Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 16

Developing a Pilgrim Posture: Integrating Contemplation, Compassion, 
and the Struggle for Justice

Trevor Hudson

Writing about how I have intentionally sought to integrate contemplation, compassion, and the struggle for justice into my life is rather daunting. I feel a little like Gandhi must have felt when a troubled mother brought her daughter to see him about her addiction to sweets. He supposedly asked the mother to come back in three weeks. She did so. This time the spiritual master took the young girl aside and explained to her in a few simple words the harmful effects of eating too many sweets. Thanking Gandhi for giving her daughter such good advice, the mother asked him, “Still I would like to know why you did not say those words to my daughter three weeks ago when I first brought her to you?” He explained, “Three weeks ago I was still addicted to eating sweet foods myself!”I first came across this illustration in Donald Nicholl, Holiness (London: DLT, 1981), 3.

Even though I have been a Christ-follower for over four decades, my struggle to integrate the personal and social dimensions of discipleship continues. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, I live within a social context of immense suffering and injustice in the Republic of South Africa. Even though, as a nation, we have witnessed the birth of democracy, human misery abounds. The tragic gap between the haves and have-nots remains one of the widest in the world. Corruption and violent crime permeate all levels of society. Rape statistics involving women and children reveal a country that is in danger of losing its soul. Within this context I am constantly searching for ways in which my life can contribute towards the common good. Often I feel quite overwhelmed by the challenges that lie all around.

01.  The Gift of Ongoing Transformation

I also write tentatively about this subject for personal reasons. The struggle to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God is not just an external one that happens only “out there” on the streets. It also takes place in the human heart and within closest relationships. Here lies the rub for me. There continue to be deep levels within me that resist letting God be the God of compassion and justice in and through me. Furthermore, those closest to me do not always find me compassionate and loving. Sometimes I sabotage my dearest relationships with ingrained selfish behaviors. My journey towards becoming a genuinely caring and compassionate man seems to have a long way to go.

Thankfully the conversion of our lives continues over time. When we turn toward Christ and entrust ourselves to him, he comes to live within us in the power of his Spirit. As we remain open and yielded to the Spirit, especially in our moments of stillness and the silence, the ongoing process of inner change takes place slowly. Through Christ’s loving power we are gradually transformed into our true selves, fashioned into instruments of compassionate justice, and nourished in our relationship with God. Transformation is always an inside, unfolding work of the Spirit. Paul makes this beautifully clear when he writes: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV).Scripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Yet this liberating insight does not mean that there is nothing we can do to become a more loving, compassionate and just person. Transformation does not just happen. There are some things we can and must do. Our relationship with God requires our determined and planned cooperation. The author to the Hebrews stresses this human side of our conversion when he encourages his readers to “make every effort . . . to be holy” (Heb. 12:14, NIV).Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.

But what are we to do if we want to intentionally integrate contemplation, compassion and justice within our lives? Let me suggest one overlooked and neglected activity that makes greater space for God’s transforming Spirit. We learn this from the life of Jesus in the Gospels: to expose our lives intentionally to those who suffer. Jesus did this and promises to meet us in his crucified and risen presence wherever people are in need: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40, NIV).

02.  The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope

I can remember the exact moment the idea of a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope came to me. I was driving home from Soweto with three overseas friends in August 1982. For almost three hours we had listened to the life stories of ordinary men and women who lived amidst crushing injustice and oppression. As I steered my car back to the suburb where I pastored a largely middle-class congregation, their words and faces kept coming to my mind. Suddenly a thought came to me with surprising forcefulness and clarity: Take members of your congregation with you to where their brothers and sisters are suffering.

So the concept of the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope was born.I have written more about the ”Pilgrimage of Pain & Hope” in A Mile in My Shoes (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2005). Throughout the traumatized 1980s and early 1990s of apartheid in South Africa, these pilgrimages acted as a vital part of our congregational life. Over one hundred young and not-so-young adults participated. The eight-day event became an instrument of lasting personal transformation, for these pilgrims experienced profound changes in attitude and outlook. Repeatedly their lives bore clear evidence of a deepening commitment to the Way of Christ. Some of us were led into a deeper participation for a more just and compassionate society.

