Fear by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986.
1. From House of Fear to House of Love (3-9)
We are fearful people. The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like. There always seems to be something to fear, something within us or around us, something close or far away, something visible or invisible, something in ourselves, in others, or in God. There never seems to be a totally fear-free moment. When we think, talk, act or react, fear always seems to be there: an omnipresent force that we cannot shake off. Often fear has penetrated our inner selves so deeply that it controls, whether we are aware of it or not, most of our choices and decisions.
In many, often very subtle, ways fear victimises and controls us. Fear can make us upset and angry. It can drive us into depression or despair. It can surround us with darkness and make us feel close to destruction and death. Fear can become so intolerable that we are willing to do anything to be relieved from it—even kill ourselves. It not seldom appears as a cruel tyrant who takes possession of us and forces us to live in his house. In fact, most of us people of the twentieth century live in the house of fear most of the time. It has become an obvious dwelling place, an acceptable basis on which to make our decisions and plan our lives.
But why are we so terribly afraid? Why is it so hard to find fearless people? Would there be much fear if it was not useful to somebody? I have raised these questions ever since I became conscious of the gripping fear in myself and others. Gradually, I began to see the simple fact that those I feared had a great power over me. Those who could make me afraid could also make me do what they wanted me to do. People are afraid for many reasons, but I am convinced that the close connection between power and fear deserves special attention. So much power is wielded by instilling fear in people and keeping them afraid. There are so many fearful children, fearful students, fearful patients, fearful employees, fearful parents, fearful ministers, and fearful believers. Nearly always, a threatening figure stands behind them and holds them under control: a father, a teacher, a doctor, a boss, a bishop, a church or God. Fear is one of the most effective weapons in the hands of those who seek to control us. As long as we are kept in fear we can be made to act, speak, and even think as slaves.
The agenda of our world—the issues and items that fill newspapers and newscasts—is an agenda of fear and power. It is amazing, yes frightening, to see how easily that agenda becomes ours. The things and people we think about, worry about, reflect upon, prepare ourselves for, and spend time and energy on are in large part determined by a world which seduces us into accepting its fearful questions. Look at the many “if” questions we raise: ‘What am I going to do if I do not find a spouse, a house, a job, a friend, a benefactor? What am I going to do if they fire me, if I get sick, if an accident happens, if I lose my friends, if my marriage does not work out, if a war breaks out? What if tomorrow the weather is bad, the buses are on strike, or an earthquake occurs? What if someone steals my money, break into my house, rapes my daughter, or kill me?’ Listen to the many ‘how’ questions: ‘How can I raise children in a world threatened by total destruction? How can I prevent another conflict, another war, or a nuclear holocaust? How can I keep the Russians from coming too close? How can I succeed on my own as an adult? How can I keep my good name among my neighbours? How can I make it to heaven?
A huge network of anxious questions surrounds us and begins to guide many, if not most, of our daily decisions. Clearly, those who can pose these fearful questions which bind us within have true power over us. For hidden under their questions lies the threat that not following their directions will make our worst fears come true. Once we accept these questions as our own, and are convinced that we must find answers to them, we become more and more settled in the house of fear. When we consider how much our educational, political, religious, and even social lives are geared to finding answers to questions born of fear, it is not hard to understand why a message of love has little chance of being heard.
Fearful questions never lead to love-filled answers: underneath every fearful question many other fearful questions are hidden. Once I have decided that in order to have a child I must be able to offer that child a college education, I get caught in many new, anxious questions involving my job, the place I live, the friends I make, and so on. Once I have come to the conviction that the Russians are the main threat to our national security, many new fearful questions concerning military, economic, and diplomatic matters emerge. Once I believe that God is out to get me for my bad behaviour, complicated moral schemes start to occupy my mind. Once I conclude that I cannot be happy without influential friends, I am in for quite an anxiety-provoking social life. Thus, fear engenders fear. Fear never gives birth to love.
