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Death as gifts to others
Father Henri Nouwen was hit by the outside rear view mirror of a passing van, while hitchhiking to the Corner House at Daybreak, on a dark winter morning. He had to be operated to stop the internal bleeding and to take out his spleen. He survived the surgery. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Beyond the Mirror” published in 1990.
1. Death as gifts to others. (pg 47-54)
My whole life had been an arduous attempt to follow Jesus as I had come to know Him through my parents, friends, and teachers. I had spent countless hours studying the Scriptures, listening to lectures and sermons, and reading spiritual books. Jesus had been very close to me, but also very distant; a friend, but also a stranger; a source of hope, but also of fear, guilt, and shame. But now, when I walked around the portal of death, all ambiguity and all uncertainty were gone. He was there, the Lord of my life, saying, “Come to Me, come.”
I knew very concretely that He was there for me, but also that He was embracing the universe. I knew that, indeed, He was the Jesus I had prayed to and spoken about, but also that now He did not ask for prayers or words. All was well. The words that summarise it all are Life and Love. But these words were incarnate in a real presence. Death lost its power and shrank away in the Life and Love that surrounded me in such an intimate ways, as if I were walking through a sea whose waves were rolled away. I was being held safe while moving toward the other shore. All jealousies, resentments, and angers were being gently moved away, and I was being shown that Love and Life are greater, deeper, and stronger than any of the forces I had been worrying about.
One emotion was very strong---that of homecoming. Jesus opened His home to me and seemed to say, “Here is where you belong.” The words He spoke to His disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many place for you” (John 14:2), became very real. The risen Jesus, who now dwells with His Father, was welcoming me home after a long journey.
This experience was the realisation of my oldest and deepest desires. Since the first moment of consciousness, I have had the desire to be with Jesus. Now I felt His presence in a most tangible way, as if my whole life had come together and I was being enfolded in love. The homecoming had a real quality of return, a return to the womb of God. The God who had fashioned me in secret and moulded me in the depths of the earth, the God who had knitted me together in my mother’s womb, was calling me back after a long journey and wanted to receive me as someone who had become child enough to be loved as a child. I speak only for myself here, and I simply trust that I had a very clear vision in the face of death.
Still, there were resistances to the call to come home. I spoke to Sue about them during one of her visits. What most prevented me from dying was the sense of unfinished business, unresolved conflicts with people with whom I live or had lived. The pain of forgiveness withheld, by me and from me, kept me clinging to my wounded existence. In my mind’s eyes, I saw the men and women who aroused within me feelings of anger, jealousy, and even hatred. They had a strange power over me. They might never think of me, but every time I thought of them I lost some of my inner peace and joy. Their criticism, rejection, or expression of personal dislike still affected my feelings about myself. By not truly forgiving them from my heart, I gave them a power over me that kept me chained to my old, broken existence. I also knew that there were still people angry with me, people who could not think about me or speak about me without experiencing great hostility. I might not even know what I had done or said to them. I might not even know who they were. They had not forgiven me but held on to me in their anger.
In the face of death, I realised that it was not love that kept me clinging to life but unresolved anger. Love, real love, flowing from me or toward me, sets me free to die. Death would not undo that love. To the contrary, death would deepen it and strengthen it. Those whom I love dearly and those by whom I am loved dearly may mourn my death, but their bonds with me will only grow stronger and deeper. They would remember me, make me part of their very members, and thus carry my spirit with them on their journey.
No, the real struggle was not a matter of leaving loved one. The real struggle had to do with leaving behind me people whom I had not forgiven and people who had not forgiven me. These feelings kept me bound to the old body and brought me great sadness. I suddenly felt an immense desire to call around my bed all who were angry with me and all with whom I was angry, to embrace them, ask them to forgive me, and offer them my forgiveness.
As I thought of them, I realised that they represented a host of opinions, judgements, and even condemnations that had enslaved me to this world. It almost seemed that much of my energy had gone into proving to myself and to others that I was right in my conviction that some people could not be trusted, that others were using me or were trying to push me aside, and that whole groups and categories of people were falling short of the mark. Thus I kept holding on to the illusion that I am destined to be the evaluator and judge of human behaviour.
