Productivity and Fruitfulness by Henri Nouwen

 Productivity and Fruitfulness by Henri Nouwen

In our working life, we concentrate a lot of our time on being productive. In making our products or providing our services, we strive to make them:

·        Cheaper

·        Better 

·        Faster 

In our constant search for 

·        Efficiency

·        Effectiveness

·        Competency

·        Quality

·        Being number one

·        Innovation

we often lose sight of being human. 

And in our relentless emphasis for

·        Success

·        Accomplishment

·        Relevance

·        Power

·        Reward

·        Career

we put, on ourselves, enormous

·        Pressure

·        Worry 

·        Fear

·        Doubt

·        Stress

Our life becomes one constant quest for survival and for making a living. Thus, we often confuse making a living with making a life. Some of us are productive and others not, but all of us are called to be bear fruits in our lives. “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit;” (John 15:5) Bearing fruits in our lives is making a life! And making a life is being alive and living a meaningful life for our families and others.

But what are the fruits in our lives? They are:

·        Our smiles

·        Our laughter

·        Our kisses

·        Our embraces

·        Our encouragement

·        Our support

·        Our hugs

·        Our gratitude

·        Our thanks

·        Our care

·        Our joy

·        Our compassion

·        Our gentleness

·        Our trust in God

·        Our kindness

·        Our goodness

·        Our patience

·        Our humility

·        Our hospitality

·        Our presence

·        Our friendship

·        Our words of love

·        Our acts of love

·        Our every gesture of love

·        Our every word of forgiveness

·        Our every little bit of joy 

·        Our faithfulness

·        Our peace

·        Our hopes

·        Our gifts

Unless we spend as much time on being fruitful as on being productive, we will lose sight of being human. Making a living is making our lives productive but making a life is making our lives fruitful and a gift for others. Thus fruitfulness is as equally important as being productive for us to live a useful life and living “life more abundantly”(John 10:10).

The passages below on fruitfulness are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986:

1.Handicapped people are Grateful People. (45-46)

     Handicapped people are very vulnerable. They cannot hide their weaknesses and are therefore easy victims of maltreatment and ridicule. But this same vulnerability also allows them to bear ample fruit in the lives of those who receive them. They are grateful people. They know they are dependent on others and show this dependence every moment; but their smiles, embraces, and kisses are offered as spontaneous expressions of thanksThey know that all is pure gift to be thankful for. They are people who need care. When they are locked up in custodial institutions and treated as nobodies, they withdraw and cannot bear fruit. They become overwhelmed by fears and close themselves to others. But when they are given a safe space, with truly caring people whom they can trust, they soon become generous givers who are willing to offer their whole hearts.

     Handicapped people help us see the great mystery of fecundity. They pull us out of our competitive, production-oriented lives and remind us that we too are handicapped persons in need of love and care. They tell us in many ways that we too do not need to be afraid of our handicap and that we too can bear fruit as Jesus did when He offered His broken body to His Father.

2.Jesus always Gave Thanks. (42)

     A second aspect of the fruitful life is gratitude. Our preoccupation with success extinguishes the spirit of gratitude. When our hearts and minds are bent on proving our value to others and competing with our rivals, it is hard to give thanks. In a society that presents independence and self-reliance as ideals, gratitude is more a sign of weakness than of strength. Gratitude presupposes a willingness to recognise our dependence on others and to receive their help and support.

     Yet as soon as we shift our attention from products to fruit we become grateful peopleJesus always gave thanks. When He stood before the opened grave of Lazarus, He thanked His Father for hearing His prayer (John 11:4). When He gathered His disciples for the last Supper, He spoke words of thanks over bread and wine. Gratitude belongs to the core of the life of Jesus and His followers.

3.Grateful for Life and for Death. (49-50)

     Once I celebrated the Eucharist in memory of an eighteen-year-old man, Antonio, who had been killed in a tragic accident. After the service I walked to the entrance of the church to express my deep-felt sorrow to Antonio’s mother. But I was so preoccupied with finding the right words for my own feelings that I kept my eyes on the floor and hardly dared to look at the mother and those who were with her. Finally I stuttered in my poor Spanish: ‘I really feel deeply about the great loss you have suffered. I have no good words for you, but I hope that you understand that I feel your pain.’

     My words came out hesitantly and fearfully. The mother, however, interrupted me by saying, ‘Thank you, Father, thank you very much for the beautiful Mass. . . Would you please come to our home and have dinner with us.’ I didn’t really hear her words and repeated, ‘I do feel deeply about the loss of your son.’ But she said again: ‘Thank you, thank you for the Mass and come to our home to eat with us.’ When I still didn’t hear her and kept my eyes downcast, she came closer, made me stand straight, looked me in the eyes, and said in a gentle tone: ‘Don’t be so depressed, Father. Don’t you know that God loves our Antonio, that God gave him to us for a few years and now wants to bring him to heaven? We are grateful that he was with us and we are grateful too that he can now be with God forever. We are grateful to you too. God loves us all and cares for us all. Please come and have a meal with us.’

