A letter of Consolation by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “A Letter of Consolation,” published in 1982. Six months after the death of his mother, during his second six months of protracted stay at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee, Nouwen found himself deeply in touch with his own grief over the loss of his mother. He wrote to his father to console his father and himself.
1.Why Nouwen’s wrote A letter of Consolation. (5-10)
This letter was written six months after the death of my mother. I wrote it to my father as a letter of consolation. When I wrote it I did not think of making it public, but now, three years later, I feel a certain urge to do so. Because now I have a real desire to offer this letter to all those who suffer the pain that death can bring and who search for new life. During the last few years I have come to realise in a new way what it means to live and die for each other. As this awareness grew in me, I began to wonder if the fruits of our grief are to be tasted only by ourselves.
Like other letters, this letter has its own history and I would like to introduce its publication by offering some explanation of why I decided to write it.
Very shortly after my mother’s funeral in October 1978, I returned from Holland to the United States. A few days later I was busy again, as always, teaching, counselling students, attending faculty meetings, answering mail, and doing the many things that fill the daily life of a university teacher. There had been little or no opportunity to let mother’s suffering and death enter deeply into my innermost self.
During the days that my mother was dying and during the days immediately after her death, I tried to pay as much attention as I could to my family and to anyone who offered friendship and love. And then, back in the United States, far away from home, the busy school life certainly did not encourage me to listen to my own inner cries. But one day, when I paused for a while in my office between appointments, I suddenly realised that I have not shed a single tear before or after mother’s death. At that moment I saw that the world had such a grasp on me that it did not allow me to fully experience even the most personal, the most intimate, and the most mysterious event of my life. It seemed as if the voices around me were saying, “You have to keep going. Life goes on; people die, but you must continue to live, to work, to struggle. The past cannot be recreated. Look at what is ahead.” I was obedient to these voices: I gave my lectures with the same enthusiasm as ever; I listened to students and their problems as if nothing had happened; and I worked with the same compulsiveness that had characterised my life since I started to teach. But I knew then that this would not last if I really took my mother and myself seriously. By a happy coincidence—no, by a gracious gift of God—I had planned a six months’ retreat with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee, which during the past years had become a second home to me.
When I arrived at the monastery in January I knew that this was going to be my time of grief. On several occasions, while sitting in my little room surrounded by the deep silence of the monastery, I noticed tears coming from my eyes. I did not really understand this. I was not thinking about mother, I was not remembering her illness, her death, or her funeral, but from a place in me deeper than I could reach, grief welled up and manifested itself in soft weeping.
As the days and weeks passed I experienced a growing urge to live through more fully and more directly the loss of which my tears reminded me. But I did not want to do this alone. I wanted to do it with someone who could really understand what was happening inside me. And who could better understand me than my father? It was an obvious and easy decision, because ever since my mother’s death his letters had become my greatest source of comfort. In these letters he had told me about his own grief and his struggle to build a new, meaningful life without her. Maybe I could offer him consolation and comfort by uniting my pain with his.
Thus, I started to write this letter to my father, a letter to speak with him about her whom we had both loved so much, a letter to show him my love and affection, a letter to offer him some of my reflections on mother’s death—in short, a letter of consolation. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Once I started to write I realised how much I felt, how much I wanted to say, and how much had remained hidden during the six months since mother had died.
To whom did I write this letter? To my father, surely. But I was also writing to myself. Who was consoled? My father was, I know, but when I finally wrote down the last words, I knew that I had received as much and maybe more comfort and consolation than he would. Many letters are that way: they touch the writer as much as the receiver.
I now realise that this letter had to be written for my father, for me, and maybe, too, for many others who are asking the same questions that we were asking. When I asked my father, two and a half years after the letter was written, how he would feel about making it available to others in the form of a small book, he said, “If you think that your writing about mother’s death and about our grief can be a source of hope and consolation to more people than just ourselves, do not be afraid to have it printed.”
And thus, after some thought and much encouragement from friends, I felt that it would be good to take the letter out of the privacy of my life and that of my father and offer it to those who know the same darkness and are searching for the same light.
