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Suffering is the Way to Glory and Not in the Way of Glory

     The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Peace,” edited by John Dear in 1998.


1. L’Arche and the World (161-162)

     Let me be very honest with you. I do not know much about L’Arche. So far I have only lived for eight months in a foyer. And what can I know about L’Arche after eight months among handicapped people who keep reminding me that they were there long, long before I appeared on the scene? When Raymond, one of the handicapped men I live with, announces at each dinner, “Those who cook don’t do the dishes,” I realize the futility of trying to break with this old venerable tradition. And what do I know about the world after fifty-five years among the windmills of Holland, the skyscrapers of New York and Boston, and the Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Pizza Barrels of Richmond Hill?

     The question is: How is our small, daily, routine life at L’Arche connected with our immense world, groaning in labor pains, eagerly waiting to be set free?

     I propose to look for a response to this question in the resurrection stories as we find them in the four Gospels. There we may get a glimpse of the inner connection between L’Arche and the world.

     It belongs to the core of my faith that the resurrection of Jesus is the event around which the history of the world turns. If the world is the context in which humanity engages in a constant battle against the powers of death, and if indeed the resurrection of Jesus is the decisive moment in which God disarms these powers, all good news culminates in those few pages which describe the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection. I, therefore, think that there is no better way to explore the question of how L’Arche relates to the big struggles of the world than by looking carefully at the stories about the resurrection of Jesus. By choosing such an explicit Christian perspective I do not want to exclude people from non-Christian religions. I hope that by speaking from the depth of my own particular religious experience I may touch places of the human heart which have a universal resonance.

     Let me first look at how Jesus appears as the stranger. Then we can see how He reveals Himself as the intimate friend. Finally we need to listen to Jesus as our teacher who teaches us a new way of living our pain.


2. The Stranger (162-165)

     What is most striking about the resurrection stories is that the resurrection of Jesus is described as a hidden event. When we speak about the hidden life of Jesus we have to go far beyond His years at Nazareth. The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that all of it has a hidden quality. First of all His conception and birth, then His many years lived in obedience to His parents, then His so-called public life in which He kept asking those He cured not to speak about their healing, then His death outside the walls of Jerusalem between two criminals, and finally also His resurrection. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is not a glorious victory over His enemy. It is not a proof of His powers. It is not an argument against those who condemned Him to death. Jesus did not appear to Annas, Caiphas, Herod or Pilate, not even to His doubtful followers Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea. There is no gesture of “being right after all.” There is no “I always told you so.” There isn’t even a smile of satisfaction.

     No, the most decisive event in the history of creation is a deeply hidden event. Jesus appears as a stranger. Mary of Magdala sees a stranger in the garden. Cleopas and his friend find themselves walking with a stranger to Emmaus. The disciples see a stranger coming and think it is a ghost, and Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, John, James, and two other disciples hear a stranger calling out to them from the shore of the lake. How much of a stranger Jesus remains is succinctly expressed in that mysterious moment around the charcoal fire when Jesus offers bread and fish to His friends. John the Evangelist writes: “None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, “Who are you?” They knew quite well it was the Lord.” (John 21:12) Nowhere better than in this sentence is expressed the hiddenness of Jesus’ resurrection. They knew who was giving them bread and fish, but didn’t dare to ask who He was. The difference between knowing and not knowing, presence and absence, revealing and hiding, have been transcended in the presence of the risen Lord.

     Here we touch the heart of L’Arche: revelation in hiddenness. I live at Daybreak with a profoundly handicapped twenty-five-year-old man called Adam. Adam does not speak; he cannot dress or undress himself; he cannot crawl, stand, or walk alone. He cannot eat without help, and suffers from seizures every say. But after living with him for eight months, carrying him to his bath, washing him, brushing his teeth, shaving his beard, combing his hair, and just sitting with him when he eats his breakfast, I am gradually discovering that he reveals his greatest gift to me in hiddenness.

