Where Do I Belong by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird?
All the passages below are taken from the book “Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith” by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird. It was published in 2006.
AN OLD Hasidic tale summarizes the need to move from solitude to community in the spiritual life in order to find our true home in the world:
-Darkness and the Dawn
The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”
One of the rabbi’s students suggested: “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?”
“No,” was the answer of the rabbi.
“It is when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student.
“No,” the rabbi said.
“Please tell us the answer then,” said the students.
“It is then,” said the wise teacher, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”1
The spiritual journey moves us from solitude to community and to ministry as we follow Jesus. This movement is exemplified in the beautiful story of Jesus and his disciples in Luke 6:12-19; this story of relationship begins in solitude at night, moves to community building in the morning, and ends in active ministry in the afternoon:
Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles…. He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over … who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all [emphasis added].
Jesus spent time on the mountain at night in solitary prayer. He came down in the morning and formed his community. Then, in the afternoon, with his apostles, he went out and healed the sick and proclaimed the good news. I’ve been fascinated by thee sequence of prayer at night, community in the morning, ministry in the afternoon. Notice the order from solitude to community to ministry. The night is for solitude, the morning for community, the afternoon for ministry. Night, morning, and afternoon are symbols for the movement from solitude to community to ministry that Jesus lived out. These are the three disciplines we are called to practice on the long journey home: (1) solitude or communion with God in prayer; (2) recognizing and gathering together in community; and (3) ministry or compassion in the world.
GROUNDED IN SOLITUDE
How do we learn to be in solitude with God? In Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, the father holds his returning child and touches his child in a loving embrace. With his son safe within his outstretched arms, the father’s expression seems to say to me: “I’m not going to ask you any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, and whatever people say about you, you’re my beloved child. I hold you safe in my embrace. I hug you. I gather you under my wings. You can come home to me.”
In solitude and silent communion with God in prayer, I have to kneel before the Father, just as the prodigal son did upon his return, and put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God. Similarly, in solitude and silence, I am drawn to communion with God in prayer. If we take the time to be still, we will be led to an inner place, a place within us where God has chosen to dwell, a place where we are held safe in the embrace of the all loving One who calls us by name.
Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him.” I am God’s home! Yes, God dwells in my innermost being, but how do I accept Jesus’ call: “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” The invitation is clear and unambiguous. To make my home where God has made his home is a great spiritual challenge.
Intimate communion with God is not an easy discipline. Remember, Jesus spent the night in prayer. Night is a time of mystery, darkness, solitude, and sometimes loneliness. Night is a symbol of the fact that prayer is not something you always feel. It’s not a voice you always hear with your physical ears. Prayer doesn’t always offer an insight that suddenly comes to your mind. Communion with God is more often an intuition or inner conviction that God’s heart is greater than your heart, God’s mind is greater than your human mind, and God’s light is so much greater than your light that it might blind you and make you feel like you’re in the night.
To practice solitude we must each claim regular time to quiet ourselves physically and spiritually. Start with a few minutes a day perhaps in the early morning when the heat and light of the day have not yet arrived, or in the late evening when they have begun to dissipate. This is a time for wordless prayer or focused prayer through journaling or sacred reading followed by open space to listen for God’s voice or a sense of God’s presence or a call to wait. Truly, the dawn or twilight hours are ideal times for solitude and prayer that grounds us in God and prepares us to live with and love others. Communion with God is where spiritual community begins.
WHEN SOLITUDE GREETS SOLITUDE
When the morning comes, solitude greets solitude and community is formed. It’s remarkable that solitude always calls us to community. In solitude, you come to know yourself as vulnerable and broken, yet beloved by God. In solitude, you realize that you are part of a human family and that you want to be together with others. The symbol of the dawn is the awareness that we are all related, connected, and interdependent. As the wise rabbi in the parable taught his students: until “you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister … it is night, and darkness is still with us.”
By forming community, I don’t mean creating formal communities. Community as a place of spiritual belonging happens in families, friendships, churches, parishes, twelve-step programs, and prayer groups. Community does not require an organization or institution; community is a way of living and relating: you gather around people with whom you want to proclaim the truth that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there in your midst” (Matthew 18:20). For me, community has been most authentic in a Eucharistic faith community, and specifically for me this was L’Arche Daybreak. For you, community may be found in your local church or prayer group. However you define a faith community, it is your spiritual home.
