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Compassion in the
Time of AIDS
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s talk to the National Catholic AIDS Network at Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, July 26,1994. It is published in “The Road to Peace.”
I am really very grateful to be here with you this whole week. But I must confess that being at this conference has been a little bit like jumping into the unknown. It has not always been comfortable or easy, because I don’t know what it will do to me. But it’s very important for you to realize that I am in a place that challenges me, and that I am here to learn something new.
One thing I have learned is that this pandemic that we have been talking about is not God’s curse or God’s grace. Rather it is a time of opportunity, a privileged time. It is the reality in us and around us, and the way we choose to live in it is going to determine whether it reveals God as a vengeful God or as a healing Lover. We must remember those words of Jesus: “Why were those people killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed? Or those others, when Pilate mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices? Were they greater sinners than you are? No, none of that. It was for your conversion, for the conversion of the church, the world, our hearts.” (Luke 13:2-5)
What I am saying is very much a reflection of what I have heard and seen here. You have heard and seen the same things during these days, but maybe looking at it from a slightly different perspective can help you to say yes or no to it. When I was asked to speak of what I had learned here, I felt like saying, “Why do you want me to talk right after the conference? Give me about four weeks to think about it, and I might come up with something.” But here I am. I have had to learn fast, or at least try to find some words for what I have not yet fully integrated. I have just three words that have really touched me here: community, body, and death. So we’ll talk about the movement in community from exclusiveness to inclusiveness, the movement in the body from metaphor to reality, and the movement that our mortality helps us to realize, from a successful life to a fruitful life. That’s what I’ve been hearing here; that’s what feels connected with my own experience.
I’d like to start by speaking a little about community. This has been an incredible community over the last few days! Some times it takes a few days or weeks to get into community, but here it took about ten minutes. Somebody said to me, “Aren’t they hugging a little too fast?” I answered, “No, no, they haven’t been hugged in a long time; they’re catching up.” There’s community here. I realize that community always moves—--from exclusiveness to inclusiveness. For me, in the past, community often meant a safe place where “those others” were not present. I came from a very Catholic Dutch family where it was clear that “they” were not believers. “They” got divorced and did all sorts of strange things. But “we” were OK because we were together in a safe place. It is frightening when boundaries are pushed out and broken down, because it doesn’t feel safe any longer. I might have started in community, or in the church, or in the seminary, or in my family, in a safe, clearly-defined place. And then, bang, bang, bang—--all those hedges and fences kept falling away. Suddenly, the non-believer might be more believing than the believer, the outsider might have something to teach the insider. Suddenly, the difference between Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Buddhist, religious and secular isn’t the kind of difference I thought it was. When I went to Daybreak, my community now, I realized that the difference between handicap and non-handicapped just wasn’t there anymore. I realized that I could love the handicapped only because I was handicapped, that I could be close to people in pain only because somehow they revealed my own pain to me.
Coming to this conference was like being invited to let some other walls and boundaries tumble down, for instance those between caregivers and care receivers. We are all together. The pandemic brings us together. Client or helper, male or female, young or old, married or celibate, white or person of color, homosexual or heterosexual—--all the distinctions that seemed so important--—suddenly the pandemic throws all those differences away. Suddenly you realize that your heart is expanding and there are no limits to that expansion. It is community, it is inclusive, and there is nobody who cannot be invited to that community of the heart. We start experiencing and feeling that we are all human and belong to the same family.
But the great mystery hare is that in community we find a new loneliness, and it creates a new intimacy. Paradoxically, if I’m well-embraced, well-held, well-kept by my friends, then suddenly, by the very intimacy of that embrace, I know that I am alone in a very deep way, in a loneliness that I didn’t know before. It is precisely the love and intimacy of the other that reveal my deepest loneliness, which I couldn’t get in touch with before I entered into community. I feel that I’ve seen that here. In this wonderful freedom to hold, to touch, and to be close, we also realize how deeply alone we are and should be, alone for God. Alone I will die, even when I am surrounded by friends. It’s my unique journey. I want to live it with others, but life is still my lonely journey. Yet when I discover that aloneness in a new way, I also realize a new intimacy. As we come together, we suddenly realize that we can be bonded like this only because we were loved long before we met each other. Long before we were born, we had already been seen, loved, and held safe. Long before we could say to each other, “I need you, hold me, touch me, heal me, care for me,” there had already been a voice that said, “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, and on you my favor rests.” We are here to say that to one another. Out of that reality we form community. And so the intimacy we are so freely expressing to one another is rooted in a sense of belonging that transcends all of us. We want to go back to that original place and hold each other there, so that we can be safe. I’m trying to say something I lived while I was here, the incredible beauty of being together in God. It is a unique mystery that in this assembly we can feel our aloneness, with one another, in the presence of a Voice that calls us “beloved.”
