An invitation to Joy by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” published in 1992
1.Without Joy (pg 72-75)
When I listen carefully to the words with which the elder son attacks the father—self-righteous, self-pitying, jealous words—I hear a deeper complaint. It is the complaint that comes from a heart that feels it never received what it was due. It is the complaint expressed in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways, forming a bedrock of human resentment. It is the complaint that cries out: “I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others get so easily. Why do people not thank of me, not invite me, not play with me, not honour me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?”
It is in this spoken or unspoken complaint that I recognise the elder son in me. Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligences. Time and again I discover within me that murmuring, whining, grumbling, lamenting, and griping that go on and on even against my will. The more I dwell on the matters in question, the worse my state becomes. The more I analyse it, the more reason I see for complaint. And the more deeply I enter it, the more complicated it gets. There is an enormous, dark drawing power to this inner complaint. Condemnation of others and self-condemnation, self-righteousness and self-rejection keep reinforcing each other in an ever more vicious way. Every time I allow myself to be seduced by it, it spins me down in an endless spiral of self-rejection. As I let myself be drawn into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more and more lost until, in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected, and despised person in the world.
Of one thing I am sure. Complaining is self-perpetuating and counterproductive. Whenever I express my complaints in the hope of evoking pity and receiving the satisfaction I so much desire, the result is always the opposite of what I tried to get. A complainer is hard to live with, and very few people know how to respond to the complaints made by a self-rejecting person. The tragedy is that, often, the complaint, once expressed, leads to that which is most feared: further rejection.
From this perspective, the elder son’s inability to share in the joy of his father becomes quite understandable. When he came home from the fields, he heard music and dancing. He knew there was joy in the household. Immediately, he became suspicious. Once the self-rejecting complaint has formed in us, we lose our spontaneity to the extent that even joy can no longer evoke joy in us.
The story says, “Calling one of the servants, he asked what it was all about.” There is the fear that I am excluded again, that someone didn’t tell me what was going on, that I was kept out of things. The complaint resurges immediately: “Why was I not informed, what is this all about?” The unsuspecting servant, full of excitement and eager to share the good news, explains: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” But this shout of joy cannot be received. Instead of relief and gratitude, the servant’s joy summons up the opposite: “He was angry then and refused to go in.” Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.
I have very vivid memories of a similar situation. Once, when I felt quite lonely, I asked a friend to go out with me. Although he replied that he didn’t have time, I found him just a little later at a mutual friend’s house where a party was going on. Seeing me, he said, “Welcome, join us, good to see you.” But my anger was so great at not being told about the party that I couldn’t stay. All of my inner complaints about not being accepted, liked, and loved surged up in me, and I left the room, slamming the door behind me. I was completely incapacitated—unable to receive and participate in the joy that was there. In an instant, the joy in that room had become a source of resentment.
This experience of not being able to enter into joy is the experience of a resentful heart. The elder son couldn’t enter into the house and share in the father’s joy. His inner complaint paralysed him and let the darkness engulf him.
Rembrandt sensed the deepest meaning of this when he painted the elder son at the side of the platform where the younger son is received in the father’s joy. He didn’t depict the celebration, with its musicians and dancers; they were merely the external signs of the father’s joy. The only sign of a party is the relief of a seated flute player carved into the wall against which one of the women (the prodigal’s mother?) leans. In place of the party, Rembrandt painted light, the radiant light that envelops both father and son. The joy that Rembrandt portrays is the still joy that belong to God’s house.
In the story one can imagine the elder son standing outside in the dark, not wanting to enter the lighted house filled with happy noises. But Rembrandt paints neither the house nor the fields. He portrays it all with darkness and light. The father’s embrace, full of light, is God’s house. All the music and dancing are there. The elder son stands outside the circle of this love, refusing to enter. The light on his face makes it clear that he, too, is called to the light, but he cannot be forced.
Sometimes people wonder: Whatever happened to the elder son? Did he let himself be persuaded by his father? Did he finally enter into the house and participate in the celebration? Did he embrace his brother and welcome him home as his father had done? Did he sit down with the father and his brother at the same table and enjoy with them the festive meal?
Neither Rembrandt’s painting nor the parable it portrays tells us about the elder son’s final willingness to let himself be found. Is the elder son willing to confess that he, too, is a sinner in need of forgiveness? Is he willing to acknowledge that he is not better than his brother?
