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Our Cup of Sorrow and Our Cup of Joy
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Can You Drink the Cup?” published in 1996.
1.The Cup of Sorrow (30-39)
When I first came to L’Arche Daybreak, I saw much sorrow.
I was asked to care for Adam, a twenty-two-year-old man who could not speak, could not walk alone, did not show signs of recognition. He had a curved back, suffered from daily epileptic seizures, and often had intestinal pains. When I first met Adam, I was afraid of him. His many handicaps made him a stranger to me, a man I wanted to avoid.
Soon after I met Adam I also came to know his brother Michael. Although Michael could speak a little and was able to walk by himself and even fulfil some minor tasks, he too was severely handicapped and needed constant attention to make it through the day. Adam and Michael are the only children of Jeanne and Rex.
Michael lived at home until he was twenty-five and Adam until he was eighteen. Jeanne and Rex would have loved to continue to keep the boys at home. However, time was eroding the physical resources required to look after their sons and so they entrusted them to the L’Arche Daybreak community, hoping to find a good home for them there.
I was quite overwhelmed with the sorrows of this little family. Four people burdened by worries and pain, by fear of unexpected complications, by the inability to communicate clearly, by a sense of great responsibility, and by an awareness that life will only become harder as age increases.
But Adam, Michael, and their parents are part of a much greater sorrow. There is Bill, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, who needs a pacemaker for his heart and a breathing machine for his lungs during the night, and who is in constant fear of falling. He has no parents to visit. His parents never were able to care for him, and both died at a rather young age.
There is Tracy, completely paralysed, but with a bright mind, always struggling to find ways to express her feelings and thoughts. There is Susanne, not only mentally disabled but also regularly battered by inner voices that she cannot control. There is Loretta, whose disability causes her to feel unwanted by family and friends and whose search for affection and affirmation throws her into moments of deep despair and depression. There are David, Francis, Patrick, Janice, Carol, Gordie, George, Fatsy. . .each of them with a cup full of sorrow.
Surrounding them are men and women of different ages, from different countries and religions, trying to assist these wounded people. But they soon discover that those they care for reveal to them their own less visible but no less real sorrows: sorrows about broken families, sexual doubts, and most of all, confusing relationships. The more they look at their own often wounded pasts and confront their uncertain futures, the more they see how much sorrow there is in their lives.
And for me things are not very different. After ten years of living with people with mental disabilities and their assistants, I have become deeply aware of my own sorrow-filled heart. There was a time I said: “Next year I will finally have it together,” or “When I grow more mature these moments of inner darkness will go,” or “Age will diminish my emotional needs.” But now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sorrows, and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less. The adolescent struggle to find someone to love me is still there; unfulfilled needs for affirmation as a young adult remain alive in me. The deaths of my mother and many family members and friends during my later years cause me continual grief. Beyond all that, I experience deep sorrow that I have not become who I wanted to be, and that the God to whom I have prayed so much has not given me what I have most desired.
But what is our sorrow in a little community in Canada, compared with the sorrow of the city, the country, and the world? What about the sorrow of the homeless people asking for money on the streets of Toronto, what about the young men and women dying of AIDS, what about the thousands who live in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes? What about the broken families, the unemployed, and the countless disabled men and women who have no safe place such as Daybreak?
And when I look beyond the boundaries of my own city and country, the picture of sorrow becomes even more frightening. I see orphaned children roaming the streets of San Paulo like packs of wolves. I see young boys and girls being sold as prostitutes in Bangkok. I see the emaciated prisoners of war in the camps of former Yugoslavia. I see the naked bodies of people in Ethiopia and Somalia wandering aimlessly in the eroded desert. I see millions of lonely, starving faces all over the world, and large piles of the dead bodies of people killed in cruel wars and ethnic conflicts. Whose cup is this? It is our cup, the cup of human suffering. For each of us our sorrows are deeply personal. For all of us our sorrows, too, are universal.
Now I look at the Man of sorrows. He hangs on a cross with outstretched arms. It is Jesus, condemned by Pontius Pilate, crucified by Roman soldiers, and ridiculed by Jews and Gentiles alike. But it is also us, the whole human race, people of all times and all places, uprooted from the earth as a spectacle of agony for the entire universe to watch. “When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus said, “I shall draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) Jesus, the man of sorrows, and we, the people of sorrow, hang there between heaven and earth, crying out, “God, our God, why have you forsaken us?”