     People who visit us always ask: “Can Adam recognize you? Does he see you? Does he feel pain? Does he know the difference between good food and bad food?” These are the questions I myself asked when I first met Adam. But these are the curious questions about how normal he is, how much he is like me, how much he can be understood, how familiar he is. But now I am coming to sense that he reveals himself to me as a stranger, in hiddenness, and that there, in that unknown, unfamiliar, empty place, he holds the mystery of life for me.

     It is hard to express myself well here. But what I want you to hear is that the hope that Adam offers is not bound to the places where he is like me, but held in a sacred hiddenness. The empty tomb is the first sign something completely new has happened in the world. The longer I am with Adam, the less my hope is built on the possibility that one day he may smile, walk, or recognize my voice. If that were to happen I would be filled with joy, but I already know that it is his hiddenness that gives me life. Where he is most poor, there God dwells; where he is most silent, there God speaks; where he is most empty, there I find the signs of the resurrection. Adam is gradually explaining to me the meaning of the most used expression in liberation theology: “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Adam tells me that God dwells with the poor, not there where I can still connect my talents with what is left of theirs, but there where they are so completely empty that there is nothing for me to cling to and I am completely dependent on my faith.

     “The Lord is risen, risen indeed.” That is not a statement made by someone who finally had to give in to an argument. It is a statement of faith. When John entered the empty tomb and was faced with the linen cloths lying there, “he saw and he believed.” (John 20:8) Seeing the poor like Adam and believing, that is the gift of L’Arche to the world.

     What has the story of Adam to do with the big suffering of the world? It gives us a glimpse of the mystery that all suffering has a hidden quality, a quality of strangeness. Our temptation is to look at suffering as big, spectacular, noisy, and very imposing, the suffering that impatiently screams out: “What are you doing about it?” But in the center of all the hunger, homelessness, violence, torture, war, and the nuclear threat, there is a hidden anguish, a silent agony, an invisible loneliness, that nobody wants to touch. Jesus touched it, lived it, and carried it into the grave where He lifted it up to new life.

     When we do not recognize this hidden quality of suffering, we might easily be seduced into taking on the posture of problem-solvers who, in a great eagerness to help, add violence to violence. There is an enormously seductive quality to the big sufferings of the world. They can even have a great fascination for us. Countless generous people, wanting to be of service in the world, have been overpowered by the forces they tried to conquer. The anger, resentment, rivalry, and even revenge among many peace-people are a painful reminder of this.

     The Adams among us, who live a silent anguish that we cannot reach with our need to help but only with our own inner poverty, keep revealing to us the suffering beyond all suffering. It is the voiceless suffering of a broken humanity that cannot be identified with any group, race, nationality, or culture. It is the suffering that is hidden not only in the heart of the poor and oppressed of Latin America, but also in the hearts of the wealthy businessman, the successful lawyer, and the famous movie star. It is the suffering that is hidden not only in the hearts of the malnourished children of the young towns at the outskirts of Lima, Peru, but also in the hearts of the lonely depressed students at Yale and Harvard. It is the suffering that is hidden not only in the hearts of those who live in the concentration camps in Siberia, the refugee camps along the Cambodian border, and the prisons spread out all over the world, but also in the hearts of those who live in large monasteries, splendid estates, and spacious city apartments. It is the suffering that is hidden not only in the hearts of those who are violently kidnapped, tortured, and executed, but also in the hearts of the young gay men desperately longing for affection, the divorced women searching for a new beginning, and the old people waiting long hours for a visit.

     Yes, it is that deeply hidden silent suffering that does not leave any human being untouched. Only by acknowledging this hidden suffering that binds our heart to the heart of all human beings can we become truly compassionate people who do not add violence to violence by good intentions, but who reverently bow before that sacred empty space where God chose to lay down His broken wounded body and from where He was raised up.