I hope and pray that I made the right decision.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, December 29, 1981.
2.Jesus did not want to Die (71-73)
I am writing this on Good Friday. I have just participated in the liturgy, in which the death of Christ is remembered in the most moving way. I was asked to read the words Christ spoke during His passion. As I was pronouncing them in a loud voice so that all the monks and guests would be able to let them enter deeply into their hearts, I came to realise that Christ Himself entered with us into the full experience of the absurdity of death. Jesus did not want to die. Jesus did not face His death as if He considered it a good to be striven for. He never spoke about death as something to be accepted gladly. Although He spoke about His death and tried to prepare His disciples for it, He never gave it morbid attention. And the Gospels contain no evidence that death was attractive to Him. What we see in them is, rather, a deep inner protest against death. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was gripped with fear and distress, and He prayed loudly to His Father: “Everything is possible for You. Take this cup away from Me.” This anguish became so intense that “His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.” And as He died on the Cross He cried out in agony: “My God, My God, why have You deserted Me?”
Much more than the pain of His death, I think, it was death itself that filled Jesus with fear and agony. For me this is a very important realisation, because it undercuts any sentimentalising or romanticising of death. We do not want to die, even if we have to face—yes, befriend—our own death with all possible realism. Although we must befriend our death, that is, fully recognise it as a reality that is an intimate part of our humanity, death remains our enemy. Although we can and must prepare ourselves for death, we are never prepared for it. Although we have to see how death has been part of our life since birth, it remains the greatest unknown in our existence. Although we have to search for the meaning of death, our protest against it reveals that we will never be able to give it a meaning that can take our fear away.
3. God does not want Death (75-76)
As I reflect on mother’s death, something that I could not see as clearly before is now becoming more visible to me. It is that death does not belong to God. God did not create death. God does not want death. God does not desire death for us. In God there is no death. God is a God of life. He is the God of the living and not of the dead. Therefore, people who live a deeply spiritual life, a life of real intimacy with God, must feel the pain of death in a particularly acute way. A life with God opens to all that is alive. It makes us celebrate life; it enables us to see the beauty of all that is created; it makes us desire to always be where life is. Death, therefore, must be experienced by a really religious person neither as a release from the tension of life not as an occasion for rest and peace, but as an absurd, ungodly, dark nothingness. Now I see why it is false to say that a religious person should find death easy and acceptable. Now I understand why it is wrong to think that a death without struggle and agony is a sign of great faith. These ideas do not make much sense once we realise that faith opens us to the full affirmation of life and gives us an intense desire to live more fully, more vibrantly, and more vigorously. If anyone should protest against death it is the religious person, the person who has increasingly come to know God as the God of the living.
4. Death can cause people to Stop Living (50-53)
We have both seen how some of our friends could not accept unforeseen changes in their lives and were unable to deal with an unknown future. When things went differently than they had expected or took a drastic turn, they did not know how to adjust to the new situation. Sometimes they became bitter and sour. Often they clung to familiar patterns of living that were no longer adequate and kept repeating what once made sense but no longer could speak to the real circumstances of the moment. Death has often affected people in this way, as we know too well. The death of husband, wife, child, or friend can cause people to stop living toward the unknown future and make them withdraw into the familiar past. They keep holding on to a few precious memories and customs and see their lives as having come to a standstill. They start to live as if they were thinking, “For me it is all over. There is nothing more to expect from life.” As you can see, here the opposite of detachment is taking place; here is a re-attachment that makes life stale and takes all vitality out of existence. It is a life in which hope no longer exists.
If mother’s death were to lead us into that road, her death would have no real meaning for us. Her death would be or become for us a death that closes the future and makes us live the rest of our lives in the enclosure of our own past. Then, our experience of powerlessness would not give us the freedom to detach ourselves from the past, but would imprison us in our own memories and immobilise us. Thus we would also lose the autonomy you have always held so dear.
