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The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved” published in 1992:
Broken (pg 75-76, 77-85)
How can we respond to our brokenness? I’d like to suggest two ways: first, befriending our brokenness and, second, putting our brokenness under the blessing. I hope you will be able to practice these ways in your own life. I have tried and try constantly, sometimes with more success than others, but I am convinced that these ways point in the right direction as means for dealing with our brokenness.
The first response, then, to our brokenness is to face it squarely and befriend it. This may seem quite unnatural. Our first, most spontaneous response to pain and suffering is to avoid it, to keep it at arm’s length; to ignore, circumvent or deny it. Suffering---be it physical, mental, or emotional---is almost always experienced as an unwelcome intrusion into our lives, something that should not be there. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see anything positive in suffering; it must be avoided away at all costs.
When this is, indeed, our spontaneous attitude toward our brokenness, it is no surprise that befriending it seems, at first, masochistic. Still, my own pain in life has taught me that the first step to healing in not a step away from the pain, but a step toward it. When brokenness is, in fact, just as intimate a part of our being as our chosenness and our blessedness, we have to dare to overcome our fear and become familiar with it. Yes, we have to find the courage to embrace our own brokenness, to make our most feared enemy into a friend and to claim it as an intimate companion. I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain. Although this is true of all pain, it is especially true of the pain that comes from a broken heart. The anguish and agony that result from rejection, separation, neglect, abuse and emotional manipulation serve only to paralyse us when we can’t face them and keep running away from them. When we need guidance in our suffering, it is first of all a guidance that leads us closer to our pain and makes us aware that we do not have to avoid it, but can befriend it.
My own experience with anguish has been that facing it and living it through, is the way to healing. But I cannot do that on my own. I need someone to keep me standing in it, to assure me that there is peace beyond the anguish, life beyond death and love beyond fear. But I know now, at least, that attempting to avoid, repress or escape the pain is like cutting off a limb that could be healed with proper attention.
The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realisation of our humanity. It is not hard to say to one another: “All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God.” But it is very hard to say: “But didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?” Nonetheless, real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy.
The second response to our brokenness is to put our suffering under the blessing. For me, this “putting of our brokenness under the blessing” is a precondition for befriending it. Our brokenness is often so frightening to face because we live it under the curse. Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience our pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying, “I always suspected that I was useless or worthless, and now I am sure of it because of what is happening to me.” There is always something in us searching for an explanation of what takes place in our lives and, if we have already yielded to the temptation to self-rejection, then every form of misfortune only deepens it. When we lose a family member or friend through death, when we become jobless, when we fail an examination, when a war breaks out, an earthquake destroys our home or touches us, the question “Why?” spontaneously emerges. “Why me?” “Why now?” “Why here?” It is so arduous to live without an answer to this “Why?” that we are easily seduced into connecting the events over which we have no control with our conscious or unconscious evaluation. When we have cursed ourselves or have allowed others to curse us, it is very tempting to explain all the brokenness we experience as an expression or confirmation of this curse. Before we fully realise it, we have already said to ourselves: “You see, I always thought I was no good. . .Now I know for sure. The facts of life prove it.”
The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of the darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us. Physical, mental or emotional pain lived under the blessing is experienced in ways radically different from physical, mental or emotional pain lived under the curse. Even a small burden, perceived as a sign of our worthlessness, can lead us to deep depression---even suicide. However, great and heavy burdens become light and easy when they are lived in the light of the blessing. What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion.
And so the great task becomes that of allowing the blessing to touch us in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the Beloved. This explains why true joy can be experienced in the midst of great suffering. It is the joy of being disciplined, purified and pruned. Just as athletes who experience great pain as they run the race can, at the same time, taste the joy of knowing that they are coming closer to their goal, so also can the Beloved experience suffering as a way to deeper communion for which they yearn. Here joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved.
The different twelve-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Overeaters Anonymous, are all ways of pulling our brokenness under the blessing and thereby making it a way to new life. All addictions make us slaves, but each time we confess openly our dependencies and express our trust that God can truly set us free, the source of our suffering becomes the source of our hope.