If this is the case, the nature of the questions we raise is as important as the answers to our questions. Which questions guide our lives? Which questions do we make our own? Which questions deserve our undivided attention and full personal commitment? Finally the right questions is as crucial as finding the right answers.
A careful look at the Gospels shows that Jesus seldom accepted the questions posed to Him. He exposed them as coming from the house of fear. ‘Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven? How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever? What authority do you have for acting like this? At the resurrection, to which of those seven (men she married) will she be a wife, since she had been married to them all? Are you the king of the Jews? Lord, has the hour come? Are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel?. . . To none of these questions did Jesus give a direct answer. He gently put them aside as questions emerging from false worries. They were raised out of concern for prestige, influence, power and control. They did not belong to the house of God. Therefore Jesus always transformed the question by His answer. He made the question new—and only then worthy of His response.
Though we think of ourselves as followers of Jesus, we are often seduced by the fearful questions the world presents to us. Without fully realising it, we become anxious, nervous, worrying people caught in the questions of survival: our own survival, the survival of our families, friends, and colleagues, the survival of our church, our country, and our world. Once these fearful survival questions become the guiding questions of our lives, we tend to dismiss words spoken from the house of love as unrealistic, romantic, sentimental, pious, or just useless. When love is offered as an alternative to fear we say: ‘Yes, yes, that sounds beautiful, but. . . .’ The ‘but’ reveals how much we live in the grip of the world, a world which calls Christians naïve and raises ‘realistic’ questions: ‘Yes, but what if you grow old and there is nobody to help you? Yes, but what if you lose your job and you have no money to take care of yourself and your family? Yes, but what if refugees come to this country by the millions and disrupt the ways we have been living for so long? Yes, but what if the Cubans and Russians become powerful in Central America and start building their missiles in our own backyard?’
When we raise these ‘realistic’ questions we echo a cynical spirit which says: ‘Words about peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life are wonderful but the real issues cannot be ignored. They require that we do not allow others to play games with us, that we retaliate when we are offended, that we are always ready for war, and never let anyone take away the good life we have so carefully built up for ourselves.’ But as soon as these so-called ‘real issues’ begin to dominate our lives, we are back again in the house of fear, even though we keep borrowing words of love, and continue to experience vague desires to live in the house of love.
This book is based upon the conviction that love is stronger than fear, though it may often seem that the opposite is true. ‘Perfect love casts out all fear’ says St John in his first letter. In this book I hope to search for signs of this perfect love and look for ways to follow those signs. I hope to show the possibility of a spiritual movement: the movement out of the house of fear into the house of love.
But is it possible in the midst of this fear-provoking world to live in the house of love and listen there to the questions raised by the Lord of love? Or are we so accustomed to living in fear that we have become deaf to the voice that says: ‘do not be afraid.’ This reassuring voice, which repeats over and over again: ‘Do not be afraid, have no fear,’ is the voice we most need to hear. This voice was heard by Zechariah when Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, appeared to him in the temple and told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son; this voice was heard by Mary when the same angel entered her house in Nazareth and announced that she would conceive, bear a child, and name him Jesus; this voice was also heard by the women who came to the tomb and saw that the stone was rolled away. ‘Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.’ The voice uttering these words sounds all through history as the voice of God’s messengers, be they angels or saints. It is the voice that announces a whole new way of being, a being in the house of love, the house of the Lord.
Why is there no reason to fear any longer? Jesus Himself answers this question succinctly when he approaches His frightened disciples walking on the lake: ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ (John 6:20) The house of love is the house of Christ, the place where we can think, speak, and act in the way of God—not in the way of a fear-filled world. From this house the voice of love keeps calling out: ‘Do not be afraid. ..come and follow me. . . .see where I live. . . .go out and preach the good news. . . .the kingdom of God is close at hand. . . .there are many rooms in My Father’s house. Come. . . .take for your heritage the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.’
