Giving Ourselves in Life and in Death by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved” published in 1992:
1. Giving (pg 84-85)
Both of us know from experience the joy that comes from being able to do something for another person. You have done much for me, and I will always be grateful to you for what you have given me. Part of my gratitude, however, is the result of seeing you happy in giving me so much. It is so much easier to be grateful for a gift given in joy than for a gift given with hesitation or reluctance. Have you ever noticed the joy of a mother when she sees her baby smile? The baby’s smile is a gift to the mother who is grateful to see her baby so happy!
What a wonderful mystery this is! Our greatest fulfilment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give. I remember how I once spent long hours looking in Dutch stores for a birthday gift for my father or mother, simply enjoying being able to give. Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life. . . .all of our life.
2. Giving Ourselves in Life and in Death (87-100)
It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness.
Reflecting a little more on the way our friendship has grown over the years, I realise that there is a mysterious link between our brokenness and our ability to give to each other. We both went through periods of extreme inner pain. And during those painful times, we often felt that our lives had come to a standstill and that we had nothing to offer; but now, years later, those periods have proven to be the times that made us able to give more instead of less. Our brokenness opened us to a deeper way of sharing our lives and offering each other hope. Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives. But that clearly does not mean that we should inflict pain on each other or others to make us better givers. Even though a broken glass can shine brightly, only a fool will break glass to make it shine! As mortal people, brokenness is a reality of our existence, and as we befriend it and place it under the blessing, we will discover how much we have to give—much more than we may ever have dreamt.
Isn’t a meal together the most beautiful expression of our desire to be given to each other in our brokenness? The table, the food, the drinks, the words, the stories: are they not the most intimate ways in which we not only express the desire to give our lives to each other, but also to do this in actuality? I very much like the expression “breaking bread together,” because there the breaking and the giving are so clearly one. When we eat together we are vulnerable to one another. Around the table we can’t wear weapons of any sort. Eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup call us to live in unity and peace. This becomes very visible when there is a conflict. Then, eating and drinking together can become a truly threatening event; then the meal can become the most dreaded moment of the day. We all know about painful silences during dinner. They contrast starkly with the intimacy of eating and drinking together, and the distance between those sitting around the table can be unbearable.
On the other hand, a really peaceful and joyful meal together belongs to the greatest moments of life.
Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time?” I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth. Isn’t the baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t “tasting” the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfilment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.
How can this be done? If our deepest fulfilment comes from being given as a gift for others, how do we go about living such a vision on a day-to-day basis in a society that speaks more about having than giving? I’d like to suggest two directions: giving oneself in life and giving oneself in death.
First of all, our life itself is the greatest gift to give—something we constantly forget. When we think about our being given to each other, what comes immediately to mind are our unique talents: those abilities to do special things especially well. You and I have spoken about this quite often. “What is our unique talent?” we asked. However, when focussing on talents, we tend to forget that our real gift is not so much what we can do, but who we are. The real question is not “What can we offer each other?” but “Who can we be for each other?” No doubt, it is wonderful when we can repair something for a neighbour, give helpful advice to a friend, offer wise counsel to a colleague, bring healing to a patient or announce good news to a parishioner, but there is a greater gift than all of this. It is the gift of our own life that shines through all we do. As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being. When I ask myself, “Who helps me most?” I must answer, “The one who is willing to share his or her life with me.”
It is worthwhile making a distinction between talents and gifts. More important than our talents are our gifts. We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust and many others. These are true gifts we have to offer to each other.
Somehow I have known this for a long time, especially through my personal experience of the enormous healing power of these gifts. But since my coming to live in a community with mentally handicapped people, I have rediscovered this simple truth. Few, if any, of those people have talents they can boast of. Few are able to make contributions to our society that allow them to earn money, compete on the open market or win awards. But how splendid are their gifts! Bill, who suffered intensely as a result of shattered family relationships, has a gift for friendship that I have seldom experienced. Even when I grow impatient or distracted by other people, he remains always faithful and continues to support me in all I do. Linda, who has a speech handicap, has a unique gift for welcoming people. Many who have stayed in our community remember Linda as the one who made them feel at home. Adam, who is unable to speak, walk, or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him. The longer I live in L’Arch, the more I recognise the true gifts that in us, seemingly non-handicapped people, often remain buried beneath our talents. The so-visible brokenness of our handicapped people has, in some mysterious way, allowed them to offer their gifts freely and without inhibition.
