Jesus The Hidden God by Henri Nouwen
Thefollowing passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Letters to Marc about Jesus,” published in 1987. In 1986, he wrote a series of letters to his eighteen year old nephew, Marc.
Friday, 18th April
My dear Marc,
This letter comes to you from Chateauneuf de Galaure, a small village in the Drome region, south of Lyons and east of the Rhone. I’m surprised at myself for being here, because before I went to France I’d never heard of Châteauneuf de Galaure, and now, eight months later, it’s become for me one of the most important places in the world. That probably sounds exaggerated to you, but I hope you’ll understand by the time you’ve finished this letter.
During my first month in Trosly I kept hearing the name of someone entirely unknown to me: Marthe Robin. Often, when someone tried to tell me how he or she had come to have a deep faith in Jesus, I would hear, “It was Marthe who set me on the right path.” I discovered, too, that her name was associated with a number of new spiritual movements in France. Wherever I turned to get a better insight into the development of French spirituality, I heard the name of Marthe Robin.
As you can imagine, I became increasingly curious. I began reading books about her and asking for more and more information. Then, one day, Thérèse Monique, a friend of mine in Trosly, said to me, “Marthe Robin was horn, lived, and died in Chãteauneuf de Galaure. If you want to discover the deeper significance of her life, you should go and spend a week there. Two good friends of mine, Bernard and Claudine, live very near Châteauneuf, and they’ll he glad to put you up. I will he glad to take you there in the car.” She was as good as her word.
It’s now April 18th, a Friday. I’ve been with Bernard and Claudine since last Sunday, and throughout the week I’ve had time and opportunity to find out about Marthe Robin’s life and to understand why she’s had and still has such an influence on the spiritual life inside France and, to an increasing extent, outside France as well.
Now I’d like to tell you one or two things about her, not lust because I happen to he here hut because, all along, I’ve been wanting to write to you about Jesus as the hidden God. I don’t think you’ll ever he able to penetrate the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus until it strikes you that the major part of Jesus’ life was hidden and that even the “public” years remained invisible as far as most people were concerned. Whereas the way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and get ting maximum exposure, God prefers to work in secret. You must have the nerve to let that mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you’re continually looking in the wrong direction. In God’s sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public. It’s quite possible that the reasons why God sustains our violent and homicidal world and continues giving us new opportunities for conversion will always remain unknown to us. Maybe while we focus our whole attention on the VIPs and their movements, on peace conferences and protest demonstrations, it’s the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence, who make God save us vet again from destruction. I often think that I’ve succeeded in staving true to my Christian and priestly calling thanks to the prayers and magnanimity of people who remain completely unknown to me during my lifetime. Perhaps the very greatest of saints remain anonymous.
Marthe Robin is one of the most impressive examples of God’s hidden presence in our world. She was horn in 1902. At sixteen she fell ill, and her illness, for which the doctors could find no explanation, grew worse and worse. Slowly but surely she became aware that God was calling her to a life in which she would he linked in a special way to the suffering of Jesus. When she was twenty-three, she wrote an “act of abandonment.” In it she gave to the God of love all that she had: her memory her reason, and her will; her body with all its senses, her mind with all its faculties, her heart with all its feelings. “I belong to you without any reservations, forever. 0 Beloved of my soul! It is you only whom I want, and for your love I renounce all.” (Raymond Peyret, Marthe Robin. New York: Alba House, 1983. p.39)
When she was twenty-six her legs became totally paralyzed, and soon afterwards her arms. From then on she did not eat, drink, or sleep. From 1928 to her death in 1981 she took no food other than weekly Holy Communion. When I first heard about this it sounded to me like a pious fairy tale, but now that I’ve talked to a lot of people who knew Marthe Robin personally, I realize that God can achieve a great deal more in a human being than we who are of little faith are prepared to believe possible. The total “abstinence” of Marthe is one of the ways in which Jesus showed his love to her.
In September 1930 Jesus appeared to Marthe and asked her, “Do you wish to become as I am?” She replied, “Yes,” and soon afterwards she received the wounds of Jesus in her hands, feet, and side. She also received the crown of thorns. From that time on, week by week, Martbe began to enter fully into the Passion of Jesus. Her suffering with Jesus was so intense that tears of blood flowed from her eyes and the marks of invisible thorns appeared across her head.