I think that’s exactly what Jesus was all about, what the cross is all about. Jesus lived in a very particular territory and time, with very particular people. But through his death he broke out of the boundaries of time and place. He became for all people the Jesus who came to create a covenant with humanity, made visible through his death. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself,” Jesus said. He also told us, “When I die, I can send my Spirit and the Spirit will blow where it wants.” That’s the mystery of the cross, that place from which all energy bursts forth and Jesus becomes the lover of all people. On the original cross, the vertical beam and horizontal beam were equal. And if you write Jews on one arm, Gentiles on the next, then God on the top, and Cosmos on the bottom, you will see that the cross of Jesus brings everything into one circle of love. Over the centuries we made the vertical beam longer and longer. Now perhaps this pandemic that we are living through is also a struggle all over the world to reclaim that cross with equal beams, so that we can be a community that does not exclude anyone. After all, the God we believe in is the God who has entered into communion with the human race as the compassionate mother of all humanity.
Next I want to talk about the body, which is sort of a scary thing for me to talk about. What I have learned here is that the body is indeed not just a metaphor, though that is very much how I have experienced it through most of my life. I’m increasingly afraid to live in my body as a reality, as a real place of being. I know that I have to discover what it really means to be a body, to be in the body, to be incarnate. I need to learn to be at home in myself, a temple of the Spirit, and therefore fully intimate with God, at home in my home where God dwells. At this conference I’ve become aware of the incredible beauty of the body. This whole pandemic has asked us to look into the innermost and most intimate places of our bodies, all the way into the cell structures, and really see this incredible, mysterious work of God.
Someone at this conference said that our bodies hold our sorrow our joy, sometimes in the same places, and that precisely in our bodies we discover that joy and sorrow are never really separated. If you discover that in your body, you will probably discover it in other people’s too. One of the great mysteries of the Christian life is that we look at a body that is completely broken and we say, “Here is my hope and my salvation.” We believe that the sadness and gladness are never separate, because one invokes the other. It’s in the mourning that we write the choreography of our dance. There’s probably more sorrow in this room than in most other places on earth, yet this gathering has been such an ecstatic comfort. That’s great news! The world in which we live keeps separating gladness from sadness. But God wants us to live them together, and the moment that God became flesh, all sorrow and joy became connected.
In my own flesh, in my body, I discover this real presence. So perhaps this conference can give us a new view of the Eucharist; I’m not able yet to say what that is, but we have to start thinking about it. In the Eucharist we celebrated a few nights ago, I suddenly realized that Jesus never said, “Nibble and sip.” He said, “Eat and drink.” Eat and drink to the full! And all at once I saw people eating and drinking in all sorts of ways. I saw that I could use again a word I had been critical of for at least twenty years, the word transubstantiation. I understood that the very substance of our being was being transformed, and that the substance of who we are was giving new life to a body that could hardly contain its feelings of expression, strength, and vitality. You and I were made new when we were surrounded by the mysteries of the Word, the touch, the eating, the drinking, and the dancing. All was part of that one transubstantiation that made us new. I think, dear friends, that the Eucharist is one of the greatest gifts that we as a community have. It’s so simple and so mysterious. That’s the place of healing we have hardly discovered. It may have become for many a place of exclusion, ritual, magic, or anxiety, but in fact it is the place where healing hap pens if you want it. If there’s anything I would like to know better, live and celebrate better, call more people into, it is precisely the mystery of that real presence in the word, the offering, the gifts, the eating and drinking, the being. It’s precisely the Eucharist. We come together as very vulnerable people, yet new life is created. Jesus says, “Eat me up, drink me empty, take it all in, I don’t want to hold anything back. I want to become you. I don’t want to be separate anymore. I want to be within, so that when you eat and drink, I’m vanishing because I am within you.” The disciples recognized him in the breaking of the bread and then he was gone, because he was right in the center of their being. We become the living Christ, the body of Christ.
Finally, that word, that certain reality that has been so much present here: death. It means our own dying, the dying of those we are living with, the mortality of all flesh. I hope that together we can deepen our understanding of death, because it is clear that the pandemic no longer allows us to hide our faces from death. And what does it mean? A large part of humanity is dying. Humanity is nailed to the cross again. Christ is crucified again. And as you look at that cross, listen to the voice that says, “Mother, behold your son. My beloved, behold your mother. Sister, behold your brother. Love, behold your friend.” As we stand under the cross of dying humanity, we hear a voice that calls us together, calls the few who dare to stay, who haven’t run off. It is a powerful image, as if Jesus were saying, “You are becoming family right under my cross. As you stand here and see my totally emaciated body, my totally destroyed being, crying out in abandonment, something is being given for you.” We look up and see water and blood flowing from the pierced heart, as the evangelist John did, the signs of something new. Theology says that the church was born out of the broken heart of Jesus. Today we can say it again, that a new church is being born right from the cross under which we are standing. The church is always born out of the broken heart from which water and blood flow. You have to see it, as John did. You have to see it and claim it. It’s here. It’s happening. You don’t have to say, “Well, after I’m dead, this and that will happen, and then things will be better.” Don’t wait for any of that. Just start living! I want to say too that you don’t need to be angry, because you are so blessed, so graced in this moment.
