The Church by Henri Nouwen
The following passages on the Church are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book, “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1.The Church, Spotless and Tainted (Oct 17)
The Church is holy and sinful, spotless and tainted. The Church is the bride of Christ, who washed her in cleansing water and took her to himself “with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless.” (Ephesians 5:26-27) The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition.
When we say that the Church is a body, we refer not only to the holy and faultless body made Christ-like through baptism and Eucharist but also to the broken bodies of all the people who are its members. Only when we keep both these ways of thinking and speaking together can we live in the Church as true followers of Jesus.
2.Superabundant Grace (Oct 20)
Over the centuries the Church has done enough to make any critical person want to leave it. Its history of violent crusades, pogroms, power struggles, oppression, excommunications, executions, manipulation of people and ideas, and constantly recurring divisions is there for everyone to see and be appalled by.
Can we believe that this is the same Church that carries in its center the Word of God and the sacraments of God’s healing love? Can we trust that in the midst of all its human brokenness the Church presents the broken body of Christ to the world as food for eternal life? Can we acknowledge that where sin is abundant grace is superabundant, and that where promises are broken over and over again God’s promise stands unshaken? To believe is to answer yes to these questions.
3.The Authority of Compassion (Oct 26)
The Church often wounds us deeply. People with religious authority often wound us by their words, attitudes, and demands. Precisely because our religion brings us in touch with the questions of life and death, our religious sensibilities can get hurt most easily. Ministers and priests seldom fully realise how a critical remark, a gesture of rejection, or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed.
There is such an enormous hunger for meaning in life, for comfort and consolation, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for restoration and healing, that anyone who has any authority in the Church should constantly be reminded that the best word to characterise religious authority is compassion. Let’s keep looking at Jesus, whose authority was expressed in compassion.
4.Forgiving the Church (Oct 27)
When we have been wounded by the Church, our temptation is to reject it. But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ. When we say, “I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,” we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is specially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness, at least not officially. But the Church as an often fallible human organisation needs our forgiveness, while the Church as the living Christ among us continues to offer us forgiveness.
It is important to think about the Church not as “over there” but as a community of struggling, weak people of whom we are part and in whom we meet our Lord and Redeemer.
5.Going to the Margins of the Church (Nov 1)
Those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church, and that is how it is supposed to be! Thus we are called as members of the Church to keep going to the margins of our society. The homeless, the starving, parentless children, people with AIDS, our emotionally disturbed brothers and sisters— they require our first attention.
We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish. The Church will always be renewed when our attention shifts from ourselves to those who need our care. The blessing of Jesus always comes to us through the poor. The most remarkable experience of those who work with the poor is that, in the end, the poor give more than they receive. They give food to us.
6. Who are the Poor? (Nov 2)
The poor are the center of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us: people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our own families, churches, or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, ignored or abused.
It is precisely when we see and experience poverty—whether far away, close by, or in our own hearts—that we need to become the Church; that is, hold hands as brothers and sisters, confess our own brokenness and need, forgive one another, heal one another’s wounds, and gather around the table of Jesus for the breaking of the bread. Thus, as the poor we recognise Jesus, who became poor for us.
7.Becoming the Church of the Poor (Nov 3)
When we claim our own poverty and connect our poverty with the poverty of our brothers and sisters, we become the Church of the poor, which is the Church of Jesus. Solidarity is essential for the church of the poor. Both pain and joy must be shared. As one body we experience deeply one another’s agonies as well as one another’s ecstasies. As Paul says, “If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Often we might prefer not to be part of the body because this participation makes us feel the pain of others so intensely. Every time we love others deeply we feel their pain deeply. However, joy is hidden in the pain. When we share the pain we will also share the joy.
8.The Weakest in the Center (Oct 30)
The most honoured parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control. The most important parts are the least presentable parts. That’s the mystery of the Church. As a people called out of oppression to freedom, we must recognise that it is the weakest among us—the elderly, the small children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the hungry and sick—who form the real center. Paul says, “It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified that we surround with the greatest dignity.” (1 Corinthians 12:23)
The Church as the people of God can truly embody the living Christ among us only when the poor remain its most treasured part. Care for the poor, therefore, is much more than Christian charity. It is the essence of being the body of Christ.
9.Focusing on the Poor (Oct 31)
Like every human organisation the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.
How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, “God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others.” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25) This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.
10.The Poverty of Our Leaders (Nov 4)
There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.
We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church—its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes—and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God’s eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn’t be in our eyes either.
11.Loving the Church. (Oct 24)
Loving the Church often seems close to impossible. Still, we must keep reminding ourselves that all people in the Church—whether powerful or powerless, conservative or progressive, tolerant or fanatic—belong to that long line of witnesses moving through the valley of tears, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the voice of their Lord, eating together from the bread that keeps multiplying as it is shared. When we remember that, we may be able to say, “I love the Church, and I am glad to belong to it.”
Loving the Church is our sacred duty. Without a true love for the Church, we cannot live in it in joy and peace. And without a true love for the Church, we cannot call people to it.
