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My History with God by Henri Nouwen
In 1994, Henri Nouwen wrote a short unpublished synopsis of his life entitled “My History with God” for a class he was teaching in Toronto. A Jesuit priest, John Dear, editor of Henri Nouwen’s book “The Road to Peace,” quoted below some of the passages from the synopsis:
1.The Safe Home (1932-1957)
My first twenty-four years of life were basically years to prepare myself for the Catholic priesthood. I was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family, went to Roman Catholic schools, and lived a life in which I related exclusively to Roman Catholics. It was a time in which all the boundaries were very clear. I was a Roman Catholic and not a Protestant; I was a Christian and not a Moslem, Buddhist, or Hindu. I was a believer and not a pagan; I was Dutch and not German, French, or English; I was white and not black, etc. These very clear boundaries gave me a sense of being in the right place, being wholly protected, and being very safe. I never met anybody who was divorced, who had left the priesthood, or who was gay. It was very clear what I was going to do as a priest. I knew the right teaching and the right way to live the moral life. Six years in the seminary had given me very clear cut guidelines and surrounded me with people who had received the same guidelines. Proclaiming the Gospel and administering the sacraments were challenging, but not complicated, and something I really felt called to do. I was a very happy person, felt very close to God, had a very disciplined prayer life and a very clear-cut vocation. I was ordained in July 1957. (pg viii)
2.Breaking down All Boundaries (1957-1986)
After my ordination I studied psychology at the University in Holland, visited the Vatican Council, worked as chaplain of the Holland/American line, and was trained as a reserve army chaplain. I then studied for a few years at the Menninger Clinic to explore the relationship between religion and psychiatry, taught for two years at Notre Dame, 10 years at Yale, and three years at Harvard, and made visits to Latin American. During all these years, I learned that Protestants belong as much to the church as Catholics, and that Hindus, Buddhists, and Moslems believe in God as much as Christians do; that pagans can love one another as much as believers can; that human psyche is multidimensional; that theology, psychology, and sociology are intersecting in many places; that women have a real call to ministry; that homosexual people have a unique vocation in the Christian community; that the poor belong to the heart of the church; and that the spirit of God blows where it wants. All of these discoveries gradually broke down many fences that had given me a safe garden and made me deeply aware that God’s covenant with God’s people includes everyone. For me personally, it was a time of searching, questioning, and agonising, a time that was extremely lonely and not without moments of great inner uncertainty and ambiguity. The Jesus that I had come to know in my youth had died. I was travelling in a downcast way to Emmaus, and started hearing the Voice of someone who had joined me on the journey.(pg xi)
3.A New Home (1986-1994)
When I joined the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, I was searching for a new home. I knew it could not be the old home that I had left, but I did not know what the new home would look like. During the last eight years living with people with mental handicaps and their assistants in a very close knit community consisting of people from many different religions, backgrounds, communities, and lifestyles, my heart started to burn, and I started to recognise the presence of Jesus in a radically new way. During this time I have experienced much loneliness, much confusion, and much insecurity, but I have experienced all of this sorrow living with poor people who in their simplicity and openness offer me a space that gradually could become a new home. Since living in community, my spiritual journey has been radically deepened, the full dimension of which I am not yet fully able to articulate. But I know that living with the people of my community is calling me to be a witness in a way that I never could have been before. (pg xiv)
Father Henri J M Nouwen, at the age of 63 years’ old and after 38 years of priesthood, wrote about salvation in his book “Sabbatical Journey---The Diary of his Final Year” the following:
Friday, November 10 1995
As I started to write again today, I realised that The Gathering (an evangelical support network for philanthropists, who come together once a year to support and encourage one another in their philanthropic work and to discuss how to give in the spirit of the Gospel. In order to be “eligible” for The Gathering, each member must be a major donor to a charitable organisation.) had raised new questions in my mind about mission, evangelisation, conversion, witness, and so on. Many of the people I met in Cancun believe that without an explicit personal profession of faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we cannot make it to heaven. They are convinced that God has called us to convert every human being to Jesus.
This vision inspires much generosity, commitment, and a great worldwide project. Not a few of the men and women we met had travelled far and wide, put their lives and health in danger, given large parts of their personal income, and taken many financial risks. Their love for Jesus is deep, intense, and radical. They spoke about Jesus fearlessly and were prepared for rejection and ridicule. They are very committed disciples, not hesitant to pay the cost of their discipleship.
Still . . .I felt somewhat uncomfortable, even though this belief was present in my own upbringing. My conviction as a young man was there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church and that it was my task to bring all “non-believers” into the one true Church.
