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Reclaiming Our Chosenness
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved” published in 1992:
To become the Beloved we, first of all, have to claim that we are taken. That might sound very strange at first, and, still, to be taken is essential in becoming the Beloved. As I have mentioned already, we can desire to become the Beloved only when we know that we already are the Beloved. Therefore, the first step in the spiritual life is to acknowledge with our whole being that we already have been taken.
It might help at this point if, instead of “take,” which is a somewhat cold and brittle word, we used a warmer, softer word with the same meaning: the word “choose.” As children of God, we are God’s chosen ones.
I hope that the word “chosen” speaks to you. It must be for you a word with very special con notations. As a Jew, you know the positive and the negative associations in being considered one of God’s chosen people. You often told me about the rich heritage of your family, the deep faith of your grandparents and the many traditions that connected your parents with the sacred history of your people. But you also told me about the cruel pogroms in the “old” country and the long and painful journey that brought your mother and father to America. Although you yourself have not suffered directly from persecution, you are quite aware of how much it is part of your story and how frighteningly close it is to the surface of your life. You showed me that anti-Semitism is always lurking around in one form or another, and recent events, both in Europe and in the United States, only confirm your conviction that “blaming the Jews” is not something of the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if a part of you protests against the idea of being chosen. I recognize this in my own life. Being an ordained priest, I was often treated as a special person, as “set aside,” as chosen to be different. Often I have tried to show or to prove that I was “just me” (one way to explain the “J. M.” in my name!) and that I had no desire to be put on a pedestal and treated as a special person. I sensed, as you obviously do, that when you are treated as the chosen one, you are as liable to be persecuted as admired.
Still, I do believe deeply that, in order to live a spiritual life, we have to claim for ourselves that we are “taken” or “chosen.” Let me try to expand a bit on these words. When I know that I am chosen, I know that I have been seen as a special person. Someone has noticed me in my uniqueness and has expressed a desire to know me, to come closer to me, to love me. When I write to you that, as the Beloved, we are God’s chosen ones, I mean that we have been seen by God from all eternity and seen as unique, special, precious beings. It is very hard for me to express well the depth of meaning the word “chosen” has for me, but I hope you are willing to listen to me from within. From all eternity, long before you were born and became a part of history, you existed in God’s heart. Long before your parents ad mired you or your friends acknowledged your gifts or your teachers, colleagues and employers encouraged you, you were already “chosen.” The eyes of love had seen you as precious, as of infinite beauty as of eternal value. When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one, and it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded.
We touch here a great spiritual mystery: to be chosen does not mean that others are rejected. It is very hard to conceive of this in a competitive world such as ours. All my memories of being chosen are linked to memories of others not being chosen. When I was not chosen for a soccer team, not chosen to be the leader of the Boy Scout patrol, or when I was chosen to be the “senior” of my ordination class, or to be honored with special awards, there were always tears alongside smiles and smiles alongside tears. Competition and comparison were always there. How often I needed the words: “The fact that you are not chosen does not mean that you are not good, only that someone else is a little better.” But even these words were seldom consoling because the feeling of rejection was always there. And when I was chosen and selected as the best, I was always aware of how disappointed others were at not being in my place. It was then that I needed to hear the words: “The fact that you are chosen does not mean that others are not good, only that you are a little better.” But, again, these words did not help very much because I was unable to make the others feel as happy as I. In this world, to be chosen simply means to be set apart in contrast to others. You know how in our extremely competitive society the “chosen ones” are looked at with special attention. Whole magazines are dedicated to “heroes” of sport, film, music, acting and other ways of excelling. They are the “chosen ones” and their devotees, whether readers, listeners or viewers, try to extract some vicarious pleasure from knowing them or being close to them.
To be chosen as the Beloved of God is some thing radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about “chosen people,” “chosen talents” or “chosen friends,” we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence and war.
But I beg you, do not surrender the word “chosen” to the world. Dare to claim it as your own, even when it is constantly misunderstood. You must hold on to the truth that you are the chosen one. That truth is the bedrock on which you can build a life as the Beloved. When you lose touch with your chosenness, you expose yourself to the temptation of self-rejection, and that temptation undermines the possibility of ever growing as the Beloved.
As I look within as well as around myself, I am overwhelmed by the dark voices telling me, “You are nothing special; you are just another person among millions; your life is just one more mouth to feed, your needs just one more problem to solve.” These voices are increasingly powerful, especially in a time marked by so many broken relationships. Many children never feel really welcomed in the world. Beneath their nervous smiles, there is often the question: “Am I really wanted?” Some young people even hear their mothers say: “I hadn’t really expected you, but once I found out I was pregnant I decided to have you anyway. . . You were sort of an accident.” Words or attitudes such as these do nothing to make a person feel “chosen.” Our world is full of people who question whether it would have been better had they not been born. When we do not feel loved by those who gave us life, we often suffer our whole life long from a low self-esteem that can lead easily to depression, despair and even suicide.
