The Poor are the center of the Church by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1.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.
2.The Treasure of the Poor (Aug 20)
The poor has a treasure to offer precisely because they cannot return our favours. By not paying us for what we have done for them, they call us to inner freedom, selflessness, generosity, and true care. Jesus says, “When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again”(Luke 14:13-14)
The repayment Jesus speaks about is spiritual. It is the joy, peace, and love of God that we so much desire. This is what the poor give us, not only in the afterlife but already here and now.
3.Our Poverty, God’s Dwelling Place (Aug 18)
How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves, “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants us to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.
We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land in which our treasure (love, joy, peace) is hidden.
4.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.
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.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.
In 1985, at the age of 53+ years old, Henri Nouwen left teaching at Harvard and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community that looks after the mentally handicap people, in Trosly. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:
1.God’s Choice August 25, 1985 (310)
This morning Jean Vanier was interviewed on French television, I watched the program together with his mother, his brother Bernard, who is visiting for ten days, and Simone, a friend from the L’Arche house of prayer,La Ferme. Although I have heard Jean speak frequently, he said things that struck me as new.
A few minutes into the interview, Jean started to speak about Eric, a severely handicapped eighteen-year-old who had recently died. He mentioned Eric’s deep sensitivity. Eric could not speak, walk, or feed himself, but when tension arose between assistants in the house, he banged his head against the wall, and when peace and harmony prevailed, he was joyful and cooperative. “The handicapped often tell us the truth, whether we want to know it or not,” Jean remarked, and added with a smile, “It is not always easy to have such a barometer in your house.”
As Jean mentioned this, I sense that there is a deep connection between being seen by God and being seen by handicapped people. Yesterday’s Gospel about Jesus seeing Nathanael suddenly held a new depth for me.
It was important for me to be reminded again of this gift of the handicapped. They see through a façade of smiles and friendly words and sense the resentful heart before we ourselves notice it. Often they are capable of unmasking our impatience, irritation, jealousy, and lack of interest and making us honest with ourselves. For them, what really counts is a true relationship, a real friendship, a faithful presence. Many mentally handicapped people experience themselves as a disappointment to their parents, a burden for their families, a nuisance to their friends. To believe that anyone really cares and really loves them is difficult. Their heart registers with extreme sensitivity what is real care and what is false, what is true affection and what are just empty words. Thus, they often reveal to us our own hypocrisies and invite us always to greater sincerity and purer love.
My limited experience with handicapped people has made me see the truth of Jean’s observation. Being at L’Arche means many things, but one of them is a call to greater purity of heart. Indeed, Jesus speaks through the broken hearts of the handicapped, who are considered marginal and useless. But God has chosen them to be the poor through whom He makes His presence known. This is hard to accept in a success- and production-oriented society.
2.Happy are the Poor Dec 5, 1985 (352)
Jean Vanier gave a short talk last Sunday morning at the conclusion of the reflection weekend. He said some things then that have stayed with me the whole week. I now realise that what he said has a special meaning for me, and that I must not let it pass as just another beautiful talk.
Three thoughts have stayed with me. First, Jean said that working and living with handicapped people does not become easier the longer you do it. In fact, it often becomes harder. Jean shared his own struggle with us. He said, “Often I go off in dreams about living and being with the poor, but what the poor need are not my dreams, my beautiful thoughts, my inner reflections, but my concrete presence. There is always the temptation to replace real presence with lovely thoughts about being present.”
Second, Jean remarked that we have to move from feelings to conviction. As long as our relationship with handicapped people rests on feelings and emotions, a long-term, lifelong commitment cannot develop. In order to stay with the handicapped even when we do not feel like staying, we need a deep conviction that God has called us to be with the poor, whether that gives us good or bad feelings. Jean expressed gratitude toward the many people who come to L’Arche for a month, six months, or a year. He said it was important for them and for L’Arche. But what is most needed are people who have come to the conviction that they are called to be with the handicapped permanently. This conviction makes a covenant possible, a lasting bond with the poor.
Finally, Jean said that poverty is neither nice nor pleasant. Nobody truly wants to be poor. We all want to move away from poverty. And still. . . .God loves the poor in a special way. I was deeply struck with Jean’s remark: “Jesus did not say, ‘Happy are those who serve the poor,’ but ‘Happy are the poor.’” Being poor is what Jesus invites us to, and that is much, much harder than serving the poor. The unnoticed, unspectacular, unpraised life in solidarity with people who cannot give anything that makes us feel important is far from attractive. It is the way to poverty. Not an easy way, but God’s way, the way of the cross.
These three themes have had a deep impact upon me. God is speaking to me in a way that I cannot pass by. Jean’s thoughts are much more than thoughts for me. They are important themes to consider in my own process of discerning a new direction.
3.The Cry of the Poor March 18, 1986 (397)
Two themes run through Jean’s reflections: the descending way of God and the call to find God not just by serving the poor, but by becoming poor. God, who created the universe in all its splendour, decided to reveal to us the mystery of the divine life by becoming flesh in a young woman living in a humble village on one of the small planets of God’s creation. Jesus’ life is marked by an always deeper choice of what is small, poor, humble, rejected, and despised. The poor are the preferred dwelling place of God. Thus they have become the way to meet God.