12.Meeting Christ in the Church (Oct 25)
Loving the Church does not require romantic emotions. It requires the will to see the living Christ among His people and to love them as we want to love Christ Himself. This is true not only for the “little” people—the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten—but also for the “big” people who exercise authority in the Church.
To love the Church means to be willing to meet Jesus wherever we go in the Church. This love doesn’t mean agreeing with or approving of everyone’s ideas or behaviour. On the contrary, it can call us to confront those who hide Christ from us. But whether we confront or affirm, criticise or praise, we can only become fruitful when our words and actions come from hearts that love the Church.
13.The Church, God’s People (Oct 21)
As Jesus was one human person among many, the Church is one organisation among many. And just as there may have been people with more attractive appearances than Jesus, there may be many organisations that are a lot better run than the Church. But Jesus is the Christ appearing among us to reveal God’s love, and the Church is His people called together to make His presence visible in today’s world.
Would we have recognised Jesus as the Christ if we had met Him many years ago? Are we able to recognise Him today in His body, the Church? We are asked to make a leap of faith. If we dare to do it our eyes will be opened and we will see the glory of God.
14.Being in the Church, Not of It. (Oct 23)
Often we hear the remark that we have to live in the world without being of the world. But it may be more difficult to be in the Church without being of the Church. Being of the Church means being so preoccupied by and involved in the many ecclesial affairs and clerical “ins and outs” that we are no longer focused on Jesus. The Church then blinds us to what we came to see and deafens us to what we came to hear. Still, it is in the Church that Christ dwells, invites us to His table, and speaks to us words of eternal love.
Being in the Church without being of it is a great spiritual challenge.
15.The Pillars of the Church (Oct 15)
The two main sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, are the spiritual pillars of the Church. They are not simply instruments by which the Church exercises its ministry. They are not just means by which we become and remain members of the Church but belong to the essence of the Church. Without these sacraments there is no Church. The Church is the body of Christ fashioned by baptism and the Eucharist. When people are baptised in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and when they gather around the table of Christ and receive His Body and Blood, they become the people of God, called the Church.
16.Called Out of Slavery (Oct 16)
The Church is the people of God. The Latin word for “church,” ecclesia, comes from the Greek ek, which means “out” and kaleo, which means “to call.” The Church is the people of God called out of slavery to freedom, sin to salvation, despair to hope, darkness to light, an existence centered on death to an existence focused on life.
When we think of the Church we have to think of a body of people, travelling together. We have to envision women, men, and children of all ages, races, and societies supporting one another on their long and often tiresome journeys to their final home.
17.Believing in the Church (Oct 18)
The Church is an object of faith. In the Apostles’ Creed we pray, “I believe in God, the Father,. . .in Jesus Christ, His only Son. . . .in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We must believe in the Church! The Apostles’ Creed does not say that the Church is an organisation that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.
Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God. But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers. God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.
18.The Two Sides of One Faith (Oct 19)
Our faith in God who sent His Son to become God-with-us and who, with His Son, sent His Spirit to become God-within-us cannot be real without our faith in the Church. The Church is that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us. Just as it seems unlikely to us that God chose to become human in a young girl living in a small, not very respected town in the Middle East nearly two thousand years ago, it seems unlikely that God chose to continue His work of salvation in a community of people constantly torn apart by arguments, prejudices, authority conflicts, and power games.
Still, believing in Jesus and believing in the Church are two sides of one faith. It is unlikely but divine!
19.The Garden of the Saints (Oct 22)
The Church is a very human organisation but also the garden of God’s grace. It is a place where great sanctity keeps blooming. Saints are people who make the living Christ visible to us in a special way. Some saints have given their lives in the service of Christ and His Church; others have spoken and written words that keep nurturing us; some have lived heroically in difficult situations; others have remained hidden in quiet lives of prayer and meditation; some were prophetic voices calling for renewal; others were spiritual strategists setting up large organisations or networks of people; some were healthy and strong; others were quite sick, and often anxious and insecure.
But all of them in their own ways lived in the Church as in a garden where they heard the voice calling them the Beloved and where they found the courage to make Jesus the center of their lives.
20.Our Spiritual Leaders (Oct 28)
The Church as the body of Christ has many faces. The Church prays and worships. It speaks words of instruction and healing, cleanses us from our sins, invites us to the table of the Lord, binds us together in a covenant of love, sends us out to minister, anoints us when we are sick or dying, and accompanies us in our search for meaning and our daily need for support. All these faces might not come to us from those we look up to as our leaders. But when we live our lives with a simple trust that Jesus comes to us in our Church, we will see the Church’s ministry in places and in faces where we least expect it.
If we truly love Jesus, Jesus will send the people to give us what we most need. And they are our spiritual leaders.
21.One Body with Many Parts (Oct 29)
The Church is one body. Paul writes, “We were baptised into one body in a single Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13) But this one body has many parts. As Paul says, “If they were all the same part, how could it be a body? As it is, the parts are many but the body is one.” (1 Corinthians 12:19) Not everyone can be everything. Often we expect one member of the body to fulfil a task that belongs to others. But the hand cannot be asked to see nor the eye to hear.
