Loving Like Jesus
In Living Compassion, author Andrew Dreitcer offers the reader a course curriculum on compassion — what it is, how it’s practiced by various faith traditions, and how it can be formed and taught today so Christians can truly live it in their daily lives the way Jesus intended. Dreitcer is associate professor of spirituality, director of spiritual formation, and co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology. This book is an introduction to a compassion practice he created called simply, the Compassion Practice. He developed this because “there are no classical or traditional Christian practices that have been specifically identified or named as compassion-formation practices” (15).
Though there are compassion-formation practices from other faiths, the lack in Christianity is troubling. Dreitcer explains how difficult it was for him to genuinely love his enemies the way his faith taught he should. He notes,
The constant efforts to manufacture acts of love because my faith demands it — even when I don’t feel loving — may lead me to a sense of guilty inadequacy, or a sense of failure, or ultimately to burnout. Burnout sabotages all my efforts to live out the love to which I have committed my life (12).
His new understanding of what it means to truly live compassion means “we don’t have to conjure up love; love fills the core of our beings” (12). Dreitcer says that while “love” can be far too large an idea to define precisely, “compassion” can give us a handhold on it by providing concrete examples on how to love. And, the good news for us is that the “heart of the Christian path of love — radical compassion — can be taught” (13).
This is where Dreitcer’s Compassion Practice comes into play — it was designed to teach us how to be radically compassionate like Jesus. But before he dives into his Compassion Practice, however, Dreitcer takes the readers through a wealth of compassion practices from the ancient to the contemporary, which he drew from to create his compassion-formation practice.
These compassion practices include:
- Praying without ceasing, developed “within the first 350 years of Christianity” by desert monastics in the Middle East and North Africa (53)
- The practice of Recollection, developed by Teresa of Avila in the 16th century
- Centering Prayer, “formed in the mid-1970s by Cistercian (Trappist) brothers of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts” (64)
- The Jesus Prayer, developed in the 5th century by North-African and Middle-Eastern Christians
- Those taken from Meditations on the Life of Christ, the 13th century Latin work, which teaches compassion both for “those people who are dear to us and those whom we might experience as enemies in some respect” (91)
- The 16th century “Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola”
Dreitcer divides these various compassion practices into three groups:
- Those that ground you in the Divine Presence so you can receive compassion (praying without ceasing, Recollection, and Centering Prayer)
- Those that teach compassion for yourself (the Jesus Prayer)
- Those that teach compassion for others (Meditations on the Life of Christ and the “Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola”)
Dreitcer then introduces us to his Compassion Practice, a comprehensive process that “explicitly leads us through the entire process of compassion cultivation, from being grounded in Divine Compassion to acting compassionately toward ourselves and others” (106). As Dreitcer explains, “this practice…moves us from compassionate understandings and feelings to wise, restorative, compassionate actions” (106).
Dreitcer takes the reader step by step through how to understand and utilize the Compassion Practice in our daily lives. First, one should identify the interior thoughts and motivations that may be inhibiting compassion, whether for self or others. Dreitcer uses the acronym FLAG (Fears, Longings, Aching, and Gifts) to explore these inner dynamics. Then, because the Compassion Practice “follows Jesus’ threefold invitation to love God, self, and others,” the reader is invited to join in the three movements of the Compassion Practice which are called “Catching Your Breath,” “Taking Your Pulse,” and “Taking the Other’s Pulse” (127).
The book ends with a reminder that “compassion is a mysterious, grace-filled process, however it happens. And whatever that sacred move looks like, one thing remains constant: The invitation to embrace true compassion comes to us in every moment of every day of our lives” (143).
I greatly enjoyed the overview of the various compassion practices that have helped guide Christians in their spiritual formation over the centuries. I also appreciated the author’s ability to weave lessons from these practices into his overarching Compassion Practice, so that Christians can learn how to better follow Jesus’ example of loving God, loving self, and loving others.
Though the book offers a wealth of examples, both in the form of personal anecdotes and structured practical techniques, I still found myself struggling to visualize how one utilizes the exercises of the Compassion Practice. The book may be difficult for those who are less familiar with the various terminology and ideas that are the foundation of spiritual formation practices. Though Dreitcer explained the lingo well, I was still overwhelmed by the many ideas that were brand new to me. I think for those who have a firm grasp of the ideology of spiritual formation already, this book will a valuable and appreciated tool. For those who are coming into these ideas for the first time, this book would serve as a helpful supplement to a course or retreat where an instructor is on-hand to guide one through the exercises and answer any questions along the way.
In the end, I think anyone who is striving toward a better understanding and implementation of compassion (as we all should) will find this book a useful guide to the history and importance of compassion from a Christian perspective.