Home is not always comfortable, and community is not easy. In every community the healing of acceptance happens and deep betrayals take place.Our humanity with all of its splendor and the hurt of pain emerges. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus identifies his community of twelve disciples one by one, including “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:16). Betrayal means to break trust. A traitor means to “hand over.” There is always someone in the community who betrays your trust or hands you over to something painful or unwanted. As soon as you have community, you have a problem. Someone once said that “community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” That person who annoys you or who needs too much is always in your community somewhere.
But it’s not just one person who does the betraying. In the eyes of others, I may be that person. Or you may be that person. It’s not that one person in the community is the problem; it’s more that different people are handing other people over to suffering all the time without even wanting to or knowing what they are doing. There is always someone who doesn’t satisfy my need or someone who irritates me. Community is not some sentimental ideal place or time where everybody lives together, loves each other, and always gets along. That’s never going to happen. Rather, in living together we come to realize that community doesn’t require or offer total emotional harmony. It offers us the context where we try to love one another and receive the love and care of others.
Why is it so important that solitude comes before community, that community springs forth from solitude? If we do not know we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re going to expect someone in the community to make us feel special and worthy. Ultimately, they cannot. If we start with trying to create community, we’ll expect someone to give us that perfect, unconditional love. But true community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness: “I’m so lonely, and you’re so lonely; why don’t we get together.” Many relationships begin out of a fear of being alone, but they can’t ultimately satisfy a need that only solitude with God can fulfill. Community is solitude greeting solitude: “I am the beloved; you are the beloved; together we can build a home or place of welcome together.” Sometimes you feel close, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes you don’t feel much love, and that’s hard. But we can be faithful to one another in community. We can build a home together and create space for God and for others in the household of God.
Though it’s not easy, Jesus calls us to live together as a family of faith and commitment. In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other. In community we discover what it means to let go of our self-will and to really live for others. In community we learn true humility. People of faith need community, for without it we become individualistic and, at times, egocentric. As difficult as it is, community is not really an option in the spiritual life. Community springs forth from solitude, and without a community, communion with God is impossible. We are called to God’s table together, not by ourselves. Spiritual formation, therefore, always includes formation to life in community. We all have to find our way home to God in solitude and in community with others.
How I FOUND MY WAY HOME
When I was asked to come to Yale, I was forty years old, and my bishop said I could go for a few years; I stayed ten. I was doing well on the level of my ambitions, but I began to question whether I was really doing God’s will. Was I being obedient? Was I the priest I wanted to be? Was Yale really my home?
I prayed: “God, you know what I should do. Let me know, and I will follow you. I will go anywhere you want. But you have to be very clear about it.” In 1981 I suddenly had this feeling that I wanted to go to Latin America and work with the poor. I relinquished my professorship at Yale and began preparing for a pilgrimage to Bolivia and Peru. Friends wondered whether I was doing the wise thing. I didn’t have much support.
Quickly I discovered that being a missionary in Latin America was not my vocation. It was hard to be there. People were good to me, welcoming, remarkably hospitable. But God did not call me there. I was driven there. I spent some time with Gustavo Gutierrez, who did not encourage me to stay there. “Maybe they need you more at the university to talk about Latin America,” he said. “Do reverse mission to the first world from the third world, and write.” Sadly, the poor in Peru did not become family, nor did Latin America become my heart’s home.
Meanwhile, Harvard Divinity School asked me to join their faculty. I did so, and tried to teach about the spiritual struggles of people in Latin America and the need for social justice there. But the students felt an enormous need to talk about prayer and contemplation. They asked me about the inner spiritual life and the ministry. I liked teaching at Harvard, and I made some beautiful friends there. At the same time, I didn’t feel Harvard was a safe place for me. It was too much podium, too much publicity, too public. Too many people came to listen for an intellectual understanding rather than spiritual insight. It was an intensely competitive place, an intellectual battle-ground. Harvard was not home. I needed a place where I could pray more. I needed to be in a community where my spiritual life would deepen in relationship to others.