“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asked His friends. They answered yes, but had no idea what He was talking about. Jesus’ cup is the cup of sorrow, not just His own sorrow but the sorrow of the whole human race. It is a cup full of physical, mental, and spiritual anguish. It is the cup of starvation, torture, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and immense anguish. It is the cup of bitterness. Who wants to drink it? It is the cup that Isaiah calls “the cup of God’s wrath. The chalice, the stupefying cup, you have drained to the dregs” (Isaiah 51:17), and what the second angel in the Book of Revelation calls “the wine of retribution” (Revelation 14:8), which Babylon gave the whole world to drink.
When the moment to drink that cup came for Jesus, He said: “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.” (Matthew 26:38) His agony is so intense that “His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.”(Luke 22:44) His close friends James and John, whom He had asked if they could drink the cup that He was going to drink, were there with Him but fast asleep, unable to stay awake with Him in His sorrow. In His immense loneliness, He fell on His face: and cried out: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass Me by” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus couldn’t face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suffering to embrace, too much agony to live through. He didn’t feel He could drink that cup filled to the brim with sorrows.
Why then could He still say yes? I can’t fully answer that question, except to say that beyond all the abandonment experienced in body and mind Jesus still had a spiritual bond with the One He called Abba. He possessed a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond all fears. This intimacy beyond all human intimacies made it possible for Jesus to allow the request to let the cup pass Him by become a prayer directed to the One who had called Him “My Beloved.” Notwithstanding His anguish, that bond of love had not been broken. It couldn’t be felt in the body, nor thought through in the mind. But it was there, beyond all feelings and thoughts, and it maintained the communion underneath all disruptions. It was that spiritual sinew, that intimate communion with His Father, that made Him hold on to the cup and pray: “My Father, let it be as You, not I, would have it.”(Matthew 26:39)
Jesus did not throw the cup away in despair. No, He kept it in His hands, willing to drink it to the dregs. This was not a show of willpower, staunch determination, or great heroism. This was a deep spiritual yes to Abba, the lover of His wounded heart.
When I contemplate my own sorrow-filled heart, when I think of my little community of people with mental handicaps and their assistants, when I see the poor of Toronto, and the immense anguish of men, women, and children far and wide on our planet, then I wonder where the great yes has to come from. In my own heart and the hearts of my fellow people, I hear the loud cry “O God, if it is possible, let this cup of sorrow pass us by.” I hear it in the voice of the young man with AIDS begging for food on Yonge Street, in the little cries of starving children, in the screams of tortured prisoners, in the angry shouts of those who protest against the nuclear proliferation and the destruction of the planet’s ecological balance, and in the endless pleas for justice and peace all over the world. It is a prayer rising up to God not as incense but as a wild flame.
From where then will come that great yes! “Let it be as You, not I will have it.” Who can say yes when the voice of love hasn’t been heard! Who can say yes when there is no Abba to speak to? Who can say yes when there is no moment of consolation?
In the midst of Jesus’ anguished prayer asking His father to take His cup of sorrow away, there was one moment of consolation. Only the Evangelist Luke mentions it. He says: “Then an angel appeared to Him, coming from heaven to give Him strength.” (Luke 22:43)
In the midst of the sorrows is consolation, in the midst of the darkness is light, in the midst of despair is hope, in the midst of Babylon is a glimpse of Jerusalem, and in the midst of the army of demons is the consoling angel. The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it.
2.The Cup of Joy (40-52)
After my nine years at the Daybreak community, Adam, Michael, Bill, Tracy, Susanne, Loretta, David, Francis, Patrick, Janice, Carol, Gordie, George, and many others who lived at the heart of our community have become my friends. More than friends, they are an intimate part of my daily life. Although they still are as handicapped as when I first met them, I seldom think of them as people with handicaps. I think of them as brothers and sisters with whom I share my life. I laugh with them, cry with them, eat dinners with them, go to the movies with them, pray and celebrate with them---in short, live my life with them. They truly fill me with immense joy.
After caring for Adam for a few months, I was no longer afraid of him. Waking him up in the morning, giving him a bath and brushing his teeth, shaving his beard and feeding him breakfast had created such a bond between us---a bond beyond words and visible signs of recognition---that I started to miss him when we couldn’t be together. My time with him had become a time of prayer, silence, and quiet intimacy. Adam had become a true peacemaker for me, a man who loved and trusted me even when I made the water for his bath too hot or too cold, cut him with the razor, or gave him the wrong type of clothes to wear.
