Faith by Henri Nouwen
In June 1974, at the age of 42+ years old, Father Henri J M Nouwen went to stay for 7 months as a temporary Trappist monk in the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. The following passages on faith are taken from his book “The Genesee Diary,” published in 1976:
1.Sunday, Oct 27 1974 (pg 102)
John Eudes (the Abbot of the Abbey) spoke in Chapter this morning about the monastic vocation. The occasion was the celebration of the twenty-fifth year of monastic life of Father Bede, Father Francis, and Brother Theodore and the twenty-fifth year of profession of Brother John Baptist. Their dates were different but this day was set apart to celebrate them all.
One thought in John Eudes’ conference touched me very much. He said that to respond to God’s love was a great act of faith. He compared it to people who have felt very lonely and isolated, very rejected and unloved during many years of their life and who suddenly meet someone who cares. For such people it is very hard to believe that his or her care is authentic and honest. It requires a great act of faith to accept the love that is offered to us and to live, not with suspicion and distrust, but with the inner conviction that we are worth being loved.
This is the great adventure of the monk: to really believe that God loves you, to really give yourself to God in trust, even while you are aware of your sinfulness, weaknesses, and miseries.
I suddenly saw much better than before that one of the greatest temptations of a monk is to doubt God’s love. Those who enter a contemplative monastery with the intention of staying for life must be very much aware of their own brokenness and need for redemption. If the monastic life should lead them to a morbid introspection of their own sinfulness, it would lead them away from God for whom they came to the monastery. Therefore, the growing realisation of one’s sins and weaknesses must open the contemplative to a growing awareness of God’s love and care.
During the Eucharist John Eudes spoke about the parable of the penitent publican. He made the observation that monks are not necessarily better or holier people than others. Instead, he said, they might very well be weaker and more vulnerable and come to the monastery to find the support of a community to enable them to be faithful in their search for God and to keep responding to His continuing love.
I was deeply moved by these thoughts. They had an unusual clarity and lucidity for me, and I felt very grateful that I was part of this community. I also realised that my coming here might well be seen more as a sign of my weakness than my strength.
The passages below on trust are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Our Greatest Gift,” published in 1994.
Trusting the Catcher (66-67)
The Flying Rodleigs are trapeze artists who perform in the German circus Simoneit-Barum. When the circus came to Freiburg two years ago, my friends Franz and Reny invited me and my father to see the show. I will never forget how enraptured I became when I first saw the Rodleigs move through the air, flying and catching as elegant dancers. The next day, I returned to the circus to see them again and introduced myself to them as one of their great fans. They invited me to attend their practice sessions, gave me free tickets, asked me to dinner, and suggested I travel with them for a week in the near future. I did, and we became good friends.
One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.” “How does it work?” I asked. “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.”
“You do nothing!” I said, surprised. “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must flyer, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: “Father into Your hands I commend My Spirit.” Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, “Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab Him; He will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.”
The passages below on trust are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1.The Spirit of Jesus Listening in us. (March 12)
Listening in the spiritual life is much more than a psychological strategy to help others discover themselves. In the spiritual life the listener is not the ego, which would like to speak but is trained to refrain itself, but the Spirit of God within us. When we are baptized in the Spirit—-that is, when we have received the Spirit of Jesus as the breath of God breathing within us—-that Spirit creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to. The Spirit of Jesus prays in us and listens in us to all who come to us with their sufferings and pains.
When we dare to trust fully in the power of God’s Spirit listening in us, we will see true healing occur.
2.Keeping it Together (Sept 15)
How can we not lose our souls when everything and everybody pulls us in different directions? How can we “keep it together” when we are constantly being torn apart?
Jesus says, “Not a hair of your head will be lost. Your perseverance will win you your lives” (Luke 21:18-19). We can only survive our world when we trust that God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. We can only keep it together when we believe that God holds us together. We can only win our lives when we remain faithful to the truth that every little part of us, yes, every hair, is completely safe in the divine embrace of our Lord. To say it differently: When we keep living a spiritual life, we have nothing to be afraid of.
3.Claiming the Sacredness of our Being (March 21)
Are we friends with ourselves? Do we love who we are? These are important questions because we cannot develop good friendships with others unless we have befriended ourselves.
How then do we befriend ourselves? We have to start by acknowledging the truth of ourselves. We are beautiful but also limited, rich but also poor, generous but also worried about our security. Yet beyond all that we are people with souls, sparks of the divine. To acknowledge the truth of ourselves is to claim the sacredness of our being, without fully understanding it. Our deepest being escapes our own mental or emotional grasp. But when we trust that our souls are embraced by a loving God, we can befriend ourselves and reach out to others in loving relationships.
4.The Spirit will Speak in Us (April 18)
When we are spiritually free, we do not have to worry about what to say or do in unexpected, difficult circumstances. When we are not concerned about what others think of us or what we will get for what we do, the right words and actions will emerge from the center of our beings because the Spirit of God, who makes us children of God and sets us free, will speak and act through us. Jesus says, “When you are handed over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the times comes, because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.”(Matthew 10:19-20)
Let’s keep trusting the Spirit of God living within us, so that we can live freely in a world that keeps handing us over to judges and evaluators.
5.Letting go of our fear of God (Feb 28)
We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our “horror vacui,” our horrendous fear of vacancy. We like to occupy—-fill up—-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied, that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, “But what if. . .”
It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happens. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.
6.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.
7.Friends as Reminders of our Truth (April 7)
Sometimes our sorrow overwhelms us so much that we no longer can believe in joy. Life just seems a cup filled to the brim with war, violence, rejection, loneliness, and endless disappointments.
At times like this we need our friends to remind us that crushed grapes can produce delicious wine. It might be hard for us to trust that any joy can come from our sorrow, but when we start taking steps in the direction of our friends’ advice, even when we are not yet able to feel the truth of what they say, the joy that seemed to be lost may be found again and our sorrow may become liveable.
8.Trusting the Catcher (Jan 11)
Trust is the basis of life. Without trust no human being can live. Trapeze artists offer a beautiful image of this. Flyers have to trust their catchers. They can do the most spectacular doubles, triples, or quadruples, but what finally makes their performances spectacular are the catchers who are there for them at the right time in the right place.
Much of our lives is flying. It is wonderful to fly in the air free as a bird, but when God isn’t there to catch us, all our flying comes to nothing. Let’s trust the Great Catcher.
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 on trust are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:
The Heart Oct 18, 1985
What is the heart? It is the place of trust, a trust that can be called faith, hope, or love, depending on how it is being manifested. Pere Thomas sees the trusting heart as the most important characteristic of the human person. It is not so much the ability to think, to reflect, to plan, or to produce that makes us different from the rest of creation, but the ability to trust. It is the heart that makes us truly human.
This vital observation helps explain why we respond with our hearts to our surroundings long before our consciences are developed. Our consciences, which allow us to distinguish between good and evil and thus give us a basis for moral choice, are less in control than our hearts. Pere Thomas is convinced that much of the crisis in the life of the Church today is connected with a lack of knowledge of the heart. Much Church discussion today focuses on the morality of human behaviour: premarital sex, divorce, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and so on. Many people have become disillusioned with the Church because of these issues. But when the moral life gets all the attention, we are in danger of forgetting the primacy of the mystical life, which is the life of the heart.
Quite often the suggestion is made that the mystical life, a life in which we enter into a unifying communion with God, is the highest fruit and most precious reward of the moral life. The classical distinctions among the purifying way, the illuminating way, and the unifying way, as the three progressively higher levels of the spiritual life, have strengthened this suggestion. Thus we have come to see the mystical life as the life of the happy few who reach the prayer of total surrender.
The greatest insight of Pere Thomas—an insight in which the best of his theology and the best of his pastoral experience with handicapped people merge—is that the mystical life lies at the beginning of our existence and not just at its end. We are born in intimate communion with the God who created us in love. We belong to God from the moment of our conception. Our heart is that divine gift which allows us to trust not just God, but also our mother, our father, our family, ourselves, and the world. Pere Thomas is convinced that very small children have a deep, intuitive knowledge of God, a knowledge of the heart, that sadly is often obscured and even suffocated by the many systems of thought we gradually cultivate. Handicapped people, who have such a limited ability to learn, can let their heart speak easily and thus reveal a mystical life that for many intelligent people seems unreachable.
By speaking about the heart as the deepest source of the spiritual life, the life of faith, hope, and love, Pere Thomas wanted to show me that human affections do not lead us where our hearts want to lead us. The heart is much wider and deeper than our affections. It is before and beyond the distinctions between sorrow and joy, anger and lust, fear and love. It is the place where all is one in God, the place where we truly belong, the place from which we come and to which we always yearn to return.
I now realise that my “simple” question about my affection required a fuller response than I had expected. I need to relearn the central place of the mystical experience in human life. (pg 329-330)
The following passages on trust are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.
1.Passion Sunday (pg 101)
Even though Jesus went directly against the human inclination to avoid suffering and death, His followers realised that it was better to live the truth with open eyes than to live their lives in illusion.
Suffering and death belong to the narrow road of Jesus. Jesus does not glorified them, or call them beautiful, good, or something to be desired. Jesus does not call for heroism or suicidal self-sacrifice. No, Jesus invites us to look at the reality of our existence and reveals this harsh reality as the way to new life. The core message of Jesus is that real joy and peace can never be reached while bypassing suffering and death, but only by going right through them.
We could say: We really have no choice. Indeed, who escapes suffering and death? Yet there is still a choice. We can deny the reality of life, or we can face it. When we face it not in despair, but with the eyes of Jesus, we discover that where we least expect it, something is hidden that holds a promise stronger than death itself. Jesus lived His life with the trust that God’s love is stronger than death and that death therefore does not have the last word. He invites us to face the painful reality of our existence with the same trust. This is what Lent is all about. (Translated from Gebete aus der Stille. 61-62)
2.Thursday after Ash Wednesday (pg 15)
Whenever Jesus says to the people He has healed: “Your faith has saved you,” He is saying that they have found new life because they have surrendered in complete trust to the love of God revealed in Him. Trusting in the unconditional love of God: that is the way to which Jesus calls us. The more firmly you grasp this, the more readily will you be able to perceive why there is so much suspicion, jealousy, bitterness, vindictiveness, hatred, violence, and discord in our world. Jesus Himself interprets this by comparing God’s love to the light. He says: “thought the light has come to the world, people have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, to prevent his actions from being shown up; but whoever does the truth comes out into the light, so that what he is doing may plainly appear as done in God.”
Jesus sees the evil in this world as a lack of trust in God’s love. He makes us see that we persistently fall back on ourselves, rely more on ourselves than on God, and we inclined more to love of self than to love of God. So we remain in the darkness. If we walk in the light, then we are enabled to acknowledge in joy and gratitude that everything good, beautiful, and true comes from God and is offered to us in love. (Letters to Marc, 52-53)
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986:
1.Our Action reflects our Faith (27-28)
When we enter into the household of God, we come to realise that the fragmentation of humanity and its agony grow from the false supposition that all human beings have to fight for their right to be appreciated and loved. In the house of God’s love we come to see with new eyes and hear with new ears and thus recognise that all people, whatever their race, religion, sex, wealth, intelligence, or background, belong to the same house. God’s house has no dividing walls or closed doors. ‘I am the door,’ Jesus says. ‘Anyone who enters through Me will be safe’ (John 10:9). The more fully we enter into the house of love, the more clearly we see that we are there together with all humanity and that in and through Christ we are brothers and sisters, members of one family.
In the house of God we are consecrated to the truth; that is, part of God’s betrothal with God’s people. The word betrothal—which includes the word troth (truth)—beautifully expresses the personal quality of truth. We truthfully belong together in God. This is the spiritual basis of solidarity.
Here too we find the ground of all Christian action. As people leads us into the house of God and God’s people, so action leads us back into the world to work there for reconciliation, unity, and peace. Once we have come to know the truth we want to act truthfully and reveal to the world its true nature. All Christian action—whether it is visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or working for a more just and peaceful society—is a manifestation of the human solidarity revealed to us in the house of God. It is not an anxious human effort to create a better world. It is a confident expression of the truth that in Christ, death, evil, and destruction have been overcome. It is not a fearful attempt to restore a broken order. It is a joyful assertion that in Christ all order has already been restored. It is not a nervous effort to bring divided people together, but a celebration of an already established unity. Thus action is not activism. An activist wants to heal, restore, redeem, and re-create, but those acting within the house of God point through their action to the healing, restoring, redeeming and re-creating presence of God.
Jean Vanier understands this very well. When you see the many small homes for the handicapped, you wonder if Jean and his co-workers could not use their time and energy more efficiently. While the needs of the world clamour for our attention, hundreds of capable, intelligent men and women spend their time, often all of their time, feeding broken people, helping them walk, just being with them, and giving them the small comfort of a loving word, a gentle touch, or an encouraging smile. To anyone trying to succeed in our society, which is oriented toward efficiency and control, these people are wasting their time. What they do is highly inefficient, unsuccessful, and even useless. Jean Vanier, however, believes that in this useless work for the poor the truth of God’s perfect love for all people is revealed.