Handicapped people are not only poor; they also reveal to us our own poverty. Their primal call is an anguished cry: “Do you love me?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” When we are confronted with that cry, so visible in those people who have no capacity to hide behind their intellectual defences, we are forced to look at our own terrible loneliness and our own primal cry. We hear this cry everywhere in our world. Jews, blacks, Palestinians, refugees, and many others all cry out, “Why is there no place for us, why are we rejected, why are we pushed away?” Jesus has lived this primal cry with us. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He, who came from God to lead us to God, suffered the deepest anguish a human being can suffer, the anguish of being left alone, rejected, forgotten, abandoned by the one who is the source of all life.
L’Arche is founded on this cry of the poor. L’Arche is a response to the cry of Jesus, which is the cry of all who suffer anguish and who wonder if there can be any real bond with anyone. Jesus came to reunite, to heal, to form bonds, to reconcile. He shared our anguish so that through our anguish we would be able to find the way back to God. Jesus descended to ascend. “He emptied Himself. . . .He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. . . . for this God raised Him high and gave Him the name which is above all other names.” (Philippians 2:7-9)
4.The Poorest of the Poor April 12, 1986 (411)
Regina, an assistant at L’Arche community in Honduras who came to visit Trosly, had many interesting things to say about life in Honduras. She stressed the low self-esteem of the Honduras people. A small country with a withdrawn, extremely poor, and oppressed Indian population consisting mostly of Mestizos, Honduras has been completely dependent—first on Spain and later on the United States. It now feels threatened by both Nicaragua and El Salvador and greatly fears any signs of revolution. It feels “safe” under the protection of the United States, which has built large military bases there, but it can do nothing without the permission of its powerful protector. Honduras is very, very poor. In contrast to the poor of Haiti, who are liberated blacks from imperial France and often show pride and joy, the poor of Honduras have a much more self-rejecting attitude.
It is not easy for L’Arche to be there. It is hard to find Honduran assistants who can make long-term commitments. They themselves are often part of large, poor families, and most of their energy is used to survive their poverty or, if possible, to escape it. The United States is a land of promise to which they all hope to go and become rich.
Just listening to Regina made me realise how great the poverty of Honduras is. With so little national consciousness and so little pride, living there with handicapped people must be extremely difficult. It is, indeed, living with the poorest of the poor. Still. . . . the L’Arche assistants in Honduras are full of peace and joy. They like to be there and hope to remain there. Cathy Judge from Daybreak has visited the community and is full of hope to go and live thee. Pilar’s letters from Honduras are filled with excitement. Barbara’s heart is in Honduras, even though she must stay here in Trosly. Everyone who speaks of the community speaks of it as a most blessed place. Regina herself radiates joy, and it seems that all those who have chosen to live there have found a true treasure. “Happy are the poor of spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
I hope very much to visit the Honduras community.
5.The Poverty of the Rich. May 15, 1986 (420)
This morning Peter and I flew to New York City to visit Murray McDonnell. I had never met Murray, but during my time in France, Murray and Peter had come to know each other and had developed a good friendship.
Murray is a New York banker who personally knows countless people I have only heard about on TV or read about in the newspapers. He has read many of my books and feels that his world needs the word of God as much as my world does. It was a very humbling experience to hear a man who knows “the best and the brightest” say, “Give us a word from God, speak to us about Jesus. . . . do not stay away from the rich, who are so poor.”
Jesus loves the poor—but poverty takes many forms. How easily I forget that fact, leaving the powerful, the famous, and the successful without the spiritual food they crave. But to offer that food, I have to be very poor myself—not curious, not ambitious, not pretentious, not proud. It is so easy to be swept off one’s own feet by the glitter of the world, seduced by its apparent splendour. And yet the only place I can really be is the place of poverty, the place where there is loneliness, anger, confusion, depression, and pain. I have to go there in the name of Jesus, staying close to His name and offering His love.
O Lord, help me not to be distracted by power and wealth; help me not to be impressed by knowing the stars and heroes of this world. Open my eyes to the suffering heart of your people, whoever they are, and give me the word that can bring healing and consolation. Amen.
Father Henri Nouwen in his book “Gracias!” states, “A grateful life is a life in which we come to see that the Lord Himself is the gift. The mystery of ministry is that the Lord is to be found where we minister. That is what Jesus tells us when He says, ‘Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did it to Me.”(Matthew 25:40 NJB) Our care for people thus becomes the way to meet the Lord. The more we give, help, support, guide, counsel, and visit, the more we receive, not just similar gifts, but the Lord Himself. To go to the poor is to go to the Lord. Living this truth in our daily life makes it possible to care for people without conditions, without hesitation, without suspicion, or without the need for immediate rewards. With this sacred knowledge, we avoid becoming burned out.” (pg 164)