In the midst of this extremely painful reality, we have to dare to reclaim the truth that we are God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectivity and control. Often this reclaiming is an arduous task, a lifelong work because the world persists in its efforts to pull us into the darkness of self-doubt, low self-esteem, self- rejection and depression. And this because it is as insecure, fearful, self-deprecating people that we can most easily be used and manipulated by the powers surrounding us. The great spiritual battle begins--—and never ends--—with the reclaiming of our chosenness. Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before any-one heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time---our brief chronological existence---but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.
How do we get in touch with our chosenness when we are surrounded by rejections? I have already said that this involves a real spiritual struggle. Are there any guidelines in this struggle? Let me try to formulate a few.
First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: “These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I can not feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”
Secondly, you have to keep looking for people and places where your truth is spoken and where you are reminded of your deepest identity as the chosen one. Yes, we must dare to opt consciously for our chosenness and not allow our emotions, feelings or passions to seduce us into self-rejection. The synagogues, the churches, the many communities of faith, the different support groups helping us with our addictions, family, friends, teachers and students: all of these can become reminders of our truth. The limited, sometimes broken, love of those who share our humanity can often point us to the truth of who we are: precious in God’s eyes. This truth is not simply an inner truth that emerges from our center. It is also a truth that is revealed to us by the One who has chosen us. That is why we have to keep listening to the many men and women in history who, through their lives and their words, call us back to it.
Thirdly, you have to celebrate your chosenness constantly. This means saying “thank you” to God for having chosen you, and “thank you” to all who remind you of your chosenness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an “accident,” but a divine choice. It is important to realize how often we have had chances to be grateful and have not used them. When some one is kind to us, when an event turns out well, when a problem is solved, a relationship restored, a wound healed, there are very concrete reasons to offer thanks: be it with words, with flowers, with a letter, a card, a phone call or just a gesture of affection. However, precisely the same situations also offer us occasions to be critical, skeptical, even cynical because, when someone is kind to us, we can question his or her motives; when an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place; when a relationship is restored, there is always the question: “For how long?”; when a wound is healed, there still can be some leftover pain.. . . Where there is reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness. It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision. We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter. We can decide to recognize our chosenness in the moment or we can decide to focus on the shadow side. When we persist in looking at the shadow side, we will eventually end up in the dark. I see this every day in our community. The core members, the men and women with mental disabilities, have many reasons to be bitter. Many of them experience deep loneliness, rejection from family members or friends, the unfulfilled desire to have a partner in life, and the constant frustration of always needing assistance. Still, they choose mostly not to be bitter, but grateful for the many small gifts of their lives--—for an invitation to dinner, for a few days of retreat or a birthday celebration and, most of all, for their daily life in community with people who offer friendship and support. They choose gratitude over bitterness and they become a great source of hope and inspiration for all their assistants who, although not mentally disabled, also have to make that same choice. When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for. Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.
I hope that these three guidelines for getting in touch with your chosenness can help you in your daily life. For me, they are the spiritual disciplines for my life as the chosen one. It is not easy to practice them, especially during times of crisis. Before I know it, I find myself complaining again, brooding again about some rejection and plotting ways to take revenge, but, when I keep my disciplines close to my heart, I am able to step over my shadow into the light of my truth.
Before concluding these thoughts about “being chosen,” I want to impress upon you the importance of this truth for our relationships with others. When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone---a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart. This makes me think of Helen, one of the handicapped members of our community. When she came to Daybreak a few years ago, I felt quite distant from her, even a bit afraid. She lived in a little world of her own, only uttering distracting noises and never making any personal contact. But as we came to know her better and trusted that she, too, has a unique gift to offer, she gradually came out of her isolation, started to smile at us and became a great source of joy for the whole community.
I now realize that I had to be in touch with my own goodness to discover the unique goodness of Helen. As long as my self-doubts and fears guided me, I couldn’t create the space for Helen to reveal to me her beauty. But once I claimed my own chosenness, I could be with Helen as a person who had much, very much, to offer me. It is impossible to compete for God’s love. God’s love is a love that includes all people---each one in his or her uniqueness. It is only when we have claimed our own place in God’s love that we can experience this all embracing, non-comparing love and feel safe, not only with God, but also with all our brothers and sisters.
You and I know how true-to-life this all is. We have been friends now for many years. In the beginning there was some comparing, some jealousy, some competition. But as we grew older and be came more sure in our own uniqueness, most, if not all, of this rivalry vanished, and we were more able to affirm and call forth each other’s gifts. I feel so good being with you because I know that you enjoy me for who I am and not just for what I can do for you. And you feel good when I come to visit you because you know that I marvel in your kindness, your goodness and your many gifts---not because they prove helpful for me, but simply because of you. Deep friendship is a calling forth of each other’s chosenness and a mutual affirmation of being precious in God’s eyes. Your life and my life are, each of them, one-of-a-kind. No one has lived your life or my life before, and no one will ever live them again. Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence---priceless and irreplaceable.Being chosen is the basis for being the Beloved. It is a lifelong struggle to claim that chosenness, but also a lifelong joy. The more fully we claim it, the more easily will we also discover another aspect of being the Beloved: our blessedness. Let me speak to you about that now.
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