Monday, March 5, 2018

Nouwen's journey into vulnerability: a Lenten reflection

As a part of my Lenten inner journey (what some speak of as prayer,
meditation,spirituality, contemplation) I have been using an on-line resource: Henri Nouwen Book Discussion I have long been keen on honoring what some call synchronicity or serendipity. Not sentimentally, I hope, nor in ways that deny life's suffering. Rather, more like an "aha" moment or what Christians call an epiphany. The Nouwen group is reading one of Henri's journals: The Road to Daybreak. It recounts the wounded healer's year long discernment retreat at L'Arche Trosly after leaving Harvard Divinity School in despair. So, the story of Nouwen and L'Arche: how could I not take heart, right? Two broad insights have been particularly rewarding: the candor Nouwen brings to this journal, and, his recognition that the humble and hidden ministry of Jesus resonates most deeply with his heart.

Candid Vulnerability: I have read most of Nouwen's books over the past 40 years. Some have spoken to me profoundly while others have left me lukewarm. My three favorites - The Way of the Heart (1981), Reaching Out (1975) and Behold the Beauty of the Lord (1987) - are carefully constructed reflections on how to integrate the inward and outward journeys. I have also used the notes and letters Nouwen's students collected and published posthumously under the titles: Discernment, Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation. They are wise guides that distill Nouwen's wisdom re: cultivating contemplation and action.

What makes Daybreak so potent is how blunt Nouwen is about his failures at Harvard and the shabbiness of his prayer life. Clearly he wanted to make his mark teaching at the university level, but it always left him dissatisfied. At Harvard, the competition and petty politics ground him down. His own inner insecurities wore him out, too. And while he sensed Christ calling him towards another way of being, the lure of doing self-important work in public was often too much to resist. He kept doing what he had always done and expecting different results. After thirty years, this merry-go-round left him dizzy, empty and broken-hearted. At mid-life, one of Western Christianity's most successful authors found himself riddled with darkness. The paucity of his own prayers didn't help.

Time and again Daybreak shows Nouwen confessing that mostly his mind wanders during prayer. He is restless and despondent. The time he sets aside for God is saturated with fretting about failure. Or regurgitating shame. Or revisiting past embarrassments. Or wrestling with yet unnamed ghosts of days still to come. Rarely, if ever, does Nouwen feel at rest in Christ's peace.

Why should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to gram my mind for a moment? (p. 29) Often, if not daily, I tell myself: "Today I am going to spend some extra time just praying, just waiting expectantly, just sitting quietly." But always the day seems to be consumed by a thousand little things which beg for my attention. When the day is over, I feel frustrated, angry and disappointed with myself... Often I think, "A life is like a day; it goes by so fast. If I am careless with my days, how can I be careful with my life." (p. 103)

What remarkable candor and vulnerability. Time and again I found myself reading words that I too could have written. To say that the realm of my prayer life has been uneven would be generous. So there is something comforting and even encouraging to know how even the Master is often confounded. There is also something useful in these confessions. In time, Nouwen's spiritual director at L'Arche tells him that the challenge of faith is all about trust: only when we relinquish our egos and habits to God's grace will we escape our pits of darkness and fear. This prompts yet another tender confession: "(My) real problem, is expecting from a friend what only Christ can give."

I feel so easily rejected. When a friend does not come, a letter is not written, or an invitation not extended, I begin to feel unwanted and disliked. I gravitate towards dark feelings of low self-esteem and become depressed. Once depressed, I ten to interpret even innocent gestures as proofs of my self-chosen darkness, from which it is harder and harder to return. Looking carefully at this viscous cycle of self-rejection... is a good way to start moving in the opposite direction. (p. 55) 

Pere Thomas, spiritual mentor of Jean Vanier at L'Arche, offers this alternative: the way of the heart.

For many of us in our highly psychologized culture, affection has become our central concern... being loved, like, appreciated, praised, acknowledged, recognized, etc is the desired prize of life. The lack of these forms of affection can throw us into an abyss of loneliness and depression... but what about the hidden gift in that place of the heart? (The heart) is the place of trust, a trust that can be called faith, hope or love depending on how it is being manifested. Pere Thomas sees the trusting heart as the most important characteristic of the human person. It is not so much the ability to think, to reflect, to plan, or to produce that makes us different from the rest of creation, but the ability to trust. It is the heart that makes us truly human... Our heart is that divine gift which allows us to trust not just God, but also our mother, our father, our family, ourselves and the rest of th world... The heart is much wider and deeper than our affections. It is before and beyond the distinctions between sorrow and joy, anger and lust, fear and love. It is the place where all is one in God, the place where we truly belong, the place from which we come and to which we always yearn to return. (pp. 47-49)

Over time, the Daybreak journal documents how the words of Pere Thomas are taken to heart by Nouwen. There are no huge differences - all real inner change is cumulative - but first Henri lets himself simply rest in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The only prayer that offers a measure of peace is the Rosary so that becomes his hiding place. And then, when he least expects it, he realizes that: 

Gradually I am becoming aware of a new dimension in my prayer life. It is hard to find words for it, but it feels like a protective presence of God, Mary, the angels, and the saints that exist in the midst of distractions, fears, temptations, and inner confusion. My prayers are not all that intensive or profound, but I found a desire to spend time (there know-ing) that I was surrounded by goodness, gentleness, kindness and acceptance... I am not taken away from the dangers, I am not lifted from the seductive world. I am not removed from violence,e hatred, lust, and greed. In fact, I feel them in the center of my being, screaming for my full attention. They are restless and noisy. Still, this hand, these lips, these eyes are present and I know that I am safe, held in love, cared for, and protected by the good spirits of heaven. So, I am praying while not knowing hot to pray. I am resting...(p. 134)

Later this week I will share my observations about Nouwen's commitment to the quiet, hidden way of Jesus as key to his emerging inner peace. For now, let me note that such a journey rings to true to me. I cannot force or work my way into the peace that passes understanding. I can simply show up and practice being still. Fr. Keating of Centering Prayer calls sitting in silence with an open heart "sacred psychology." It is letting the love of God work deep within so that grace bathes us in tenderness. The more we practice trusting this grace, the stronger it becomes in our hearts. The more we honor our experiences with trust, the greater our ability to wait upon grace in trying times.  As our inner anxiety is tamed by tenderness, we become a non-anxious presence in a world of fear. Blessed, indeed, are the peace-makers for they shall live as children of God in a culture obsessed with striving and shame.

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