Every Friday she entered so fully into the death of Jesus that only on Saturday did she come to herself again; and then until Sunday or Monday she remained in a state of total exhaustion. As the years passed her suffering grew deeper. In the beginning she suffered with Jesus, hut little by little she became the suffering Jesus. To Jean Guitton, a well-known French philosopher who visited her several times, she said:
At the start, I recognized in my visions people along the road that Jesus took to Calvary But now I’ve gone beyond that. What occupies roe now is the Passion, uniquely Jesus. I don’t know how I am to explain it. Things like that are so grievous that you would die if God did not support you. And yet it’s exquisite.” (Jean Guitton, Protrait de Marthe Robin. Paris: Grasset, 1985, p.199)
I am not telling you all this for the sake of relating something uncanny or gloomy or weird. I want to show you that in the midst of our warring world there are people who, in a very hidden way, enter into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering, a suffering for the world’s sake. This happened hack in the thirteenth century with St Francis of Assisi, and it has happened in our lifetime with Marthe Robin.
A number of times now, I’ve been to pray in the room where for fifty-one years Marthe experienced the suffering of Jesus. Many of those who knew her say that there has probably never been anyone who has lived out so directly and so fully in their own body the suffering and death of Jesus. Every time I walk into that little room, I experience what I have so far never experienced anywhere else: a peace which the world cannot give; a joy which doesn’t conflict with suffering; a total surrender which makes true freedom possible; and a love which comes from God himself, but which often remains unknown to us human beings. There I discover quite concretely what life is about and what is asked of me if I want to spread the love of God. It’s a life in which joy and the cross are never separated. It’s a life which doesn’t seek influence, power, success, and popularity, hut trusts that God is secretly at work and, in secret, is causing something new to grow. It’s a life of mortification, that is to say, of dying to old ways of being so as to make it possible for us to hear new fruit.
Many people came to visit Marthe during her lifetime to seek her advice and counsel. In utter simplicity and often with a great sense of humor, she would chat with them. It was extremely rare for her to talk about herself. Her concern and compassion were always directed toward her guests. Not infrequently, she would understand them even before they’d asked her anything. Some times she would give quite explicit instructions, sometimes she only asked questions, but always people left her room with a profound feeling of inner peace.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the renewal of the French church began, to a great extent, with Marthe. In God’s name she provided a mandate for setting up new Christian schools and building retreat houses; she stressed the importance of the laity in the church; she inspired priests to initiate new religious communities; and she helped people decide whether to marry or to enter a religious order. The renewal and deepening of religious life in France is inconceivable apart from her. After her death on 6th February 1981, her influence became greater than ever. Jesus says: “… unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” Only now, after Marthe’s death, is the significance of her life becoming apparent.
Whenever I see the small French homestead where Marthe spent her days, and talk with the two elderly women who looked after her year by year and even now still welcome the people who come to pray in her room, I’m hound to he reminded of Jesus’ words: “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.” While the most frightful things were happening in Europe, and while two world wars were unveiling the demonic dimensions of evil, Jesus disclosed to a frail countrywoman in France his unfathomable love for humankind.
You see here an aspect of Jesus that we can SO easily forget. Jesus is the hidden God. He became a human being among a small, oppressed people, under very difficult circumstances. He was held in contempt by the rulers of that country and was eventually put to an ignominious death between two criminals.
There was nothing spectacular about Jesus’ life—–far from it! Even when you look at Jesus’ miracles, you find that he did not heal or call back to life people in order to get publicity. He frequently forbade them even to talk about it. His resurrection too was a hidden event. Only his disciples and a few of the women and men who had known him well before his death were allowed to see him as the risen Lord.
Now that Christianity has become one of the major world religions and millions of people utter the name of Jesus every day, it’s hard for us to believe that Jesus revealed God in hidden- ness. But neither Jesus’ life nor his death nor his resurrection were intended to astound us with the great power of God. God became a lowly, hidden, almost invisible God.
I’m constantly struck by the fact that wherever the gospel of Jesus bears fruit, we come across this hiddenness. The great Christians throughout history have always been lowly people who sought to he hidden. Benedict hid himself in the vale of Subiaco, Francis in the Carceri outside Assisi, Ignatius in the grotto of Manresa, and the little Thérèse in the Carmel of Lisieux. Whenever you hear about saintly people, you sense a deep longing for that hiddenness, that seclusion. We so easily forget it, hut Paul too withdrew into the wilderness for two years before he started on his preaching mission.
