Hope by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
1.Living with Hope
Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfil God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.
All the great spiritual leaders in history were people of hope. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day all lived with a promise in their hearts that guided them toward the future without the need to know exactly what it would look like. Let’s live with hope. (Jan 16)
How can someone ever trust in the existence of an unconditional divine love when most, if not all, of what he or she has experienced is the opposite of love—fear, hatred, violence, and abuse?
They are not condemned to be victims! There remains within them, hidden as it may seem, the possibility to choose love. Many people who have suffered the most horrendous rejections and been subject to the most cruel torture have been able to choose love. By choosing love they became witnesses not only to human resiliency but also to the divine love that transcends all human loves. Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world. (June 14)
The passages below are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
Wishing to Hope (pg 35)
We lived in a world where people don’t know much about hope. We know about wishes. The whole Christmas period is full of wishes. I wish this, or I want that. It’s very concrete: I want a toy or a car or a new job. These are all very specific requests. But hope is precisely to say, “I don’t know how God is going to fulfil His promises, but I know that He will, and therefore I can live in the presence with the knowledge that He is with me.” I can then know and trust that the deepest desires of my being will be fulfilled. This way keeps the future very open.
Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Many people think that hope is optimism, looking at the positive side of life. But Jesus doesn’t speak like that at all. When Jesus talks about the future or the end of the world, He describes wars, people in anguish, nation rising against nation, and earthquakes. There’s no place where Jesus says, “One day it will all be wonderful.” He talks about enormous agony, but He says, “You, you (my beloved ones) pray unceasingly that you will keep your heart focused on Me. Stand with your head erect in the presence of the Son of Man. Don’t get distracted by it all. Remain focused.” Don’t think that things will clean up, and finally there won’t be any more pain. Jesus is saying that the world is dark, and will remain dark.
If you live with hope, you can live very much in the present because you can nurture the footprints of God in your heart and life. You already have a sense of what is to come. And the whole of the spiritual life is saying that God is right with us, right now, so that we can wait for His coming, and this waiting is a waiting in hope. But because we wait with hope we know that what we are waiting for is already here. We have to nurture that. Here and now matters because God is a God of the present. And God is God of the present because He is God of Eternity.
Hope is to open yourself up to let God do His work in you in ways that transcend your imagination. As Jesus said, “When you are young you put your own belt on and went where you wanted to go. But when you grow spiritually old, then your stretch out your hands and let others and God lead you where you rather wouldn’t go.” That’s hope, to let yourself be led to new places.
“A Tribute to Henri Nouwen: 1932-1996” an interview by Rev.Brian Stiller
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.
1.Easter Sunday (pg 139)
Easter season is a time of hope. There still is fear, there still is a painful awareness of sinfulness, but there also is light breaking through. Something new is happening, something that goes beyond the changing moods of our life. We can be joyful or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, tranquil or angry, but the solid stream of God’s presence moves deeper than the small waves of our minds and hearts. Easter brings the awareness that God is present even when His presence in not directly noticed. Easter brings the good news that, although things seem to get worse in the world, the Evil One has already been overcome. Easter allows us to affirm that although God seems very distant and although we remain preoccupied with many little things, our Lord walks with us on the road and keeps explaining the Scriptures to us. Thus there are many rays of hope casting their light on our way through life. (A Cry for Mercy. pg 85)
2. Passion Sunday (pg 100)
Finding new life through suffering and death: that is the core of the good news. Jesus has lived out that liberating way before us and has made it the great sign. Human beings are forever wanting to see signs: marvellous, extraordinary, sensational events that can distract them a little from hard reality. . .We would like to see something marvellous, something exceptional, something that interrupts the ordinary life of every day. That way, if only for a moment, we can play at hide-and-seek. But to those who say to Jesus: “Master. . .we should like to see a sign from You,” He replies: “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign! The only sign it will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.”