     L’Arche is given to the world to remind us of the hidden quality of all suffering and to call us to live our small lives in compassionate solidarity with all humanity, a humanity destined to be raised up as a new creation.

     I have an intuition that by reaching out to the suffering beyond all suffering we come in touch also with the source of joy, precisely because joy is not the opposite of suffering but hidden in the very center of suffering. Therefore, true joy is always found where we move to the very heart of the empty tomb of humanity.


3. The Intimate Friend (166-168)

     The stranger reveals Himself to us as the most intimate friend. When Mary of Magdala hears the stranger calling her by her name, she knows it is her Master. When Cleopas and his friend see how the stranger takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them, they know it is their dear teacher. When the disciples see the pierced hands and feet of the stranger, they know that their friend has returned, and when John the beloved disciple sees all the fish they have suddenly caught, he knows who that stranger at the shore is and says to Peter: “It is the Lord.”

     This knowing is much more than a simple recognition of a familiar person. It is a real rediscovering of a long intimate relationship that has grown during years of listening, speaking, eating, and sharing the joys and pains of everyday life. Those who recognized Jesus were the ones who had lived with Him and their recognition brought them in touch with that intimate, all-embracing love that had reshaped their lives in the most radical way. Knowing Him again meant loving Him again with a love that pervaded every fiber of their being. The stranger revealed Himself as an intimate friend because He already was an intimate friend. The resurrection stories make one thing very clear. Only those who saw Him in sweat and tears see Him in His new body. Only those who knew Him in the days of the long hard journey know Him as the Lord of peace. Only those who loved Him in His brokenness love Him in His glory.

     It is this deeply personal bond nurtured over the long years of faithful presence that forms eyes and ears that can see and hear the One who is risen from the grave.

     I am explaining this to you with so much emphasis because the world keeps forgetting that it is the intimate personal connection that allows us to live in the midst of countless burning issues without losing heart and being swept away in defeatism, fatalism, sarcasm, skepticism, and cynicism.

     During the past few months I have developed a friendship with one of the handicapped men in my house. His name is Bill. At first he seemed simply interested in the many little things I could do for him. And he used me well. Intuitively he knew about my guilt-driven desire to help and he let me help him as much as possible. He let me pay for his bear, wash his dishes, and clean his room, even though he himself could do all of those things pretty well. I certainly didn’t feel at home with him.

     But as the months went by and we came to experience many joys and pains together, something started to change. One morning he gave me a generous hug. One afternoon he proudly took me to his room and showed me his new shirt. One day he took me out for a bear and paid for it himself, and on my birthday he bought me a lovely gift. During dinner he wanted to sit close to me and during Mass his joking interruptions of my homily were replaced by heartfelt words of love and concern. Thus we were becoming friends.

     For me, coming home after a day of hard work became a completely different thing. It was returning to a safe place where I was held in love. And going out on a trip became a light burden, an easy yoke, because of the knowledge that Bill was waiting for me and wanted to see me back and hear my story. And gradually I realized that I was coming to see the world through the eyes of the one who loves me. I recognized in the midst of the darkness of my world that there were signs of light, signs that I could see only because of the love with which I was sent into the world, signs that I could take into my heart and carry home to deepen the love that had begun.

     What has this to say about L’Arche’s gift to the world? L’Arche is there to remind us that the intimate personal relationships developed over months and years of faithfulness allow us to be in the world without being destroyed by its countless urgencies and emergencies

     What I want to say is simply this: Issues don’t save us, people do. As long as our energy is completely invested in finding solutions to the burning issues of our time, whether they are social issues, church issues, racial issues, political issues, or sex issues, we are in constant danger of ending up in factions or parties fighting each other with a vengeance, in the name of justice and peace.