His epileptic seizures no longer scared me either. They simply caused me to slow down, forget about other obligations, and stay with him, covering him with heavy blankets to keep him warm. His difficult and very slow walk no longer irritated me but gave me an opportunity to stand behind him, put my arms around his waist, and speak encouraging words as he took one careful step after the other. His spilling a glass full of orange juice or dropping his spoon with food on the floor no longer made me panic but simply made me clean up. Knowing Adam became a privilege for me. Who can be as close to another human being as I could be to Adam? Who can spend a few hours each day with a man who gives you all his confidence and trust? Isn’t that what joy is?
And Michael, Adam’s brother: what a gift his friendship became! He became the only one in the community who calls me “Father Henri.” Every time he says that, there is a smile on his face, suggesting that he really should be a Father too! With his halting strutting voice, he keeps saying, pointing to the large stole around my neck, “I. . .want. . .that. . .too. . .Father.” When Michael is sad because his brother is sick, or because he has many seizures himself, or because someone he loves is leaving, he comes to me, put his arms around me, and lets his tears flow freely. Then after a while he grabs me by the shoulder, looks at me, and with a big smile breaking through his tears he says: “You are. . .a. . .funny. . .Father!” When we pray together, he often points to his heart and says: “I feel. . .it. . .here. . .here in my heart.” But as we hold hands, there is that immense joy that emerged from our shared sorrow.
Bill, the man with so many setbacks in his life, has become my special companion. He often comes with me on speaking trips. We have gone to Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and many other places over the years, and wherever we go, Bill’s cheerful presence is as important as my many words. Bill loves to tell jokes. In his simple, direct unselfconscious way, he entertains people for hours, whether they are wealthy or poor, dignitaries or simple folks, bishops or table servers, members of parliament or elevator operators. For Bill, everyone is important and everyone deserves to hear his jokes. But at moments Bill’s sorrows can become too much for him. Sometimes when he talks about Adam, who cannot talk, or Tracy, who cannot walk, he bursts into tears. Then he puts his arms on my shoulders and cries openly, without embarrassment. And after a while his smile returns and he continues his story.
Then there is Tracy’s radiant smile when a friend comes to see her, Loretta’s gentle care for those who are much more handicapped than her, and many little ways in which David, Janice, Carol, Gordie, George, and the others pay attention to each other and to their assistants. They are all true signs of joy.
It is not surprising that many young men and women from all over the world want to come to Daybreak to be close to these special people. Yes, they come to care for them and help them in their needs. But they stay because those they came to care for have brought them a joy and peace they have not been able to find anywhere else. Sure, the handicapped members of Daybreak put them in touch with their own handicaps, their own inner wounds and sorrows, but the joy that comes from living together in a fellowship of the weak makes the sorrow not just tolerable but a source of gratitude.
My own life in this community has been immensely joyful, even though I had never suffered so much, cried so much, and anguished so much as at Daybreak. Nowhere am I as well known as in this little community. It is totally impossible to hide my impatience, my anger, my frustration, and my depression from people who are so in touch with their own weakness. My needs for friendship, affection, and affirmation are right there for everyone to see. I have never experienced so deeply that the true nature of priesthood is a compassionate-being-with. Jesus’ priesthood is described in the letter to the Hebrews as one of solidarity with human suffering. Calling myself a priest today radically challenge me to let go of every distance, every little pedestal, every ivory tower, and just to connect my own vulnerability with the vulnerability of those I live with. And what a joy that is! The joy of belonging, of being part of, of not being different.
Somehow my life at Daybreak has given me eyes to discover joy where many others see only sorrow. Talking with a homeless man on a Toronto street doesn’t feel so frightening anymore. Soon money is not the main issue. It becomes: “Where are you from? Who are your friends? What is happening in your life?” Eyes meet, hands touch, and there is—-yes, often completely unexpected---a smile, a burst of laughter, and a true moment of joy. The sorrow is still there, but something has changed by my no longer standing in front of others but sitting with them and sharing a moment of togetherness.
And the immense suffering of the world! How can there be joy among the dying, the hungry, the prostitutes, the refugees and the prisoners? How does anyone dare to speak about joy in the face of the unspeakable human sorrows surrounding us!
And yet, it is there! For anyone who has the courage to enter our human sorrows deeply, there is a revelation of joy, hidden like a precious stone in the wall of a dark cave. I got a glimpse of that while living with a very poor family in Pamplona Alta, one of the “young towns” at the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The poverty there was greater than any I had seen before, but when I think back on my three months with Pablo, Maria, and their children, my memories are filled with laughter, smiles, hugs, simple games, and long evening just sitting around telling stories. Joy, real joy was there, not a joy based on success, progress, or the solution of their poverty, but bursting forth from the resilient human spirit, fully alive in the midst of all odds. And when Heather, the daughter of New York friends, recently returned from ten months’ relief work in Rwanda, she had seen more than despair. She had also seen hope, courage, love, trust, and true care. Her heart was deeply troubled, but not crushed. She has been able to continue her life in the United States with a greater commitment to work for peace and justice. The joys of living were stronger than the sorrows of death.
