a spirituality of tenderness - part two

For the past year I have been listening quietly to what the word tender might mean for my personal spirituality. As I noted earlier this week, tenderness has become a guiding light for my inner life, an emerging commitment for my public life and a lens through which I view scripture as well as the presence of the holy in creation. It simultaneously shapes my ethics and aesthetics so the time has come to get serious about what I think  this spirituality of tenderness actually means.

Let me note from the outset that I am consciously articulating a spirituality rather than a theology. A spirituality is not just a trendy way of talking about mindfulness or balance - although it is often just that, too - but rather it is a set of practices that shape and form the inward and outward journey of faith. Sometimes this has been called a spiritual discipline or practice; at other times it has been defined as spiritual formation or even the cure of the soul. And always this commitment and practice is prefaced by "a" connoting the fact that there are a variety of spiritualities. Theology, on the other hand, is the study of theos - God - and includes the nature of the holy as well as a set of doctrinal insights. Theology is most often systematic and organized - think Augustine, Aquinas, Tillich or Barth - but not always - as in Niebuhr, Cox or Soelle. 

When I reference "a spirituality of tenderness," therefore, I am considering a collection of practices and habits of the heart that are designed to shape and guide me towards my best self. To be sure, these practices are built upon a theological foundation: in my case it is a Christian theology born of God's radical grace made flesh in time and history by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as Christ  My theological conviction is that the arc of Christ's existence in and beyond time offers me the clearest understanding of God's nature and plan. Consequently, this spirituality of tenderness is a means to this end - a practice to nourish and honor radical grace - and share it with others by my presence in the world. 

It seems prudent to begin my work with an understanding of the etymology of the word tender as part of my discernment of its spiritual value. Today let me offer a few insights:

+ The English word tender comes from the Old French, tendre, and the Latin, tener, and became the word we use after the Norman conquest of England in the 15th century. It is distinct from the word gentle that began in Latin as gentilis - of the same clan - and became the Old French gentil - of high or noble birth. In the Middle English it became gentle with its link to the courteous nature of nobility. Gentle implies moderation while tender suggests compassion. Gentle arises from "a disposition" of kindness that is offered from above; tender is more about a shared sense of our common fragility. 

+ Tender evokes the words Buechner wrote: "Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions, beneath our religion or lack of it, we are all vulnerable both to the storm without and to the storm within." Tender calls to mind Henri Nouwen's "wounded healer" or Jean Vanier's work with L'Arche. Vanier put it like this: "Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”Tenderness also speaks to a text I will read after the sabbatical closes entitled A Spirituality for the Vulnerable by Charles Davis who taught for a time just down the road at Concordia University in Montreal before his return to the UK and his death. It was first published under the title: Soft Bodies in a Hard World: A Spirituality for the Vulnerable. My hunch is that it will be a great asset for Davis, too, writes about a shared sense of spirituality.

+ Tender moves outward: it is relational and anticipates interacting with others who are vulnerable. One who is gentle receives others without harshness but does not necessary go out into the world conscious of another's vulnerability. Vanier puts it like this: “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  It is not "leading with our wounds" - that is self-defeating and co-dependent - but rather honoring at a deep level that we are all wounded whatever our public 
circumstance. And just below the surface, we are all hurting, broken, beautiful and beloved children of God.

It is interesting to me that we speak of some food as "tender" - that is, not tough. We know that some plants are "tender" and need special attention. There are parts of our bodies that are tender and require extra care and even protection. Those "of a tender age" require a unique sensitivity. And some subjects warrant extra tact in our speech and action because they are "of a tender nature." (My gratitude to the Google Dictionary)

All of which to say that a spirituality of tenderness deepens sensitivity to our own wounds and the vulnerability of all living creatures. It invites and trains us to enter the world with care and to tread lightly whether we are acting, speaking, writing or living. As I continue to explore this, if you have any insights, questions or concerns I would love to hear from you. Let me close with one more quote from Vanier:

“Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness."


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