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Our suffering is the Way to Our Glory
All the passages below are taken from Robert Durback’s book “The Best of Henri Nouwen,” published in 2003 by Pauline Publications.
“It did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” --—Viktor Frankl1
Coming Together in the Spirit
I was seated on a flight from Seattle to Detroit, on my way home from a tour of Alaska, ten days after September 11. I had slipped into my carry-on a copy of Beldan Lane’s book, The Solace of fierce Landscapes. Still reeling from the unfolding reports of the fateful days past, my eyes fastened on these words in Lane’s book; “In the beginning you weep. The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute. One would think it should be otherwise, but the pain of closing is antecedent to every new opening in our lives.”2
With these words, born of his grief in watching his mother slowly wither away in a hospital bed, a victim of Alzheimer’s, Lane redefined for me the meaning of the losses in my life and brought me to a deeper understanding of Nouwen’s teaching on the life of the Beloved: “The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. And we, the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either.”3
If there is anything that powers the driving force of technology, it is the striving for radical change: to do things better, faster, at lower cost, to pave the way to a Utopia never before imagined. Nothing is more intolerable in moving toward this end than sand or grit in the wheels. Of no use whatever are broken wheels. Though Nouwen makes no reference to technology as such in the section to follow, his remarks on the constant of brokenness in the human condition, stand in stark contrast to the models set before us by technology. They require us to make a U-turn in our thinking.
Dear Lord, you say, “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” These words stayed with me today because I realized how often I complain about my yoke and hear others complain about theirs. So often I consider life and its many tasks and concerns burdensome, and then it does not take much to become pessimistic or depressed, to ask for attention to my “unique” problems, and to spend much time and energy in expressing annoyance and irritation.
You do not say, “I will take your burden away,” but, “I invite you to take on my burden!” Your burden is a real burden. It is the burden of all human sin and failings. You carried that burden and died under its weight. Thus you made it into a light burden.
0 Lord, turn my attention from the false burden to the real burden, and let me carry your burden in union with you. I know that only then will I be able to overcome the temptations of bitterness and resentfulness, and live joyfully and gratefully in your service. Let me better understand your words, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Amen.4
The first response. . .to our brokenness is to face it squarely and befriend it. This may seem quite unnatural. Our first, most spontaneous response to pain and suffering is to avoid it, to keep it at arm’s length; to ignore, circumvent or deny it. Suffering---be it physical, mental or emotional---is almost always experienced as an unwelcome intrusion into our lives, something that should not be there. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see anything positive in suffering; it must be avoided at all costs.
When this is, indeed, our spontaneous attitude toward our brokenness, it is no surprise that befriending it seems, at first, masochistic. Still, my own pain in life has taught me that the first step to healing is not a step away from the pain, but a step toward it. When brokenness is, in fact, just as intimate a part of our being as our chosenness and our blessedness, we have to dare to overcome our fear and become familiar with it. Yes, we have to find the courage to embrace our own brokenness, to make our most feared enemy into a friend and to claim it as an intimate companion. I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain.5
The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. It is not hard to say to one another: “All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God.” But it is very hard to say: “But didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?” Nonetheless, real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy.
The second response to our brokenness is to put it under the blessing. For me, this “putting of our brokenness under the blessing” is a precondition for befriending it. Our brokenness is often so frightening to face because we live it under the curse. Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience our pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying, “I always suspected that I was useless or worthless, and now I am sure of it because of what is happening to me.” There is always something in us searching for an explanation of what takes place in our lives and, if we have already yielded to the temptation to self-rejection, then every form of misfortune only deepens it. When we lose a family member or friend through death, when we become jobless, when we fail an examination, when we live through a separation or a divorce. . .the question “Why?” spontaneously emerges. “Why me?” “Why now?” “Why here?” It is so arduous to live without an answer to this “Why?” that we are easily seduced into connecting the events over which we have no control with our conscious or unconscious evaluation. . .Before we fully realize it, we have already said to ourselves: “You see, I always thought I was no good.. . . Now I know for sure. The facts of life prove it.”
The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of the darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us. Physical, mental or emotional pain lived under the blessing is experienced in ways radically different from physical, mental or emotional pain lived under the curse. Even a small burden, perceived as a sign of our worthlessness, can lead us to deep depression---even suicide. However, great and heavy burdens become light and easy when they are lived in the light of the blessing. What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion.
And so the great task becomes that of allowing the blessing to touch us in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the Beloved. This explains why true joy can be experienced in the midst of great suffering. It is the joy of being disciplined, purified and pruned. Just as athletes who experience great pain as they run the race can, at the same time, taste the joy of knowing that they are coming closer to their goal, so also can the Beloved experience suffering as a way to the deeper communion for which they yearn. Here joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved.6
We are chosen, blessed and broken so as to be given. The fourth aspect of the life of the Beloved is to be given. For me, personally, this means that it is only as people who are given that we can fully understand our being chosen, blessed and broken. In the giving it becomes clear that we are chosen, blessed and broken not simply for our own sakes, but so that all we live finds its final significance in its being lived for others.