The house of love is not simply a place in the afterlife, a place in heaven beyond this world. Jesus offers us this house right in the midst of our anxious world.
What then are the signs by which we come to know the house of love? Are there ways we can gradually overcome our fears and let love be our guide? The following chapters respond to these questions with three words: intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy. These three words were first given to me by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche (the French word for ‘the Ark’), a worldwide network of communities for mentally handicapped people.
I had never met Jean Vanier, but we had been in contact through mutual friends. One day Jean called me and said: ‘I am making a short, Pentecost retreat with some of the L’Arche assistants. Would you like to join us?’ He added with a chuckle, ‘You do not have to say one word!’ I flew to Chicago and made the retreat. Though it was our first contact, Jean and I hardly spoke with each other. But in the midst of the silence he gave me three words around which this book is written. He mentioned them more in passing than to make an important statement. Jean said: ‘Working with mentally handicapped people, I have come to recognise that all human beings, whatever their condition, are called to intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy.’ At first, these concepts seemed little more then good-sounding words that could be easily remembered. But much later, when I read Jesus’ farewell address to His disciples, it struck me that Jesus Himself describes life in the house of love as a life of intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy.
Speaking of Himself as the vine and of His disciples as the branches, Jesus says: ‘Make your home in Me, as I make Mine in you.’ (John 15:4) This is as invitation in intimacy. Then He adds: ‘Those who remain in Me with Me in them, bear fruit in plenty.’ (John 15:5) This is a call to fecundity. Finally, when He says: ‘I have told you this so that My own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11), He promises ecstasy. The more I read and reflected on the Gospel of John, the more I became aware of the importance of these themes. Once alerted to them by Jean Vanier I recognised them as golden threads woven through the whole of John’s Gospel.
Since that first short conversation with Jean, much has happened. A true friendship has developed, and L’Arche has become an increasingly important part of my life. After a few visits to the L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where Jean lives, I was invited to live there for a year. This stay, which began in August of 1985, has afforded me the time to write this book. Therefore, L’Arche is the main inspiration for these reflections on the spiritual life, and the main source of my stories, examples and illustrations.
2. Fear an Enemy of Intimacy (15-16)
Fear is the great enemy of intimacy. Fear makes us run away from each other or cling to each other but does not create true intimacy. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples were overcome by fear and they all ‘deserted Him and ran away’ (Matthew 26:56). And after Jesus was crucified they huddled together in a closed room ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20:19). Fear makes us move away from each other to a ‘safe’ distance, or move toward each other to a ‘safe’ closeness, but fear does not create the space where intimacy can exist. Fear does not create a home. It forces us to live alone or in a protective shelter but does not allow us to build an intimate home. Fear conjures either too much distance or too much closeness. Both prevent intimacy from developing.
My own experience with people whom I fear offers plenty of examples. Often I avoid them: I leave the house, move to a corner, where I can remain unnoticed, or express myself in flat, non-committal sentences. Sometimes I create a false closeness with them. I talk too long with them, laugh too loudly at their jokes, or agree too soon with their opinions. Whether I create too much distance or too much closeness, I always sense a lack of inner freedom and a resentment toward the power they have over me.
Fearful distance and fearful closeness are even more noticeable in the larger context of our lives. Prisons, mental hospitals, and refugee camps are often built far away from the places where ‘normal’ people live, to keep the fear-evoking strangers at a safe distance. Other types of safe distance abound: safe topics to discuss, safe issues to get involved in, safe subjects to write about, safe people to invite and so on. On the other hand, one can find the safe closeness of the clique, the sect, or the club, places where people huddle together in mutual admiration or common suspicion of the outsider. In a time like ours, when fear takes on an apocalyptic dimension, it is extremely tempting to join a small group that calls non-members useless, dangerous, or evil and offers a unique sense of belonging to those who follow the rules.