     My own journey to L’Arche is directly connected with this movement from an issue-oriented life to a person-oriented life. I have seen the church in Holland being destroyed by increasing division over issues of authority, sexuality, and feminism. The larger the issues become, the smaller the place where people can return to affirm their love for each other and pray together for God’s mercy. And at different theological schools in the United States I have witnessed a tragic loss of faith. Those who came with a desire to serve soon found themselves entangled in such a complex network of theological and sociological issues that an intimate uniting commitment with God seemed increasingly impossible to find. A desire to love turned into a need to express indignation, a desire to pray turned into an endless battle for the right words, a desire to know God turned into a desperate feeling that there were no longer any safe names with which to address God.

     None of the current issues that occupy the minds and hearts of men and women in church and society are without importance. They do need attention. But they can give birth to something new and life-giving only when they remain anchored in the personal bond that we as people of faith have for each other.

     I came to L’Arche to re-establish and deepen that most personal connection. Without the connection I may win many minds, but lose many more hearts. L’Arche is given to the world to call us always back to that place of friendship and love from whence we can go out and recognize that the Lord is risen, risen indeed.


4. The Teacher (168-172)

     We now come to the third way in which the risen Lord appeared to His followers. He manifested Himself to them not only as a stranger who became known to them as their most intimate friend, but also as their teacher who taught them the new meaning of suffering. In fact, the mysterious transition form stranger to friend was made possible because of the radical new teaching.

     Jesus teaches His disciples that suffering and death are no longer connected with sin and punishment, but with the glory of God. Before His crucifixion Jesus had already indicated this. Facing a man who had been blind from birth, His disciples had asked Him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” and Jesus had said: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) Now walking as a stranger with Cleopas and his companion, who considered Jesus’ death as incomprehensible failure, He reveals to them the fullness of the good news: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and thus enter into His glory?”

     It is hard to grasp the revolutionary character of this teaching. All through the Hebrew Bible a connection is made between suffering and sin. And we keep making that connection. The questions: “Why did this happen to me, why did my house burn down, why torture, violence, and war, why this immense human suffering?. . “ have another question connected with them: “What did I do wrong?” The enormity of human suffering is caused not only by physical and emotional pain, but also---and maybe more so---by the deep sense of guilt attached to it. The destructiveness of human suffering is rooted in the guilt and deep self-rejection that underlies it.

     Jesus radically and definitively disconnected suffering and death from sin and guilt. He did this in His own person. He who was without sin suffered most and so broke the fatal bond between suffering and sin. That is the great news. “Didn’t you know that the Christ had to suffer and thus enter into His glory?” With that announcement Jesus reinterprets for His friends all they knew. “Starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, He explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about Himself.” (Luke 24:27) Shortly after His appearance to Cleopas and his companion, He manifested Himself to the apostles. “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” Luke writes, “and said to them: ‘So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” (Luke 24:46)

     If we want to understand the darkness of our world, we have to realize that the world continues to see suffering and death as ways to destruction to be avoided at all cost, and refuses to see them as ways to glory to be embraced without fear. L’Arche gift to the world is the new Gospel teaching that the sting of guilt and sin has been taken out of suffering and death.

     Living a daily routine in a house with handicapped people bring us in direct confrontation with our own resistance to living our suffering as a way to glory. For me this is a daily reality. One of our handicapped men, Raymond, has, after many years in an institution, defined himself as the guilty one. He simply cannot believe that there is anything good in him and thus has become incapable of giving thanks. When I say, “Good morning Raymond,” he says, “I am not awake yet.” When I say, “I will miss you when you are gone for the weekend,” he says, “I won’t miss you for sure.” When I call him long distance to say hello, he says, “Don’t bug me, I am eating.” When I bring him a nice gift, he says, “My room is too full for new things.” It is not easy to live with such a voice close by, but it is the voice of our broken world saying: “You are to blame for your suffering. You got what you deserved and if you got a broken body or a broken mind, you are the one who is the guilty one.” The endless chain of Raymond expressing self-rejection, self-blame, shame, and guilt brings the challenge of the new teaching of the risen Lord right into the heart of our life together.

