Who Is God For Me 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.
ONE GOOD way to answer big questions like Who is God? To whom am I praying? and Who is God for me? is to tell stories such as the old Indian tale about the four blind men and the elephant:
–Four Blind Men and the Elephant
There are four blind men who discoverer an elephant. Since the men have never encountered an elephant before, they grope about, seeking to understand and describe this new phenomenon. One grasps the trunk and concludes it is a snake. Another explores one of the elephant’s legs and describes it as a tree. A third finds the elephant’s tail and announces that it is a rope. And the fourth blind man, after discovering the elephant’s side, concludes that it is, after all, a wall.
Which one is right? Each in his blindness is describing the same thing: an elephant. Thus, all are right, but none wholly so.1
WHO IS THE ONE TO WHOM I PRAY?
When I was staying at Genesee Abbey, I asked the Abbot a very basic question: “When I pray, to whom do I pray?” or, “When I say `Lord,’ what do I mean?”
The Abbot responded very differently than I expected. He said, “Indeed, this is the real question, this is the most important question you can raise.” He stressed with great convincing emphasis that if I really wanted to take that question seriously, I should realize that there would be little room left for other things. Knowledge of God is a subject one can never fully master.
“It is far from easy,” he said, “to make that question the center of your meditation. You will discover that it involves every part of yourself because the question `Who is the God to whom I pray?’ leads directly to the question `Who am I who wants to pray to God?’ And then you will soon wonder about God’s multivalent character, and ask, `Why is the God of justice also the Lord of love; the God of fear also the God of gentle compassion?’ This leads you to the center of your heart—the core of our being.” What the Abbot meant by “heart” includes the deep recesses of our psyche, our moods and feelings, our emotions and passions, also our intuitions, insights, and visions. The heart is the place where we are most human. A listening heart therefore means a heart in which we stand open to God with all of our questions, with all that we are, and with all that we have. That is a great act of trust and confidence.
“In the quiet meditation of the listening heart, is there an answer?” I asked. “Yes and no,” said the Abbot. “You will find out in your meditation. You might someday have a flash of understanding even while the question still remains and pulls you closer to God.
But it is not a question that can be simply one of your questions. In a way, it needs to be your only question around which all that you do finds its place. It requires a certain decision to make that question the center of your meditation.”
BE STILL AND KNOW
Psalm 46 speaks to us about how to make the question of God the center of our life and how to find the God who wants to be found:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains, fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. …”Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in earth.” (Psalm 46:1-4, 10)
The Psalmist similarly hears God declare: “Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know what kind of God I am. Be still and know that I am who I am and that I will be there for you.”
Each of the four blind men in the parable touch a part of the elephant, just as four persons of faith are in touch with different aspects of God. All know the truth about the reality they touch, but none wholly so. Reflecting on the wisdom of this story in relation to the question of God in the Psalm, I wish to say four things about God, realizing that though these things may be true, none are fully so. First, God is with us. Second, God is personal. Third, God is hidden. And fourth, God is looking for us. Then I want to challenge you to “be still and know” in your heart that God is God.
GOD IS WITH US
Truly the good news is that God is not a distant God, a God to be feared and avoided, a God of revenge, but a God who is moved by our pains and participates in the fullness of the human struggle. God is a compassionate God. This means, first of all, that God is a God who has chosen to be with us. As soon as we call God, “God-with-us,” we enter into a new relationship of intimacy. By calling God Immanuel, we recognize that God is committed to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us. God-with-us is a close God, a God whom we call our refuge, our stronghold, our wisdom, and, even more intimately, our helper, our shepherd, our love. We will never really know God as a compassionate God if we do not understand with our heart and mind that God came and lived among us and with us (John 1:14).