From this one can see what the authentic sign is: not some sensational miracle but the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The great sign, which can be understood only by those who are willing to follow Jesus is the sign of Jonah, who also wanted to run away from reality but was summoned back by God to fulfil his arduous task to the end. To look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of Him. It is the sign of the cross: the sign of suffering and death, but also of the hope for total renewal. (Letters to Marc. Pg 25-26)
3. Friday in Passion Week (pg 113)
When Jesus saw the crowd harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd, He felt with them in the center of His being (Matthew 9:36). When He saw the blind, the paralysed, and the deaf being brought to Him from all directions, He trembled from within and experienced their pains in His own heart (Matthew 14:14). When He noticed that the thousands who followed Him for days were tired and hungry, He said, I am moved with compassion (Mark 8:2). And so it was with the two blind men who called after Him (Matthew 9:27), the leper who fell to his knees in front of Him (Mark 1:41), and the widow of Nain who was burying her own son (Luke 7:13). They moved Him, they made Him feel with all His intimate sensibilities the depth of their sorrow. He became lost with the lost, hungry with the hungry, and sick with the sick. In Him, all suffering was sensed with a perfect sensitivity. The great mystery revealed to us in this is that Jesus, who is the sinless Son of God, chose in total freedom to suffer fully our pains and thus to let us discover the true nature of our own passions. In Him, we see and experience the persons we truly are. He who is divine lives our broken humanity not as a curse (Genesis 3:14-19), but as a blessing. His divine compassion makes it possible for us to face our sinful selves, because it transforms our broken human condition from a cause of despair into a source of hope. (Compassion 17)
4. Saturday in Passion Week (pg 116)
We can close our eyes as tightly as we can and clasp our hands as firmly as possible, but God speaks only when He wants to speak. When we realise this our pressing, pushing, and pulling become quite amusing. Sometimes we are like a child that closes his eyes and thinks that he can make the world go away.
After having done everything to make some space for God, it is still God who comes on His own initiative. But we have a promise upon which to base our hope: The promise of His love. So our life can rightly be a waiting in expectation, but waiting patiently and with a smile. Then, indeed, we shall be really surprised and full of joy and gratitude when He comes. (Genesee Diary 108-109)
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “With Open Hands,” published in 1972.
1.Hope and Wishes (pg 42)
The immense difference between hope and wishes comes out in the remarks of a student who wrote: “I see hope as an attitude where everything stays open before me. Not that I don’t think of my future in those moments, but I think of it in an entirely different way. Daring to stay open to whatever will come to me today, tomorrow, two months from now or a year from now—that is hope. To go fearlessly into things without knowing how they’ll turn out, to keep on going, even when something doesn’t work the first time, to have trust in whatever you’re doing—that is living with hope.”
2. Live with Hope (pg 43)
When we live with hope we do not get tangled up with concerns for how our wishes will be fulfilled. So, too, our prayers are not directed toward the gift, but toward the one who gives it. Our prayers might still contain just as many desires, but ultimately it is not a question of having a wish come true but of expressing an unlimited faith in the giver of all good things. You wish that. . .but you hope for. . .In the prayer of hope, there are no guarantees asked, no conditions posed, and no proofs demanded. You expect everything from the other without binding the other in any way. Hope is based on the premise that the other gives only what is good. Hope includes an openness where you wait for the promise to be delivered, even though you never know when, where, or how this might happen.
Perhaps, in the long run, there is no finer image for the prayer of hope than the relation of little children toward their mother. All day long they ask for things, but the love they have for their mother does not depend on her fulfilling all these wishes. Little children know that their mother will do only what is good for them, and in spite of occasional fits and a few short-lived tantrums if they don’t get their way, they continue to be convinced that, in the end, their mother does only what she knows is best for them.
3. Pray with Hope (pg 44)
When you pray with hope you might still ask for many things: you might ask for everything, and for very concrete things, like nice weather or a better salary. This concreteness is even a sign of authenticity. For if you ask only for faith, hope, love, freedom, happiness, modesty, humility, etc., without making them concrete, you probably haven’t involved God in your real life. If you pray in hope, all those concrete requests are ways of expressing your unlimited trust in God, who fulfils all promises, who holds out for you nothing but good, and who wants to share goodness and love with you.
Only if you pray with hope can you break through the barriers of death. For no longer do you want to know what it will be like after you die, what heaven exactly will look like, or how you will be eternal. You don’t let yourself be distracted by daydreams where all your conflicting desires are satisfied in a wish-come-true hereafter. When you pray with hope you turn yourself toward God, trusting fully that God is a faithful God who makes all promises real.
This hope gives you a new freedom which lets you look realistically at life without feeling dejected. This freedom comes through in the words of the student who wrote:
Hope means to keep living
and to keep humming
in the darkness
Hoping is knowing that there is love
it is trust in tomorrow
it is falling asleep
and waking again
when the sun rises.
In the midst of a gale at sea,
it is to discover land.