     As I listened I saw her parents, brothers, sisters, her other sons and daughters, and her many grand-children standing around her and looking at me with wide-open, smiling eyes saying: ‘Yes, Father, yes. She is right. Come and be our guest.’ Then I realised that this suffering woman, surrounded by those who loved her, was giving me the fruit of her suffering: trust in God, gratitude, gentleness and care. She was sent to me as much as I was sent to her. She was ministering to me as much as I was ministering to her. She was offering me a word of consolation and strength that only she could speak, since she had suffered so much.

The passages below on fruitfulness are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, ”Henri Nouwen” published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.

1.Fecundity (Fruitfulness) (pg 68)

     Gratitude flows from the recognition that all that is, is a divine gift born of love and freely given to us so that we may offer thanks and share it with others.

     The more we touch the intimate love of God which creates, sustains, and guides us, the more we recognise the multitude of fruits that come forth from that love. They are fruits of the Spirit, such as joy, peace, kindness, goodness, and gentleness. When we encounter any of these fruits, we always experience them as gifts.

     When, for instance, we enjoy a good atmosphere in the family, a peaceful mood among friends, or a spirit of co-operation and mutual support in the community, we intuitively know that we did not produce it. It cannot be made, imitated, or exported. To people who are jealous and who would like to have our joy and peace, we cannot give a formula to produce it or a method to acquire it. It is always perceived as a gift, to which the only appropriate response is gratitude.

     Every time we experience real goodness or gentleness we know it is a gift. If we say: “Well, she gets paid to be nice to us,” or “He only says such friendly things because he wants something from us,” we can no longer receive that goodness as a gift. We grow from receiving and giving gifts.

     Life loses its dynamism and exuberance when everything that happens to us is viewed as a predictable result of predictable actions. It degenerates into commerce, a continuous buying and selling of goods, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual goods. Without a spirit of gratitude, life flattens out and becomes dull and boring. But when we continue to be surprised by new manifestations of life and continue to praise and thank God and our neighbour, routine and boredom cannot take hold. Then all of life becomes a reason for saying thanks. Thus, fecundity and gratitude can never be separated. (Lifesigns 70-71)

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey” published in 1997.

1.Fruits that grow in Vulnerability (Jan 4)

There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.

2.Trusting in the Fruits (Aug 11)

     We belong to a generation that wants to see the results of our work. We want to be productive and see with our own eyes what we have made. But that is not the way of God’s Kingdom. Often our witness for God does not lead to tangible results. Jesus Himself died as a failure on a cross. There was no success there to be proud of. Still, the fruitfulness of Jesus’ life is beyond any human measure. As faithful witnesses of Jesus we have to trust that our lives too will be fruitful, even though we cannot see their fruit. The fruit of our lives may be visible only to those who live after us.

     What is important is how well we love. God will make our love fruitful, whether we see that fruitfulness or not.

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Can You Drink the Cup?” published in 1996.

The Resilient Human Spirit (46-47)

For anyone who has the courage to enter our human sorrows deeply, there is a revelation of joy, hidden like a precious stone in the wall of a dark cave. I got a glimpse of that while living with a very poor family in Pamplona Alta, one of the “young towns” at the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The poverty there was greater than any I had seen before, but when I think back on my three months with Pablo, Maria, and their children, my memories are filled with laughter, smiles, hugs, simple games, and long evening just sitting around telling storiesJoy, real joy was there, not a joy based on success, progress, or the solution of their poverty, but bursting forth from the resilient human spirit, fully alive in the midst of all odds. And when Heather, the daughter of New York friends, recently returned from ten months’ relief work in Rwanda, she had seen more than despair. She had also seen hope, courage, love, trust, and true care. Her heart was deeply troubled, but not crushed. She has been able to continue her life in the United States with a greater commitment to work for peace and justice. The joys of living were stronger than the sorrows of death.

     The cup of life is the cup of joy as much as it is the cup of sorrow. It is the cup in which sorrows and joys, sadness and gladness, mourning and dancing are never separated. If joys could not be where sorrows are, the cup of life would never be drinkable. That is why we have to hold the cup in our hands and look carefully to see the joys hidden in our sorrows.

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.Who can We Be for Each Other? (90-92)

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 areThe 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.