     Once, after a long litany of negativism, I shouted at Raymond in desperation, saying: “But Raymond, you are a good man.” And with a most emphatic voice he shouted back: “No, no, I am not!” And suddenly I realized that he was clinging to his deep sense of guilt as the only way to make sense out of his immense suffering. All the violence that rips our world apart became suddenly visible in the “No, no, I am not!” shouted by my own brother.

     Raymond is such an important member of our family. I see my own guilt, shame, and self-rejection in his anguished face. I hear my own self-complaints, self-accusations, and self-condemnation in his screams and I cannot run away. It is not the hiddenness of Adam or the intimate friendship of Bill that is the greatest challenge to my spiritual growth, but the merciless self-flagellation of Raymond who cannot yet believe that the sting has been taken out of death and who makes me realize that I still do not believe it either.

     A friend of mine once defined community as the place where the one you least want to live with always lives. How true! But the one you least want to live with always is the one who reminds you of that part of yourself that is most wounded and most in need of healing. He makes you aware that you have not reached your destination yet, but have to keep moving on in an unceasing process of confession and forgiveness.

     L’Arch is such a gift to the world because L’Arche wants to proclaim to the world that suffering is no longer in the way of glory, but the way to it. L’Arche wants to proclaim this not first of all by words, but by faithfulness to those for whom suffering and guilt are so hard to separate. And those are not only the handicapped men and women in our communities, but the assistants, priests, directors, and board members as well. Oh, how much do you and I and all our brothers and sisters in the human family need to hear the words: “Oh, foolish people, don’t you know that our suffering has been freed by God from the demonic power of guilt and has been made into the way to glory?” But we keep forgetting it. We keep flagellating ourselves. We keep giving in to self-rejection and depression. We have to be taught over and over again the true meaning of the scriptures so that our hearts can start to burn again and our eyes and ears can be opened to the greatest message of hope ever brought to us.

     Walking on the streets of New York City, Boston, Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, I don’t see many radiant, joy-filled faces. Most people look tired. Their eyes stare away into empty space or are cast down to the ground. They carry newspapers in their hands that speak about corruption, blackmail, crime, violence, war, and impending catastrophes. Their burdens are heavy, their yokes very hard. With their whole being they cry out: “Why do we live and why do we keep living?”

     L’Arche is a gift for this guilt-laden world by simply saying quietly: “All you who labor and are overburdened, go to the poor and there you will find Him and He will give you rest. . .His yoke is easy and His burden light.” (Matthew 11:23-30) It can be said in a smile, a flower, a dance, an embrace, or a gentle touch. It is far from easy to let go of our guilt and make our burden light. Since I have been at L’Arche, I have discovered how much I desire to control my own suffering and cling to my own dark powers which declare me guilty. Raymond and others like him confront me daily with that morbid desire.

     But L’Arche holds on to its people and keeps teaching the hard liberating truth that the risen Lord has revealed to us that suffering is now the way to glory.

     This brings me to the conclusion of this reflection about the daily life of L’Arche and the great struggles of the world.

     The resurrection stories in which Jesus appears as stranger, friend, and teacher have helped me to articulate three ways in which L’Arche is given to the world. L’Arche reveals the hidden quality of all human suffering. L’Arche reminds our world that great issues can only divide us unless we are deeply rooted in personal friendships. L’Arche finally proclaims the truth that the sting of guilt and sin has been taken out of suffering and death. Adam, Bill, and Raymond are there to witness to these three ways in which L’Arche is given to the world.

     As people of L’Arche, people of the resurrection, we must connect our small daily lives to the great struggles of our contemporary world. Without that connection, L’Arche loses its vocation. Concretely, that means hard choices. It means a choice for hiddenness, a choice for friendship, and a choice for hard learning. If we keep making these choices, we will gradually discover that we are safely held in the heart of the risen Lord and that, in that divine heart, the heart of L’Arche and the heart of the world are one.

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