More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that, in so doing, we become a true community of love.
Secondly, we are called to give ourselves, not only in life, but in death as well. As the Beloved Children of God, we are called to make our death the greatest gift. Since it is true that we are broken so as to be given, then our final brokenness, death, is to become the means to our final gift of self. How can that be true? It seems that death is the great enemy to be evaded for as long as possible. Dying is not something we like to think about or talk about. Still, one of the very few things we can be sure of is that we will die. I am constantly amazed by the lengths to which our society goes to prevent us from preparing ourselves well for death.
For the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, dying is the gateway to the complete experience of being the Beloved. For those who know they are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, dying is the way to becoming pure gift.
I do not think that you and I have spoken much about death. It seems far away, unreal. . . .something more for others than for us. Even though the media confront us daily with the tragic reality of countless people dying through violence, war, starvation and neglect, and even though we hear regularly that people in our own circle of family and friends have died, we pay very little attention to our own approaching death. In our society we barely take the time to mourn when a friend or family member dies. Everything around us encourages us to keep going “as if nothing has happened.” But then we never come in touch with our mortality, and when, finally, we have to face our own approaching death, we try to deny it as long as possible and are perplexed, yes even angry, when we cannot escape it.
Still, as the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving. Not only are we called to live for others, but also to die for others. How is this possible?
Let me tell you first about two dear friends who have died during the past few months: Murray McDonnell and Pauline Vanier. I miss them. Their deaths are a painful loss. Whenever I think of them, I feel the biting pain that they are no longer in their homes with their families and friends. I can no longer call them, visit them, hear their voices or see their faces. I feel immense grief. But I believe deeply that their deaths are more than a loss. Their deaths are also a gift.
The deaths of those whom we love and who love us, open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion, a new intimacy, a new belonging to each other. If love is, indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love. It was only after Jesus had left His disciples that they were able to grasp what He truly meant to them. But isn’t that true for all who die in love?
It is only when we have died that our spirit can completely reveal themselves. Murray and Pauline were both beautiful people, but they were also people whose ability to love was limited by their many needs and wounds. Now, after their deaths, the needs and wounds that kept their spirits captive no longer inhibit them from giving their full selves to us. Now they can send us their spirits, and we can live in a new communion with them.
None of this happens without preparation. I know this because I have seen people die in anger and bitterness and with a great unwillingness to accept their mortality. Their deaths became sources of frustration and even guilt for those who stayed behind. Their deaths never became a gift. They had little to send. The spirit has been extinguished by the power of darkness.
Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope. This is a crucial choice and we have to “work” on that choice every day of our lives. Death does not have to be our final failure, our final defeat in the struggle of life, our unavoidable fate. If our deepest human desire is, indeed, to give ourselves to others, then we can make our death into a final gift. It is so wonderful to see how fruitful death is when it is a free gift.
For Murray, who died very suddenly from heart failure, the last five years of his life were a preparation for his death. He had become increasingly vulnerable to his wife, Peggy, his nine children and their families, and to all those he loved. He also had found in himself the courage to make peace with all he had struggled with. His great openness to me, his sincere interest in my life with mentally handicapped people and his generous support of my writing had established a deep bond of friendship between us. Still, his death, shocking as it was, became a celebration of love. When his whole family gathered again a year after his death, everyone had beautiful stories to tell about how Murray had given much new life and new hope to all who mourned his leaving.