As I felt life weakening in me, I felt a deep desire to forgive and to be forgiven, to let go of all evaluations and opinions, to be free from the burden of judgements. I said to Sue, “Please tell everyone who has hurt me that I forgive them from my heart, and please ask everyone whom I have hurt to forgive me too.” As I said this, I felt I was taking off the wide leather belts that I had worn while chaplain with the rank of captain in the army. Those belts not only girded my waist but also crossed my chest and shoulders. They had given me prestige and power. They had encouraged me to judge people and put them in their place. Although my stay in the army was very brief, I had, in my mind, never fully removed my belts. But I knew now that I did not want to die with these belts holding me captive. I had to die powerless, without belts, completely free from judgement.
What worry me most during these hours was that my death might make someone feel guilty, ashamed, or left hanging spiritually in midair. I was afraid that someone would say or think, “I wish there had been a chance to resolve our conflict, to say what I really feel, to express my true intention. . . .I wish, but now it is too late.” I know how hard it is to live with these unsaid words and withheld gestures. They can deepen our darkness and become a burden of guilt.
I knew that my dying could be good or bad for others, depending on the choice I made in the face of it. I said again to Sue, “In case I die, tell everyone that I feel an immense love for all the people I have come to know, also toward those with whom I live in conflict. Tel them not to feel anxious or guilty but to let me go into the house of my Father and to trust that there my communion with them will grow deeper and stronger. Tell them to celebrate with me and be grateful for all that God has given me.”
2. Dying is the most important Act of Living (pg 61-68)
In the days following surgery, I began to discover what it meant that I had not died and would soon recover. While Sue and many other visitors showed great joy and gratitude that I was out of danger and doing rather well, I had to face the simple fact that I had returned to a world from which I had been released. I was glad to be alive, but on a deeper level I was confused and wondered why it was that Jesus had not yet called me home. Yes, I was happy to be back among friends, but still I had to ask myself why it was better for me that I return to this “vale of tears.” I was deeply grateful to know that I would be able to live longer with my family and community, but I also knew that living longer on the earth would mean more struggle, more pain, more anguish, and more loneliness. Interiorly, it was not easy to receive the many expressions of gratitude for my healing. It was impossible for me to say in words, “It might have been better for you if I had died and been allowed to let my absence bring you closer to God,” and yet, my spirit was saying something like that.
My main question became: “Why am I alive; why wasn’t I found ready to enter into the house of God; why was I asked to return to a place where love is so ambiguous, where peace so hard to experience, and joy so deeply hidden in sorrow?” The question came to me in many ways, and I knew that I had to grow slowly into the answer. As I live my life in the years ahead of me, the question will be with me always, and I will never be allowed to let that question go completely. That question brings me to the heart of my vocation: to live with a burning desire to be with God and to be asked to keep proclaiming His love while missing its fulfilment.
Confronting death has helped me to understand better the tension that belongs to this vocation. Clearly, it is a tension not to be resolved but to be lived deeply enough to become fruitful. What I learned about dying is that I am called to die for others. The very simple truth is that the way in which I die affects many people. If I die with much anger and bitterness, I will leave my family and friends behind in confusion, guilt, shame, or weakness.
When I felt my death approaching, I suddenly realised how much I could influence the hearts of those whom I would leave behind. If I could truly say that I was grateful for what I had lived, eager to forgive and be forgiven, full of hope that those who loved me would continue their lives in joy and peace, and confident that Jesus who calls me would guide all who somehow had belonged to my life---if I could do that---I would, in the hour of my death, reveal more true spiritual freedom than I had been able to reveal during all the years of my life.
I realised on a very deep level that dying is the most important act of living. It involves a choice to bind others with guilt or to set them free with gratitude. This choice is a choice between a death that gives life and a death that kills. I know that many people live with the deep feeling that they have not done for those who have died what they wanted to do, and have no idea how to be healed from that lingering feeling of guilt. The dying have the unique opportunity to set free those whom they leave behind.