But much has happened to me over the years. My own psychological training, my exposure to people from the most different religious background, the Second Vatican Council, the new theology of mission, and my life in L’Arche have all deepened and broadened my views on Jesus’ saving work. Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through the door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God. I feel deeply called to witness for Jesus as the One who is the source of my own spiritual journey and thus create the possibility for other people to know Jesus and commit themselves to Him. I am so truly convinced that the Spirit of God is present in our midst and that each person can be touched by God’s Spirit in ways far beyond my own comprehension and intention.
I am very grateful for my time at The Gathering. It forces me to think through my own religious convictions. (pg 53)
Henri Nouwen’s passed away on 15/9/1996, at the age of 64 years old. It was a devastating loss to his many friends, to L’Arche, to the church, and to the world. Henri Nouwen was one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers of his time. Only Thomas Merton or C.S. Lewis has had a comparable impact on Christian spirituality.
The passages below on Salvation are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey.”
1.The Door Open to Anyone
Jesus is the door to a life in and with God. “I am the gate,” He says. (John 10:9). “I am the Way, I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Still, many people never have heard or will hear of Jesus. They are born, live their lives, and die without having been exposed to Jesus and His Words. Are they lost? Is there no place in the Father’s house for them?
Jesus opened the door to God’s house for all people, also for those who never knew or will know that it was Jesus who opened it. The Spirit that Jesus sent “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), and it can lead anyone through the door to God’s house. (Aug 3)
2.Sharing the Abundant Love
Why must we go out to the far ends of the world to preach the Gospel of Jesus when people do not have to know Jesus in order to enter the house of God? We must go out because we want to share with people the abundant love and hope, joy and peace that Jesus brought to us. We want to “proclaim the unfathomable treasure of Christ” and “throw light on the inner workings of the mystery kept hidden through all ages in God, the creator of everything” (Ephesians 3:8-9)
What we have received is so beautiful and so rich that we cannot hold it for ourselves but feel compelled to bring it to every human being we meet. (Aug 3)
3.Jesus comes to us in the Poor
What finally counts is not whether we know Jesus and His Words but whether we live our lives in the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus is the Spirit of Love. Jesus Himself makes this clear when He speaks about the last judgement. There people will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” and Jesus will answer, “In so far as you did this to one of the least. . . of Mine, you did it to Me”(Matthew 25:37,40).
This is our great challenge and consolation. Jesus comes to us in the poor, the sick, the dying, the prisoners, the lonely, the disabled, the rejected. There we meet Him and there the door to God’s house is opened for us. (Aug 4)
4.Who are the Poor
The poor are the center of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us, people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our families, churches, or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, ignored or abused.
It is precisely when we see and experience poverty---whether far away, close by, or in our hearts---that we need to become the Church; that is, hold hands as brothers and sisters, confess our own brokenness and need, forgive one another, heal one another’s wounds, and gather around the table of Jesus for the breaking of the bread. Thus, as the poor we recognise Jesus, who became poor for us. (Nov 2)
5.All People Lifted Up with Jesus
The death and resurrection of Jesus are God’s way to open for all people the door to eternal life. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32). Indeed, all people, from all times and places, are lifted up with Jesus on the cross and into the new life of the resurrection. Thus Jesus’ death is a death for all humanity, and Jesus’ resurrection is a resurrection for all humanity.
Not one person from the past, present, or future is excluded from the great passage of Jesus from slavery to freedom, from the land of captivity to the promised land, from death to eternal life. (Aug 1)
6.Jesus takes away Fatality
The great mystery of the incarnation is that God became human in Jesus so that all human flesh could be clothed with divine life. Our lives are fragile and destined to death. But since God, through Jesus, shared in our fragile and mortal lives, death no longer has the final word. Life has become victorious. Paul writes, “And after this perishable nature has put on imperishability and this mortal nature has put on immortality, then will the Words of scripture come true: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?’”(1 Corinthians 15:54). Jesus has taken away the fatality of our existence and given our lives eternal value. (Aug 2)
7.Heaven and Hell
Is everybody finally going to be all right? Are all people ultimately going to be free from misery and all their needs fulfilled? Yes and no! Yes, because God wants to bring us home into God’s Kingdom. No, because nothing happens without our choosing it. The realization of the Kingdom of God is God’s work, but for God to make God’s love fully visible in us, we must respond to God’s love with our own love.
There are two kinds of death: a death leading us into God’s Kingdom, and a death leading us into hell. John in his vision saw not only heaven but also hell. He says, “The legacy for cowards, for murderers and the sexually immoral, and for sorcerers, worshippers of false gods or any other sort of liars, is the second death in the burning lake of sulphur” (Revelation 21:8). We must choose for God if we want to be with God. (Dec 14)
8.A Second Death
Hell is a second death. This is what the Book of Revelation says (see Revelation 21:8). Just as there is an eternal life, there is an eternal death. Eternal life is a second life; eternal death is a second death. Our first death can be a passage not only to eternal life but also to eternal death.