The initial reaction of someone who has a really personal encounter with Jesus is not to start shouting it from the rooftops, but to dwell secretly in the presence of God. It is very important for you to realize that perhaps the greater part of God’s work in this world may go unnoticed. There are a number of people who in these days have become widely known as great saints or influential Christians: Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Bishop Romero in El Salvador, Padre Pio in Italy and Dorothy Day in New York; hut the greatest part of God’s work in our history could well remain completely unknown. That’s a mystery which is difficult to grasp in an age that attaches so much value to publicity. We tend to think that the more people know and talk about something, the more important it must be. That is understandable considering the fact that great notoriety often means big money, and big money often means a large amount of power, and power easily creates the illusion of importance. In our society it is often statistics that determine what’s important: the best-selling record, the most popular hook, the richest man, the highest building, the most expensive car. With the enormous spread and growth of advertising, it’s become nearly impossible to believe that what’s really important happens in secret. Yet . . . we do possess some intimations of this. A human life begins in the seclusion of the womb, and the most determinative experiences occur in the privacy of the family. The seedling grows in the seclusion of the soil, and the egg is hatched in the seclusion of the nest. Like creativity, intimacy too needs seclusion. We know intuitively that everything which moves us by its delicacy, vulnerability, and pristine beauty can stand only very little public exposure. The mass media, which magnify creativity and intimacy, are proof of that. What is precious and sacred in hiddenness often becomes cheap and even vulgar when exposed to the public by the mass media. Publicity standardizes, hardens, and not infrequently suffocates what it exposes.
Many great minds and spirits have lost their creative force through too early or too rapid exposure to the public. We know it; we sense it; hut we easily forget it because our world persists in proclaiming the big lie: “Being unknown means being unloved.” If you’re ready to trust your intuition and so preserve a degree of healthy skepticism in the face of the current propaganda, you are more likely to detect the hidden presence of God. It strikes me again and again that, in our publicity-seeking world, a lot of discussions about God take it as their starting point that even God has to justify himself. People often say, “If that God of yours really exists, then why doesn’t he make his omnipotence more visible in this chaotic world of ours?” God is called to account, as it were, and mockingly invited to prove, just for once, that God really does exist. Again, you often hear someone say, “I’ve no need whatever for God. I can perfectly well look after myself. As a matter of fact, I’ve yet to receive any help from God with my problems!” The bitterness and sarcasm evident in re marks of this sort show what’s expected of God: that God should at least he concerned about his own popularity People often talk as though God has as great a need for recognition as we do.
Now look at Jesus, who came to reveal God to us, and you see that popularity in any form is the very thing he avoids. He is constantly pointing out that God is revealed in secrecy. It sounds very paradoxical, but accepting and perhaps even entering into that paradox sets you on the road of the spiritual life.
With these thoughts about the hidden revelation of Jesus, is it now possible for you to start moving spiritually? 1 think you can, because the truth that Jesus makes himself known to you in secret, requires that you start looking for him in your own seclusion. It is his seclusion, his hiddenness, that invites you to enter into your own.
And here we’re back again with the mystery of our own heart. Our heart is at the center of our being human. There our deepest thoughts, intuitions, emotions, and decisions find their source. But it’s also there that we are most alienated from ourselves. We know little or nothing of our heart. We keep our distance from it, as though we were afraid of it. What is most intimate is also what frightens us most. Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden center; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in a certain way, we often have no answer, thus proving to he strangers in our own house.
The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make his love known to us there, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us. In the privacy of our heart, therefore, we can learn not only to know Jesus, but through Jesus to know ourselves as well. If you reflect on this a hit more you will see an interaction between God’s love revealing itself to you and a constant growth in self-knowledge. Each time you let the love of God penetrate deeper into your heart, you lose a hit of your anxiety; and every time you shed a hit of your anxiety, you learn to know yourself better and long all the more to he known by your loving God.
Thus the more you learn to love God, the more you learn to know and to cherish yourself. Self-knowledge and self-love are the fruit of knowing and loving God. You can see better now what is intended by the great commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Laying our hearts totally open to God leads to a love of ourselves that enables us to give whole-hearted love to our fellow human beings. In the seclusion of our hearts we learn to know the hidden presence of God; and with that spiritual knowledge we can lead a loving life.
But all of this requires discipline. The spiritual life demands a discipline of the heart. Discipline is the mark of a disciple of Jesus. This doesn’t mean, however, that you must make things difficult for yourself, but only that you make available the inner space where God can touch you with an all-transforming love. We human beings are so faint-hearted that we have a lot of trouble leaving an empty space empty. We like to fill it all up with ideas, plans, duties, tasks, and activities.