I am left alone with these questions. Just as I do not know how the younger son accepted the celebration or how he lived with his father after his return, I also do not know whether the elder son ever reconciled himself with his brother, his father, or himself. What I do know with unwavering certainty is the heart of the father. It is a heart of unlimited mercy.
Unlike a fairy tale, the parable provides no happy ending. Instead, it leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love. I myself am the only one who can make that choice. In response to their complaint, “This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes not only with the return of the prodigal son, but also with the resentful elder son. It must have come as a shock to these dutiful religious people. They finally have to face their own complaint and choose how they would respond to God’s love for the sinners. Would they be willing to join them at the table as Jesus did? It was and still is a real challenge: for them, for me, for every human being who is caught in resentment and tempted to settle on a complaintive way of life.
2.An invitation to Joy (Pages 113-119)
I realise that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party. It seems to contradict the solemnity and seriousness I have always attached to God. But when I think about the ways in which Jesus described God’s Kingdom, a joyful banquet is often at its center. Jesus says, “Many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.”(Matthew 8:11) And He compares the Kingdom of Heaven with a wedding feast offered by the king to his son. The king’s servants go out to invite people with the words: “Look, my banquet is all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” (Matthew 22:4) But many were not interested. They were too busy with their own affairs.
Just as in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus expressed here the great desire of His Father to offer His children a banquet and His eagerness to get it going even when those who are invited refuse to come. This invitation to a meal is an invitation to intimacy with God. This is especially clear at the Last Supper, shortly before Jesus’ death. There He says to His disciples: “From now on, I tell you, I shall never again drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in the Kingdom of My Father.” (Matthew 26:29) And at the close of the New Testament, God’s ultimate victory is described as a splendid wedding feast: “The reign of the Lord our God Almighty has begun, let us be glad and joyful and give glory to God, because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb. . . blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb. . . “ (Revelation 19:6-9)
Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offer forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them. In all three of the parables, which Jesus tells to explain why He eats with sinners, God rejoices and invites others to rejoice with Him. “Rejoice with me,” the shepherd says, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the woman says, “I have found the drachma I lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the father says, “this son of mime was lost and is found.”
Rembrandt paints the moment of the return of the younger son. The elder son and the three other members of the father household keep their distance. Will they understand the father’s joy? Will they let the father embrace them? Will I? Will they be able to step out of their recriminations and share in the celebration? Will I?
I can see only one moment, and I am left guessing as to what will happen next. I repeat: Will they? Will I? I know the father wants all the people around him to admire the returning son’s new clothes, to join him around the table, to eat and dance with him. This is not a private affair. This is something for all in the family to celebrate in gratitude.
I repeat again: Will they? Will I? It is an important question because it touches—strange as it may sound—my resistance to living a joyful life.
God rejoices. Not because the problem of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising Him for His goodness. No, God rejoices because one of His children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into the joy. It is God’s joy, not the joy that the world offers. It is the joy that comes from seeing a child walk home amid all the destruction, devastation, and anguish of the world. It is a hidden joy as inconspicuous as the flute player that Rembrandt painted in the wall above the head of the seated observer.
I am not accustomed to rejoicing in things that are small, hidden, and scarcely noticed by the people around me. I am generally ready and prepared to receive bad news, to read about wars, violence, and crimes, and to witness conflict and disarray. I always expect my visitors to talk about their problems and pain, their setbacks and disappointments, their depressions, and their anguish. Somehow I have become accustomed to living with sadness, and so have lost the eyes to see the joy and the ears to hear the gladness that belongs to God and which is to be found in the hidden corners of the world.
I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, or a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realise that I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying; “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”
The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.
This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real way. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.
Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlie much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter. Who knows whether the world is kept from destruction because of one, two, or three people who have continued to pray when the rest of humanity has lost hope and dissipated itself?
From God’s perspective one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from His throne to run to His returning son and to fill heavens with sounds of divine joy.
If that is God’s way, then I am challenged to let go of all the voices of doom and damnation that drag me into depression and allow the “small” joys to reveal the truth about the world I live in. When Jesus speaks about the world, He is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolution, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.