But whether through distance or closeness, fear prevents us from forming an intimate community in which we can grow together, everyone in his or her own way. When fear separates or joins us, we can no longer confess to each other our sins, our brokenness, and our wounds. How, then, can we forgive each other and come to reconciliation? Distance allows us to ignore the other as having no significance in our lives, and closeness offers us an excuse for never expressing or confessing our feelings of being hurt.
Jean Vanier, who has lived for more than twenty years with mentally and physically handicapped people, has become a keen observer of this dynamic of fear. He saw that these severely handicapped people seem like strangers living in another world, like prisoners caught behind the bars of their own deformation, like sick people who cannot help themselves, like poor and helpless beggars who make no contribution to society. He saw how they evoke fear in the hearts of those who regard themselves as normal: the ‘regulars’, the free, the healthy, the rich, and the successful. He saw how they remind us of another reality to be avoided at all cost.
Jean Vanier realised that as long as these handicapped men and women remain ‘the others,’ they become the victims of cold institutions or of suffocating overprotection. He noticed how they are rejected as aliens or clung to as personal property. He understood that either way no true home exists for them. Their otherness robs them of the free space where they can grow according to their own pace, their own rhythm, and their own, often hidden gifts.
3. Fear dominates our value as Persons (37-38)
Fear can lead not only to sterility but also to a flight toward productivity. Here we have to make an important distinction between fruits and products. A call to live a fruitful life does not necessarily imply a call to be productive. A product is something we make. Certain concrete actions lead to a product that we can subsequently claim as our own. When we repeat these actions, the result is the same product, and if we repeat these actions over and over, we are soon considered very productive persons who do not waste their time.
In our world, everything can become a product: not only cars, houses, books, and artefacts, but also influential friends, successful interactions, and important decisions. They all can become part of what we have ‘made,’ what gives us a sense of being acceptable in the eyes of others. People are often introduced with emphasis on their productivity. ‘This is Frank, he wrote some very influential books which you might like to read; this is Mary, who won a Pulitzer Prize, and this is Peter, who knows everything about photography, etc, etc. . . .’ In all of this, the suggestion is made that we are what we make. In our contemporary society, with its emphasis on accomplishment and success, we often live as if being productive is the same as being fruitful. Productivity gives us a certain notoriety and helps take away our fear of being useless. But if we want to live as followers of Jesus, we must come to know that products, successes, and results often belong more to the house of fear than to the house of love.
When fear dominates our lives, we worry about our value as persons and become easily preoccupied with products. I even wonder if our deep-seated fear of being sterile does not often motivate us to a frantic productivity.
The emphasis on productivity is increasing constantly. Not only in the business and industrial world, but also in the worlds of sport and academics productivity has become the main concern.
My own experience is limited to universities. One of the saddest aspects of the lives of many students is that they always feel pressured. The irony is that those who have the luxury of spending time reading the great books of our culture and exploring the intricate beauty of creation find themselves always fighting deadlines. Students complain about the number of pages they have to read or write, and anxiously wonder how they will finish their many assignments on time. The word ‘school’, which comes from ‘schola’ (meaning: free time), reminds us that schools were originally meant to interrupt a busy existence and create some space to contemplate the mysteries of life. Today they have become the arena for a hectic race to accomplish as much as possible, and to acquire in a short period the necessary tools to survive the great battle of human life. Books written to be savoured slowly are read hastily to fulfil a requirement, paintings made to be seen with a contemplative eye are taken in as part of a necessary art appreciation course, and music composed to be enjoyed at leisure is listened to in order to identify a period or style. Thus, colleges and universities meant to be places for quiet learning have become places of fierce competition, in which the rewards go to those who produce the most and the best.
This emphasis on productivity has also deeply affected our interpersonal relationships. Relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, teachers and students are often poisoned by an all-pervasive concern for success. Even our most intimate and vulnerable moments can be invaded by fear of not being able to ‘deliver.’