I think there is a much more human option. It is the option to re-evaluate the past as a continuing challenge to surrender ourselves to an unknown future. It is the option to understand our experience of powerlessness as an experience of being guided, even when we do not know exactly where. Remember what Jesus said to Peter when He appeared to him after the resurrection: “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” Jesus said this immediately after He had told Peter three times to look after His sheep. Here we can see that a growing surrender to the unknown is a sign of spiritual maturity and does not take away autonomy. Mother’s death is indeed an invitation to surrender ourselves more freely to the future, in the conviction that one of the most important parts of our lives may still be ahead of us and that mother’s life and death were meant to make this possible. Do not forget that only after Jesus’ death could His disciples fulfil their vocation.
I am constantly struck by the fact that those who are most detached from life, those who have learned through living that there is nothing and nobody in this life to cling to, are the really creative people. They are free to move constantly away from the familiar, safe places and can keep moving forward to new, unexplored areas of life. I am not suggesting to you that you are called to do something unusual or spectacular in your old age—although there is no telling to what you might be called! But I am thinking primarily of a spiritual process by which we can live our lives more freely than before, more open to God’s guidance and more willing to respond when He speaks to our innermost selves.
Mother’s death encourages us to give up the illusions of immortality we might still have and to experience in a new way our total dependence on God’s love, a dependence that does not take away our free selfhood but purifies and ennobles it. Here you may catch a glimpse of the answer to the question of why mother died before you and why you have been given new years to live. Now you can say things to yourself, to others, and to God that were not disclosed to you before.
5.Preparing for our Death (28-31)
As I said earlier, mother’s death has made me raise more directly and explicitly the question of death itself. The question about death, however, is mostly asked by someone who is himself not dying. You yourself made me aware of this when you reminded me how much mother spoke about her death when there was no real danger and yet hardly mentioned it at all when she was actually dying. It seems indeed important that we face death before we are in any real danger of dying and reflect on our mortality before all our conscious and unconscious energy is directed to the struggle to survive. It is important to be prepared for death, very important; but if we start thinking about it only when we are terminally ill, our reflections will not give us the support we need. We enjoy good health now. We are asking about death, mother’s death and our own, not because we are dying, but because we feel strong enough to raise the question about our most basic human infirmity.
I want to take up the challenge of this question. This indeed seems to be the opportune time not only for you, but also for me. We both have to ask ourselves what mother’s death means, and we both are confronted in a new way with our own deaths. The fact that you are “already” seventy-six and I am “only” forty-seven is not a real hindrance to a common meditation on death. I think, in fact, that mother’s death has taken away much of the age difference between us, so that the prospect of dying and death is not really different for you and for me. Once you have reached the top of the mountain, it does not make much difference at which point on the way down you take a picture of the valley—as long as you are not in the valley itself.
I think, then, that our task is to befriend death. I like that expression “to befriend.” I first heard it used by Jungian analyst James Hillman when he attended a seminar I taught in Christian Spirituality at Yale Divinity School. He emphasised the importance of “befriending”: befriending your dreams, befriending your shadow, befriending your unconscious. He made it convincingly clear that in order to become full human beings, we have to claim the totality of our experience; we come to maturity by integrating not only the light but also the dark side of our story into our selfhood. That made a lot of sense to me, since I am quite familiar with my own inclination, and that of others, to avoid, deny, or suppress the painful side of life, a tendency that always leads to physical, mental, or spiritual disaster.
And isn’t death, the frightening unknown that lurks in the depths of our unconscious minds, like a great shadow that we perceive only dimly in our dreams? Befriending death seems to be the basis of all other forms of befriending. I have a deep sense, hard to articulate, that if we could really befriend death we would be free people. So many of our doubts and hesitations, ambivalences and insecurities are bound up with our deep-seated fear of death that our lives would be significantly different if we could relate to death as a familiar guest instead of a threatening stranger.
6.How do we befriend our death? (31-35)
In the book Nacht und Nebel, the Dutchman Floris Bakels writes about his experiences in the German prisons and concentration camps of the Second World War. He makes very clear what power a man can have who has befriended his own death. I know how much this book has moved you, and I was very happy with the copy I just received. Wouldn’t you say that Floris Bakels was able to survive the horrors of Dachau and other camps and write about it thirty-two years later precisely because he had befriended death? It seems, at least to me, that Floris Bakels said in many different ways to his SS captors, “You have no power over me, because I have already died.” Fear of death often drives us into death, but by befriending death, we can face our mortality and choose life freely.