This is the secret of the joy of the saints. From St. Anthony of the desert, to St Francis of Assisi, to Prere Roger Schultz of Taize, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, joy has been the mark of the people of God. That joy can be seen on the faces of the many simple, poor, and often suffering people who live today among great economic and social upheaval, but who can already hear the music and the dance in the Father’s house. I, myself, see this joy every day in the faces of the mentally handicapped people of my community. All these holy men and women, whether they lived long ago or belong in our own time, can recognise the many small returns that take place every day and rejoice with the Father. They have somehow pierced the meaning of true joy.
For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naïve, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervour, and despise charismatic behaviour. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offences, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.
Every moment of each day I have the chance to choose between cynicism and joy. Every thought I have can be cynical or joyful. Every word I speak can be cynical or joyful. Every action can be cynical of joyful. Increasingly I am aware of all these possible choices and increasingly I discover that every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father.
Jesus lived this joy of the Father’s house to the full. In Him we can see His Father’s joy. “Everything the Father has is Mine”(John 16:15), He says, including god’s boundless joy. That divine joy does not obliterate the divine sorrow. In our world, joy and sorrow exclude each other. Here below, joy means the absence of sorrow and sorrow the absence of joy. But such distinctions do not exist in God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the man of sorrows, but also the man of complete joy. We catch a glimpse of this when we realise that in the midst of His greatest suffering Jesus is never separated from His Father. His union with His Father is never broken even when He “feels” abandoned by God. The joy of God belongs to His sonship, and this joy of Jesus and His Father is offered to me. Jesus wants me to have the same joy He enjoys; “I have loved you, just as My Father has loved Me. Remain in My love. If you keep My commandments you will remain in My love just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have told you this, so that My own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.”(John 15:9-11)
As the returned child of God, living in the Father’s house, God’s joy is mine to claim. There is seldom a minute in my life that I am not tempted by sadness, melancholy, cynicism, dark moods, sombre thoughts, morbid speculations, and waves of depression. And often I allow them to cover up the joy of my Father’s house. But when I truly believe that I have already returned and that my Father has already dressed me with cloak, ring, and sandals, I can remove the mask of the sadness from my heart and dispel the lie it tells about my true self and claim the truth with the inner freedom of the child of God.
But there is more. A child does not remain a child. A child becomes an adult. An adult becomes father and mother. When the prodigal son returns home, he returns not to remain a child, but to claim his sonship and become a father himself. As the returned child of God who is invited to resume my place in my Father’s home, the challenge now, yes the call, is to become the Father myself. I am awed by this call. For a long time I have lived with the insight that returning to my Father’s home was the ultimate call. It has taken me much spiritual work to make the elder son as well as the younger son in me turn around and receive the welcoming love of the Father. The fact is that, on many levels, I am still returning. But the closer I come to home the clearer becomes the realisation that there is a call beyond the call to return. It is the call to become the Father who welcomes home and calls for a celebration. Having claimed my sonship, I now have to claim fatherhood. When I first saw Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I could never have dreamt that becoming the repentant son was only a step on the way to becoming the welcoming father. I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own. Becoming the Father is, therefore, for me the surprising conclusion of these reflections on Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.
In 1985, at the age of 53+ years old, Henri Nouwen left teaching at Harvard and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community that looks after the mentally handicap people, in Trosly. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:
1.Choosing Joy Feb 13,1986 (pg 389)
In the first reading of the Eucharist today I heard: “I am offering you life or death. . .choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying His voice, holding fast to Him.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
How do I choose life? I am becoming aware that there are few moments without opportunity to choose, since death and life are always before me. One aspect of choosing life is choosing joy. Joy is life-giving, but sadness brings death. A sad heart is a heart in which something is dying. A joyful heart is a heart in which something new is being born.
I think that joy is much more than a mood. A mood invades us. We do not choose a mood. We often find ourselves in a happy or depressing mood without knowing where it comes from. The spiritual life is a life beyond moods. It is a life in which we choose joy and do not allow ourselves to become victims of passing feelings of happiness or depression.
I am convinced that we can choose joy. Every moment we can decide to respond to an event or a person with joy instead of sadness. When we truly believe that God is life and only life, then nothing need have the power to draw us into the sad realm of death. To choose joy does not mean to choose happy feelings or an artificial atmosphere of hilarity. But it does mean the determination to let whatever takes place bring us one step closer to the God of life.
Maybe this is what is so important about quiet moments of meditation and prayer. They allow me to take a critical look at my mood and to move from victimisation to free choice.