In the eyes of another
it is to see that you are understood.
. . . .
As long as there is still hope
There will also be prayer
. . . . .
And God will be holding you
in God’s hands.
4. Tasting God’s hidden Promises in Full (pg 46)
Whenever we pray with hope, we put our loves in the hands of God. Fear and anxiety fade away and everything we are given and everything we are deprived of is nothing but a finger pointing out the direction of God’s hidden promise which one day we shall taste in full.
The article below is taken from Father Henri J M Nouwen’s writings in the book “The Road to Peace,” edited by a Jesuit Priest, John Dear and published in 1998.
The Journey from Despair to Hope.
The passion of the Lord did not end at the cross. After the cross Jesus entered the tomb. The tomb is the place of disintegration, where the body rots, falls apart, and vanishes into dust. Jesus chose not only to die for us and with us, but also to enter this place of ultimate despair.
From this place of despair Jesus speaks to us about hope. From this place of rotting, of bad smell, of darkness, He emerges to accompany us as we journey. Even though we are often downcast, Jesus always speaks about hope. And this hope is different from optimism. Jesus is not an optimist. He is not a pessimist.
Optimism arranges reality in a way that enables us to say things will get better. Pessimism arranges the same reality so that we can say things will probably get worse. When it rains, the optimist says, “How wonderful! Things will grow.” Seeing the same rain, the pessimist says, “Everything will drown.”
Being neither an optimist nor a pessimist, Jesus speaks about hope that is not based on chances that things will get better or worse. His hope is built upon the promise that, whatever happens, God will stay with us at all times, in all places. God is the God of life.
As His followers, we are called to be people of hope and to build communities of hope in a world where the options are usually confined to a limited optimism or an unlimited pessimism. To do that we must enter the tomb from which Jesus speaks to us about hope. I want to enter with you into that tomb. This means honestly facing the despair we are dealing with in the world today. We cannot go around despair to hope. We have to go right through despair. We will never know what hope is until we have tasted real despair. We have to be able to look at the despair of this world in order to have an inkling of the hope that Jesus offers to us.
Currently, we are dealing with three levels of despair:
In the interpersonal relationships,
In a global sense throughout the world, and
In our church.
I want to look at each of these levels of despair and then, drawing upon the hope Jesus offers us, try to say a word of hope in response.
Despair in personal relationship is becoming more and more visible. We all struggle with loneliness. We feel disconnected. We seem to have no home. We search within our marriages, within our friendships, within our communities. Anxiously, we look for a sense of belonging, rootedness, togetherness. This cry for acceptance very often is expressed in violence. “Please love me,” we say, “I can’t live without you. You have to fill the hunger in me. You have to close the painful gap I can no longer live with.”
The need for some kind of satisfaction, some sense of belonging, is enormous. The ache is so deep we are willing to do anything to fill it. Often, we end up not only hurting but destroying each other. Much crime and violence and battering seem to be a perverted way of expressing our deepest need to be loved, to be held, to be embraced.
Marriage, friendship, sexuality, intimacy—all are in very deep crisis. Sometimes I have the sense that life between people resembles tightly interlocked fingers. People, so hungry for each other, want to get closer and closer, tighter and tighter. “You seem to fulfil my needs. Let’s get closer. Let’s live together. Let’s merge into one body.” Then suddenly we reach a point where we can go no further. Finally we say to one another, “We have been friends a long time and still feel lonely.” Or, “We have been married for many years and I still feel you don’t really understand me.” “We have been living in community so long and we don’t feel at home with one another.” Then real pain develops. People say, “Maybe we should get some distance from each other, then try again.” So they do. But still it does not work.
Eventually, this kind of friction leads to a break-up, bringing even deeper loneliness, precisely because we have tried so hard. Now that’s despair. Your greatest desire is to have a home but the harder you try, the more you find everything falling apart. And you don’t know what to do about it. People end up killing themselves out of sheer loneliness and depression.
Out of that grave of despair, Jesus comes to us, as He came out of His place of despair, the tomb. He encounters us. He says something we keep forgetting, the core of His message: “Love one another because I have loved you first.” Jesus proclaims the first love. Jesus proclaims that God loved us long before we could ever begin to love one another. This love is total. It is full and unconditional. “I love you with all My divine heart. I embrace you with all that I have. I send you My innermost self. I want you to breathe My breath. I want you to live in the endless embrace of My love. Here you can find your home. I have made My home in you. You can make your home in Me.”
