Suffering and Pain by Henri Nouwen

     Suffering and Pain by Henri Nouwen

The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997. 

1.Taking Up Our Crosses (June 29)

     Jesus say, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him. . . take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) He does not say “Make a cross” or “Look for a cross.” Each of us has a cross to carry. There is no need to make one or look for one. The cross we have is hard enough for us! But are we willing to take it up, to accept it as our cross?

     Maybe we can’t study, maybe we are handicapped, maybe we suffer from depression, maybe we experience conflict in our families, maybe we are victims of violence or abuse. We didn’t choose any of it, but these things are our crosses. We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them, or hate them. But we can also take up these crosses and follow Jesus with them

2. Stepping over our Wounds (Jan 9)

Sometimes we have to “step over” our anger, our jealousy, or our feelings of rejection and move on. The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there. Then we become the “offended one,” “the forgotten one,” or the “discarded one.” Yes, we can get attached to these negative identities and even take morbid pleasure in them. It might be good to have a look at these dark feelings and explore where they come from, but there comes a moment to step over them, leave them behind and travel on. 

3. Wounded Healers (July 8)

      Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.

      Jesus is God’s wounded healer. Through His wounds we are healed, as “by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; His rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.

4.Recognising Christ in Suffering Communities (19 July)

      Communities as well as individuals suffer. All over the world there are large groups of people who are persecuted, mistreated, abused, and made victims of horrendous crimes. There are suffering families, suffering circles of friends, suffering religious communities, suffering ethnic groups, and suffering nations. In these suffering bodies of people we must be able to recognise the suffering Christ. They too are chosen, blessed, broken, and given to the world.

      As we call one another to respond to the cries of these people and work together for justice and peace, we are caring for Christ, who suffered and died for the salvation of our world. 

  5. Spiritual Choices (Jan 6)

        Choices. Choices make the difference. Two people are in the same accident and severely wounded. They did not choose to be in the accident. It happened to them. But one of them chose to live the experience in bitterness, the other in gratitude. These choices radically influenced their lives, and the lives of their families and friends. We have very little control over what happens in our lives, but we have a lot of control over how we integrate and remember what happens. It is precisely these spiritual choices that determine whether we live our lives with dignity

6. Absence that creates Presence (March 13)

      It is good to visit people who are sick, dying, shut in, handicapped or lonely. But it is also important not to be guilty when our visits have to be short or can only happen occasionally. Often we are so apologetic about our limitations that our apologies prevent us from really being with the other when we are there. A short time fully present to a sick person is much better than a long time with many explanations of why we are too busy to come more often.

      If we are able to be fully present to our friends when we are with them, our absence too will bear many fruits. Our friends will say, “He visited me” or She visited me,” and discover in our absence the lasting grace of our presence.

7. An Honest Being-With (15 March)

      Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like “Well, you’re doing a lot better than yesterday,” or “You will soon be your old self again,” or “I’m sure you will get over this.” But often we know that what we’re saying is not true, and our friends know it too.

      We do not have to play games with one another. We can simply say, “I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.” We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say, “You don’t have to talk. Just close your eyes. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.” 

     The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Inner Voice of Love,” published in 1996. The book was his secret journal, written between December 1987 and June 1988, during the most difficult period of his life. Everything came crashing down—his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, his hope for healing, his trust in God . . . everything. He was helped by two guides, who did not leave him alone and kept gently moving him from one day to the next, holding on to him as parents held a wounded child. Nearly every day, usually immediately after meeting with his guides, he wrote a “spiritual imperative”—a command to himself that had emerged from their session. The imperatives were directed to his own heart. They were not meant for anyone but himself. But 8 years later he was persuaded to release them for publication.

1.Take Up Your Cross (pg 88)

     Your pain is deep, and it won’t just go away. It is also uniquely yours, because it is linked to some of your earliest life experiences.

     Your call is to bring that pain home. As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others. Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into your self and let it bear fruit in your heart and the hearts of others.

     This is what Jesus means when He asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognise and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.

     There is great pain and suffering in the world. But the pain hardest to bear is your own. Once you have taken up that cross, you will be able to see clearly the crosses that others have to bear, and will be able to reveal to them their own ways to joy, peace, and freedom. 

