Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

In a recent panel discussion with Nuala Kenny and David Coppola—the former a medical doctor and the latter a theologian—on compassion and courageous leadership in our time, I emphasized the high importance of imagination in our lives, how it needs to be fed, cultivated and, yes, reverenced.

Our imagination plays a key role in nurturing empathy, or co-sympathy, and compassion, or disinterested gratuity. In other words, we have empathy when we can place ourselves in the context of another’s pain but we have compassion when we feel for the other simply as other with no self-reference or potential reciprocity.

I think compassion and imagination are best mediated through narrative which, according to the British historian and spiritual writer Donald Nicholl, is the methodology best suited to the scientia cordis or science of the heart.

 Henri Nouwen, the priest-psychologist and Ivy League professor, nicely delineates in his life and ministry as a teacher, counsellor, and spiritual companion, between a phenomenological aesthetics—the territory of the artistic imagination—and phenomenological ethics—the territory of the spiritual imagination. In both instances, narrative is indispensable.

As an example of the former, here is a passage in which he speaks about brokenness in a scene from Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 musical work, Mass:

Toward the end of the work, the priest, richly dressed in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the human pyramid collapses, and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off, and his glass chalice falls to the ground and is shattered. As he walks slowly through the debris of his former glory—barefoot, wearing only his blue jeans and a T-shirt—children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude”, praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says,” I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.” These words I will never forget. . .they capture the mystery of my life. . .and now, shortly after his death, of Bernstein’s own splendid but tragic life. (Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World).

As an example of the territory of the spiritual imagination, here is a passage from Nouwen’s posthumously published memoir of a luminous life, the life of Adam Arnett, a severely disabled resident of L’Arche whom Nouwen faithfully attended in things of the heart, the body, and the soul:

I have heard about and read about the life of Jesus, but I was never able to touch or see him. I was able to touch Adam. I saw him and I touched his life. I physically touched him when I gave him a bath, shaved him, and brushed his teeth. I touched him when I carefully dressed him, walked him to the breakfast table, and helped him to bring the spoon to his mouth. Others touched him when they gave him a massage, did exercises with him, and sat with him in the swimming pool and Jacuzzi. His parents touched him. And what is said of Jesus must be said of Adam: “Everyone who touched him was healed!” Each of us who has touched Adam has been made whole somewhere; it has been our common experience. (Adam)

And so, with the first example, we have empathy, and with the second, compassion.

And we need both in our leadership: ecclesial, political, corporate, and social. 


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