3.Our Short lives can Bear Fruits (96-100)

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.

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “God’s Beloved—-Adam Arnett,” published in 1997.

Adam’s Public life

While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that ‘being is more important than doing.’ While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that ‘God’s love is more important than the praise of people.’ While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that ‘doing things together is more important than doing things alone.’ Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.(46)

The New House, with five or six assistants and five core members, is a very busy place, and the many assistants who have lived and worked there didn’t always think about Adam in the way I described him. At the same time, what prevented them from perceiving themselves as housecleaners, cooks, nappy changers, and dishwashers was the experience that Adam, Rosie, Michael, John, and Roy, who were entrusted to them, had as much to give them as to receive from them. Many of them touched into the mystery of their own lives and experienced a renewal of their inner selves, mainly because they were able to receive some spiritual gift from the people they were caring for.  

     Speaking about ‘Adam’s gift’ is not romanticising an otherwise quite demanding and unrewarding life situation. Adam’s gift was a reality of everyday living. When, on Monday mornings, Jane, D.J., and the other assistants gathered to discuss the week that had passed and the week to come, the main questions always were, ‘What was difficult for you this week?’ and, ‘What was the gift you gave and the gift you received?’ Amid all the planning of meals, clean ups, visit to the doctors, shopping, repairs, and countless other things to do, that question of the gifts of Adam, Roy, Michael, Rosie, and John always remained central. Everyone knew that they would not remain good L’Arche assistants for long if they weren’t richly rewarded—by the spiritual gifts of people like Rosie and John. They were discovering that true care is mutual care. If their only reward had been the small salary, their care would soon have become little more than human maintenance. Not only would they have become bored, exhausted, and deeply frustrated, but Adam and the others would not have been able to give their gifts, accomplish their mission, or reach the fulfilment of their human potential.

     Adam and the other core members were announcing Good News. Adam kept reminding us that the beauty of care giving was not just in giving but also in receiving from him. He was the one who opened me to the realisation that the greatest gift I could offer to him was my open hand and open heart to receive from him his precious gift of peace. In this exchange I was enriched and so was he. I was able to reveal to him that he had a gift to offer, and his true gift became a gift when I welcomed it. He gave his gift freely to everyone he met, and so many people received it and were enriched by it. Caring, he kept ‘telling’ us, is as much receiving as giving, as much giving thanks as asking for it, as much affirming him in his ability to give as looking for self-affirmation. Caring for Adam was allowing Adam to care for us as we cared for him. Only then did Adam and his assistants grow in mutuality and fruitfulness. Only then was our care for Adam not burdensome, but privileged because Adam’s care for us bore fruit in our lives.

     And, in this milieu of mutual caring, Adam was able to live a public life beyond the confines of Daybreak. Sometimes true ‘miracles’ happened. During and after my time in the New House I saw remarkable changes in people, which happened as a direct consequence of their contact with Adam. (47-49)

Countless people who came to the New House for a week, a day, or only a few hours were deeply affected by Adam’s beautiful, silent presence. Some told me that when they returned home they kept thinking of him and talking about him with their friends. Their encounters with Adam often became experiences of inner renewal because he offered them an opportunity and a context to think differently about their lives, their goals, their aspirations. Adam offered those he met a presence and a safe space to recognise and accept their own, often invisible, disabilities. He radiated peace from his centre, which supported people as they lived through difficult times or had important choices to make. Not everyone who met him had the same experience with Adam. For some it was an experience of peace, and for others self-confrontation; for some it was a rediscovery of their hearts, and for others it meant nothing.

     Adam’s ministry was unique in that he seemed unaware of all that was happening around and through him because he didn’t know about care, ministry, healing, or service. He seemed to be without concepts, plans, intentions, or aspirations. He was simply present, offering himself in peace and completely self-emptied so that the fruits of his ministry were pure and abundant. I can witness that the words said of Jesus could be said of Adam: ‘Everyone who touched him was healed.’ (Mark 6:56)

     Adam was a true teacher and a true healer. Most of his healing was inner healing that announced peace, courage, joy, and freedom to those who often were hardly able to acknowledge their wounds. Adam, by his eyes and by his presence, said to us, ‘Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to run away from your pain. Look at me, be close to me, and you will discover that you are God’s beloved child, just as I am.’

     For that reason I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Daybreak was the place of Adam’s public ministry. It is my firm belief that Adam, like Jesus, was sent into the world to fulfil his unique mission. During his years at home with his family, he lived the mutuality of love, growing in stature while transforming his parents. It was the preparation. In Daybreak his gifts, his teaching, and his healing had a deep impact on the many people who came to live with him as well as on those who came to visit or to live in other homes in the community. (52-53)

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