My decision to leave Harvard was a difficult one. For many months I was not sure if I would be following or betraying my vocation by leaving. The outer voices kept saying: “You can do so much good here. People need you!” The inner voices kept saying, “What good is it to preach the gospel to others while losing your own soul?” Finally, I realized that my increasing darkness, my feelings of rejection, my inordinate need for affirmation and affection, and my deep sense of not belonging were clear signs that I was not following the way of God’s spirit. The fruits of the spirit are not sadness, loneliness, and separation, but joy, solitude, community, and ministry. As soon as I left Harvard I felt so much inner freedom, so much joy and new energy, that I could look back on my former life as a prison in which I had locked myself.
I did not know where to go, except that I had a deep connection with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community in France. So I went there for a year of discernment of my calling and what community might become a home for me. Again, I prayed: “God, what do you want me to do?” Before the year was over, I got a letter from the Daybreak community in Canada—one of over one hundred communities throughout the world where children, men, and women with disabilities and those who assist them live together. They were calling me to become a member of the community and to be their priest. It was the first time in my whole life that I felt called to anything. All the other times, it had been my initiative. This time I felt God was calling me. I wondered if this letter was the answer to my prayer.
At the end of August 1986, I moved to Daybreak, into the New House, where six handicapped people—Rose, Adam, Bill, John, Trevor, and Raymond—and their four assistants welcomed me warmly. Friendships gradually developed with all the members of the house. But these bonds of friendship were not without great cost. I had to face the cost of recognizing my own handicaps! I had always known they were there, but I had always been able to keep them out of sight. But those who cannot hide their handicaps do not allow the assistants to hide theirs either. I was offered much support and guidance during my first months as I lived through my own fears and insecurities. Self-confrontation was the hardest battle of all.
The L’Arche community gradually became my home. Never in my life did I dream that men and women with a mental handicap would be the ones who would put their hands on me in a gesture of blessing and offer me a home. For a long time I had sought safety and security among the wise and clever, hardly aware that the things of the Kingdom are revealed to “little children,” that God has chosen “those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise.” But when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. The embrace of the Father became very real to me in the embraces of the physically and mentally poor.
Over the years at Daybreak I found the community to be full of love and support, and also hard to endure. Life in community did not keep the darkness away. To the contrary. It seems that the light that attracted me to L’Arche also made me conscious of the darkness in myself. In community, you really come to know yourself. Jealousy, anger, the feeling of being rejected or neglected, the sense of not truly belonging—all these emerged in the context of a community striving for a life of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.
LIFE TOGETHER IN COMMUNITY
Community life opened me up to the real spiritual combat: the struggle to keep moving toward the light precisely when the darkness is so real. For example, sometimes in community I put claims on people that are so high that nobody can live up to them—emotional claims and expectations of which I am not fully aware. I expect someone to take away my loneliness. I expect that person to give me a sense of at-homeness. I expect that when we live together, everything will be joyful and pleasant. I expect the community always to be a peaceful living together with no hard work or conflict. When my expectations are not realized, I am left feeling upset, lonely, and depressed. Why are my expectations of others so high? What need in me is not being addressed or fulfilled?
These questions lead me back to prayer and to the need for spiritual direction in my spiritual life and in my community relationships. I am reminded of how important it is that solitude precedes community and that family life is recognized as inherently difficult. Once solitude is embraced, I have learned that forgiveness and celebration can come to characterize authentic community even with its challenges.
COMMUNITY REQUIRES FORGIVENESS
Within the discipline of life in community are the twin gifts of forgiveness and celebration that need to be opened and used regularly. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not fulfilling all my needs and desires. Forgiveness says, “I know you love me, but you don’t have to love me unconditionally, because only God can do that.” I too must ask forgiveness for not being able to fulfill other people’s total needs, for no human being can do that.
We all have wounds. We all live in pain and disappointment. We all have feelings of loneliness that lurk beneath all our successes, feelings of uselessness that hide under all the praise, feelings of meaninglessness even when people say we are fantastic—and that is what makes us sometimes grab onto people and expect from them affection, affirmation, and love that they cannot give. If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we are guilty of idolatry. We say, “Love me!” and before long we become demanding and manipulative. It’s so important that we keep forgiving one another—not once in a while but every moment of life. This is what makes community possible, when we can come together in a forgiving and undemanding way.