2.Stand Erect in Your Sorrow (pg 61)

     The question is “Can you stand erect in your pain, your loneliness, your fears, and your experience of being rejected?” The danger is that you will be swept off your feet by these feelings. They will be here for a long time, and they will go on tempting you to be drowned in them. But you are called to acknowledge them and feel them while remaining on your feet.

     Remember, Mary stood under the cross. She suffered her sorrow standing. Remember, Jesus spoke about the cosmic disasters and the glorious appearance of the Son of Man and said to His disciples, “When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.”(Luke 2:28) Remember, Peter and John cured the crippled man who was begging at the temple entrance. Peter said to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!” (Acts 3:6) Then he took him by the right hand and helped him to stand up.

     You have to dare to stand erect in your struggles. The temptation is to complain, to beg, to be overwhelmed and find your satisfaction in the pity you evoke. But you know already that this is not gaining for you what your heart most desires. As long as you remain standing, you can speak freely to others, reach out to them, and receive from them. Thus you speak and act from your center and invite others to speak and act from theirs. In this way, real friendships are possible and real community can be formed. God gives you the strength to stand in your struggle and to respond to them standing.

3.Stay with your Pain (pg 47)

     When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, even if only for a moment. When, underneath all the praise and acclaim, you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, your heart wants only one thing—to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away.

     It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. The temptation is to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies about people who will take it away. But when you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for God’s healing.

     God does not want your loneliness; God wants to touch you in a way that permanently fulfils your need. It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your heart. The person who was able to touch that place has revealed to you your pearl of great price.

     It is understandable that everything you did, are doing, or plan to do seems completely meaningless compared with that pearl. That pearl is the experience of being fully loved. When you experience deep loneliness, you are willing to give up everything in exchange for healing. But no human being can heal that pain. Still, people will be sent to you to mediate God’s healing, and they will be able to offer you the deep sense of belonging that you desire and that gives meaning to all you do.

     Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you.

4.Go into the Place of your Pain (pg 26)

     You have to live through your pain gradually and thus deprive it of its power over you. Yes, you must go into the place of your pain, but only when you have gained some new ground. When you enter your pain simply to experience it in its rawness, it can pull away from where you want to go.

     What is your pain? It is the experience of not receiving what you most need. It is a place of emptiness where you feel sharply the absence of the love you most desire. To go back to that place is hard, because you are confronted there with your wounds as well as with your powerlessness to heal yourself. You are so afraid of that place that you think of it as a place of death. Your instinct for survival makes you run away and go looking for something else that can give you a sense of at-homeness, even though you know full well that it can’t be found out in the world. 

     You have to begin to trust that your experience of emptiness is not the final experience, that beyond it is a place where you are being held in love. As long as you do not trust that place beyond your emptiness, you cannot safely re-enter the place of pain. 

     So you have to go into the place of your pain with the knowledge in your heart that you have already found the new place. You have already tasted some of its fruits. The more roots you have in the new place, the more capable you are of mourning the loss of the old place and letting go of the pain that lies there. You cannot mourn something that has not died. Still, the old pains, attachments, and desires that once meant so much to you need to be buried.

     You have to weep over your lost pains so that they can gradually leave you and you can become free to live fully in the new place without melancholy or homesickness. 

5.Live Your Wounds Through (pg 109-110)

     You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you uncover you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. Many tears still need to be shed.

     But do not be afraid. The simple fact that you are more aware of your wounds shows that you have sufficient strength to face them.

     The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.

     Understanding your wounds can only be healing when that understanding is put at the service of your heart. Going to your heart with your wounds is not easy; it demands letting go of many questions. You want to know “Why was I wounded? When? How? By whom?” You believe that the answers to these questions will bring relief. But at best they only offer you a little distance from your pain. You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain and trust in the healing power of your heart. There your hurts can find a safe place to be received, and once they have been received, they lose their power to inflict damage and become fruitful soil for new life.

     Think of each wound as you would of a child who has been hurt by a friend. As long as that child is ranting and raving, trying to get back at the friend, one wound leads to another. But when the child can experience the consoling embrace of a parent, she or he can live through the pain, return to the friend, forgive, and build up a new relationship. Be gentle with yourself, let your heart be your loving parent as you live your wounds through.  