4. Fear thwarts Fruitfulness (35-36)
Fear not only prevents intimacy, it also thwarts fruitfulness. When fear dominates our lives, we cannot quietly and patiently protect the holy space where fruits can grow. Two ways in which fear manifests itself are sterility and productivity.
Sterility is one of the most obvious responses to fear. When we feel surrounded by threats, we close ourselves off and no longer reach out to others, with whom fruitful relationships might grow. The more afraid we become, the more we withdraw.As we sense the danger increasing, we withdraw more and more until finally we find ourselves totally out of touch with the ‘other’. Thus we regress into self-created protective patterns and become sterile.
Many people experience themselves as sterile, even when they have children, a job, money, and significant success in life. This experience of sterility is the experience of not being alive, and therefore of being unable to give life. We often hear remarks such as: ‘I am not in charge of this. Others make the big decisions. . . .All I ask is to be left alone. . . .I like to mind my own business and look after my own interests. I know that people are suffering, but there’s nothing I can do about it. . . .’ This is the voice of death. It expresses a sense of uselessness and self-doubt that gradually extinguishes the desire to grow.
In the First World, with its high technology and its complex bureaucracy, an increasing number of men and women have lost any sense of being active participants in the making of the future. They often experience themselves as useless appendices to a complex machine, the inner workings of which they do not understand. This is not only true for unemployed youth and retired elderly, but also for many who are quite busy in the factories and offices of our contemporary society. Being bored while being busy is an ominous symptom of this spiritual illness.
In the Third World, the sense of uselessness is no less present, though the reason is very different. There, the distance between the poor and the wealthy is often so great that the poor feel superfluous or even burdensome to those who shape their country’s destiny. Many people living in dire misery have become fatalistic. They feel that whatever they do their situation will not change. The powers of the mighty seem so overwhelming to them that better education, housing, and health care hardly seem worth fighting for. Real change seems as impossible to them as finding gold at the end of the rainbow.
Whether in the First or the Third World, fear for unknown powers causes the inner experience of sterility, the experience that causes people to say: ‘I have nothing to offer.’ Hope ebbs away without the conviction that we have received a promise that will be fulfilled through our live, and we gradually lose our ability to give life. For some, this leads to a reluctance to have children: ‘Why have children if there is no future for them?’ For others, children become the only source of security: ‘When I grow old, who will take care of me if not my own children?’ But for all, loss of hope involves a stifling of an inner movement toward the future. Sterility, here, is first and foremost a spiritual woundedness. The Spirit of God is a creative spirit, always expressing itself in new life. When that spirit is extinguished by fear, we cling to what we have and thus stop moving and growing.
5. Fear Breeds Hatred, Violence, and War.(25-26)
Christians are called to bear witness to the truth that God has gathered all people into one family. Yet wherever we look we see the devastating fear people have of one another. Fear between races, religions, nations, continents. Fear between the rich and poor, North and South, East and West. Wherever this fear rules division breeds, leading to hatred, violence, destruction and war. Everything we read in the papers, hear on the radio, and see on television about the condition of the world seems to confirm the saying: ‘homo homini lupus’, human beings are wolves to each other. And since our human intelligence is inventing ever more ingenious instruments of destruction, humanity comes closer every day to its own annihilation. Not solidarity but fragmentation is the most visible quality of the way people relate to each other.
We need new eyes to see and new ears to hear the truth of our unity, a unity which cannot be perceived by our broken, sinful, anxious hearts. Only a heart filled with perfect love can perceive the unity of humanity. This requires divine perception. God sees His people as one, as belonging to the same family and living in the same house. God wants to share this divine perception with us. By sending the only beloved Son to live and die for us all, God wants to open our eyes so that we can see that we belong together in the embrace of God’s perfect love.