The cup of life is the cup of joy as much as it is the cup of sorrow. It is the cup in which sorrows and joys, sadness and gladness, mourning and dancing are never separated. If joys could not be where sorrows are, the cup of life would never be drinkable. That is why we have to hold the cup in our hands and look carefully to see the joys hidden in our sorrows.
Can we look up to Jesus as to the man of joys? It seems impossible to see joy in the tortured, naked body hanging with outstretched arms on a wooden cross. Still, the cross of Jesus is often presented as a glorious throne on which the King is seated. There the body of Jesus is portrayed not as racked by flagellation and crucifixion but as a beautiful, luminous body with sacred wounds.
The cross of San Damiano that spoke to St. Francis of Assisi is a good example. It shows the crucified Jesus as a victorious Jesus. The cross is surrounded by splendid gold; the body of Jesus is a perfect, immaculate human body; the horizontal beam on which He hangs is painted as the open grave from which Jesus rose; and all those gathered under the cross with Mary and John are full of joy. At the top we can see God’s hand, surrounded by angels, drawing Jesus back into heaven.
This is a resurrection cross, in which we see Jesus lifted up in glory. Jesus’ words “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32) refer not only to His crucifixion but also to His being lifted up as the risen One. It speaks not only about agony but also about ecstasy, not only about sorrow but also about joy.
Jesus makes this very clear when He says: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-14) What Moses raised in the desert as a standard was a bronze serpent, healing everyone bitten by snakes who looked up at it.(Numbers 21:8-9) The cross of Jesus is likewise the standard of healing, not just healing from physical wounds, but healing from the human condition of mortality. The risen Lord draws all people with Him into His new and eternal life. Jesus who cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forgotten Me?” (Matthew 27:47) also says in total surrender: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Jesus, who participated fully in all our pain, wants us to participate fully in His joy. Jesus the man of joy wants us to be the people of joy.
“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” When Jesus brought this question to John and James, and when they impulsively answered with a big “We can,” He made this terrifying, yet hope-filled prediction: “Very well; you shall drink My cup.” The cup of Jesus would be their cup. What Jesus would live, they would live. Jesus didn’t want His friends to suffer, but He knew that for them, as for Him, suffering was the only and necessary way to glory. Later He would say to two of His disciples: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into His glory?” (Luke 24:26) The “cup of sorrows” and the “cup of Joys” cannot be separated. Jesus knew this, even though in the midst of His anguish in the garden, when His soul was “sorrowful to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38), He needed an angel from heaven to remind Him of that. Our cup is often so full of pain that joy seems completely unreachable. When we are crushed like grapes, we cannot think of the wine we will become. The sorrow overwhelms us, makes us throw ourselves on tile ground, face down, and sweat drops of blood. Then we need to be reminded that our cup of sorrow is also our cup of joy and that one day we will be able to taste the joy as fully as we now taste the sorrow.
Soon after the angel had given Him strength, Jesus stood up and faced Judas and the cohort who had come to arrest Him. When Peter drew his sword and struck the high priest’s servant, Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its scabbard; am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11)
Now Jesus is no longer overcome by anguish. He stands in front of His enemies with great dignity and inner freedom. He holds His cup filled with sorrow but with joy too. It is the joy of knowing that what He is about to undergo is the will of His Father and will lead Him to the fulfilment of His mission. Evangelist John shows us the enormous power that emanates from Jesus. He writes: “Knowing everything that was to happen to Him, Jesus came forward and said (to Judas and the cohort): ‘Who are you looking for?’ They answered, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He said, ‘I am He’. . .When Jesus said to them, ‘I am He’, they moved back and fell on the ground.” (John 18:4-6)
Jesus’ unconditional yes to His Father had empowered Him to drink His cup, not in passive resignation but with the full knowledge that the hour of His death would also be the hour of His glory. His yes made His surrender a creative act, an act that could bear much fruit. His yes took away the fatality of the interruption of His ministry. Instead of a final irrevocable end, His death became the beginning of a new life. Indeed, His yes enabled him to trust fully in the rich harvest the dying grain would yield.
Joys are hidden in sorrows! I know this from my own times of depression. I know it from living with people with mental handicaps. I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor. We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness. We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.
We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness. Indeed, we need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realise that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy will we able to drink it.
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