But how do we befriend death? During the last few years you have seen many deaths—even of people you knew quite well. They have touched you, shocked you, surprised you, and even caused you grief, but when mother died it seemed as if death came to you for the first time. Why? I think because love—deep, human love—does not know death. The way you and mother had become one, and the way this oneness had deepened itself during forty-seven years of marriage, did not allow termination. Real love says, “Forever.” Love will always reach out toward the eternal. Love comes from that place within us where death cannot enter. Love does not accept the limits of hours, days, weeks, months, years, or even centuries. Love is not willing to be imprisoned by time.
That is why mother’s death was such a totally different experience for you from the deaths of so many other people you have known. In the core of your being, you—your love—could not accept her leaving you so drastically, so radically, so totally, and so irretrievably. Her death went directly against your most profound intuitions. And so I could well understand your writing to me that mother’s death had led you to the general question of death’s meaning. Someone might say, “Why did it take him so long to raise that question? He is seventy-six years old—and only now does he wonder about the meaning of death.” But someone who says this does not understand that only mother could raise that question for you, because in her dying the real absurdity of death revealed itself to you. Only her death could really make you protest in your innermost being and make you cry out, “Why could our love not prevent her from dying?”
Yet, the same love that reveals the absurdity of death also allows us to befriend death. The same love that forms the basis of our grief is also the basis of our hope; the same love that makes us cry out in pain also must enable us to develop a liberating intimacy with our own most basic brokenness. Without faith, this must sound like a contradiction. But our faith in Him whose love overcame death and who rose from the grave on the third day converts this contradiction into paradox, the most healing paradox of our existence. Floris Bakels experienced this in a unique way. He came to see and feel that the power of love is stronger than the power of death and that it is indeed true that “God is love.” Surrounded by people dying from hunger, torture, and total exhaustion, and knowing quite well that any hour could be his hour to die, he found in the core of his being a love so strong and so profound that the fear of death lost its power over him. For Floris Bakels, this love was not a general feeling or emotion, nor an idea about a benevolent Supreme Being. No, it was the very concrete, real, and intimate love of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Redeemer of the world. With his whole being he knew that he was loved with an infinite love, held in an eternal embrace and surrounded by an unconditional care. This love was so concrete, so tangible, so direct, and so close for him that the temptation to interpret this religious experience as the fantasy of a starved mind had no lasting hold on him. The more deeply and fully he experienced Christ’s love, the more he came to see that the many loves of his life—the love of his parents, his brother and sisters, his wife, and his friends—were reflections of the great “first” love of God.
I am convinced that it was the deeply felt love of God—felt in and through Jesus Christ—that allowed Floris Bakels to face his own death and the deaths of others so directly. It was this love that gave him the freedom and energy to help people in agony and made it possible for him to resume a normal life after he returned from the hell of Dachau.
I am writing so much about Bakels because I know that you, being of the same generation and the same profession, can understand him quite well and will lend him a sympathetic ear. He can indeed show you better than psychologists or psychoanalysts what it means to befriend death.
7.The Meaning of our Death has for Others (54-61)
In all the previous reflections, dear father, an idea has emerged that was only vaguely in my mind when I started to write. It is the idea that the meaning of death is not so much the meaning our death has for us as the meaning it has for others. That explains why the meaning of mother’s death and the meaning of our death are so closely related. I have a feeling that to the degree we can experience the fact that mother died for you, for her children, and for many others, our own death will have more meaning for us. I will try to explain this to you in such a way that you can find a certain obviousness in this idea.