6. Fear of confessing and asking forgiveness (41-42)
Much suffering is caused by the fear of confessing and asking forgiveness. I have seen the most radical changes in the lives of people when they finally found the courage to confess what they felt most ashamed of or most guilty about and discovered that instead of losing a friend they gained one. Distances were bridged, walls came tumbling down, and abysses were filled in. I vividly remember many long and painful conversations with a student who kept stressing how much she hatred God. For her, God was a morbid oppressor who made her life miserable by burdening her life with shame and guilt. None of my explanations about God’s compassion and love were able to change her mind. But one day, when there was ample time to talk, when we both felt free from pressures and when a relationship of trust had begun to develop between us, she told me the long and tortuous story of her life in all its painful detail. As she spoke I could sense that gradually something new was being born in her: the deep awareness that she was truly loved and did not have to be afraid. Later, she wrote me and said: ‘That long talk we had was the beginning of a new life for me, a life lived under the gaze of a forgiving and always loving God.’ It was new life for her precisely because the true face of God had become visible in the mutual vulnerability of two human beings. Not only had this young student discovered God, but she had also found a new friend.
Wherever we see people overcoming their fears and approaching each other in mutual vulnerability, we catch a glimpse of the love in the house of God and taste the fruit of that love.
7. Fear makes Ecstasy Impossible (58-59)
Just as fear inhibits intimacy and fruitfulness, so too does it make ecstasy impossible. When we say: ‘We were ecstatic when we saw those mountains’ we recall a fearless moment, a moment in which we were totally receptive to the beauty surrounding us. The ecstatic moment is precisely the moment when we lose our self-preoccupation and are drawn out of ourselves into a new reality.
The house of fear has no room for ecstasy. Fear keeps us clinging to the familiar place, or, in the case of acute anxiety, makes us dissipate ourselves aimlessly. In our fear-ridden times, these two reactions—routine and rootlessness—are quite visible.
Routine induces a sense of sameness and familiarity by which fears can temporarily alleviated. We often use routine ways of talking, ways of thinking, and ways of acting to avoid fearful interactions. Routines are predictable and repeatable and hold no surprises. Remarks such as: ‘This is the way we do things here’, or ‘It has always been this way’, or ‘I am used to this method’, or ‘I have always learned that. . . .’ can all point to somewhat static and therefore deadening routines. Sometimes routines take the form of elaborate rituals. Before going to sleep, small children often want their parents to go through certain rituals in order to give them a sense of safety. A story, a prayer, a cookie, a kiss, or a song can all become part of a bedtime ritual to dispel the ‘spirits’ of darkness. Often a child can be adamant about keeping things the same and in the right order.
Yet children are not the only ones who develop such routines. We all do to some degree. Our rituals can be as simple as the way we start a day, offer hospitality, conduct a conversation, or prepare and eat a meal. They can be as complex as the way we think about politics, relate to the church, celebrate feast days, speak about death, or respond to a crisis in our life.
It would be simplistic to view all these routines as expressions of fear. Many of them are helpful ways of ordering our lives and communicating with others. But when routine behaviour begins to dominate our daily lives, and suggestions of change call forth violent resistance, fear has begun to poison the roots of our existence.
At L’Arche, it is easy to notice the way routines are used to deal with fear. Once I was deeply impressed by a thirty year old, mentally handicapped man who told me in precise detail the way he performed his task in the workshop. But when I showed my enthusiasm to one of the assistants, she said: ‘He always tells that story to newcomers in the house. It is his way of dealing with strangers. We are trying to help him gradually overcome his fear and compose a few more stories to tell.’ When I heard this I realised suddenly how much this handicapped person was like me. I may have more than one story to allay my fears, but those who know me well often say: ‘Not that story again!’ It seems that I too have my little ‘success stories’ that I use to relieve my anxiety and establish a certain level of acceptance.
The stronger the fear, the more rigid the routines become. When our milieu causes us great anxiety we often cling to familiar ways of thinking and acting.
8. Fear drives us to Rootlessness (60-62)
Routines have a certain place in our lives. They also offer us a certain safety and comfort, but when they become our main coping device, they make us rigid, even dead. Without any form of ecstasy, we cannot survive very long.