6.Own your Pain (pg 72)

     You wonder whether it is good to share your struggles with others, especially with those to whom you are called to minister. You find it hard not to mention your own pains and sorrows to those you are trying to help. You feel that what belongs to the core of your humanity should not be hidden. You want to be a fellow traveller, not a distant guide.

     The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing of yourself. When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give. As a result, you will feel frustrated, and those you wanted to help will feel confused, disappointed, or even further burdened.

     But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about it in true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.

     For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go to with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart. You will always need people who do not need you but who can receive you and give you back to yourself. You will always need people who can help you own your pain and claim your struggle.

     Thus the core question in your ministry is “Is my sharing of my struggle in the service of the one who seeks my help?” This question can only be answered yes when you truly own your pain and expect nothing from those who seek your ministry.

7.Work Around Your Abyss (pg 3)

     There is a big hole in your being, like an abyss. You will never succeed in filling that hole, because your needs are inexhaustible. You have to work round it so that gradually the abyss closes.

     Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it. There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay away from the wound you want to heal.

8.Separate the False Pain from the Real Pain (pg 97)

     There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

     You must distinguish carefully, however, between your pain and the pains that have attached themselves to it but are not truly yours. When you feel rejected, when you think of yourself as a failure and a misfit, you must be careful not to let these feelings and thoughts pierce your heart. You are not a failure or a misfit. Therefore, you have to disown these pains as false. They can paralyzs you and prevent you from loving the way you are called to love.

     It is a struggle to keep distinguishing the real pain from the false pains. But as you are faithful to that struggle, you will see more and more clearly your unique call to love. As you see that call, you will be more and more able to claim your real pain as your unique way to glory. 

9.Permit your Pain to Become The Pain (pg 103) 

     Your pain deep as it is, is connected with specific circumstances. You do not suffer in the abstract. You suffer because someone hurts you at a specific time and in a specific place. Your feelings of rejection, abandonment, and uselessness are rooted in the most concrete events. In this way all suffering is unique. This is eminently true of the suffering of Jesus. His disciples left Him, Pilate condemned Him, Roman soldiers tortured and crucified Him.

     Still, as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist. This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering. Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.

     Paradoxically, therefore, healing means moving from your pain to the pain. When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive. You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge. But real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life. That is the way of Jesus, who prayed on the cross: “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus’ suffering, concrete as it was, was the suffering of all humanity. His pain was the pain.

     Every time you can shift your attention away from the external situation that caused your pain and focus on  the pain of humanity in which you participate, your suffering becomes easier to bear. It becomes a “light burden” and an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30). Once you discover that you are called to live in solidarity with the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners, the refugees, the sick, and the dying, your very personal pain begins to be converted into the pain and you find new strength to live it. Herein lies the hope of all Christians. 

     The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986: 

1.Make our Suffering in Christ (83)

      The handicapped people in the ark (L’Arche) are not simple, joyful, peaceful people totally oblivious to their fearful surroundings. They carry the fears and agonies of the world in the depths of their own hearts. Their experiences of rejection, segregation, and isolation have marked them for life. It is impossible to be with them for long without being deeply affected by the immensity of their inner suffering and being reminded of one’s own. The ark is a house that rocks and rolls on the waves of our times. Nobody remains without some fear.

     But Jesus is in the ark, asleep! He is close to us. Whenever the fear becomes overwhelming and we wake Him up anxiously, saying: ‘Save us, Lord, we are going down,’ He says, ‘Why are you so frightened, you people of little faith?’ Then He rebukes the wind and sea and makes all calm again (see Matthew 8:23-27). The ark is our home, and Jesus has made it His own. He travels with us and continues to reassure us every time we are driven to panic or tempted to destroy others or ourselves. And as He travels with us, He teaches us how to live in the house of love. It is far from easy to grasp His teaching because we keep looking at the high waves, the heavy winds, and the roaring storm. We keep saying: ‘Yes, yes, . . . .but look!’ Jesus is a very patient teacher. He never stops telling us where to make our true home, what to look for, and how to live. When we are distracted, we focus upon all the dangers and forget what we have heard. But Jesus says over and over again: ‘Make your home in Me, as I make Mine in you. Whoever remains in Me, with Me in them, bears fruit in plenty. . . .I have told you this so that My own joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:4,5,11). Thus, Jesus invites us to an intimate, fruitful, and ecstatic life in His home, which is ours too.