Let me start with your own observation, which you have often made since mother’s death, namely, that she lived her life for others. The more you reflected on her life, looked at her portraits, read her letters, and listened to what others said about her, the more you realised how her whole life was lived in the service of other people. I too am increasingly impressed by her attentiveness to the needs of others. This attitude was so much a part of her that it hardly seems remarkable. Only now can we see its full power and beauty. She rarely asked attention for herself. Her interest and attention went out to those who came to her. Many found it easy to talk with her about themselves and remarked how much at ease they had felt in her presence. This was especially noticeable during her visits to me in the United States. Often she knew my students better after one evening than I did after a year, and for many years to come she would keep asking about them. During the last six months I have grown painfully aware of how accustomed I had become to her unceasing interest in all that I did, felt, thought, or wrote, and how much I had taken it for granted that, even if nobody else cared, she certainly did. The absence of that caring attention often gives me a deep feeling of loneliness. I know that this is even truer for you. You no longer hear her ask how well you slept, what your plans are for the day, or what you are writing about. You no longer hear her advise you to be careful on the road, to eat more, or to get some extra sleep. All these simple but so supportive and healing ways of caring are no longer there, and in their absence we begin to feel more and more what it means to be alone.
What I want to say now, however, is that she who lived for others also died for others. Her death should not be seen as a sudden end to all her care, as a great halt to her receptivity to others. There are people who experience the death of someone they love as a betrayal. They feel rejected, left alone, and even fooled. They seem to say to their husband, wife, or friend, “How could you do this to me? Why did you leave me behind in this way? I never bargained for this!” Sometimes people even feel angry toward those who die, and express this by a paralysing grief, by a regression to a state of total dependence, by all sorts of illnesses and complaints, even by dying themselves.
If, however, mother’s life was indeed a life lived for us, we must be willing to accept her death as a death for us, a death that is not meant to paralyse us, make us totally dependent, or provide an excuse for all sorts of complaints, but a death that should make us stronger, freer, and more mature. To say it even more drastically: we must have the courage to believe that her death was good for us and that she died so that we might live. This is quite a radical viewpoint and it might offend the sensitivities of some people. Why? Because, in fact, I am saying, “It is good for us that she left us, and to the extent that we do not accept this we have not yet fully understood the meaning of her life.” This might sound harsh and even offensive, but I believe deeply that it is true. Indeed, I believe even more deeply that we will come to experience this ourselves.
Although the time is past when widows were burned with their dead husbands—even a contemporary Phileas Fogg would not encounter such a scene on a trip around the world—still, in a psychological sense, many widows and widowers end their lives with that of their spouse. They respond to the death of husband or wife with a sudden lack of vitality and behaviour that turns life into a gruesome waiting room for death. I am aware of the fact that the other extreme—living on as if one had never been married—can also be seen. But since that is not within the horizon of your capacities, I do not need to talk about that here. What is important for us to recognise is that mother’s own life invites us to see her death as a death that can bring us not only grief but also joy, not only pain but also healing, not only the experience of having lost but also the experience of having found.
This viewpoint is not just my personal viewpoint as against the viewpoint of others. It is the Christian viewpoint, that is, a viewpoint based on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I need to be very clear about this, or you might not really understand what I am trying to express.
Five days have passed since I began this letter and it is now the evening before Holy Thursday. During this Holy Week we are confronted with death more than during any other season of the liturgical year. We are called to mediate not just on death in general or on our own death in particular, but on the death of Jesus Christ who is God and Man. We are challenged to look at Him dying on a cross and to find there the meaning of our own life and death. What strikes me most in all that is read and said during these days is that Jesus of Nazareth did not die for himself, but for us, and that in following Him we too are called to make our death a death for others. What makes you and me Christians is not only our belief that He who was without sin died for our sake on the cross and thus opened for us the way to His heavenly Father, but also that through His death our death is transformed from a totally absurd end of all that gives life its meaning into an event that liberates us and those whom we love. It is because of the liberating death of Christ that I dare say to you that mother’s death is not simply an absurd end to a beautiful, altruistic life. Rather, her death is an event that allows her altruism to yield a rich harvest. Jesus died so that we might live, and everyone who dies in union with Him participates in the life-giving power of His death. Thus we can indeed say that mother, who died under the signs of the cross, died so that we might live. Therefore, under that same sign, each of our deaths can become a death for others. I think that we need to start seeing the profound meaning of this dying for each other in and through the death of Christ in order to catch a glimpse of what eternal life might mean. Eternity is born in time, and every time someone dies whom we have loved dearly, eternity can break into our mortal existence a little bit more.