. . .What a wonderful mystery this is! Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give. I remember how I once spent long hours looking in Dutch stores for a birthday gift for my father or mother, simply enjoying being able to give. Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving.7
It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness.8
When we eat together we are vulnerable to one another. Around the table we can’t wear weapons of any sort. Eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup call us to live in unity and peace. This becomes very visible when there is a conflict. Then, eating and drinking together can become a truly threatening event, then the meal can become the most dreaded moment of the day. We all know about painful silences during dinner. They contrast starkly with the intimacy of eating and drinking together, and the distance between those sitting around the table can be unbearable.9
On the other hand, a really peaceful and joyful meal together belongs to the greatest moments of life.
Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time”? I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth. Isn’t the baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t “tasting” the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.10
Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives.11
As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being. When I ask myself, “Who helps me most?” I must answer, “The one who is willing to share his or her life with me.”
It is worthwhile making a distinction between talents and gifts. More important than our talents are our gifts. We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust and many others. These are the gifts we have to offer to each other.
. . .Secondly, we are called to give ourselves, not only in life, but in death as well. As the Beloved Children of God, we are called to make our death the greatest gift. Since it is true that we are broken so as to be given, then our final brokenness, death, is to become the means to our final gift of self. How can that be true? It seems that death is the great enemy to be evaded for as long as possible. Dying is not something we like to think about or talk about. Still, one of the very few things we can be sure of is that we will die. I am constantly amazed by the lengths to which our society goes to prevent us from preparing ourselves well for death.
For the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, dying is the gateway to the complete experience of being the Beloved. For those who know they are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, dying is the way to becoming pure gift. . . . How is this possible?12
The fruitfulness of our little life, once we recognize it and live it as the life of the Beloved, is beyond anything we ourselves can imagine. One of the greatest acts of faith is to believe that the few years we live on this earth are like a little seed planted in a very rich soil. For this seed to bear fruit, it must die. We often see or feel only the dying, but the harvest will be abundant even when we ourselves are not the harvesters.
How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away!13
Imagine that, in the centre of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and your kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace! Imagine that your trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles---just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine, imagine.... Could you ever be depressed, angry, resentful or vengeful? Could you ever hate, destroy or kill? Could you ever despair of the meaning of your short earthly existence?14
The death of the Beloved bears fruit in many lives. You and I have to trust that our short little lives can bear fruit far beyond the boundaries of our chronologies. But we have to choose this and trust deeply that we have a spirit to send that will bring joy, peace and life to those who will remember us. Francis of Assisi died in 1226, but he is still very much alive! His death was a true gift, and today, nearly eight centuries later, he continues to fill his brothers and sisters, within and without the Franciscan Orders, with great energy and life. He died, but never died. His life goes on bearing new fruit around the world. His spirit keeps descending upon us. More than ever I am convinced that death can, indeed, be chosen as our final gift of life.15
• Read or review the story of Franciscan priest Father Maximilian Kolbe, whose life was literally broken and given in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, when he volunteered to take the place of a married man, who was singled out to be sent to the starvation bunker for certain death.16
• Reflect on the times you have suffered losses or been “broken”. In retrospect can you find in any of these instances that they were prelude to a new beginning?
• Reflect on the times you have been “given “: in friendship, in marriage, in the workplace, in commitment to special causes to which you are dedicated. See them now in the context of the Eucharist, as Nouwen suggests.
Blessed are You, 0 Radiant One,
You, who are hidden within our hearts,
even as we are hidden within your Heart!
. . .Open us that we might recognize the divine
in every person, and become sensitive to all we meet
along the path.
For You are the Breathing Life of all,
the infinite and eternal within our hearts.17 (89-100)
1. Frankl, p. 122
2. Beldan C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
3. Life of the Beloved, p. 70.
4. A Cry For Mercy: Prayers From the Genesee, p. 88.
5. Life of the Beloved, pp. 75-76.
6. Life of the Beloved, pp. 77-80.
7. Life of the Beloved, pp. 84-85.
8. Life of the Beloved, p. 87.
9. Life of the Beloved, pp. 88-89, emphasis added.
10. Life of the Beloved, p. 89.
11. Life of the Beloved, p. 88.
12. Life of the Beloved, pp. 90-93.
13. Life of the Beloved, pp. 98-99.
14. Life of the Beloved, pp. 98-99.
15. Life of the Beloved, pp. 96-97.
16. Antonio Ricciardi, OEM. Conv., trans, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Apostle of Our Difficult Age (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1982).
17. Nan C. Merrill, Psalms For Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness (New York: Continuum, 2000), Psalm 144, p. 299.
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