2. Move beyond our Suffering (66-68)

     Here at L’Arche among handicapped people I see much pain, loneliness, anger, frustration, deep anguish, and heart-rending powerlessness. It is all too visible to remain hidden behind the screen of politeness and good behaviour. The pain must be faced openly and directly. But it is precisely in this unadorned context that the power of celebration is revealed. At L’Arche it seems as if people are saying: ‘Yes, life is hard, very hard, day in, day out, with much pain, disappointment, and sadness; but there is never a day that should not be lifted up in gratitude to the giver of life. There is never as hour in which the light is not revealed in the darkness, never a death that cannot bear fruit.’

     Every night, when the people of a L’Arche household come together around a candle and an icon of Jesus or Mary, songs are sung, the scriptures are read, prayers are said. Often much sadness is gathered up in these moments: the sadness of Maurice who did not get the visit he had hoped for, the sadness of Marie whose mother is still ill, the sadness of Pierre who refuses to leave his room. Gladness too is expressed: for the good food, for the new assistant, for the new painting, for the friendly visitor, for the lovely gifts, for the fresh flowers. Thus, these night prayers of thanksgiving, petition, and praise reach far beyond the distinction between gladness and sadness to the unspeakable joy that the world can neither give nor take away.

     There are always flowers on the table, and often candles or napkins with special names. At first I thought of them as ways of breaking the dull routine of the weeks and months. But I soon realised that here, where people are obviously broken and in need of healing, no day is lived without a glimpse of new hope, without the sound of a voice that speaks of love, or without the sense that somewhere among us there is a place that can be fully trusted. Whether Brad has his birthday or St Francis his feast day, whether Alain is leaving or Emile is coming back, whether Advent is starting or Lent is ending, whether Sylvia lost her mother or Gerard had a new baby sister, yes, whether the Lord dies on the Cross or rises from the dead—all must be lifted up and celebrated in an unceasing song of joy, the joy of a life that no illness or death can destroy

     Celebration is not just a way to make people feel good for a while; it is the way in which faith in the God of life is lived out, through both laughter and tears. Thus celebration goes beyond ritual, custom, and tradition. It is the unceasing affirmation that underneath all the ups and downs of life there flows a solid current of joy. The handicapped men and women of L’Arche are becoming my teachers in the most important course of all: living in the house of God. Their joy leads me beyond the fearful place of death, and opens my eyes to the ecstatic potential of all life. Joy offers the solid ground from which new life can always burst. Joy can be caught neither in one feeling or emotion nor in one ritual or custom but is always more than we expect, always surprising, and therefore always a sign that we are in the presence of the Lord of life.

     We might be tempted to dismiss this as wishful thinking or blissful dreaming, but those who have tasted the joy I speak about know how real it is, and those who have met truly joyful people also have no doubt about its reality.

     Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic outlook on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or an event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it. They have no illusion about the evil powers that roam around, ‘looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8), but they also know that death has no final power. They suffer with those who suffer, yet they do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace. Few people have embodied joy as well as the Dutch Jewish woman Etty Hillesum, who lived in Amsterdam under the Nazi occupation and in Auschwitz in 1942. In the midst of the agonies of the pogroms in Holland she writes:

     I believe that I know and share the many sorrows and sad circumstances that a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them, I do not prolong such moments of agonyThey pass through me, like life itself, as a broad, eternal stream, they become part of that stream, and life continues. And as a result all my strength is preserved, does not become tagged on to futile sorrow or rebelliousness. (From An Interrupted Life, The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, New York: Pantheon, 1984, p.81)

However, joy is not just a quality radiating from individual persons. It is as much, if not more so, a gift to the community of believers. ‘Where two or three meet in My name, I shall be there with them’ (Matthew 18:20). These words reveal that the ecstatic joy of the house of love is Christ’s own joy-filled presence, made manifest each time we enter into communion with each other in and through Christ.

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