The way God is with us is through the word made flesh in Jesus, who walks beside us with love and understanding. I remember a critical time when the Lord walked with me in a special way. After being hit by the mirror of a passing van, I ended up in the hospital with five broken ribs and a bleeding spleen. My life was in real danger. As I faced surgery, I let myself enter into the portal of death. What I experienced was pure and unconditional love. I heard a Voice say: “Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” When the nurses strapped me on the operating table, I let go of my fear and felt an immense inner peace. I was told I had lost two-thirds of my blood and had narrowly escaped death. Although Jesus was there to greet me, I was sent back for a purpose—to speak the truth from Above to below, from Eternity into time. Emmanuel—God is with us.
GOD IS PERSONAL
A second truth about God is that God is with us in a personal way. I traveled to St. Petersburg in July 1986 to study Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son. While sitting in front of the painting in the Hermitage, trying to absorb what I saw, many groups of tourists passed by. Even though they spent less than a minute with the painting, almost all of the guides described it as a painting of the compassionate father. Instead of being called The Return of the Prodigal Son, it could easily have been called The Welcome by the Compassionate Father.
Looking at the way Rembrandt portrays the father, there came to me a whole new interior understanding of tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness. Seldom, if ever, has God’s immense, compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant and human way. The most divine qualities are captured in the most human gestures and relationships. God, the creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a loving parent expressed most often in the New Testament as Abba, a kind, gentle, and most intimate father.
Abba is a very intimate word. The best translation for it is “Daddy.” The word, Abba expresses trust, safety, confidence, belonging, and, most of all, intimacy. It does not have the connotations of authority, power, and control that the word father often evokes. On the contrary, Abba implies an embracing and nurturing love that comes to us from our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, spouses, friends, and lovers.
Calling God “Abba, Father” is different from giving God a familiar name. Calling God “Abba” is entering into the same intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had. This relationship is called Spirit, and this Spirit is given to us by Jesus and enables us to cry out with him, “Abba, Father.”
Calling God “Abba, Father” is a cry of the heart, a prayer welling up from our innermost being (see Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6). It has nothing to do with labeling God but everything to do with claiming God as the source of who we are. This claim does not come from any sudden insight or acquired conviction; it is the claim that the Spirit of Jesus makes in communion with our spirits. It is the claim of love.
A closer look at Rembrandt’s painting also reveals the image of a loving mother receiving her son home. God is personal yet beyond gender and limitations. What I see in Rembrandt’s painting in the welcoming figure is not only a father who “clasps his son in his arms” but also a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang. Every time I look at the tent-like and wings-like cloak in Rembrandt’s painting, I sense the motherly quality of God’s love, and my heart begins to sing in the words inspired by the Psalmist:
[You] who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty—say to your God:
My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!
… You conceal me with your pinions
and under your wings, I shall find refuge. (Psalm 90)2
The deeper meaning of the “return of the prodigal son” is the return to God’s womb, the return to the very origins of being, and again echoes Jesus’ exhortation to Nicodemus to be reborn from above. What I see here is God as Mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near-blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent-over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief; desire, hope, and endless waiting.
The mystery, indeed, is that God in her infinite compassion has linked herself for eternity with the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. This choice causes her grief when they leave; this choice brings her gladness when they return. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from her have returned home and gathered together around the table prepared for them.
The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother.
GOD IS HIDDEN
A third aspect of God is a very difficult one to accept: God is hidden as well as able to be found, absent as well as present. The hidden and mysterious aspect of God is celebrated in the classical mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing.3
When we first experience the reality of God’s presence in our lives, when we return home to God’s personal and loving embrace, we are initially sheltered from the truth of the hiddenness and absence of God. Eventually, we may come to understand that this too is an aspect of divinity.
Ultimately, we discover that God cannot be understood or grasped by the human mind. The full truth of God escapes our human capacities. The only way to come close to it is by a constant emphasis on human limits to “have” or “hold” the whole truth. We cannot explain God or God’s presence in history. As soon as we identify God with any specific event or situation, we play God and distort the truth. We can be faithful only in our affirmation that God has not deserted us but calls us in the middle of all the unexplainable absurdities of life.