During my “dying hours,” my strongest feelings centered on my responsibility toward those who would mourn my death. Would they mourn in joy or with guilt, with gratitude or with remorse? Would they feel abandoned or set free? Some people had hurt me deeply, and some had been deeply hurt by me. My inner life had been shaped by theirs. I experienced a real temptation to hold on to them in anger or guilt. But I also knew that I could choose to let them go and surrender myself completely to the new life in Christ.
My deep desire to be united with God through Jesus did not spring from disdain for human relationships but from an acute awareness of the truth that dying in Christ can be, indeed, my greatest gifts to others. In this perspective, life is a long journey of preparation---of preparing oneself to truly die for others. It is a series of little deaths in which we are asked to release many forms of clinging and to move increasingly from needing others to living for them. The many passages we have to make as we grow from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, and adulthood to old age offer ever-new opportunities to choose for ourselves or to choose for others. During these passages, questions such as, “Do I desire power or service?” “Do I want to be visible or remain hidden?” “Do I strive for a successful career or do I keep following my vocation?” keep coming up and confront us with hard choices. In this sense, we can speak about life as a long process of dying to self, so that we will be able to live in the joy of God and give our lives completely to others.
As I reflect on this in the light of my own encounter with death, I become aware of how unfamiliar this way of thinking is, not only for the people with whom I live and work but also for myself. It was only in the face of death that I clearly saw---and perhaps only fleetingly---what life was all about. Intellectually, I had understood the concept of dying to self, but in the face of death itself it seemed as if I could now grasp its full meaning. When I saw how Jesus called me to let go of everything and to trust fully that by doing so my life would be fruitful for others, I could suddenly also see what my deepest vocation had always been.
My encounter with death told me something new about the meaning of my physical death and of the lifelong dying to self that must precede it. My being sent back into life and its many struggles means, I believe, that I am asked to proclaim the love of God in a new way. Until now I have been thinking and speaking from time into eternity, from the experience of human love to the love of God. But after my having touched “the other side,” it seems that a new witness is called for: a witness that speaks back into the world of ambiguities from the place of unconditional love. This is such a radical change that I might find it very hard, yes even impossible, to find the words that can reach the hearts of my fellow human beings. But I sense that words must emerge and awaken the deepest longing of the human hearts.
3. Death is like a Second Birth (pg 91-93)
In April 1992, Henri Nouwen experienced a serious infection. This except comes from notes he made for a talk given after second brush with death.
“Congratulations,” said the nurse when I woke up from the surgery after my accident. “For what?” I asked. She said, “You just made it, you are very lucky. Congratulations!”
I could have died but I didn’t.
A few years later I was in the hospital again. “It’s a dangerous infection you have,” my doctor said. “We want to keep you alive a little longer, so you better listen to me and stop being so busy!” I had made it again! But was this what it is about? Playing Russian roulette until the bullet hits your brains? Maybe I can live another ten, twenty, or even thirty years. But is that the most important thing, or are these near-death events telling me to prepare myself for death? Death is a certainty. All other things about my future are uncertain. Still I act as if death is the least certain event of my life. I ignore it, don’t speak much about it, and keep putting all my energies into the many things I still can do.
I really do not want to keep playing games with myself or with my friends. Death is all around me. Many people who were born in the year I was born have already died, and most people don’t even live as many years as I have so far. Friends are dying from cancer, from AIDS, by sudden accidents. And when I enlarge the circle and look beyond my own little milieu, I see thousands and thousands of children and adults dying every day, from starvation, violence, and war. Are we prepared for death?
If we believe that death is the end, nothingness, the stopping of our clock, there is not anything to prepare for. The only thing to do is to stay alive as long and as well as possible. But I don’t believe that death is the end.
All that I have learned through life and all that I experienced during my encounters with death has taught me that death is like a second birth, leading me to a new way of living. I had nothing to say about my first birth. But I have a lot to say about my second birth and I can get ready for it.
I say all of this so directly and so freely because I believe. I believe that my life, whether it is short or long, is a gift from God. I believe that God, who has given me my life, loves me with an everlasting love. I believe that this everlasting love is stronger than death, and I believe that everything that happens during my life offers me an opportunity to let my death become a rebirth.
