Reflections on Passion

Each year I look forward to the quiet reflections of the season of Lent.  This year, the Lord spoke to my heart through an essay by Henri Nouwen titled, “From Action to Passion.”  Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest and professor who taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  For the last ten years of his life, he served as pastor to a community in Toronto, Canada, for developmentally disabled individuals called L’Arche.  During this season at L’Arche, Nouwen wrote “From Action to Passion.”  


Nouwen begins his essay with the story of a friend who was sick and wrestling with the reality that his sickness was keeping him from living the active, fulfilling lifestyle to which he was accustomed.  In his frustration, his friend expressed, “My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people.”  Then he asked for help understanding “what it means that now all sorts of people are doing things to me over which I have no control.”


At this point, Nouwen turned to the story of “the passion of Christ” for insight.  The English word passion has its roots in the Latin passio, which means, simply, “suffering.”  Among the multiple meanings listed, Webster states the word passion can also mean “the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces.”   What an interesting combination of insights: Jesus’ suffering was brought about by external forces acting upon him, and these actions were necessary to fulfill God’s purposes.  Scripture tells us that Jesus was “handed over” by Judas and by God (Mark 14:10, Rom 8:32) for a specific purpose. This action of being “handed over” marks the shift in Jesus’ life from his time of doing things to a time of things being done to him.  But these two phases of Jesus’ mission were equally important in God’s plan.  Nouwen explains, “Jesus does not fulfill his vocation in action only but also in passion.  He doesn’t just fulfill his vocation by doing the things the Father sent him to do, but also by letting things be done to him that the Father allows to be done to him, by receiving other people’s initiatives.”


This was one of those spirit-revealed truth moments for me.  Thinking about Jesus’ suffering at the hands of others brought about a shift in my perspective related to the types of suffering that I have recently experienced.  What if the suffering that God allows to happen to me at the hands of others is just as important in my personal spiritual formation process as is reading my Bible, praying, serving, and giving?  Am I as open to receiving this process of suffering at the hands of others as I am to receiving in other ways from the hand of God? 


I must admit that when God asked me these questions, I was paralyzed by how wide the gap is between my responses to suffering at the hands of others as compared to Jesus’.   I realized that my posture of openness to any suffering the Lord was allowing to come into my life was impacted by my perception of the motivation of the force behind it.  If I perceived the force behind the suffering to be benign (i.e. job transitions, financial challenges, a family member’s illness) I was much more open to receive the impact of this suffering in my life.  If, however, I perceived the force to be intentionally hurtful to me (or even worse, to one of my children!) – this suffering I was not open to receiving and my tendency was to respond with anger and pride.


Nouwen concludes his essay with a challenge that is rooted in Jesus’ example.  “When we allow ourselves to feel fully how we are being acted upon, we can come in touch with a new life that we were not even aware was there…Then our service to others will include our helping them see the glory breaking through, not only where they are active but also where they are being acted upon.”  Let the Lord heighten our awareness to the ways we are being acted upon and bringing healing to our souls that will allow his glory to break through.


-Trish Moya