Our heart longs for satisfaction, for total communion. But human beings, whether it’s your husband, your wife, your father, mother, brother, sister, or child, are all limited in giving the level of love and acceptance we all crave. But since we want so much and we get only part of what we want, we have to keep on forgiving people for not giving us all we want. So, I forgive you since you can only love me in a limited way. I forgive my mother that she is not everything I would like her to be. I forgive my father because he did the best he could. This is of enormous importance right now because constantly people look to blame their parents, their friends, and the church for not giving them what they need. Many people are so angry. They cannot forgive people for offering only limited expressions of an unlimited love. God’s love is unlimited; our love is not. Any relationship you enter into—in communion, friendship, marriage, community, or church—will always be riddled with frustration and disappointment. So forgiveness becomes the word for divine love in the human context.
. . . . .
Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us all together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.
As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!
Let me share a personal story that illustrates this truth. Shortly after I arrived at Daybreak, it seemed to me that God had given me a wonderful gift of love and special friendship. As this relationship grew and developed, I became very attached to a male friend. Looking back, I was overly attached and needy and had to let go, forgive, and be forgiven. I wrote a book about this called The Inner Voice of Love.
My friend Nathan had a surprising capability to open up a place in me that had been closed, and I focused all of my emotional needs on him. I became very dependent on him, which prevented me from making God and the community the true center of my life. In his presence I felt fully alive and loved, and I did not want to let him go. At a certain point, he could no longer hold on to me, and he said, “I no longer want to be with you. Whenever I’m with you, there is so much pressure. You want to be right with me all the time.”
Here was a person who really understood and loved me, who brought me in touch with important walled-off parts of myself, and who then abruptly ended the friendship. Well, I just broke down, totally broke down. I slipped into a terrible depression. I was totally paralyzed I couldn’t do ministry and was on the edge of despair—so I had to leave my community for several months and stay in a therapeutic center.
The clinical psychiatrist I saw dispassionately said, “It is very simple: you got infatuated with somebody, that person dropped you, you are depressed. It will take six months of grieving to get over it. Be sure you never see this person again, and it’ll all be fine. You are normal. On the scale in our psychiatric handbook, your neurosis is a number 2.” He seemed like a horse doctor to me.
When he said that it would take six months and that I would have to leave my community and never see this person again, I reacted negatively. He said that I never should have been a celibate because I obviously get very attached to people, so it isn’t positive. I just didn’t buy it. I said to the psychiatrist, “I’m not going to keep seeing you. You have me all figured out, my pain is all so simple to you, and I’m not going to see you anymore.”
I knew I had to forgive my dear friend for not being for me what I thought I needed. I could say it a thousand times, but my emotions weren’t there. I couldn’t forgive for a long time. I felt so angry, so rejected, so depressed, because my closest friend thought I was intolerable to live with?
Gradually, I was able to forgive my friend for not loving me fully as only God can. I had to forgive him for not being God! It wasn’t an intellectual task, but a matter of the heart. It was an enormous opportunity to grow into the truth of knowing that only God can give me what I want from another person.
I knew in my heart that what I experienced was a God-given relationship, that the love was real, that I experienced something that was extremely important. I knew that I didn’t have to leave my community, that the relationship could be healed and restored, and that together we could work it through. And I knew that I did not have to renounce my calling as a celibate priest in order to find fulfillment. In the beginning I did not see or say all that clearly. But when the pain diminished, I reclaimed myself and returned home.
I don’t deny the infatuation part of this crisis; I don’t want to make it sound only spiritual, yet it was God’s way of calling me to claim my belovedness and embodiment as a human being, to listen to that voice and hear God say, “I love you with an unconditional love. With or without a particular person in your life, I am with you and I am what you need. In your weakness, you would have turned to him; instead you came to me.”
It was very important that my community did not abandon me but supported me in this crisis. They sent me to that therapeutic center and came to visit me. When I felt worthless, I generalized it to say, nobody cares. The opposite, of course, was true. Community members said, “Just because your friend can no longer be with you doesn’t mean we don’t love you. We love you a lot. You’re very important to us.” I didn’t believe it at first and felt their love was very superficial. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have survived without them.
After all the pain and struggle to forgive and let go, a miracle of reconciliation occurred in our community. Not only was I able to reestablish contact with my friend, but our relationship over time was healed and restored. Finally, Nathan recognized that I was no longer projecting all my needs, and we again became very good friends.
