Monday, February 26, 2018

moving into the second week of lent...

About 17 years ago, in the midst of a meltdown/burn-out/dark night of the soul, I began a journey into a spirituality of tenderness. I didn't use those words at the time. Nor did I understand this descent to be an invitation of grace. It felt like Hell. But over time - with prayer, patience, perseverance and professional counseling - I began to embrace my broken self. As Jung often counseled, the wisdom of Matthew 25 had to be cherished internally as well as externally: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."  This led me to study Ernst Kurtz's A Spirituality of Imperfection, Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel, Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner, the later books of Henri Nouwen as well as the poetry of Rumi and Robert Bly. The wisdom of Richard Rohr re: male initiation and both Falling Upward and Breathing Underwater became trusted allies. Like Dante wrote in the opening Canto of The Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,

So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way

Like many over-educated, bourgeois white men who collide into their shadows,  I discovered that I was "too smart for my own good." That is, I believed I could think my way into salvation. My friends in AA smiled knowingly saying, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." My spiritual director encouraged me to listen to my dreams - and learn how to interpret them. "The soul knows what it wants," he told me repeatedly, "and it will get it whether you want to participate or not." Although I never said this out loud to them, I thought I was the exception. I could think my way through the pain. I could out stubborn the confusion. I could master my self-destructive desires. 

But I was wrong. And I had to become so sick and tired of being sick and tired to try a new way:  falling upward. Embracing my brokenness. Honoring the wisdom of my wounds. In time I began to comprehend this change - the essence of both the Serenity Prayer and that attributed to St. Francis - as a spirituality of tenderness: relinquishing control and trusting a love greater than myself. I still hungered for words to understand this new way of being - I didn't quit my pursuit of knowledge - but now there was a better balance between head and heart. Trust was growing as my core rather than ideas, words and theological constructs. Like St. Paul wrote: "Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face... Three things abide: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love."  Three writers began to help me grow in trust: Diana Butler Bass, Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier. As the second week of Lent unfolds, I return to these words Henri Nouwen wrote during his year-long retreat at L'Arche in Trosly:

I feel a burning desire to preach the Gospel, but I know in my heart that now is the time to pray, to read, to meditate, to be quiet and to wait until God clearly calls me... It makes no sense to preach the Gospel when I have allowed no time for my own conversion. This is clearly a time for hiddenness and withdrawal from giving retreats, courses, seminars and workshops. It is a time for being alone with God. I feel a tension within me. I have only a limited number of years left for active ministry. Why not use them well? Yet one word spoken with a pure heart is worth thousands spoken in a state of spiritual turmoil. Time given to inner renewal is never wasted. God is not in a hurry. (Nouwen, p. 20)

Nouwen had just left his appointment to Harvard Divinity School. He was down-hearted, uncertain about his calling and filled with questions about how to follow Jesus authentically. Nearly ten years earlier, Jean Vanier had sent Nouwen his "greetings." Nothing more but nothing less; a simple invitation to get to know one another. Sometime later both men participated in a silent prayer retreat together. But Nouwen then returned to his frantic quest for pastoral clarity: he spent a few years in Latin America trying to fit in as a liberation theology priest only to leave disappointed. When an offer came from the elite of Harvard Divinity School, he convinced himself that being a shepherd to society's leaders was what God wanted of him. But this soon went South, too. He was disdained by Harvard's self-important thinkers as too religious. He felt marginalized in Cambridge's sea of relativity because of his love for Jesus. And he was both over-worked and lonely. In this despair, Nouwen began to realize that he had been flailing about furiously without ever settling into the "rest" Jesus promised to those who "abide" in him. So he took Vanier up on an offer to spend a year at L'Arche - and it changed his life. 

Two insights are worth noting: 1) it was the collapse of Nouwen's professional career that saved his life; and, 2) it was the tenderness and grace of L'Arche that revived his soul.  Jean Vanier put it like this:

So many in our world are seduced by technology, power and a craving for security. So often we have forgotten the essential: love, a heart-to-heart relationship, kindness, goodness and an openness to those in need and in pain. We tend to deny our own shadow side and weakness. We do not cry out for help, for healing and for God. We often think we can do it alone. (Letter from Jean Vanier to My Sisters and Brothers at L'Arche,
1996) When Nouwen hit bottom - and let himself spend an extended season at L'Arche for rest and renewal - he was reborn. His own writing in The Road to Daybreak puts it like this:

Your pain is deep, and it won't just go away....Your call is to bring that pain home. As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others. Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into your self and let it bear fruit in your heart and the hearts of others. This is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.

Like most of us, Nouwen didn't get it all together at once. He relapsed into anxiety. He experienced a nervous break down too when he let out the love in his heart only to experience rejection. In time, however, these wounds led him to greater trust and deeper grace. Such is the journey of Lent: moving towards the Cross with Jesus in this season is not only about remembering the sacrifice of Christ. It is about moving closer to our own brokenness and trusting that God's love is greater than our pain. (I learned this song last week at L'Arche Ottawa for Eucharist and it speaks to this journey of Lent.)

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