As you consciously seek to be formed by God, it is very important to be deeply aware of this. There is a great temptation to suggest to myself or others where God is working and where not, when God is present and when not, but nobody, no Christian leader, priest, or pastor, no monk or nun, and no spiritual director has any “special” knowledge about God. The fullness of God cannot be limited by any human concept or prediction. God is greater than our mind and heart and perfectly free to be revealed where and when God wants.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison writes: “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). Before God and with God we live without God.”4 In meditating on the question “Who is God and who is God for me?” we touch the terrifying truth that our fragile lives in fact vibrate between two sides of the darkness. We hesitantly come forth out of the darkness of birth and slowly vanish into the darkness of death. We move from dust to dust, from unknown to unknown, from mystery to mystery.
We try to keep a vital balance on the thin rope of life that is stretched between the two definitive poles that mark our chronological lives. We are surrounded by the reality of the unseen and the unknown, which fills every part of our life with terror but at the same time holds the secret mystery of our being alive. That secret is this: “though we walk in darkness, we have seen a great light” (Matthew 4:16). And this light, while it can be masked, cannot go out, as it shines for all eternity.
The light of God is beyond the darkness—beyond our hearts and minds, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, and beyond all the events and experiences that make up our lives. Still God is in the center of all of it.
In prayer and mediation, God’s presence is never separated from God’s absence, and God’s absence is never separated from God’s presence in the heart. The presence of God is so much beyond the human experience of being near to another that it quite easily is misperceived as absence. The absence of God, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of God’s presence. This is powerfully expressed in Psalm 22:1-5:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The words of my groaning do nothing to save me.
My God, I call by day but you do not answer,
at night, but I find no respite.
Yet you, the Holy One,
who make your home in the praises of Israel,
in you our ancestors put their trust,
they trusted and you set them free.
To you they called for help and were delivered,
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
This prayer of abandonment is not only the expression of the experience of the people of Israel but also a centerpiece of the Christian experience. When Jesus echoed these words on the Cross, total aloneness and full acceptance touched each other. In that moment of complete emptiness, all was fulfilled. In that hour of darkness, new light was seen. While death was witnessed, life was affirmed. Where God’s absence was most loudly expressed, God’s presence was most profoundly revealed.
The mystery of God’s presence therefore can be touched only by a deep awareness of God’s absence. It is in our longing for the absent God that we discover the footprints of the Divine One. It is in the realization of God’s presence that we know that we have been touched by loving hands. It is into this mystery of divine darkness and divine light—God’s absence and God’s presence—that we enter when we pray.
Once we enter into the center of our heart, or what the mystics call the “cloud of unknowing,” we come to know God in a deeper way as our creator, redeemer, and sustainer, as the God who is the source, the center, and the purpose of our existence, as the God who wants to give us unconditional, unlimited, and unrestrained love, and as the God who wants to be loved by us with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.
In the cloud of unknowing, the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence dissolves. It is the place of the great encounter, from which all other encounters derive their meaning. It is the place where the various glimpses of God—God-with-us, God as Father and Mother, God as absent yet present—come together as one. In the solitude of the heart, in the depths of the soul, in the cloud of unknowing, we meet God.
GOD IS LOOKING FOR US
A fourth truth about the God to whom we pray is that God is seeking us. We do not find God, but God finds us.
God is the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep. God is the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps out the house, and searches everywhere for her lost coin until she has found it. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their sinful behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, and begs and urges them to come home. It might sound strange, but God wants to find us as much, if not more, than we want to find God.
For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by God?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” The question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” And finally, the question is not “Who is God for me?” but “Who am I to God?”
The good news is that God is scanning the horizon for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. In the same way, God is looking for you. [71-81]
EXERCISES FOR SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
How would you answer the eternal questions of the heart: Who is God? What is God like? Who is God for me? Discuss this with your spiritual director or prayer group.
Reflect on Psalm 46 and discuss in a small group the four “partial truths” about God’s nature and desire: God is with us, God is personal, God is hidden as light beyond the darkness and as presence in the absence, and God is looking for us where we are. Which truth relates most to your spiritual experience? Discuss this with your spiritual director or prayer group.
