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The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Out of Solitude” published in 1974.


1. Introduction (31-32)

     Out of His solitude Jesus reached out His caring hand to the people in need. In the lonely place His care grew strong and mature. And from there He entered into a healing closeness with His fellow human beings.

     Jesus indeed cared. Being pragmatists we say: “That is obvious: He fed the hungry, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the crippled walk and the dead live. He indeed cared.” But by being surprised by all the remarkable things He did, we forget that Jesus did not give food to the many without having received some loaves and fishes from a stranger in the crowd; that He did not return the boy of Nain to his widowed mother without having felt her sorrow; that He did not raise Lazarus from the grave without tears and a sigh of distress that came straight from the heart. What we see, and like to see, is cure and change. But what we do not see and do not want to see is care, the participation in the pain, the solidarity in suffering, the sharing in the experience of brokenness. And still, cure without care is as dehumanizing as a gift given with a cold heart.

     I would like to reflect on care as the basis and precondition of all cure. In a community like ours we have put all the emphasis on cure. We want to be professionals: heal the sick, help the poor, teach the ignorant, and organize the scattered. But the temptation is that we use our expertise to keep a safe distance from that which really matters and forget that in the long run cure without care is more harmful than helpful. Let us therefore first ask ourselves what care really means and then see how care can become the basis of community.


2. Care (33-37)

     What does it mean to care? Let me start by saying that the word care has become a very ambivalent word. When someone says: “I will take care of him!” it is more likely an announcement of an impending attack than of a tender compassion. And besides this ambivalence, the word care is most often used in a negative way. “Do you want coffee or tea?” “I don’t care.” “Do you want to stay home or go to a movie?” “I don’t care.” “Do you want to walk or go by car?” “I don’t care.” This indifference toward choices in life has become commonplace. And often it seems that not to care has become more acceptable than to care, and a carefree life-style more attractive than a careful one.

     Real care is not ambiguous. Real care excludes indifference and is the opposite of apathy. The word “care” finds its roots in the Gothic “Kara” which means lament. The basic meaning of care is: to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with. I am very much struck by this background of the word care because we tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward the powerless, of the have’s toward the have-not’s. And, in fact, we feel quite uncomfortable with an invitation to enter into someone’s pain before doing something about it.

     Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.

     You might remember moments in which you were called to be with a friend who had lost a wife or husband, child or parent. What can you say, do, or propose at such moment? There is a strong inclination to say: “Don’t cry; the one you loved is in the hands of God.” “Don’t be sad because there are so many good things left worth living for.” But are we ready to really experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say: “I do not understand. I do not know what to do but I am here with you.” Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do and instead stand rather in the face of death together with those who grieve?

     The friend who cares makes it clear that whatever happens in the external world, being present to each other is what really matters. In fact, it matters more than pain, illness, or even death. It is remarkable how much consolation and hope we can receive from authors who, while offering no answers to life’s questions, have the courage to articulate the situation of their lives in all honesty and directness. Kiekegaard, Sartre, Camus, Hammarkjold, and Merton---none of them---have ever offered solutions. Yet many of us who have read their works have found new strength to pursue our own search. Their courage to enter so deeply into human suffering and to become present to their own pain gave them the power to speak healing words.

     Therefore, to care means first of all to be present to each other. From experience you know that those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak, you know they speak to you. And when they ask questions, you know it is for your sake and not for their own. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms, and they encourage you to take your own life seriously and to trust your own vocation.

     Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or to try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators, and prevents a real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden. And so cure can often become offending instead of liberating. It is therefore not so strange that cure is not seldom refused by people in need. Not only have individuals refused help when they did not sense a real care, but also oppressed minorities have resisted support, and suffering nations have declined medicine and food when they realized that it was better to suffer than to lose self-respect by accepting a gift out of a non-caring hand.


3. Community and Care (39-43)

     This leaves us with the urgent question: How can we be or become a caring community, a community of people not trying to cover the pain or to avoid it by sophisticated bypasses, but rather share it as the source of healing and new life? It is important to realize that you cannot get a Ph.D. in caring, that caring cannot be delegated by specialists, and that therefore nobody can be excused from caring. Still, in a society like ours, we have a strong tendency to refer to specialists. When someone does not feel well, we quickly think, “Where can we find a doctor?” When someone is confused, we easily advise him to go to a counselor. And when someone wants to pray we wonder if there is a minister around.

     That was also the case two centuries ago in June 1787 during the days of deliberation about the Constitution of the United States. When the discussions did not seem to get anywhere, Benjamin Franklin proposed to open the sessions with prayer. But the delegation to the convention rejected the proposal not because they did not believe in prayer but because they had no money to pay a chaplain.(See S.E. Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People. New York, 1965. Pp. 307-308)


Although it is very meaningful to call on outside help, sometimes our referral to others is more a sign of fear to face the pain than a sign of care, and in that case we keep our greatest gift to heal hidden from each other. Every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to others, to listen, to hear and to receive. If that gift would be set free and made available, miracles could take place. Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.

Why is it that we keep the great gift of care so deeply hidden? Why is it that we keep giving dimes without daring to look into the face of the beggars? Why is it that we do not join the lonely eater in the dinning hall but look for those we know so well? Why is it that we so seldom knock on a door or grab a phone, just to say hello, just to show that we have been thinking about each other? Why are smiles still hard to get and words of comfort so difficult to come by? Why is it so hard to express thanks to a teacher, admiration to a student, and appreciation to the men and women who cook, clean, and garden? Why do we keep bypassing each other always on the way to something or someone more important?

Maybe simply because we ourselves are so concerned to be different from the others that we do not allow ourselves to lay down our heavy armor and come together in a mutual vulnerability. Maybe we are so full of our own opinions, ideas and convictions that we have no space left to listen to the other and learn from him or her.

There is a story about a university professor who came to a Zen master to ask him about Zen. Nan-in, the Zen master, served him tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is over-full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”


To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death.

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but the powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.


4. Conclusion (45-46)

     When Jesus had received five loaves and two fishes, He returned them to the crowd and there was plenty for all to eat. The gift is born out of receiving. Food came forth out of kinship with the hungry, healing out of compassion, cure out of care. He or she who can cry out with those in need can give without offense.

     As long as we are occupied and preoccupied with our desire to do good but are not able to feel the crying need of those who suffer, our help remains hanging somewhere between our minds and our hands and does not descend into the heart where we can care. But in solitude, our heart can slowly take off its many protective devices, and can grow so wide and deep that nothing human is strange to it.

     Then we can become contrite, crushed and broken, not just by our own sins and failings, but also by the pain of our fellow human beings. Then we can give birth to a new awareness reaching far beyond the boundaries of our human efforts. And then we who, in our fearful narrow-mindedness, were afraid that we would not have enough food for ourselves, will have to smile. For then we will discover that after having fed more than five thousand there were still twelve baskets of bread and fish remaining. Then our care born out of solitude can become a sign of our faithful expectation of the coming day of complete joy.



Feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:32-44 NKJV)

So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. "Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat." But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish." Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. So they all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.


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