Who We Are by Henri Nouwen

Who We Are by Henri Nouwen

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.

One: We Are God’s Beloved Children

During our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: “Who are we?” Although we may seldom pose that question in a formal way, we live it very concretely in our day-to-day decisions.

The three answers that we generally live—not necessarily give —are: 

“We are what we do, 

 we are what others say about us, and

 we are what we have,” 

or in other words: “We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power.”

It is important to realize the fragility of life that depends on success, popularity, and power. Its fragility stems from the fact that all three of these are external factors over which we have only limited control. Losing our job, our fame, or our wealth often is caused by events completely beyond our control. But when we depend on them, we have sold ourselves to the world, because then we are what the world gives us. Death takes it all away from us. The final statement then be comes: “When we are dead, we are dead!” because when we die, we can’t do anything anymore, people don’t talk about us anymore, and we have nothing anymore. When we are what the world makes us, we can’t be after we have left the world.

Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity—an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: “You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.”

Two: Claiming Our Belovedness

The spiritual life requires a constant claiming of our true identityOur true identity is that we are God’s children, the beloved Sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. Jesus’ life reveals to us this mysterious truth. After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (Mark 1:10—11). This is the decisive moment of Jesus’ life. His true identity is declared to him. He is the Beloved of God. As “the Beloved” he is being sent into the world so that through him all people will discover and claim their own belovedness.

But the same Spirit who descended on Jesus and affirmed his identity as the Beloved Son of God also drove him into the desert to be tested by Satan. Satan asked him to prove his belovedness by changing stones to bread, by throwing himself from the temple tower to be carried by angels, and by accepting the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus resisted these temptations of success, popularity, and power by claiming strongly for himself his true identity. Jesus didn’t have to prove to the world that he was worthy of love. He already was the “Beloved,” and this Belovedness allowed him to live free from the manipulative games of the world, always faithful to the voice that had spoken to him at the Jordan. Jesus’ whole life was a life of obedience, of attentive listening to the One who called him the Beloved. Everything that Jesus said or did came forth from that most intimate spiritual communion. Jesus’ revealed to us that we sinful, broken human beings are invited to that same communion that Jesus lived, that we are the beloved Sons and daughters of God just as be is the Beloved Son, that we are sent into the world to proclaim the beloved- ness of all people as he was and that we will finally escape the destructive powers of death as he did.

Three: The Discipline of Prayer

One of the tragedies of our life is that we keep forgetting who we are and waste a lot of time and energy to prove what doesn’t need to be proved. We are God’s be loved daughters and sons, not because we have proven ourselves worthy of God’s love, but because God freely chose us. It is very hard to stay in touch with our true identity because those who want our money, our time, and our energy profit more from our insecurity and fears than from our inner freedom.

We, therefore, need discipline to keep living truthfully and not succumb to the endless seductions of our society. Wherever we are there are voices saying: “Go here, go there, buy this, buy that, get to know him, get to know her, don’t miss this, don’t miss that,” and so on and on. These voices keep pulling us away from that soft gentle voice that speaks in the center of our being: “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.”

Prayer is the discipline of listening to that voice of love. Jesus spent many nights in prayer listening to the voice that had spoken to him at the Jordan River. We too must pray. Without prayer, we become deaf to the voice of love and become confused by the many competing voices asking for our attention. How difficult this is! When we sit down for half an hour—without talking to someone, listening to music, watching television, or reading a book—and try to become very still, we often find ourselves so overwhelmed by our noisy inner voices that we can hardly wait to get busy and distracted again. Our inner life often looks like a banana tree full of jumping monkeys! But when we decide not to run away and stay focused, these monkeys may gradually go away because of lack of attention, and the soft gentle voice calling us the beloved may gradually make itself heard. Much of Jesus’ prayer took place during the night. “Night” means more than the absence of the sun. It also means the absence of satisfying feelings or enlightening insights. That’s why it is so hard to be faithful. But God is greater than our hearts and minds and keeps calling us the beloved. . . far beyond all feelings and thoughts.

Four: No Victims of Clock-Time

Each time we claim for ourselves the truth of our belovedness, our lives are widened and deepened. As the beloved our lives stretch out far beyond the boundaries of our birth and death. We do not simply become the beloved at our birth and cease being the beloved at our death. Our belovedness is eternal. God says to us: “love you with an everlasting love.” This love was there before our fathers and mothers loved us, and it will be there long after our friends have cared for us. It is a divine love, an everlasting love, an eternal love.