This morning I woke up somewhat depressed. I could not find any reason for it. Life just felt empty, useless, fatiguing. I felt invaded by sombre spirits. I realised that this mood was lying to me. Life is not meaningless. God has created life as an expression of love. It helped me to know this, even though I could not feel it. Based on this knowledge, I could again choose joy. This choice means simply to act according to the truth. The depressed mood is still there. I cannot just force it out of my heart. But at least I can unmask it as being untrue and thus prevent it from becoming the ground for my actions.
I am called to be joyful. It gives much consolation to know that I can choose joy.
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986:
1.Joyful Persons (67-68)
Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic outlook on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or an event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it. They have no illusion about the evil powers that roam around, ‘looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8), but they also know that death has no final power. They suffer with those who suffer, yet the do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace. Few people have embodied joy as well as the Dutch Jewish woman Etty Hillesum, who lived in Amsterdam under the Nazi occupation and in Auschwitz in 1942. In the midst of the agonies of the pogroms in Holland she writes:
I believe that I know and share the many sorrows and sad circumstances that a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them, I do not prolong such moments of agony. They pass through me, like life itself, as a broad, eternal stream, they become part of that stream, and life continues. And as a result all my strength is preserved, does not become tagged on to futile sorrow or rebelliousness. (From An Interrupted Life, The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, New York: Pantheon, 1984, p.81)
However, joy is not just a quality radiating from individual persons. It is as much, if not more so, a gift to the community of believers. ‘Where two or three meet in My name, I shall be there with them’ (Matthew 18:20). These words reveal that the ecstatic joy of the house of love is Christ’s own joy-filled presence, made manifest each time we enter into communion with each other in and through Christ.
2.Joy is a Divine Gift (65-66)
The joy that Jesus offers His disciples is His own joy, which flows from His intimate communion with the One who sent Him. It is a joy that does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure, experiences of honour from experiences of dishonour, passion from resurrection. This joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during times of illness, poverty, oppression, or persecution. It is present even when the world laughs or tortures, robs or maims, fights or kills. It is truly ecstatic, always moving us away from the house of fear into the house of love, and always proclaiming that death no longer has the final say, though its noise remains loud and its devastation visible. The joy of Jesus lifts up life to be celebrated.
Celebration is indeed the word we need here. The divine, ecstatic joy of the house of love becomes manifest in celebration. Celebration marks the life of the disciple of Jesus as well as the life of His new community. The disciple leaves behind the old life in search of a new life. The community is ec-clesia, a people ‘called out’ from the land of oppression to the land of freedom. For every disciple as well as for the entire fellowship, following the Lord involves celebration, the ongoing, unceasing lifting up of God’s love that has proved itself victorious. Celebration is the concrete way in which God’s ecstatic joy becomes visible among us.
It is of great importance to reclaim the word ‘celebration’ as one of the core words of the Christian life. Celebration is not a party on special occasions, but an ongoing awareness that every moment is special and asks to be lifted up and recognised as blessing from on high. There is Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the many feast days of the saints. There are countless birthdays, anniversaries, and memorial days. And then there are days to welcome and to say farewell, to receive guests and to visit friends, to start a project and to finish it, to sow and to reap, to open a season and to close it.
But even these moments do not exhaust the full meaning of celebration. Celebration lifts up not only the happy moments, but the sad moments as well. Since ecstatic joy embraces all of life, it does not shy away from the painful moments of failure, departure, and death. In the house of love even death is celebrated, not because death is desirable or attractive but because in the face of death life can be proclaimed as victorious.
3. Many of us are Joyless (62-63)
After having lived some months in Peru I was struck by the joylessness of many of my North American friends. Though they had no lack of food, clothes, shelter, or medical care and although they had more education than most Peruvians will ever have, these young people walked around as if the whole burden of the world was laid on their shoulders. They all looked very seriously preoccupied with many problems, and seemingly responsible for all the major issues that plague our world. Their words were heavy, their reflections sombre, their emotions melancholic, their outlook on life pessimistic, and their self-esteem very low. Few felt at home in their own world. Often they suffered from strained relationships with their families, had difficulty in developing close relationships with their peers, and felt hostile toward people in authority. Often they did not feel at home in their own bodies either. In many ways they were estranged, strangers to their past, their present, and their future: no home to come from, no home to go to, no true movement, no true life, no true joy. Seeing and feeling this deep suffering in my ambitious, successful friends, I was increasingly overwhelmed by the immense spiritual crisis of the so-called First World.