Fear, however, not only leads us to routinised behaviour. Fear can also drive us to its complete opposite: rootlessness. Fear can make us into wanderers who go from one place to another without direction or goal. Our emotions and feelings then become like a wild river that leaves its bed and destroys the land instead of irrigating it. Lashing out, self-mutilation, erratic talking, running away, aimless wandering—all can be responses to a fear that has become too great for us to face.
When Jesus describes the fearful signs preceding the coming of the Son of God, He warns His disciples not to run here and there in a panicky, rootless way, with hearts coarsened by debauchery, drunkenness, and the cares of life. He urges them to wait in unceasing prayer for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to ‘stand confidently’ before the Son of Man (see Luke 21:34-36).
In La Forestiere, one of the L’Arche homes in France where deeply handicapped people live; I see how anguish sometimes finds expression in self-mutilation. The assistants have to work hard to protect the men and women, most of whom cannot speak, walk, eat, or dress themselves, from harming themselves. Edith, for instance, regularly beats her head against hard objects. I seldom see her without bandages to cover her self-inflicted wounds and protect her from doing herself more harm.
It is hard to fathom what goes on in the hearts of such persons who have very limited ways of communicating; but just being with them leads me to suspect an existential fear, intense beyond our most compassionate understanding. The anxiety of these broken people gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Their anxiety suggests an immense loneliness which nobody can penetrate, a homelessness that goes far beyond the need for a caring friend or a hospitable house, a rootlessness that opens up into chasms of human despair. The most one can do is to be present, not expecting any changes, but standing in loving awe at the immensity of human fear that Jesus came to carry with us to the cross and beyond.
And still, there is joy and peace even at La Forestiere. In some mysterious way the handicapped and their assistants form a community of love, stronger than the agonies of its people. It is an expression of the divine presence in which both happiness and sadness are embraced as well as transcended. It has something to do with the cross, which has become for them a sign of hope. Somehow roots exist after all—–roots beyond all rootlessness.
Rootlessness cannot lead to joy any more than routine behaviour. Without a place to move from and refer to as the home from which we come, every movement can easily become a panicked flight leading nowhere. Rootlessness and goalless-ness are closely connected. People who have lost touch with their roots also tend to lose their sense of direction. This is quite understandable, since our roots offer us a time, place, and context in which to search for new possibilities. It is hard to search for your own way of being at home in the world when you have little or no memory of ever having felt at home. Many young men and women who have lost their motivation to develop their minds and hearts have little sense of home. When the world is a fearful place where you need all of your emotional energy just to survive, you have little capacity to move from one way of being alive to another.
When Jesus says: ‘Make your home in Me as I make Mine in you’, He offers us an intimate place that we can truly call ‘home’. Home is that place or space where we do not have to be afraid but can let go of our defences and be free, free from worries, free from tensions, free from pressures. Home is where we can laugh and cry, embrace and dance, sleep long and dream quietly, eat, read, play, watch the fire, listen to music, and be with a friend. Home is where we can rest and be healed. The word ‘home’ gathers a wide range of feelings and emotions up into one image, the image of a house where it is good to be: the house of love. (13)
The first and most obvious quality of a home is its intimacy. When we say: ‘I do not feel at home here’ we express an uneasiness that does not permit intimacy. When we say: ‘I wish I were home’ we express a longing for that intimate place that offers us a sense of belonging. Even though many people suffer much from conflicts at home, even though much emotional suffering finds its roots at home, and even though ‘broken homes’ are increasingly blamed for crimes and illnesses, the word ‘home’ continues to carry with it a warm love and remains one of the most evocative symbols for happiness. The Christian faith even calls us to experience life as ‘going home’ and death as ‘coming home at last’. In Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son we can see a moving expression of that faith. The loving embrace in which the old father holds his exhausted son affirms our deepest desire for a lasting, intimate home. (14)