insightful. After each phrase of Jesus’ own words, which is said by the prayer leader, participants are instructed to read an interpretation. So, for example, after the leader says, “On earth as it is in heaven…,” participants continue, “…may the work of our hands, the temples and structures we build in this world, reflect the temple and structure of your glory so that the joy, graciousness, tenderness, and justice of heaven will show forth in all our structures on earth.”

The leader says, “Us…,” and the participants say, “…Give your gifts to all of us equally.”

The leader says, “This day…,” and the participants say, “…Do not let us push things off into some indefinite future so that we can continue to live justified lives in the face of injustice because we can make good excuses for our inactivity.”

This is an extremely interesting – and highly manipulative – use of “prayer.”

[i] JustFaith, Catholic Version 2011-12: Facilitators Notes Week 1, p 1.
[ii] Facilitator notes, week 3, p.1.
[iii] This is actually the second video. The video for week 1 was an introduction to the JustFaith program.
[iv] San Damiano Foundation
[v] Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, (Doubleday Image Books) 1982.
[vi] Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, (Crossroad, 1998) p. 51.
[vii] Compassion, particularly pp 17-20.
[viii] This essay is not intended as a review of the pages of Compassion – both those assigned and those not – which contain many beautiful and true thoughts. For example, on page 29 we read, “Here we are touching the profound spiritual truth that service is an expression of the search for God and not just of the desire to bring about individual or social change,” Amen!
Overall, this is a thoughtful little book. There are weaknesses. The section on prayer seems limited to intercessory prayer. Genuine insights are occasionally marred by incongruent illustrations – such as an excerpt in the assigned reading portion, taken from the play of a Korean poet who has been a political prisoner. While the poet’s own story is compelling, the words he places in the mouth of Jesus, “My power alone is not enough,” are misguided.
[ix] Weeks 1-5 Overview, p. 3.

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