Looking at hell as a second death takes away the images of eternal suffering and torture that are so prevalent in medieval art and literature. It defines hell more as the refusal to choose life than as a punishment for wrongdoing. In fact, the sins that the Book of Revelation mentions as leading to eternal death are choices for death: murdering, worshipping obscenities, sexual immorality, lying, and so on (see Revelation 21:8). When we sow death we will reap death. But when we sow life we will reap life. It is we who do the sowing! (Dec 17)
God says, “I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:10).
“Choose life.” That’s God’s call for us, and there is not a moment in which we do not have to make that choice. Life and death are always before us. In our imaginations, our thoughts, our words, our gestures, our actions. . . even in our non actions. This choice for life starts in a deep interior place. Underneath very life-affirming behaviour I can still harbour death-thoughts and death-feelings. The most important question is not “Do I kill?” but “Do I carry a blessing in my heart or a curse?” The bullet that kills is only the final instrument of the hatred that began in the heart long before the gun was picked up. (Aug 30)
10.A Choice Calling for Discipline
When we look critically at the many thoughts and feelings that fill our minds and hearts, we may come to the horrifying discovery that we often choose death instead of life, curse instead of blessing. Jealousy, envy, anger, resentment, greed, lust, vindictiveness, revenge, hatred---they all float in that large reservoir of our inner life. Often we take them for granted and allow them to be there and do their destructive work.
But God asks us to choose life and to choose blessing. This choice requires an immense inner discipline. It requires a great attentiveness to the death-forces within us and a great commitment to let the forces of life come to dominate our thoughts and feelings. We cannot always do this alone; often we need a caring guide or a loving community to support us. But it is important that we both make the inner effort and seek the support we need from others to help us choose life. (Aug 31)
11.Being Joyful Witnesses
To speak about Jesus and His divine work of salvation shouldn’t be a burden or a heavy obligation. When we go to people feeling that unless they accept our way of knowing Jesus, they are lost and we are failure, it is hardly possible to be true witnesses.
It is a great joy when people recognise through our witness that Jesus is the divine Redeemer who opened for them the way to God. It is true cause for gratitude and celebration. But we should also be able to live joyful and grateful lives when our witness with deeds and words does not lead people to accept Jesus in the way we do. (Aug 6)
12.Being Unconditional Witnesses
Good news becomes bad news when it is announced without peace and joy. Anyone who proclaims the forgiving and healing love of Jesus with a bitter heart is a false witness. Jesus is the Saviour of the world. We are not. We are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words, to the great things God has done for us. But this witness must come from a heart that is willing to give without getting anything in return.
The more we trust in God’s unconditional love for us, the more able we will be able to proclaim the love of Jesus without any inner or outer conditions. (Aug 8)
13.Being Living Signs of Love
Jesus’ whole life was a witness to His Father’s love and Jesus calls His followers to carry on that witness in His Name. We, as followers of Jesus, are sent into this world to be visible signs of God’s unconditional love. Thus, we are judged not first of all by what we say but by what we live. When people say of us, “See how they love one another,” they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and are drawn to it as by a magnet.
In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds. (Aug 9)
14.Burning with Love
Often we are preoccupied with the question “How can we be witnesses in the Name of Jesus? What are we supposed to say or do to make people accept the love that God offers them?” These questions are expressions more of our fear than of our love, Jesus shows us the way of being witnesses. He was so full of God’s love, so connected with God’s will, so burning with zeal for God’s Kingdom, that He couldn’t do other than witness. Wherever He went and whoever He met, a power went out from Him that healed everyone who touched Him (see Luke 6:19)
If we want to be witnesses like Jesus, our only concern should be to be as alive with the love of God as Jesus was. (Aug 10)
15.Trusting in the Fruits
We belong to a generation that wants to see the results of our work. We want to be productive and see with our own eyes what we have made. But that is not the way of God’s Kingdom. Often our witness for God does not lead to tangible results. Jesus Himself died as a failure on a cross. There was no success there to be proud of. Still, the fruitfulness of Jesus’ life is beyond any human measure. As faithful witnesses of Jesus we have to trust that our lives too will be fruitful, even though we cannot see their fruit. The fruit of our lives may be visible only to those who live after us.
What is important is how well we love. God will make our love fruitful, whether we see that fruitfulness or not. (Aug 11)
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Books by Henri J.M. Nouwen---
Significant time periods in Henri Nouwen’s life
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