I am aware that I am barely touching the great mystery I want to give words to. But I think that the mystery is so deep and vast that we can enter it only slowly and with great care.
As we enter more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Week and come closer to Easter, it will become clear what needs to be said. But now it seems of first importance to realise that when we begin seeing that mother died for us, we can also catch an insight into the meaning of our own death. Initially this insight might well be that the meaning of our death cannot be expressed in an idea, a concept, or a theory. Rather, it must be discovered as a truth less visible to us than to those for whom we die. This is perhaps why the meaning of mother’s death is slowly revealing itself to us even though it remained hidden from her, and why the meaning of our death will remain more concealed from us than from those who will miss us most. To die for others implies that the meaning of our death is better understood by them than by ourselves. This requires of us great detachment and even greater faith. But most of all, it calls us to an ever increasing surrender to the ways in which God chooses to manifest His love to us.
8.There must be Hope and Consolation in Death (76-78)
I hope you can feel with me that here lies the source of our consolation and hope. God Himself, who is light, life, and truth, came to experience with us and for us the total absurdity of death. Jesus’ death is not a memorable event because a good, holy prophet died. No, what makes the death of Jesus the main—and in a sense the only real—event in history is that the Son of God, in whom there was no trace of death, died the absurd death that is the fate of all human beings.
This gives us some idea of the agony of Jesus. Who has tasted life more fully than He? Who has known more intimately the beauty of the land in which He lived? Who has understood better the smiles of children, the cries of the sick, and the tears of those in grief? Every fibre of His being spoke of life. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He said, and in Him only life could be found. How will we ever be able to grasp what it must have meant for Him to undergo death, to be cut off from life and to enter into the darkness of total destruction! The agony in the garden, the humiliation of the mockery, the pains of the flagellation, the sorrowful way to Calvary, and the horrendous execution on the Cross were suffered by the Lord of life.
I write this to you not to upset you but to console you in your grief. The Lord who died, died for us—for you, for me, for mother, and for all people. He died not because of any death or darkness in Him, but only to free us from the death and darkness in us. If the God who revealed life to us, and whose only desire is to bring us to life, loved us so much that He wanted to experience with us the total absurdity of death, then—yes, then there must be hope; then there must be something more than death; then there must be a promise that is not fulfilled in our short existence in this world; then leaving behind the ones you love, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and oceans, the beauty of art and music, and all the exuberant gifts of life cannot be just the destruction and cruel end of all things; then indeed we have to wait for the third day.
9.Love is Stronger than Death (91-93)
The best way I can express to you the meaning death receives in the light of the resurrection of Jesus is to say that the love that causes us so much grief and makes us feel so fully the absurdity of death is stronger than death itself. “Love is stronger than death.” This sentence summarises better than any other the meaning of the resurrection and therefore also the meaning of death. I have mentioned this earlier in this letter, but now you may better see its full meaning. Why has mother’s death caused you so much suffering? Because you loved her so much. Why has your own death become such and urgent question for you? Because you love life, you love your children and grand children, you love nature, you love art and music, you love horses, and you love all that is alive and beautiful. Death is absurd and cannot be meaningful for someone who loves so much.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the glorious manifestation of the victory of love over death. The same love that makes us mourn and protest against death will now free us to live in hope. Do you realise that Jesus appeared only to those who know Him, who listened to His words and who had come to love Him deeply? It was that love that gave them the eyes to see His face and the ears to hear His voice when He appeared to them on the third day after His death. Once they had seen and heard Him and believed, the rest of their lives became a continuing recognition of His presence in their midst. This is what life in the Spirit of the risen Lord is all about. It makes us see that under the veil of all that is visible to our bodily eyes, the risen Lord shows us His inexhaustible love and calls us to enter even more fully into that love, a love that embraces both mother and us, who loved her so much.
It is with this divine love in our hearts, a love stronger than death, that our lives can be lived as a promise. Because this great love promises us that what we have already began to see and hear with the eyes and ears of the Spirit of Christ can never be destroyed, but rather is “the beginning” of eternal life.