Real love results from the coming together of people who are deeply rooted in this first divine love. This love enables each of us to recognise the other as brother or sister. Love God with all your mind, heart, and soul, we are told. You will discover your neighbour within that love. With that as a foundation you can come together with others and build a home together.
Sometimes we are quite far from one another, sometimes very close. In either case, we have a home if we are anchored in divine love. We don’t have to solve our own loneliness if we are rooted in God’s love. We don’t just love one another because we desperately need each other. Rather, we can be together in faithfulness because we are both rooted in that first love. Our love for one another thus becomes a witness to each other of that first divine love.
I am a limited, partial, broken reflection of a love that is unlimited, impartial, whole. If I say, “I love you,” then what I am really saying is that we are communicating to each other in a broken and limited way a love that has no limit, that is not broken. You keep calling me back to that first divine love. I call you back to it. That is what marriage is about. That is what friendship is about. That is what community is about. In each case, we are calling each other back to that first love. We are saying to each other: “We are broken people. But we are embraced by One who says to us, ‘Do not be afraid, I have loved you first. And that is where you are secure.”
The whole spiritual life can be seen as a life in which we reclaim that first love. Prayer, contemplation, meditation, solitude, silence—they are all meant to develop an awareness of the voice in your heart that says, “I loved you long before you could have loved one another. I accepted you long before you could accept one another. I embraced you long before you could hold one another.”
This is how we find our freedom. Freedom comes when you know with your heart that you are loved. If you could accept and believe that you are unconditionally loved and embraced, you could go all over the world and never be lonely. This is a struggle, but if you experience it you will know what Jesus meant when He said: “You will be leaving Me alone, yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.”
I have met people who have earned incredible acclaim, people who have been admired by millions and millions of other people—artists, writers, performers, preachers. Often I saw that the more well known they became the more lonely they grew. There is always as anxiousness in the heart that whispers, “Will they love me tomorrow, too? Is it for real? Is someone fooling me? Is someone using me?” If you are not free, that suspicion will always be there.
Freedom is the core of the spiritual life. It comes from claiming in your heart that unconditional first love that allows you to love your neighbours freely and unpossessively. Jesus shares this word of hope in our world full of violence—violence in our families, in our communities. In our personal relationships, a moral life is not enough. We must also live the mystical life, a life which is embraced by God who says, “I love you fully and unconditionally.”
The second level of despair is global, worldwide. Jesus lived through this despair in the grave also. For some time, I have been trying to find a way to pin down this despair. What I have finally come up with is the fact of our immense fascination with destruction and death. You see it everywhere. We spend billions and billions of dollars to build armaments that, if they are ever used, will destroy millions and millions of people, possibly the whole planet. There is enormous fascination with that power we have to wipe out life. Somehow, there may even be something in us that wants to push the button, to see what happens.
We see the same thing in entertainment. Look at what you see on television, hear on the radio, and read in novels. Mostly, we are entertained with death games. People sit in front of the TV and think, “Is he going to make it?” There’s potential destruction everywhere. It’s as if the whole world were high up in a circus tent without a net. “Are we going to make it or are we going to fall? My, how exciting!” People become millionaires by tickling us to death.
Sometimes it seems that we prefer the security of death to the insecurity of life. Death is fixed. It is definite. It is sure. Life is unpredictable, open-ended. You never know where it will go. Something in us is tempted to choose death because at least we know what we getting. I have seen people who live as if they were balancing on the edge of an abyss. They are nervous, unsure whether they are going to make it. Finally, they solve the dilemma by jumping. At least it is over; the tension is relieved. In a world like ours with so many tensions and insecurities, too many of us choose the security of death.
But Jesus says, “no” to death. We can see that as He walked with His disciples to Emmaus. He was saying, “yes” to life. He spoke about life at a time when His disciples’ attention was fixed on death. You and I are called to say “no” to death all the time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to get into demonstrations and protests marches, at least not right away. As a starter, it means saying “no” to the small kinds of death that hang around us.
Almost always, these small deaths begin with judging. In judging, we deal with our own fears by putting other people into little boxes and, in effect, declaring them dead. “Oh, I know him,” we say. “I know that type. He’s not worth talking to.” In doing this, we take the position that new life is no longer possible in our relationships with people. We have already decided who they are. We don’t want to be bothered any more. That is why Jesus says, “Do not judge.” Labelling people prevents us from seeing them as brothers and sisters and from developing community with them.