I see wonderful things happening right here for us to claim. We just have to say, “It’s ours. We want to be this church.” It’s already here! It’s like St. Francis, who gave the church new life. He went to Pope Innocent III because he didn’t want to do some thing on his own that might divide the church. Francis wanted to maintain one church. There were struggles and setbacks, but his vision prevailed. Surely the movement growing now is as powerful as the Franciscan movement was in the thirteenth century. Our task is to keep connecting it with the church. It’s so important for you to claim that new community, that new world that is happening in your hearts, because you are being sent out. When you have lived it, you have to proclaim it. There is no choice. If you believe that the Word became flesh, you have to believe that flesh becomes Word again.
What we have lived in the body is there to be proclaimed. That’s what it’s about, that we have lived something in our bodies, felt it, experienced newness in ourselves. Then we have to make it Word, so that it can give life—--even out of our death. And I tell you, when your Word comes from your flesh, it will heal, whether you intend it to or not. Everyone who touched Jesus was healed. Everyone! It happened. You have to believe that. And everyone who touches you when your body is filled with the truth of who you are and has become that place where God chooses to dwell, the people you touch cannot but be healed. You don’t have to define healing; others will do that. You just have to go everywhere you normally go. But go also to the leaders of our church and go with an immense love. One of the things I hope from this conference is that we will stop seeking to place blame, but really go and care, care for the leaders who are so very lonely, frightened, and paralyzed. And I really hope you have the courage in a very simple and gentle way to care for the community that you are part of. You can say to them, “Come, there’s a place for you, too. Let’s talk.” Go out to your world, to all those people you meet. You are privileged to know so many people. Some are dying, some are in anguish, but they are the saints. Go to them and tell them that you stand under their cross, that you have seen the water and blood flowing from their side. You in this room are so empowered, so renewed in so many ways, that you can go to people and embrace them, not because you agree with everything they say, but because you see their loneliness and their immense need to be loved. And when you go out to people, then you can start talking about what you are living.
I want to leave with you, in the end, that very deep word that Jesus says about death: “It is for your good that I’m going, because unless I go I cannot send you my Spirit.” That word has to be rediscovered. Jesus, who died in his early thirties and who spoke about his death from the very beginning of his proclamation, is saying that his death is not the end but the beginning. It is not something to be afraid of, but something that opens a whole new world. Death is the place that allows him to send his love, his Spirit, his deepest self. And somehow, preparing ourselves for our death, helping others prepare themselves for theirs, means that we realize that our spirits and theirs will touch generations yet to come. Yes, we have to die with Christ, but we will be raised with Christ so as to send the Spirit of Christ.
This morning’s reading was from the book of Sirach, about those whom we buried but who are here with us, continuing to send us their wisdom so we can live. Do we really believe that? It means that I will be around for generations because I keep sending my spirit, my spirit which is from God and isn’t going to die. In fact, that spirit was given to me, not just for these thirty or fifty or seventy years, but so that it can bear fruit long after my life on earth is over. It is precisely my vulnerability, my brokenness, and my death which allow me to be fruitful. “Fruitful,” not “successful.” And therefore, the main question is not “How much can I still do?” although that’s not unimportant. The main question is, “How I can make my life fruitful? How can my dying be not the end of fruitfulness but rather its fullest realization?” Jesus lived that way, and we are called to live that way too. Then we may be able, gently, to let people who are dying discover that they are going to bear fruit far into the future, beyond their lifetimes. I think that’s good news, really good news! And I learned it in this community, these last few days, because we have been receiving here the fruits of those who have died, their wisdom and their love. They are still with us. They are the saints, and we need them to claim their fruitfulness. We are praying that they will give us their spirit so that we can carry the spirit further.
I have a little story to tell at the end of these reflections. We have reflected on community, on the body, and on dying. I hope that what I’ve said is connected with what we have lived here, and that I’ve also shed a bit of light on where you are going. But, as a sort of personal ending, I want to share this story. A few years ago, my eighty-nine-year-old father came to visit me in Germany. He wanted to do something fun, so I said, “Let’s go to the circus.” There were five South African trapeze artists there, three flyers and two catchers, and they danced in the air! I was fascinated and told my father that I thought I’d missed my vocation, that what I’d always really wanted to do was to fly like that. One thing led to another, and now I join them for a week or two every year, traveling with the circus. The leader recently said to me, “Henri, everyone applauds for me because when I do those leaps and back flips, they think I’m the hero. But the real hero is the catcher. The only thing I have to do is stretch out my hands and trust, trust that he’ll be there to pull me back up.” You and I have been doing a lot of flying at this conference. It’s wonderful; you’ll get a lot of applause and you’ll enjoy it. This is all good. But finally, it is trust that remains. Trust that when you come down from the triple somersault, your catcher will be there to pull you right back up again. So just stretch out your hands and trust the God of life. (175-183)
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