Nouwen, L'Arche and Lent: part two...

NOTE:  In part one of this Lenten reflection I noted that Henri Nouwen's Daybreak journal was incredibly candid and vulnerable. Of particular importance in that post was his complex, often unsatisfying, periodically mystical, and always real words about prayer. Like me - and probably you - Nouwen's prayer experiences were, at the very least, uneven and disappointing. Fr. Keating teaches that true prayer is not always about consolation. Nor is prayer about always feeling at rest or at peace. Rather, it is opening ourselves to God. And, in that, Nouwen was faithful: he almost always prayed one hour every morning even when it was agony. Nouwen also notes in this journal that after his time in spiritual direction with Pere Thomas, spiritual guide of Jean Vanier of L'Arche, he began to worry less about his own inner experience of prayer and let his quiet time become one of trust. In part two of this reflection it is my observation that Nouwen's shift in his expectations re: prayer mirrors his own journey into a less public ministry - one shaped and formed by L'Arche.

The humble and hidden ministry of Jesus:  Over and over in the Daybreak journal, Henri Nouwen confesses that as much as he believes he wants to follow Jesus, he also knows that he loves following his own desires. On the occasion of his 54 birthday, he writes: "I feel indeed like the least of God's holy people."

Looking back, I realize that I am still struggling with the same problems I had on the day of my ordination twenty-nine years ago. Notwithstanding my many prayers, my periods of retreat, and the advice from many friends, counselors, and confessors, very little, if anything, has changed with regard to my search for inner unity and peace. I am still the restless, nervous, intense, distracted, and impulse-driven person I was when I set out on this spiritual journey. At times this obvious lack of inner maturation depresses me as I enter into the "mature" years. (Nouwen, p. 127)

The more time he spends at L'Arche, however, living with the least of these our sisters and brothers, the more he realizes how past choices have been about bold, important and public ministries. The Menninger Center, Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard were all places of public ministry for Nouwen - good and valuable ministries - all of which Nouwen entered because he wanted to make a difference. He also ached to be loved for doing something significant for God. At L'Arche he begins to questions this as vain glory rather than God's glory. In a boldlyhonest confession, he writes:

How then do we come to see and receive God's glory. In his Gospel, John shows that God chose to reveal his glory to us in his humiliation. That is the good but also disturbing news: God, in his infinite wisdom, chose to reveal his divinity to us not through competition, but thorough
compassion: suffering with us. God chose the way of downward mobility. Every time Jesus speaks about being glorified and giving glory, he always refers to his humiliation and death. It is through the way of the Cross that Jesus gives glory to God, receives glory from God, and makes God's glory known to us. The glory of the resurrection can never be separated from the glory of the Cross. The risen Lord always shows us his wounds. Thus the glory of God stands in contrast to the glory of people. People seek glory by moving upward. God reveals glory by moving downward... That is what L'Arche is beginning to teach me. (Nouwen p. 98)

Over and over he realizes that he has chosen upward mobility rather than God's glory. He comes to understand that there were often good reasons for his choices. At the same time, he quits fooling himself and admits that he loves attention. That he covets being useful. And that for a time, vain glory fills his life. It is like junk food, however, and always leaves him undernourished and anxious. Even after being called by L'Arche Toronto to a ministry of hidden humility - a blessing that Nouwen acknowledges is the Lord's answer to his prayers - he still frets. Will a hidden ministry be satisfying even if it is saturated in the way of Jesus? With excruciating clarity, Nouwen writes:

The hardest aspect of poverty (moving to L'Arche Toronto) lies in my not being able to control my own life. In this Jesus reveals himself to me as my Lord. When I look up at the cross, just as the sick looked up to the serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert (John:14) I can expected to be healed and discover a joy and peace in my heart far beyond the changing moods of everyday living. It is the joy and peace of eternal life that already now can be tasted. I see every day more clearly how much I have to let go of in order to be poor: enough to "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord. (Nouwen, p. 168)

We know, from the journal's epilogue, that not only does Nouwen follow through on his call to L'Arche, but that it changes his life. He finally faces the inner battle of his ego - what he acknowledges as his own handicap of wanting to be wanted - and it wounds him. He learns from his suffering and grows more patient and even more tender. In time, this empowers Nouwen to wrestle with his own sexuality, too - even when it breaks his heart. Nouwen had an emotional breakdown that required him to leave his L'Arche community for intensive therapy. But, with a heart reformed by trust and a new way of living that allowed him to welcome God's love beyond his brokenness, Nouwen found healing and returned to L'Arche. He honored the way of the Cross as a blessing until the day he died. 


What I loved about The Road to Daybreak was its fierce opposition to sentimentality. The brilliant Roman Catholic Christian Educator and author, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, observes that sentimentality is a half truth - and a half truth is ultimately a lie. There is no sugar coating on Nouwen's words about himself or the way of the heart. There is no sloppy agape. No pastel piety. And no illusions. Perhaps because I am in the later days of my own time in this realm that I rejoice in Nouwen's penetrating candor. It also has something to do, I know, with my own journey toward L'Arche. When I read his reference to Moses and the serpent in John's gospel, I was reminded that the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback used that text to preach my ordination into Christian ministry. And now my days in the local church are over even as I find new ways to follow Jesus at L'Arche Ottawa. Without reservation, let me encourage any one who needs a companion for Lent to pick up the Road to Daybreak.

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