Precisely because our true identity is rooted in this un conditional, unlimited, everlasting love, we can escape being victimized by our “clock-time.” Clock-time is the time we have in this world. That time can be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Our clock-time, chronos in Greek, can become an obsession, especially when all that we are is connected with the clock that keeps ticking whether we are awake or asleep.

I have always been very conscious of my clock-time. Often I asked myself: “Can I still double my years?” When I was thirty I said: “I can easily live another thirty!” When I was forty, I mused, “Maybe I am only halfway!” Today I can no longer say that, and my question has become: “How am I going to use the few years left to me?” All these concerns about our clock-time come from below. They are based on the presupposition that our chronology is all we have to live. But looked upon from above, from God’s perspective, our clock-time is embedded in the timeless embrace of God. Looked upon from above, our years on earth are not simply chronos but kairos— another Greek word for time—which is the opportunity to claim for ourselves the love that God offers us from eternity to eternityAnd so our short lives, instead of being that limited amount of years to which we must anxiously cling, become that saving opportunity to respond with all of our hearts, souls, and minds to God’s love and so become true partners in the divine communion.

Five: Preparing for Death

Some people say they are afraid of death. Others say they are not. But most people are quite afraid of dying. The slow deterioration of mind and body, the pains of a growing cancer, the ravaging effects of AIDS, becoming a burden for your friends, losing control of your movements, being talked about or spoken to with half-truths, forgetting recent events and the names of visitors—all of that and much more is what we really fear. It’s not surprising that we sometimes say: “I hope it doesn’t last long. I hope I will die through a sudden heart attack and not after a long, painful illness.”

But, whatever we think or hope, the way we will die is unpredictable and our worries about it quite fruitless. Still we need to be prepared. Preparing ourselves for death is the most important task of life, at least when we believe that death is not the total dissolution of our identity but the way to its fullest revelation. Death, as Jesus speaks about it, is that moment in which total defeat and total victory are one. The cross on which Jesus died is the sign of this oneness of defeat and victory. Jesus speaks about his death as being “lifted up.” Lifted up on the cross as well as lifted up in the resurrection. Jesus wants our death to be like his, a death in which the world banishes us but God welcomes us home.

How, then, do we prepare ourselves for death? By living each day in the full awareness of being children of God, whose love is stronger than death. Speculations and concerns about the final days of our life are useless, but making each day into a celebration of our belovedness as Sons and daughters of God will allow us to live our final days, whether short or long, as birthing days. The pains of dying are labor pains. Through them, we leave the womb of this world and are born to the fullness of children of God.

John says it clearly: “My dear friends, you must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children—which is what we are!—we are already God’s children, but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed. We are well aware that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is” (1 John 3:1—2).

By claiming what we already are, we best prepare ourselves for what we shall be.

Six: Going Home

Our life is a short opportunity to say “yes” to God’s love. Our death is a full coming home to that love. Do we desire to come home? It seems that most of our efforts are aimed at delaying this homecoming as long as possible.

     Writing to the Christians at Philippi, the apostle Paul shows a radically different attitude. He says: “I want to be gone and be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire—and yet for your sake to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need.” Paul’s deepest desire is to be completely united with God through Christ and that desire makes him look at death as a “positive gain.” His other desire, however, is to stay alive in the body and fulfill his mission. That will offer him an opportunity for fruitful work.

We are challenged once again to look at our lives from above. When, indeed, Jesus came to offer us full communion with God, by making us partakers of his death and resurrection, what else can we desire but to leave our mortal bodies and so reach the final goal of our existence? The only reason for staying in this valley of tears can be to continue the mission of Jesus who has sent us into the world as his Father sent him into the world. Looking from above, life is a short, often painful mission, full of occasions to do fruitful work for God’s kingdom, and death is the open door that leads into the hall of celebration where the king himself will serve us.

It all seems such an upside-down way of being! But it’s the way of Jesus and the way for us to follow. There is nothing morbid about it. To the contrary, it’s a joyful vision of life and death. As long as we are in the body, let us care well for our bodies so that we can bring the joy and peace of God’s kingdom to those we meet on our journey. But when the time has come for our dying and death let us rejoice that we can go home and be united with the One who calls us the beloved.

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