Together we are Christ’s body, each of us with a part to play in the whole (see 1 Corinthians 12:27) Let’s be grateful for our limited but real part in the body.
22.The Mission of the Church (Nov 5)
There are more people on this planet outside the Church than inside it. Millions have been baptised, millions have not. Millions participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but millions do not.
The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger mission than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness to the love of God made visible in Jesus. Before His death Jesus prayed for His followers, “As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world.
23.A Ministry of healing and Reconciliation (Nov 6)
How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus’ love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about Him or not.
It is important whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside His Name our ministry will lose its divine energy.
24.Telling the Story of Jesus (Nov 7)
The Church is called to announce the Good News of Jesus to all people and all nations. Besides the many words of mercy by which the Church must make Jesus’ love visible, it must joyfully announce the great mystery of God’s salvation through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The story of Jesus is to be proclaimed and celebrated. Some will hear and rejoice, some will remain indifferent, some will become hostile. The story of Jesus will not always be accepted, but it must be told.
We who know the story and try to live it out have the joyful task of telling it to others. When our words rise from hearts full of love and gratitude, they will bear fruit whether we can see this or not.
25.The Communion of Saints (Nov 8)
We often limit the Church to the organisation of people who identify themselves clearly as its members. But the Church as all people belonging to Christ, as that body of witnesses who reveal the living Christ, reaches far beyond the boundaries of any human institution. As Jesus Himself said, The Spirit “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8). The Spirit of Jesus can touch hearts wherever it wants; it is not restrained by any human limits.
There is a communion of saints witnessing to the risen Christ that reaches to the far ends of the world and even farther. It embraces people from long ago and far away. It is that immense community of men and women who through words and deeds have proclaimed and are proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus.
26.The Fruit of our Communal Life (Nov 14)
Our society encourages individualism. We are constantly made to believe that everything we think, say, or do is our personal accomplishment, deserving individual attention. But as people who belong to the communion of saints, we know that anything of spiritual value is not the result of individual accomplishment but the fruit of a communal life.
Whatever we know about God and God’s love, whatever we know about Jesus—His life, death, and resurrection—whatever we know about the Church and its ministry, is not the invention of our minds asking for an award. It is the knowledge that has come to us through the ages from the people of Israel and the prophets, from Jesus and the saints, and from all who have played roles in the formation of our hearts. True spiritual knowledge belongs to the communion of saints.
In 1986, Father Henri Nouwen wrote about Jesus in a series of letters to his sister’s nineteen years old son. The passages below are taken from his book, “Letters to Marc about Jesus” published in 1987.
Listen to the Church (pg 83-84)
You and I both are called to be disciples of Jesus. The difference between us in age, circumstances, upbringing, and experience are small matters compared with the calling we have in common. What counts is being attentive at all time to the voice of God’s love inviting us to obey, that is, to make a generous response.
How can we keep listening to this voice in a world which does its best to distract us and get our attention for seemingly more urgent matters? In this last letter I want to put before you, by way of a conclusion, three forms of listening that for me have proven to be most productive.
First of all, listen to the church. I know that isn’t a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the church is often seen more as an obstacle in the way than as the way to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m deeply convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the church. The church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus there can be no church; and without the church we cannot stay united with Jesus. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the church. To listen to the church is to listen to the Lord of the church.Specifically, this entails taking part in the church liturgical life. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost: these seasons and feasts teach you to know Jesus better and better and unite you more and more intimately with the divine life He offers you in the church.
The Eucharist is the heart of the church’s life. It’s there that you hear the life-giving gospel and receive the gifts that sustain that life within you. The best assurance that you’ll go on listening to the church is your regular participation in the Eucharist.
Second, listen to the book. By that I mean read the Bible; read books about the Bible, about the spiritual life, and the lives of ‘great’ saints.. . . . . .
Finally, listen to your heart. It’s there that Jesus speaks most intimately to you. Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus who dwells in the very depths of your heart.. . . .You need to set some time every day for this active listening to Jesus, if only for ten minutes. Ten minutes each day for Jesus alone can bring about a radical change in your life.
Father Henri Nouwen was hit by the outside rear view mirror of a passing van, while hitchhiking to the Corner House at Daybreak, on a dark winter morning. He had to be operated to stop the internal bleeding and to take out his spleen. He survived the surgery. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Beyond the Mirror” published in 1990.
1.Jesus’ Ministry (pg 72-73)
But Jesus’ whole ministry was a ministry “from above,” a ministry born of a relationship with the Father in heaven. All the questions Jesus raised, all the answers He gave, all the confrontations He evoked and the consolations He offered were rooted in His knowledge of the Father’s unconditional love. His ministry was not oppressive, since in came from His deep experience of being unconditionally loved and was in no way motivated by a personal need for affirmation and acceptance. He was completely free precisely because He belonged not to the world but exclusively to the Father.
Jesus’ ministry is the model for all ministry. Therefore speaking “from above” can never be authoritarian, manipulative, or oppressive. It has to be anchored in a love that is not only free from compulsion and obsessions that taint human relationships, but free also to be present to human suffering in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness.