Choosing Joy by Henri Nouwen

     Choosing Joy by Henri Nouwen

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.

The following write–up is adapted from Father Henri Nouwen’s book “Here and Now,” published in 1994.

1. Joy is the secret gift to the compassionate person     

     What is compassion? Compassion means to suffer with the person who suffers. Compassion is to willingly enter into a fellowship of the weak and to be with them, when and where they suffer. Compassion is something other than pity as pity suggests some distance and a certain amount of condescension. Compassion is more than sympathy or empathy. Compassion means to become close to the person who suffers. But we can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves. A compassionate person says, ”I am your brother. I am human, fragile, and mortal, just like you. I am not embarrassed by your tears, nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain.” Our greatest comfort and consolation comes when someone can say to us, “I cannot take your pain away, I cannot offer you a solution for your problem, but I can promise you that I won’t leave you alone and will hold on to you as long and as well as I can.” It is a blessing when we do not have to live our grief and pain alone. That is the gift of compassion to the person receiving it.

  But what is the gift of compassion to the person who is compassionate? Joy is the secret gift of compassion to the compassionate person. The joy that compassion brings is one of the best-kept secrets of humanity. It is the secret known to only a very few people, a secret that has to be rediscovered over and over again. Everyone who has truly entered into the compassionate life will say, “I have received as much as I have given.” People like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Francis of Assisi, Dalai Lama all radiated with joy and they all expressed deep gratitude for the gifts they have received from those they came to help. The rewards of compassion are not things to wait for. They are hidden in compassion itself. 

What can the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless, the poor in spirit, the broken spirit repay us with? What do they have to offer? They cannot offer us what the world could give like money, success, popularity or power but they can give gifts of laughter, smiles, hugs, kisses and love. They can be extremely demanding, difficult and frustrating but if we are faithful, dedicated and committed in our service to them, then the Holy Spirit can generate in us spiritual gifts such as generosity, selflessness, gentleness, humility, kindness and goodness and these in turn will bring God’s gifts of love, joy and peace in our hearts. They make us see them and ourselves as children of God, for Jesus says “’I was hungry and you fed Me, thirsty and you gave Me a drink. I was a stranger and you received Me in your homes, naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me, in prison and you visited Me.’ The righteous will then answer Him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see You hungry and fed You, or thirsty and give You a drink? When did we ever see You a stranger and welcome You into our homes, or naked and clothe You? When did we ever see You sick or in prison, and visit You?’ The King will reply, ‘whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of Mine, you did it for Me!’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

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