Strength by Henri Nouwen
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Inner Voice of Love,” published in 1996. The book was his secret journal, written between December 1987 and June 1988, during the most difficult period of his life. Everything came crashing down—his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, his hope for healing, his trust in God . . . everything. He was helped by two guides, who did not leave him alone and kept gently moving him from one day to the next, holding on to him as parents held a wounded child. Nearly every day, usually immediately after meeting with his guides, he wrote a “spiritual imperative”—a command to himself that had emerged from their session. The imperatives were directed to his own heart. They were not meant for anyone but himself. But 8 years later he was persuaded to release them for publication.
1.Live Your Wounds Through (pg 109)
You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you uncover you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. Many tears still need to be shed.
But do not be afraid. The simple fact that you are more aware of your wounds shows that you have sufficient strength to face them.
The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.
Understanding your wounds can only be healing when that understanding is put at the service of your heart. Going to your heart with your wounds is not easy; it demands letting go of many questions. You want to know “Why was I wounded? When? How? By whom?” You believe that the answers to these questions will bring relief. But at best they only offer you a little distance from your pain. You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain and trust in the healing power of your heart. There your hurts can find a safe place to be received, and once they have been received, they lose their power to inflict damage and become fruitful soil for new life.
Think of each wound as you would of a child who has been hurt by a friend. As long as that child is ranting and raving, trying to get back at the friend, one wound leads to another. But when the child can experience the consoling embrace of a parent, she or he can live through the pain, return to the friend, forgive, and build up a new relationship. Be gentle with yourself, let your heart be your loving parent as you live your wounds through.
2.Permit your Pain to Become The Pain (pg 103)
Your pain deep as it is, is connected with specific circumstances. You do not suffer in the abstract. You suffer because someone hurts you at a specific time and in a specific place. Your feelings of rejection, abandonment, and uselessness are rooted in the most concrete events. In this way all suffering is unique. This is eminently true of the suffering of Jesus. His disciples left Him, Pilate condemned Him, Roman soldiers tortured and crucified Him.
Still, as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist. This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering. Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.
Paradoxically, therefore, healing means moving from your pain to the pain. When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive. You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge. But real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life. That is the way of Jesus, who prayed on the cross: “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus’ suffering, concrete as it was, was the suffering of all humanity. His pain was the pain.
Every time you can shift your attention away from the external situation that caused your pain and focus on the pain of humanity in which you participate, your suffering becomes easier to bear. It becomes a “light burden” and an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30). Once you discover that you are called to live in solidarity with the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners, the refugees, the sick, and the dying, your very personal pain begins to be converted into the pain and you find new strength to live it. Herein lies the hope of all Christians.
3.Stand Erect in Your Sorrow (pg 61)
The question is “Can you stand erect in your pain, your loneliness, your fears, and your experience of being rejected?” The danger is that you will be swept off your feet by these feelings. They will be here for a long time, and they will go on tempting you to be drowned in them. But you are called to acknowledge them and feel them while remaining on your feet.
Remember, Mary stood under the cross. She suffered her sorrow standing. Remember, Jesus spoke about the cosmic disasters and the glorious appearance of the Son of Man and said to His disciples, “When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.”(Luke 2:28) Remember, Peter and John cured the crippled man who was begging at the temple entrance. Peter said to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!” (Acts 3:6) Then he took him by the right hand and helped him to stand up.
You have to dare to stand erect in your struggles. The temptation is to complain, to beg, to be overwhelmed and find your satisfaction in the pity you evoke. But you know already that this is not gaining for you what your heart most desires. As long as you remain standing, you can speak freely to others, reach out to them, and receive from them. Thus you speak and act from your center and invite others to speak and act from theirs. In this way, real friendships are possible and real community can be formed. God gives you the strength to stand in your struggle and to respond to them standing.
4.Know Yourself as Truly Loved (pg 74)
Some people have lived such oppressed lives that their true selves have become completely unreachable to them. They need help to break through their oppression. Their power to free themselves has to be at least as strong as the power that keeps them down. Sometimes they need permission to explode: to let out their deepest emotion and to shake off the alien forces. Screaming, yelling, crying, and even physical fighting might be expression of liberation.
You, however, do not seem to need such explosion. For you, the problem is not to get something out of your system but to take something in that deepens and strengthens your sense of your goodness and allows your anguish to be embraced by love.
You will discover that the more love you can take in and hold on to, the less fearful you will become. You will speak more simply, more directly, and more freely about what is important to you, without fear of other people’s reactions. You will also use fewer words, trusting that you communicate your true self even when you do not speak much.
The disciples of Jesus had a real sense of His loving presence as they went out to preach. They had seen Him, eaten with Him, and spoken with Him after His resurrection. They had come to live a deep connectedness with Him and drew from that connectedness the strength to speak out with simplicity and directness, unafraid of being misunderstood or rejected.
The more you come to know yourself—spirit, mind, and body—as truly loved, the freer you will be to proclaim the good news. That is the freedom of the children of God.
5. Accept Your Identity as a Child of God (pg 70)
Your true identity is a child of God. This is the identity you have to accept. Once you have claimed it and settled in it, you can live in a world that gives you much joy as well as pain. You can receive the praise as well as the blame that comes to you as an opportunity for strengthening your basic identity, because the identity that makes you free is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. You belong to God, and it is as a child of God that you are sent into the world.
You need spiritual guidance; you need people who can keep you anchored in your true identity. The temptation to disconnect from that deep place in you where God dwells and to let yourself be drowned in the praise or blame of the world always remains.
Since that deep place in you where your identity as a child of God is rooted has been unknown to you for a long time, those who were able to touch you there had a sudden and often overwhelming power over you. They became part of your identity. You could no longer live without them. But they could not fulfil that divine role, so they left you, and you felt abandoned. But it is precisely that experience of abandonment that called you back to your true identity as a child of God.
Only God can fully dwell in that deepest place in you and give you a sense of safety. But the danger remains that you will let other people run away with your sacred center, thus throwing you into anguish.
It might take a great deal of time and discipline to fully reconnect your deep, hidden self and your public self, which is known, loved, and accepted but also criticised by the world. Gradually, though, you will begin feeling more connected and become more fully who you truly are—a child of God. There lies your real freedom.
6.Receive All the Love that comes to You (pg 55)
While you may feel physically and mentally strong, you still experience a forceful undercurrent of anguish. You sleep well, you work well, but there are few waking moments when you do not feel that throbbing pain in your heart that makes everything seem up in the air. You know that you are progressing, but you can’t understand why this anguish keeps pervading everything you think, say, or do. There is still a deep, unresolved pain, but you cannot take it away yourself. It exists far deeper than you can reach.
Be patient and trust. You have to move gradually deeper into your heart. There is a place far down that is like a turbulent river, and that place frightens you. But do not fear. One day it will be quiet and peaceful.
You have to keep moving, as you are doing. Live a faithful, disciplined life, a life that gives you a sense of inner strength, a life in which you can receive more and more of the love that comes to you. Wherever there is real love for you, take it and be strengthened by it. As your body, heart, and mind come to know that you are loved, your weakest part will feel attracted to that love. What has remained separated and unreachable will let itself be drawn into the love you have been able to receive. One day you will discover that your anguish is gone. It will leave you because your weakest self let itself be embraced by your love.
You are not yet there, but you are moving fast. There will be a bit more pain and struggle. You have to dare to live through it. Keep walking straight. Acknowledge your anguish, but do not let it pull you out of yourself. Hold on to your chosen direction, your discipline, your prayer, your work, your guides, and trust that one day love will have conquered enough of you that even the most fearful part will allow love to cast out all fear.