These pilgrimages had three essential ingredients: Encounter, Reflection, and Transformation. I suggest that if we build these ingredients into our intentional encounters with those who suffer, we will begin the challenging journey of integrating our relationship with God with the human struggles for justice and dignity taking place all around us. They help make holy our interactions with our suffering neighbors where we are.

03.  Encounter

First of all, we need to encounter our suffering neighbor. Through this personal encounter with a flesh-and-blood person we also come face-to-face with our fractured, shattered, and fragmented society. Often we who are privileged are shielded from the harsh realities of others’ lives. Poverty, homelessness, and destitution tend to be abstractions for us. Many of us have never sought to relate our faith to these social realities. More tragically, we seldom share our lives with and learn from those who know the pain of these circumstances firsthand. When we do, we often meet people who resiliently refuse to become prisoners of hopelessness. Encountering these “signs of hope” challenge us to find ways in which we can make a creative difference in the society where we live.

But we must prepare ourselves for these encounters. We need to be nourished and guided by the contemplative dimension of intense inner prayerfulness. I call this developing a pilgrim posture. This involves at least three things.

First, it means learning to be present to those who suffer in our midst. Too often our distracted, hurried, and frantic lifestyles keep us from this. Being present means engaging the other person with all our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength. It is something we can learn with a bit of prayer and some effort. Our attentive presence is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone who suffers. When a priest asked Catherine de Hueck Doherty what contribution he could make to a hurting and broken world, she answered simply, “Your presence, Father.”This story is told in Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia (New York: Ave Maria Press, 1975), 22.

Also, we grow a pilgrim posture when we learn to listen. Listening lies at the heart of all ministry engagements. It is nearly impossible to relate to someone in a compassionate way without first listening to him or her. For this reason, if we intend to place our lives alongside those who suffer and reflect to them the compassion of Christ, our presence always needs to be a listening one. We seek to listen to our suffering neighbor and also to Christ, who meets us in him or her. This could be why James, one of the earliest mentors in the early church, encouraged readers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19, NIV).

Finally, we grow a pilgrim posture by learning to notice. God is always an active Presence around and within us. While the Holy One encounters us wherever we are, God meets us often in our interactions with those who suffer. The inward effect of these interactions usually takes the shape of a distinctive thought or feeling. These movements of heart and mind are the way God speaks to us; they are the quiet sounds of God’s still, small voice. Noticing them draws us deeper into God’s heart, sensitizes our hearts to the promptings of the Spirit, and guides our steps into a life more expressive of Jesus’ compassion.

04.  Reflecting

Reflecting upon experience is the second critical ingredient of the pilgrimage process. When we encounter those who suffer, we experience a wide range of inner responses. Without reflection we run the risk of overlooking those insights that empower these experiences to transform us. I remember one simple sentence spoken to me by my first pastoral supervisor more than thirty-five years ago. Each week as we sat opposite each other in his study reviewing my daily activities, he underlined the importance of our time together by qualifying a commonly held assumption. “Always remember, Trevor,” he would say, “we do not learn from experience; we learn from reflection upon experience.”

This most certainly applies to our intentional encounters with those who suffer. As we reflect upon these encounters with our suffering neighbors and become more aware of our inner responses, we uncover insights that can change our lives. Moreover, the practice of reflection fine-tunes our antennae to hear God speaking to us through the “human cries” around us, a kind of listening that often lays the basis for future actions of compassionate ministry and justice. In my own attempts to develop a more reflective way of life, I have found two simple activities helpful.

First, it helps to spend a few moments at the end of the day thinking about my encounters with people that day. As I do this consciously in the presence of God, I usually ponder: What did I do today? With whom did I spend time? Did I spend time with anyone who was suffering in one way or another? What injustice have I been aware of today? What do I sense Christ saying to me through my thoughts and feelings about these things? Prayerful reflections like these often seem to help me to bring together more deeply my God-relationship and my life with those around me, especially those who suffer.

The other activity involves reflecting on these encounters with a soul companion. Spiritual direction can easily become an overly inward enterprise that promotes a spirituality overly concerned with personal needs. Ensuring that we spend some time talking about our responses to the suffering neighbor in our midst guards against this danger. It has been great gift to me to have spiritual companions who constantly ask me how I am seeking to follow Christ within the context of contemporary South Africa. As Kenneth Leech warns, “Nonprophetic spirituality, spirituality without struggle, spirituality without justice, is notoriously popular in times of turmoil and upheaval.”Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care. London: SPCK, 1987, 73.