We must also stop judging ourselves. We put ourselves in boxes too. “I have lived fifty years,” we say. “Don’t expect me to change. I can’t do anything new or different.” This self-rejection is really a step toward death. It can lead to suicide—physical, psychological, or spiritual.
This kind of judging goes on in ourselves, in others, in our communities, even among nations. We have already decided what the communists are up to. We have already decided what Nicaragua is all about. We deal with other nations as if we knew for certain that they are not to be trusted. It is decided by us ahead of time. And the same process goes on in the hearts of our “enemies.”
Living without judgement is very difficult. It means trusting that new life can emerge even in a world full of distrust, violence, destruction, and war.
Life is always small. It is always vulnerable. It never shouts or screams. It always needs protection and guidance. Saying “yes” to it means being willing to look at the small life that seeks to be born in your heart, in your body, in your mind, among people. Death is always glamorous. Death shines; it is always big and noisy. Death goes bang, bang! Because life is very small, you can never see it happening. Have you ever seen a tree actually grow? Can you see a child grow? Growth is too gentle, too tender. Life is basically hidden. It is small and begs for constant care and protection. If you are committed to always saying “yes” to life, you are going to have to become a person who chooses it when it is hidden.
I have a case in point from my own life. I live in a community with handicapped adults. Just after I moved in they asked me if I would be willing to take care of Adam. Adam cannot speak. Adam cannot walk. Adam is what some people might call “a vegetable.” “Would you be willing to wash Adam?” they asked. “Would you be willing to dress him and to give him breakfast?”
As I began to take care of Adam, I slowly discovered what life is about. Adam began to teach me about the smallness of living. As I bathed this twenty-five-year-old-man, washed his face, combed his hair, fed him and dressed him, I began to realise what an incredible gift life is. Adam spoke to me in a language I didn’t know he could speak. He told me how hidden, vulnerable, and deep life is. Being with him gave me a sense of being closely in touch with living. After a while I felt an enormous desire to leave my office and my books and to be with Adam, because he would tell me what life was about.
I began to realise that every time people say “yes” to life in whatever form—the unborn life, life on death row, the life of the severely handicapped, the life of the broken and the homeless—they start to give hope to each other. I had never experienced hope so concretely until I began to wash Adam. Adam strengthened my hope. It wasn’t optimism. Adam is never going to get better. But he offers hope. This hope can form a very strong bond among people who are willing to go where life is fragile and hidden. And, it brings us to the core of Christianity: proclaiming life together as we move closer and closer to the broken and the poor.
The third level of despair is in the church. I find it hard to discuss this despair, but I feel I must. We could, perhaps, tolerate the world in chaos, the world struggling with pain and violence. There would always be the church to fall back upon, to give us joy and hope. But in recent times, I have come to realise that some of the most difficult despair comes precisely from being part of that church. I have heard people say, “I can tolerate loneliness, I can tolerate great anxiety in the world, but what I cannot deal with is the fact that in the church people are always fighting, divided, in conflict. You expect the church to be a source of hope. And here all its members are in struggle with each other.”
I come from Holland. Over the last thirty years the Dutch church has been deeply wounded by the conflicts among its members. People are no longer willing to stay within it, they walk away. But in leaving this broken and divided church they end up being more lonely than ever and often find themselves walking without Jesus.
I have a friend, a priest, who lives in Guatemala. He said to me, “I can deal with persecution by the military and the state. But the fact that some of my fellow priests are against me hurts me more deeply than anything else.” The most painful persecution always seems to come from within, from places where it’s least expected.
Jesus suffered that despair also. In the darkness of the grave He embraced the despair that existed among His own followers, among His own people, in His own body. We are tempted to run away and say, “I don’t want to be connected with that body because it is all broken and it’s too much to deal with.”
But we are called to be a community. We are called to be together, in fellowship of the weak, to proclaim Jesus as Lord.We must not romanticise this. It is a humble task. Quite simply, we must call our brothers and sisters together—there may only be three, or ten or fifty— and say, “We want to come together as people in prayer in our common anguish.”
We are called to be people of hope. Together, we can face our despair—personal, global, or ecclesiastic. Together, too, we can find the risen Lord, emerged from His tomb of despair, ready once again to love us first. In embracing us, Jesus gives us the hope we need to find and live the life He has hidden in us and in the world. (pg201-208)