FORGIVENESS LEADS TO CELEBRATION
The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God, then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God, a reflection of God’s great unconditional love. You can say, “I love you because you have such beautiful gifts of God’s love,” or, “You cannot give what only God can give, but what you have to offer is worth celebrating.” You can say, “Wow, that’s beautiful!”
To celebrate each other’s gifts does not mean giving each other little compliments—“You are so good at singing.” No, that’s a talent show. To celebrate another’s gift means to accept that person’s full humanity as a reflection of God.
By “celebrate” I mean to lift up, affirm, confirm, and rejoice in another person’s gifts and graces as reflections of God’s unlimited gift of love and grace. A husband or wife can do so much, but then you also need your community. The community is in a way a mosaic: every person is a little piece of a different color, and together all the pieces show us the face of God. But each little piece on its own is a very limited reflection of that great love.
Celebration is a very concrete expression of love. A birthday celebration, for example, simply says, “I’m happy you are here.” It doesn’t mean lifting up people’s talents, as in “You’re a good piano player.” You are not more gifted because you can play the piano better than I can. That’s just a talent. Your greater gift may be your capacity for bringing joy and peace into a room with your music. Celebration means lifting up people’s gifts of joy, peace, love, perseverance, kindness, gentleness. We lift up the gifts of the Spirit—for these are the reflections of God.
I have learned so much since coming to Daybreak. I’ve learned that my real gifts are not that I write books or that I taught at universities. My real gifts are discovered by and reflected back to me through community members who know me and love me well. Sometimes they say to me: “Henri, you give good advice. Why don’t you read some of your own books?” At other times, I find healing in being known and celebrated in my weakness and vulnerability. Suddenly I realize that I’m a good person in the eyes of people who don’t read my books and don’t care about my successes. These people can forgive me for my little egocentric gestures and behaviors that are always there.
In my community we have to do a lot of forgiving. But right in the midst of forgiving springs a celebration. With forgiveness and celebration, community becomes the place where we call forth the gifts of other people, lift them up, and say, “You are the beloved daughter and the beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”
CONNECTED THROUGH LOVE
Thus, when you discover your belovedness by God in solitude, you see the belovedness of other people in community and can call that beauty forth in ministry. It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved. The more you love others without conditions, the more you can love yourself the way God loves you and others. And the more you are loved by others, the more you realize how much you are the beloved of God. Finding your way home is learning how all love is connected, expressed, and lived out in community. As St. John so eloquently wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). [109-125]
EXERCISES FOR SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
The spiritual life can never be separated from a life together. True prayer, even the most intimate prayer, always leads to new connections with others. More than sermons, lectures, or individual reading, being together in a common search for God can deepen and broaden our life in the Spirit. The following principles may prove helpful in creating community and group formation:
PRINCIPLES FOR COMMUNITY-BUILDING
Leadership always is an issue in small groups or larger communities of faith. What form of leadership are you most comfortable with? Which leadership models do you find most challenging?
Remember, the primary purpose of community is to learn together about the life of the Spirit of God within and among us through prayer, support, and accountability. Rational analysis, interpersonal dynamics, intellectual discussion, and debate, while helpful in overcoming temporary obstacles, are not the primary spiritual tasks of a community of faith.
In order to find the right “wavelength” for group interaction, the word of God needs to be the center of our meetings. Concretely, this means that there should be no community meetings without reading scripture together. A good way to do this is for different members of the group to read the text slowly and loudly and for everyone else to listen with great reverence for the word.
Besides listening together to the word of God, it seems crucial that a good period of time be spent in silence. Being together in a prayerful silence during which the word can enter more deeply into our hearts can become one of the most community-forming experiences possible.
Speaking may be one of the most difficult things to do in both small groups and larger communities. We are so used to agreeing, disagreeing, arguing, and debating that we have often forgotten the language that helps us to build community and to recognize the mystery of the Spirit among us. Therefore, let our words be few. Let our lives loom large.
REFLECT AND JOURNAL
Who is in your faith community? What binds you together? What makes your community a challenge?
Who do you need to forgive for not being God? [126-127]
1. Although Henri told this parable many times, it most recently appears in Finding My Way Home (2001), p.87