Connection and Compassion

Cover of "The Keys of the Kingdom"

Cover of The Keys of the Kingdom

I wish I had some really cool insight or story to tell you about today. But it really just seemed like a pretty normal, uncomplicated day. I got up this morning and went through my normal routine. The rest of the day was pretty much uneventful.

The only thing I can think of to talk about is how to deal with life when it seems the same, day after day. Fortunately for me, each day (although similar) doesn’t feel exactly the same as the one before, or else I would probably be getting pretty bored. But I keep finding things to do, things to think about, ways to exercise my body, mind, and spirit.

One thing that I have been doing a lot of is reading. Now, those of you who know me can attest that this isn’t new. I’ve always liked to read since I was a little boy. As a child I asked an adult (I can’t remember who) if there was a job where I could be paid to read and talk about books. I said that if there was, that was what I wanted to do. The adult came back with a placating response, something along the lines of, “well honey, there are lots of jobs where you get to read, just make sure you go to college”.

So I did. And I studied English. But I found out during my time at the university that I also liked to write. And I soon switched my major from standard English to Creative Writing (a subset of the English major which basically just includes more…you guessed it: creative writing).

Anyway, that’s a tangent. I’m trying to keep these posts more concise.

What I wanted to talk about is how I used the idea of reading and writing to make today a different day. I’ve been toying with making some additions to this blog. One of them, which you can already see, is the Book Club page. Right now, there isn’t anything on it except a couple of book titles. But soon, you will be able to use it to find the book of the week, and, in addition that you will find links and embedded videos with me reviewing each book. Of course, I have to read them first. So to start there will only be a single video on there.

Today, I started making the first video, which is my review of a book my uncle Richard recommended to me called Keys of the Kingdom. Written by AJ Cronin in the 1940’s, it documents the life of a Scottish Catholic Priest, Father Chisolm, who ends up in a remote mission in China. It has all kinds of drama from death and suicide and illegitimate birth to conversion, redemption, loss and restoration of faith, plague, war, intrigue and church politics. Cross-cultural relations also play a significant role.

But the reason I decided to make this book my first “review” for the Wellness Quest is that the main character has an enormous compassion for the men and women around him. So much so that he often ends up getting the short end of the stick. He is kind, gentle, and humble to a fault. But he doesn’t appear as a caricature of a priest. No, instead his character is deep, real, and true to life. He has doubts, but he overcomes them. He questions dogma, and preaches love. In short, if Jesus Christ were walking the earth today, I believe he would want to hang out with men like Father Francis Chisolm.

So I chose this book because its themes resonated with me and with the journey I am on. I was raised in a protestant Christian home. But after about age 16 I lost touch with the church I was brought up in for many reasons. Probably the biggest was that it was inconvenient. Christianity has so many rules, and I, as a teenager, had a natural aversion to rules. There were also some glaring inconsistencies and hypocrisies that were evident in the church I went to. I felt alienated and I just wanted out. So once for a while I lived a double life, pretending to still be a Christian on Sundays and in my parent’s home. But as soon as I was out with my friends or on my own, I became someone different. At that time, I didn’t know how to tell my parents that I didn’t believe in god. Because at that point in my life, I really didn’t. Or, I suppose, I didn’t care if there was a god or not, because, I thought, if there was one, he was doing a pretty bad job at taking care of things on earth.

The point is, for the last 5-6 years as I have been walking through my nightmare of illness, addiction, depression and demoralization, I have found that my spiritual beliefs have altered significantly. I may not believe in a traditional “man up in the sky with a great big beard”, the sort of celestial santa claus trope. Instead, at this moment, I believe in a universal energy source from which flows the foundation of all life on our planet and throughout the cosmos. I believe that that source is connected to us all, and that we can communicate with each other and with that source, should we choose to. And most of all, I believe that most religions are a means to that end – namely, that religions have attempted to create a path that will lead its followers into communion with the source. It doesn’t matter that the many world religions call this source a hundred different names. What matters is that they are trying to help people find that connection. I see them all as brothers and sisters, trying to achieve the same thing through different methods.

When I look at religion in that light, it is hard for me to be critical of any of them. In my belief, they are all on the same track, and it is only when individual religions become too extreme and believe that their individual path is the only correct one, and use that belief to justify the extermination of people who have different paths that religions create problems. But that is the difference between a believer and a zealot. While faith is good, blind, dogmatic faith can become dangerous.

That brings me back to Father Chisolm in Keys of the Kingdom. His faith was pure, because he constantly questioned himself and he consistently showed the same compassion for protestants and even followers of Confucius as he did for his fellow Catholics.

What I think best describes him though, was his actions as his friend, an atheist doctor, lays dying of the plague in a makeshift hospital deep in the interior of China. He stays by his friend’s side and at the end, when a nun who works with him at the mission asks him why he didn’t perform the last rights so that his friend might possibly still be saved instead of going straight to hell, he responds that if God didn’t take into account the life that this man lived, where he was constantly helping others just because he didn’t say a few words and sit under a church roof on Sundays.. well, if that was the case, he didn’t think that kind of God had much going for him.

At first the nun was horrified at his heresy, but as they worked together more and more, she realized that his sincerity and compassion made him love everyone despite their beliefs.

And that, my friends, family, and those who I don’t yet know…that is who I want to be.

Goodnight,

-Nathan

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2 responses to “Connection and Compassion

  1. Nathan, I’ll say this more for others who may read this than you, though you may enjoy it as well.

    It was my mother (Elizabeth), Nathan’s grandmother, who first gave THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM to me. I’ve reread the book several times over the years. Father Chisolm models the sort of spirituality that my mom developed in herself. She had room in her heart for people of all faiths and backgrounds. She never acted from dogma, but tried to follow the model that Jesus represented in his teachings. I would imagine that when she read this book, she found great resonance with Father Chisolm. Hers was an inclusive faith. She reached out to touch the hearts of everyone around her, and seemed to have the ability to instantly forgive anyone who stumbled for a moment. If i did something poorly or said something insensitively, she’d metaphorically pick me up, dust me off and remind me of who I was capable of being. She always reinforced doing the right, loving thing, and didn’t harp on what may have occurred in the past.

    • QuietMonolith

      I think that was a fabulous summary of both Elizabeth and Francis Chisolm. He is one of those characters who is greater than the pages on which he is written. The same is so for my grandmother. Elizabeth was not outspoken, she did not go about proselytizing – instead she lived her faith, every day. That to me is admirable.

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