Gordon Self

October 24, 2011

Those visiting the new statue on the Alberta Legislature grounds recognizing the historic contribution of the Catholic sisters in our province may experience what I did when I first looked up at the stained glass plate in the hands of the bronze figure.

The sister's face is framed in one of the central glass panels focusing an array of warm light around the statue. Seeing her face in this light underscores the creative vision of artist Herman Poulin who attests the sisters' work as one of service, reflecting ultimately the light and compassion of Christ.

On the day the statue was unveiled, the low morning light created another visual effect that no one anticipated. In the stained glass we saw both the sister's face, as well as our own. This dual play of light and reflection reminds us of the legacy of the sisters' ministry of service in our province, as well as our call to reflect the love of Christ to all those we serve.

The statue symbolizes exactly what is meant by an ethics of compassion. First, ethics is not hiding behind abstract principles and lofty ideals in the face of difficult decisions. They must be applied in a real and meaningful way. The ethical dilemmas the sisters faced involved real human beings in real circumstances.

Anyone who has opened and run schools, orphanages, shelters or hospitals will know the many daily challenges in balancing unlimited demands for service, while working within limited resources, for example.


Second, the goal of ethical discernment is more than figuring out the "right thing to do," but also discerning what kind of people we want to be and become. Ethics call us into a deeper relationship with one another - revealing what it means to be a compassionate people.

True compassion is not "feeling sorry" or pitying someone. Nor is it the feeling of revulsion or fear should someone's tragedy strike too close to home. Rather, true compassion requires a capacity to accompany and be present to another in their suffering, even if it exposes our own vulnerability. We are more deeply sensitive to the needs of another because suffering has hollowed a place in our own hearts.

In W. Somerset Maugham's literary classic, Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey grows up tormented by the shame and ridicule of living with a clubfoot. Years later, as a medical student, he is again shamed by his superior while examining a young boy with a similar deformity. He is able to relate to the boy with sensitivity because of what he has experienced.

Such expression of compassion comes from a place of shared suffering. As with the Legislature statue, true compassion allows us to see both the face of another, as well as what is etched on our own face. We are seen for what we are, which can be uncomfortable. It is easy to hide behind our professionalism and sense of self-importance.

An emergency physician wrote of her own experience caring for victims of sexual assault that reflects this dual reflection of seeing and being seen. She compares how easy it is to detach when treating those injured by accidents or gunshots.

But when caring for victims of rape she states there is no place to hide. It demands a level of presence and depth of compassion that goes beyond delivering the standard of care. In the face of such heinous injuries to women, children or men we may find ourselves doubting the goodness in humanity, which makes us all a little vulnerable.


An ethic of compassion requires us to be seen and present. Like Philip Carey, we must be prepared to bend down and meet a fellow human being where they are at, to take off their shoe and touch the painful areas of their lives.

To do so may touch a nerve with us. We all have some clubfoot of sorts that we keep well hidden in our boots. Thus to truly listen and see another, we are exposed ourselves. An ethics of compassion does not shrink us from this courageous stance.

Such is the stance of my friend Michael and his daughter Siobhán's in the face of her recent diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Despite their vulnerability, they publicly share their story to help others in similar circumstances find a path forward.

Their story, like the sisters', reflects the light of Christ, whose Word is a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119.105).

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at