4. God’s Beloved Child (pg 68-70)
My experience of God’s love during my hours near death has given me a renewed knowledge of not belonging to the world---to the dark powers of our society. This knowledge has entered more deeply into my heart and has led me to a fuller acceptance of my identity. I am a child of God, a brother of Jesus. I am held safe in the intimacy of the divine love.
When Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, He heard a voice from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) these words revealed the true identity of Jesus as the beloved. Jesus truly heard that voice, and all of His thoughts, words, and actions came forth from His deep knowledge that He was infinitely loved by God. Jesus lived His life from that inner place of love. Although human rejections, jealousies, resentments, and hatred did hurt Him deeply, He remained always anchored in the love of the Father. At the end of His life, He said to His disciples, “Listen: the time will come---indeed has come already---when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” (John 16:32)
I know now that the words spoken to Jesus when He was baptised are words spoken also to me and to all who are brothers and sisters of Jesus. My tendencies toward self-rejection and self-depreciation make it hard to hear these words truly and let them descend into the center of my heart. But once I have received these words fully, I am set free from my compulsion to prove myself to the world and can live in it without belong to it. Once I have accepted the truth that I am God’s beloved child, unconditionally loved, I can be sent into the world to speak and to act as Jesus did.
The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world---free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridicule, or considered useless; free also to receive love from people and to be grateful for all the signs of God’s presence in the world. I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.
5. Beloved (pg 85-88)
One of the most life-giving experiences of my last weeks in the hospital was the visits of my father, my sisters, friends, and members of my community. They had time to spare. They had nothing more important to do. They could sit close to my bed and just be there. Especially the most handicapped were very present to me. Adam, Tracy, and Hsi-Fu came in their wheelchairs. They didn’t say anything, but they were there, just reminding me that I am loved as much as they are. It seemed that they wanted to tell me that my experience in the portal of death was real and could be trusted, and by their silent presence they said to me that they might be able to keep me faithful to it. When Hsi-Fu visited me, he jumped up and down in his wheelchair, and when I hugged him, he covered my face with his kisses. He made the circle full. I wanted to come to him, but in the end it was he who came to me, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I got my bath, but stay close to me so that you won’t lose what you learned on your bed.”
I have lost much of the peace and freedom that was given to me in the hospital. I regret it; I even grieve over it. Once again there are many people, many projects, many pulls. Never enough time and space to do it all and feel totally satisfied. I am no longer as centered and focused as I was during my illness. I wish I were. I yearn for it. It is a yearning I share with many busy people.
Because they have nothing to prove, nothing to accomplish, Hsi-Fu and all the weak and broken people of our world are given to me to call me back, again and again, to the place of truth that I have come to know. They have no success to achieve, no career to protect, no name to uphold. They are always “in intensive care,” always dependent, always in the portal of death. They can bring me in touch and hold me close to that place in me where I am like them: weak, broken, and where God calls me blessed and says to me, “Don’t be afraid. You are My beloved child, on whom My favour rests.”
I keep being reminded of Jesus words: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) I realise that my accident made me, at least for a while, like a little child and gave me a short taste of the Kingdom. Now all of the temptations to leave that childhood are here again, and I am not surprised that some of my friends feel that I had more to give when I was sick than after me recuperation. However, I can no longer sit and wait for another accident to point me toward the Kingdom once again. I simply have to open my eyes to the world in which I have been placed and see there the people who can help me over and over again to become a child. I know for sure that my accident was nothing but a simple reminder of who I am and of what I am called to become.
6. Jesus’ Ministry (pg 72-73)
But Jesus’ whole ministry was a ministry “from above,” a ministry born of a relationship with the Father in heaven. All the questions Jesus raised, all the answers He gave, all the confrontations He evoked and the consolations He offered were rooted in His knowledge of the Father’s unconditional love. His ministry was not oppressive, since in came from His deep experience of being unconditionally loved and was in no way motivated by a personal need for affirmation and acceptance. He was completely free precisely because He belonged not to the world but exclusively to the Father.
Jesus’ ministry is the model for all ministry. Therefore speaking “from above” can never be authoritarian, manipulative, or oppressive. It has to be anchored in a love that is not only free from compulsion and obsessions that taint human relationships, but free also to be present to human suffering in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness.
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