05.  Transformation

While it is possible to be intentional about the pilgrimage ingredients of encountering with a pilgrim posture those who suffer and reflecting upon these experiences, the third ingredient cannot be planned: transformation.

Transformation, as I already noted, is a gift that happens in those whose lives and hearts are generously open to the Holy One. When we intentionally expose our lives to those who suffer, the Spirit transforms hearts and lives, as I have witnessed many times. A seventeen-year-old participant in a Pilgrimage reports: “The Pilgrimage experience brought home to me the stark reality in which many live their lives. No longer is suffering a list of cold statistics [to me].”

A young teacher describes his experience in these words: “I saw what mattered in life. I began to feel in a new way what others go through. When I returned home, I battled with the superficiality of my cultural surroundings.”

A medical intern reflects: “I realized that it is not enough to be shocked or indignant at the circumstances of people who suffer. If I am to follow Christ seriously, I must become willing to give my life in sacrificial servanthood and the struggle for justice.”

It was difficult for most of us to acknowledge that many of the “blessings” we ascribed to God’s goodness were sometimes the consequences of the systematic oppression of others. Even when we had worked hard for these so-called blessings! It has not been easy to readdress this unjust reality in my own life. One way I have been led to do this has involved making some form of restitution by freely putting my skills, education, and resources at the service of those requests that have come my way from the communities of the previously disadvantaged.

06.  A Pilgrimage Posture in Everyday Life

Obviously, not everyone can go away on an eight-day Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. Nonetheless—and this is the main point of this article—we can build into our lives the practice of exposing ourselves to those who suffer in our midst in the ways suggested above. We can make a start in this direction by setting up a holy experiment, such as this.

First, find someone who is economically poor or unemployed or homeless or in prison. This person will come to you as a result of prayerful watchfulness of those around you.

Then choose a way to encounter this person. When you are with this person, remember the inner posture of the pilgrim. Be present to this person as simply as you can. Remember you are with this person not to give advice or to solve problems or even to help, but to be with him and learn what it is like to be in his situation. During the encounter, seek to listen rather than to speak. Remind yourself that Christ wants to meet you in the life of the sufferer. Do not underestimate what your simple presence may mean. Notice your thoughts and feelings and be alert for any still, small voice from God. After the encounter, spend time reflecting on your own inner responses. Perhaps you can share what you have experienced with your soul friend. Ask God if there is anything you can learn from the experience.

This is where the personal journey toward integrating contemplation with the struggle for a more just and compassionate society begins. But it is not where it ends. Exposure to the sufferings of others connects us with our grief and fear. We are brought face to face with the immense forces of selfishness and self-centeredness that lurk inside of us all. We discover the hardness of our hearts and our capacity for evildoing and destruction. And yet it is precisely in these parched and barren places that, if we remain open to the Spirit, God quietly goes about transforming our hearts. As I wrote in A Mile in My Shoes, transformation occurs when the implanted seed of divine compassion begins to flower. Non-sentimental and caring deeds are birthed. Courage is given to speak truth to those “principalities and powers” intent upon destroying the lives of people. Our hearts begin yearning for a society where there is justice and compassion for all. That this can begin to happen in our lives is the testimony of our pilgrims.A Mile in My Shoes, 22.

07.  A Closing Word

Those of us involved in the conversations about spiritual formation need to insist that any expression of discipleship that removes the Christ-follower from human suffering is counterfeit and delusive. It betrays God’s passionate love for each person, denies our connectedness in the human family, and results in what has been described as a “false inwardness.” We become the person God intends not within a private religious zone, but within God’s broken and wounded world. An authentic with-God life opens eyes blind to Christ’s presence in those who suffer, increases awareness of our neighbor’s pain, and draws the Christ-follower into the human struggles of the day. As John Wesley, who was hugely instrumental in the evangelical awakening during the eighteenth century, constantly insisted, “There is no holiness but social holiness.”Preface to 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems, The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, vol. 14:321 as quoted in This is why the integration of contemplation, compassion, and the struggle for justice is so crucial for each one of us.


Trevor Hudson is an author and pastor with Northfield Methodist Church in Benoni, South Africa. His most recent books published in the United States include Questions God Asks (Upper Room Books) and Discovering Your Spiritual Identity: Practices For God’s Beloved (InterVarsity Press), which will be released in December 2010.