. . . .
I want to challenge you to develop a discipline of contemplative prayer and meditation—a way to “be still and know” in your heart that God is looking for you. Imagine the prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb. He did not experience the presence of God in the mighty wind, nor in the powerful earthquake, nor in the consuming fire. He heard God speak in a whisper, in a still, small, gentle voice (see 1 Kings 19:9-13). Imagine the community gathered around the camp singing Psalm 46. God had delivered them from the tempest of roaring mountains, filling rocks, and surging waters. God was their refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore they did not fear. Instead, they sang and became still. They listened for God’s whisper. The practice of contemplative prayer and meditation makes us more sensitive to God’s whisper.
In this spirit, as an exercise, I offer you a simple meditation on Psalm 46:105 Read it in solitude, or listen as someone else reads it slowly and interspersed with silence in a small circle of friends. Then discuss your experience of meditation with your spiritual director or soul friend.
A GUIDED MEDITATION ON PSALM 46:10
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still: Be quiet…. Be silent…. Be tranquil. Be present…. Be now. . . . Be here….
The first task of the disciple is to be with the Lord … to sit at His feet, to listen and to be attentive to all He says, does, and asks.
Our Lord is all we need and want…. Our stronghold, our refuge, our shepherd, our wisdom. God cares for us, feeds us … gives us life. . .
Be still…. It is hard…. It means to let God speak to us … breathe in us … act in us … pray in us…. Let God enter into the most hidden parts of our being … let God touch us even there where it may hurt us and cause us pain….
To be still is to trust … to surrender … to let go … to have faith.
Be still…. God is and God acts … not once in a while … not on special occasions … but all the time…. Be still and listen to the one who speaks to you always, feel the actions of the one who acts always … and taste the presence of the one who is present always.
Know: Come to know … real knowledge … full intimate knowing.
A form of diagnosis … a knowing through and through. A knowing with the heart, a knowing by heart…. Be still and know. Come to that still knowledge. There is a very restless knowledge, a confusing, distracting, dividing knowledge … but knowing God … is a knowing of the heart … of the whole person. It is a knowing that is also seeing, hearing, touching, smelling.
Be still and know that I am God.
That is not meant to be a fearful knowledge … but a peaceful knowledge. God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living, God is not a revengeful God, but a God of Love. Know that I am God … your God. The God who is only love . . . the God who touches you with his limitless and unconditional love.
Be still and know that I love you … that I hold you in the palm of my hand … that I have counted the hairs of your head … that you are the apple of my eye … that your name is written in my heart. …”Do not be afraid … it is I”
There is nothing in us that needs to be hidden from God’s love. Our guilt … our shame … our fear … our sins … He wants to see it, touch it, heal it … and make himself known. There is no other God than the Lord of Love.
Be still and know that I am God. God is not in the storm, nor in the earthquake, nor in fire, but in the still, small voice, the gentle breeze, and the sheer silence …
Be still and know that I am God. Take these words with you in the week to come… let them be like a little seed planted in the good soil of your heart and let it grow …
Be still and know that I am God.
O Lord, I know now that it is in silence, in a quiet moment, in a forgotten corner of my heart that you will meet me, call me by name, and speak a word of peace. Let me be still and know you by name.
REFLECT AND JOURNAL
How do you picture God? What does God look like and sound like when you close your eyes?
When have you felt God’s absence? What is impact of this unwelcome or unfamiliar aspect of God on your faith?
When have you felt God’s personal presence? How has this experience strengthened your faith? [82-85]
1. Adapted from the Buddhist Sutra.
2. Psalm 90 from Psalm: A New Translation: Singing Version.
3. Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (Macmillan, 1972), p. 360, cited by Nouwen in The Living Reminder (1977).
5. “Be Still and Know” was presented by Henri as part of an Advent meditation series at Yale Divinity School on November 7,1979.