Fr. Joseph Nassal, in his book, “seeks to reclaim the meaning of conspire: to breathe together” (p. 12) for the good and redemption of others, thereby creating a community of “co-conspirators” (p.12) of compassion exemplified best and initiated by Jesus Christ. He uses the metaphor of breathing to describe the processes involved to create such a community. Just as the Spirit of God moving across the waters in Genesis 1 created order out of chaos, just as “the mighty rushing wind” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost replaced fear and doubt with hope, so the author encourages us to catch and inhale the “sacred wind,” this “gentle breath of God’s Spirit” (p. 12) as we go through pain and suffering for healing into new life and even joy. He challenges us to allow our wounds to stay open and “breathe” (p. 26) by looking at our pain and suffering to develop in us a compassionate heart, and as our basis and motivation to reach out and breathe upon another’s wound (compassion). It is when we bandage and cover our wounds, when we “have amnesia about the ashes of our lives, [that] it’s easier to accept war and violence and poverty as the way the world is, the expected results of a fallen world” (p. 37). Just as Jesus’ open nail-scarred wounds identified Him as the suffering Messiah to his disciples, our own sufferings can become our identity that initiates us into “Christ’s passion and into his way of compassion” (p. 21). As Christ’s followers called to take up our cross and follow in His footsteps, we can use “our most devastating losses, our most excruciating pain, our deepest wound” to become “our gift to the community” (p. 27) and teach us a way to serve others in their pain and suffering.
Since, “an essential dimension of communities of compassion is the art of story-telling” (p. 149) the author related vignettes of Jesus – his life, suffering and death, embracing our pain as his own – as “the paradigm for the breathing exercises that inspire us to be compassionate” (p. 28). He related how different biblical characters and the apostles got initiated into this conspiracy to become a community of the cross. He also interspersed those vignettes with stories of his own experiences and of the people he met to show how this conspiracy of compassion begins, grows, is multiplied, and even cured when fatigued.
The process is started when the wind dies down or we are out of breath (suffering, pain), we inhale the breath of God, we reclaim our heritage and identity as God’s beloved, by stepping into solitude and contemplative prayer as Jesus did, as it is from this reservoir of communion with God that true activism springs from. We then exhale the breath of the Beloved by embracing a new spirit of poverty – empty hands, open hearts, dependent on God. Just as the apostles who left everything to follow Jesus, we let go of preconceived notions and learned behaviors and ways of the world and humbly be led by God so that we can enter into the needs of others and be channels of His grace to those we encounter. We are to practice compassion (breathing lessons) by paying attention, developing sensitivity (listening, exercising patience, prayer and faith) to the daily encounters of people’s suffering we face. When we practice these breathing lessons daily, we also articulate these experiences with others with whom we conspire (breathe together) to create community. In our community, we must be sure to not become exclusive but inclusive of those in the fringes through committed love and communal prayer that move into compassionate action. We also need to be prepared for the conflicts and controversies our commitments will create, as well as deal with compassion fatigue syndrome (CFS) by exhaling those suffocating attitudes and feelings and inhaling afresh the very breath of God. The recurrent theme is solitude to inhale the loving breath of God with His compassion and love for us, and catch our own breath in its rhythm and breathe out with our stories and breathe with those we meet to start, sustain and carry us forward in this conspiracy. Solitude can then lead to solidarity to create the conspiracy of compassion that could change our communities!
Fr Nassal's contemplative life and practice (serving as director of Shantivanam, a contemplative house of prayer for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas – back cover) as well as his gift of story-telling make for a style that is very engaging and enriching. I find his retelling of the stories of Jesus and the disciples and his insights into their characters refreshing and imbued with depth and meaning. It made me read these stories again with fresh eyes and see things I’ve not seen before. He has succeeded in emphasizing the importance of solitude and drawing from the breath of God in order to sow, sustain and support the seed of compassion planted in ourhearts for the long haul. His book is effective because he himself has chosen the way and lives the life of compassion that he talks about.
Fr. Nassal’s book would make a good companion guide for a time of solitude, as it is one that is so rich in meaning with a lot to think about rather than just a book to read through in one sitting. Indeed, the author’s poetic and poignant story-telling style, just like the “wind” or “breath” makes it hard to spot a clear logical outline because it is easy to get caught up and be lost in the stories and the many lessons those stories evoke. Also, the author, in trying to stay true to recapturing the original meaning of conspire, used the process of breathing to explain the different processes in the conspiracy of compassion. Although I find the metaphor effective, people who want clear cut-and-dried steps may not be drawn to read it as it gets to be too drawn out at times.
One of the book’s main strengths is that the author uses the life of Christ as the model for compassion, not so much as to emulate Him but to see His heart and let that heart of love and compassion fill us up so that it’s His very own heart that we manifest in our world. And that makes a compassionate ministry not just a project or plan to be had, but as a result of one’s intimate relationship with the Compassionate One!