Meeting the Past with Compassion

by Marjorie George

My father was one of those persons for whom life just did not work — a good man who got beat down, who couldn’t keep a job, who drank a little too much. “Bless his heart,” the old ladies would say, clucking their tongues and adding, “His poor wife and children.” 

I didn’t know why, still don’t know why, the promising lad from high school (he was actually class president) didn’t live up to being the most likely to succeed. Maybe it was because he was raised by a mean, cold, distant woman. Maybe it was the never-diagnosed clinical depression. Maybe it was the War. Mother wouldn’t talk about it.  No one talked about it. 

When Dad could get work it was driving a cab or mowing a lawn or pumping gas. Sources of shame for my teenage self.  I hadn’t learned yet that all work is honorable. That was many years in the coming.

The worst day, the very worst memory, was the shopping trip with my girl friends. One of us had a car, so we piled in and headed for the downtown department stores. Dear old Dad’s job at the time was taking tickets in the Montgomery Ward parking lot. Of course that’s where we parked. And everyone saw — MY father, in his khaki shirt and pants and a pith helmet shading his balding head from the sun. TAKING THE PARKING TICKETS.  I was mortified. I scurried across the parking lot with my head down, sure my friends were whispering about it behind me.

Shame then and shame for years because of my shame then. I should have been a better daughter, my critical adult self has hammered. I should have cut him slack for at least trying.

But that teenage pain was not something Eucharist or Bible study or even the sacrament of confession has been able to transform.  

Yes, it happened. Yes, it was painful. There it is; all these years removed I can name it.  And what shall I do with that memory?  The Spirit whispers: “Meet it with compassion.” Compassion for the man who was, indeed, trying, and who was probably in more pain than I can imagine. Compassion for the teenage girl who was still learning from the circumstances life handed her. 

“See it through the eyes of God,” suggests a friend to whom I have told this story. Invite the tenderness and kindness and forgiveness of which only God is capable into that remembered image. Allow it to be transformed with no effort of my own, only through the exquisite, unending, ever-enduring grace and compassion of God.  

My father died many years ago; painful memories have a longer lifespan. Like the unclean spirit that could only be cast out by Christ himself (Mark 9:14-29), some memories can only become life-giving instead of life-damaging through God’s grace and compassion.  As we review our lives and recall debilitating emotions like shame, pray that we will be able to appropriate that compassion for ourselves as well as others.



In With Open Hands, the classic devotional guide originally published in 1972, Henri Nouwen  calls us to engage compassion. As you pray this, see how you can apply it to situations and persons from your past as well as the present. Recall the prayer when you are facing situations in which you might need to be compassionate.


Dear God, 
As you draw me ever deeper into your heart, 
I discover that my companions on the journey are women and men 
loved by you as fully and as intimately as I am. 
In your compassionate heart, 
there is a place for all of them. 

No one is excluded. 

Give me a share in your compassion, dear God, 
so that your unlimited love may become visible 
in the way I love my brothers and sisters.