Pauline Vanier was ninety-three when she died. As the wife of the former governor-general of Canada, she had lived among the great and powerful of this world. But when, after the death of her husband, she joined her son Jean in his community with the weak and powerless, she became grandmother, mother, friend and confidante of many. During the year I lived in her house, she offered me much of her care and shared with me much of her wisdom. Coming to L’Arche will always be connected for me with loving “Mammie.” Although I miss her, I know that the fruits of her life will become more and more evident in my life and in the lives of all who were so close to her, and I trust that her spirit, so full of humour and prayer, will continue to guide us.
The death of the Beloved bears fruit in many lives. You and I have to trust that our short little lives can bear fruit far beyond the boundaries of our chronologies. But we have to choose this and trust deeply that we have a spirit to send that will bring joy, peace, and life to those who will remember us. Francis of Assisi died in 1226, but he is still very much alive! His death was a true gift, and today, nearly eight centuries later, he continues to fill his brothers and sisters, within and without the Franciscan orders, with great energy and life. He died, but never died. His life goes on bearing new fruit around the world. His spirit keeps descending upon us. More than ever I am convinced that death can, indeed, be chosen as our final gift of life.
You an I have only a short time to live. The twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years that are still ahead of us will go by very quickly. We can act as if we are to live forever and be surprised when we don’t, but we can also live with the joyful anticipation that our greatest desire to live our lives for others can be fulfilled in the way we choose to die. When it is a death in which we lay down our life in freedom, we and all we love will discover how much we have to give.
We are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, not only in life, but in death as well. As the Beloved Children of God, we are called to become bread for each other—bread for the world. This vision gives a new dimension to the Elisha story of the multiplication of the loaves. Elisha said to the servant who came with twenty barley loaves and fresh grain still in the husk: “Give it to the company to eat.” When the servant protested: “How can I serve this to a hundred men?” Elisha insisted: “Give it to the company.” He served them; they ate and had some left over.
Is this story not the true story of the spiritual life? We may be little, insignificant servants in the eyes of a world motivated by efficiency, control and success. But when we realise that God has chosen us from all eternity, sent us into the world as the blessed ones, handed us over to suffering, can’t we, then, also trust that our little lives will multiply themselves and be able to fulfil the needs of countless people? This might sound pompous and self-aggrandising, but, in truth, the trust in one’s fruitfulness emerges from a humble spirit. It is the humble spirit of Hannah who exclaimed in gratitude for the new life born in her: “My spirit exults in God my saviour—He has looked upon His lowly handmaid—and done great things for me. . . .from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.” The fruitfulness of our little life, once we recognise it and live it as the life of the Beloved, is beyond anything we ourselves can imagine. One of the greatest acts of faith is to believe that the few years we live on this earth are like a little seed planted in a very rich soil. For this seed to bear fruit, it must die. We often see or feel only the dying, but the harvest will be abundant even when we ourselves are not the harvesters.
How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away! How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply as long as there are people to receive it. . . .and that—even then—there will be leftovers!
Imagine yourself as being deeply convinced that your love for Robin, your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds build their nests! Imagine that, in the center of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and your kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace! Imagine that your trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles—just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine, imagine. . . .Could you ever be depressed, angry, resentful or vengeful? Could you ever hate, destroy or kill? Could you ever despair of the meaning of your short earthly existence?
You and I would dance for joy were we to know truly that we, little people, are chosen, blessed, and broken to become the bread that will multiply itself in the giving. You and I would no longer fear death, but live toward it as the culmination of our desire to make all of ourselves a gift for others. The fact that we are so far from that state of mind and heart shows only that we are mere beginners in the spiritual life and have not yet fully claimed the full truth of our call. But let us be thankful for every little glimpse of the truth that we can recognise and trust that there is always more to see. . . .always.
Within a few years, we both will be buried or cremated. The houses in which we live will probably still be there, but someone else will live there and most likely know little or nothing about us. But I believe, and I hope you will too, that our brief, easily forgotten journey in this world will continue to give life to people through all times and places. The spirit of love, once freed from our mortal bodies, will blow where it will, even when few will hear its coming and going.