Review

    The Rhythm of Compassion
         
    Caring for Self, Connecting with Society
    by Gail Straub (Ivory Coast 1971–73)
    Journey Editions $19.95
    234 pages
    2000

    Circle of Compassion
         Meditations for Caring
         — For the Self and for the World

    by Gail Straub (Ivory Coast 1971–73)
    Journey Editions $14.95
    164 pages
    2001

    Reviewed by Susan Hundt Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68)

    THE RHYTHM OF COMPASSION TAKES ON a big task for a small book. It purports to guide the reader on a journey of self-discovery that will lead to acceptance and healing of the self; a commitment to serving the larger world; and, through spiritual discipline, the grace to find and maintain a balance among the self, the world and God. The author does a surprisingly good job of this daunting undertaking.
         Gail Straub has led a committed and adventuresome life as a teacher and an activist. After returning from her Peace Corps assignment in Africa, she and her husband, David Gershon, founded Empowerment Training Programs and have taught widely in the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, and East Asia. Eventually she began to offer a program for people who wanted to incorporate spiritual development into their commitment to social and environmental justice. The Rhythm of Compassion grew out of that work with activists who were fighting burnout and struggling to strike a reasonable balance between their personal and public lives. The book incorporates and reflects Ms. Straub’s quest to achieve that balance in her own life.
         The organization of The Rhythm of Compassion is based on the presumption that a person’s search for meaning and wisdom must start with self-knowledge. Accordingly, the book is organized into three parts: caring for the self; caring for the world; uniting the inner and the outer worlds in the embrace of the Divine; and having reached that state, maintaining a dynamic balance. Ms. Straub acknowledges from the start that “we live in a broken world” and that it is only by accepting the brokenness in ourselves and the world, by accepting suffering as individual, universal, and necessary, that we can progress on the journey to wholeness and peace.
         Ms. Straub directs the reader to start the first leg of the journey towards self-knowledge and self-acceptance by searching for what she calls the “central image” of his or her life. This concept comes from the “Pathwork Lectures” of Eva Pierrakos, a series that Straub says constitutes her “central spiritual text.” The reader is directed to identify this central image in his or her life, using techniques recommended; to decipher the significance of this memory or image in one’s life; and then accept and take responsibility for it. These steps must be accomplished if one is to grow in maturity and self-knowledge.
         The curious aspect of the “central image” is that it is always a negative one and thus a source of painful memories and destructive influences in one’s life. This entire construct suggests another variation on the victim mentality that is currently prevalent in American society. Why must the “central image” always be a painful one? Couldn’t one’s central image just as easily be a positive one and a wellspring of energy and inspiration? Perhaps the approach Straub presents is simply a renaming or reinterpretation of what in Christianity is called the doctrine of original sin, namely, that there is a fundamental wound or brokenness in each of us and in all of creation. In Christian theology, creation is healed and saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who died for our sins. Each person then has the choice to cooperate in the plan of salvation and enjoy its fruits of peace and joy or reject God’s grace.
         The author uses life stories, her own and those of some of her students, to illustrate the process she has developed. The reader observes Ms. Straub and several others search for understanding as they: uncover their central image; examine their parent’s lives to further understand their own strengths and weaknesses; identify where they feel most and least comfortable in their lives; and search for the deeper “heartbreaks” and the “radical surprises” that offer an opportunity to accept the suffering in their lives as an opportunity for growth and connection with others. As the last element of each stage in the process, the reader is provided with an exercise — a series of questions and suggestions and techniques that can function as stepping stones to reaching the objectives laid out by the author. Often she will also counsel that a person may want to seek professional psychological or spiritual assistance.
         After working through the process of self-understanding, Straub begins the task of helping the now more insightful reader prepare for service to others. This process involves such things as “cultivating a quiet mind and an open heart;”cultivating presence and radical simplicity, and viewing service and stewardship as a spiritual practice. Finally, she brings it all home in Part III where she describes what results when a person’s inner and outer manifestations become one: “…we find that we are disappearing and a divine presence is taking over.” She quotes William Blake speaking of this same state of being: “I myself do nothing. The Holy Spirit accomplishes all through me.” At this stage of development, a person displays a “mature compassion,” a wholeness, a oneness with the world and with God. Straub is insistent that a person cannot achieve this point of peace without a vibrant and consistent spiritual life. The author summarizes this joyous state of being as follows: “When we find our rhythm of compassion, we have come home, we are in a state of grace. We are in tune with a great universal cadence where a rich inner life is balanced with a passionate engagement with the world. Conversely we need grace — an unmerited gift from God — to find that universal rhythm.”
         Those readers who are well launched on their spiritual journey may find the first section of this book — the search for the central image — unhelpful or perhaps irrelevant. However, it’s likely that everyone will find much that is sensible and useful in the section on determining where and how one will serve others. Here the author singles out busyness as a singular curse of our times. She quotes Thomas Merton: “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence.” And Jacob Needleman writes, in Time and Self: “The time famine of our lives and culture is in fact a symptom of metaphysical starvation.” Every reader will appreciate the quotations from great spiritual leaders that the author uses liberally throughout the book. These powerful and challenging quotations will have the reader heading to the bookstore or library for works by Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Naht Hanh and Meister Eckhart, and others, eager for more.

    The Circle of Compassion is a small volume that grew out of The Rhythm of Compassion. It consists of short statements, one per page, to be used for meditation. Ms. Straub suggests they be used in the context of one’s preferred spiritual practice. Many of the statements are excerpted from her earlier book.

    Susan Hundt Bergan is studying to become a lay minister in the Roman Catholic Church. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.