I vividly remember how I had, at one time, become totally dependent on the affection and friendship of one person. This dependency threw me into a pit of great anguish and brought me to the verge of a very self-destructive depression. But from the moment I was helped to experience my interpersonal addition as an expression of a need for total surrender to a living God who would fulfil the deepest desires of my heart, I started to live my dependency in a radically new way. Instead of living it in shame and embarrassment, I was able to live it as an urgent invitation to claim God’s unconditional love for myself, a love I can depend on without any fear.
Well, my dear friend, I wonder if I have helped you by speaking in this way about our brokenness. Befriending it and putting it under the blessing do not necessarily make our pain less painful. In fact, it often makes us more aware of how deep the wounds are and how unrealistic it is to expect them to vanish. Living with mentally handicapped people has made me more and more aware of how our wounds are often an essential part of the fabric of our lives. The pain of parental rejection, the suffering of not being able to marry, the anguish of always needing help even in the most “normal” things such as dressing, eating, walking, taking a bus, buying a gift or paying a bill. . .none of this brokenness will go away or become less. And still, embracing it and bring it into the light of the One who calls us the Beloved can make our brokenness shine like a diamond.
Do you remember how, two years ago, we went to Lincoln Centre and heard Leonard Bernstein conducting music by Tschaikovsky? It was a very moving evening. Later we realised that it was the last time we were to hear this musical genius. Leonard Bernstein was, no doubt, one of the most influential conductors and composers in introducing me to the beauty and the joy of music. As a teenager, I was completely taken by the enthusiastic way in which he played the role of both conductor and soloist in a performance of the Mozart piano concertos at the Kurhaus Concert Hall in Scheveningen, Holland. When his West Side Story appeared on the screen, I found myself humming its captivating melodies for months afterward, returning to the cinema whenever I could.
Watching his expressive face on TV while he directed and explained classical music for children, I realised how much Leonard Bernstein had become my most revered music teacher. It is no surprise, therefore, that his sudden death hit me as that of a very personal friend.
As I write you now about our brokenness, I recall a scene from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (a musical work written in memory of John F. Kennedy) that embodied for me the thought of brokenness put under the blessing. Toward the end of this work, the priest, richly dressed in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the human pyramid collapses, and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off, and his glass chalice falls to the ground and is shattered. As he walks slowly through the debris of his former glory---barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt---children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude”---“Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realised that broken glass could shine so brightly.”
Those words I will never forget. For me, they capture the mystery of my life, of your life and now, shortly after his death, of Bernstein’s own splendid but tragic life.
Before concluding these words about our brokenness, I want to say again something about its implications for our relationships with other people. As I grow older, I am more than ever aware of how little as well as how much we can do for others. Yes indeed, we are chosen, blessed and broken to be given.
In September 1995, Henri Nouwen was on one-year sabbatical leave, in which he wrote 5 books, before he passed away with a massive heart attack on September 21, 1996. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Sabbatical Journey—-The Diary of his final Year” published in 1998:
1.Brokenness March 28,1996 (pg 123)
Our life is full of brokenness---broken relationship, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives. Without this “place” of return, our journey easily leads us to darkness and despair. But with this safe and solid home, we can keep renewing our faith, and keep trusting that the many setbacks of life move us forward to an always greater bond with the God of the covenant.
2.Tragedies March 17,1996 (pg 119)
To the question who was to blame for the tragedy of a man born blind, Jesus replied, “Nobody. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3)
We spend a lot of energy wondering who can be blamed for our own or other people’s tragedies---our parents, ourselves, the immigrants, the Jews, the gays, the blacks, the fundamentalists, the Catholics? There is a strange satisfaction in being able to point our finger at someone, even ourselves. It gives us some sort of explanation and offers us some form of clarity.
But Jesus doesn’t allow us to solve our own or other people’s problems through blame. The challenge He poses is to discern in the midst of our darkness the light of God. In Jesus’ vision everything, even the greatest tragedy, can become an occasion in which God’s works can be revealed.
How radically new my life would be if I were willing to move beyond blaming to proclaiming the works of God in our midst. I don’t think it has much to do with the exterior of life. All human beings have their tragedies---death, depression, rejection, poverty, separation, loss, and so on. We seldom have much control over them. But do we choose to live them as occasions to blame, or as occasions to see God at work?
The whole Hebrew Bible is a story of human tragedies, but when these tragedies are lived and remembered as the context in which God’s unconditional love for the people of Israel is revealed, this story becomes sacred history.
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