It strikes me increasingly just how hard-pressed people are nowadays. It’s as though they’re tearing about from one emergency to another. Never solitary, never still, never ever really free, but always busy about something that just can’t wait. Amid this frantic burly-burly we lose touch with life itself. We have the experience of being busy, while nothing real seems to happen. The more agitated we are, the more compacted our lives become and the more difficult it is to keep a space where God can let something truly new take place.
The discipline of the heart helps us to let God into our hearts and become known to us there, in the deepest recesses of our own being. This is not so easy to do; we like to he master in our own house and don’t want to admit that our house is God’s house too. God wants to be together with us where we really live and, by loving us there, shows us the way to become a complete human being. God’s love is a demanding love, even a jealous love; and when we let that love speak within us, we are led into places where we often would rather not go.
And yet we know that everyone who has allowed God’s love to enter into his or her heart has not only become a better human being, hut has also contributed significantly to making a better world, The lives of the saints show us that. And so I say, make room in your heart for God and let God cherish you. There you can be alone with God. There heart speaks to heart and there in that holy seclusion the new person will he born in you. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being horn from above.” It is this rebirth that is made possible when you dare to he alone with God. It takes place in the deepest secrecy, hut its effect reaches to the ends of the earth. Where God’s heart speaks to your heart, there everything is made new.
In this letter too I want to come hack for a moment to the Eucharist; for the Eucharist is preeminently the sacrament of God’s hiddenness. What is more ordinary than a piece of bread and a sip of wine? What is simpler than the words: “Take and eat, take and drink. This is my body and blood … Do this in remembrance of me?”
I’ve often stood with friends around a small table, taken bread and wine, and said the words which Jesus spoke when he took leave of his disciples; nothing pretentious, nothing spectacular, no crowd of people, no stirring songs, no formality. Just a few people eating a piece of bread and drinking a little wine, not bread enough to make a meal and not enough wine to quench a thirst. And yet . . . in this hiddenness the risen Jesus is present, and God’s love is revealed. Just as God became a human being for us in hiddenness, so too in hiddenness God becomes food and drink for us. That anyone can pass by, unheeding, is actually the greatest event that can happen among us human beings. In the course of my stay at L’Arche in France I discovered how closely Jesus’ hiddenness in the Eucharist is hound up with his hiddenness in all people.
I still remember Mother Teresa once saving to me that you can’t see Jesus in the poor unless you can see him in the Eucharist. At the time, that remark seemed to me a hit high-flying and pious, hut now that I’ve spent a year living with handicapped people, I’m beginning to understand better what she meant. It isn’t really possible to see Jesus in human beings if you can’t see him in the hidden reality of the bread that comes down from heaven. In human beings you can see this, that, and the other: angels and devils, saints and brutes, benevolent souls and malevolent power-maniacs. However, it’s only when you’ve learned from personal experience how much Jesus cares for you and how much he desires to be your daily food, that you can learn to see that every human heart is a dwelling place for Jesus. When your heart is touched by the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, then you will receive new eyes capable or recognizing that same presence in the hearts of others. Heart speaks to heart. Jesus in our heart speaks to Jesus in the hearts of our fellow men and women. That’s the Eucharistic mystery of which we are a part.
We want to see results, and preferably instantly But God works in secret and with a divine patience. By taking part in the Eucharist you can come gradually to understand this. Then your heart can begin to open up to the God who suffers in the people around you.
I began this letter by talking about Marthe Robin. For more than fifty years the only food she took was the Eucharistic bread, brought to her once a week. Jesus was indeed her whole being. Because of this she could teach her visitors how to discover Jesus in their own hearts. For many of them that discover was the beginning of a radical spiritual transformation.When we know through personal experience that God does indeed live in us, we are able, like Jesus himself, to work miracles and to change the face of the earth. We do this not by seeking publicity, hut h constantly seeking Jesus in the hidden center of our lives and the lives of our fellow men and women
Dear Marc, I hope that in this letter I’ve been able to bring you a little closer to Jesus as the hidden God. I shall leave it at this In my next letter, a final one, I want to offer von some
suggestions for living, day by day, a life in which Jesus is, and
will always he, at the center.
Warmest greetings to your mother and father, and to Frêdérique and Reinier.