Life will not be Precious if it Lasts Forever by Henri Nouwen
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” published in 2001
Life will not be precious if it lasts forever (104-108)
“It is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus told His fear struck, still confused disciples when they looked ahead together to His death (John 16:7). The subject of this day’s teaching from Him is departure. He must speak of leaving behind, going away, saying good-bye, wishing farewell. Hearing such words we may first feel sadness. And if you have been at places where ships, planes, and trains leave for far destinations, you have seen many tears when close ties were broken and people moved away from each other.
But Jesus’ farewell shows a different mood. He announces His painful departure as a thing of promise. “It is to your advantage that I go away,” He said, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). In these words departing has lost its fatality. They will no longer see Jesus but will experience the even more constant presence of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus will send. Pain and joy, anxiety and freedom, losing a friend and gaining a friend do not fight as opposites anymore, but come together in this deeper emotion of hope that often lies beyond articulation. All because even in the loss of what is dearest, God comes alongside us and becomes our dearest companion.
We must face not only our own death, then, but willingly allow for the deaths of those we know and love and live with. Departing comes as a condition of life, a condition for Christian growth. Jesus’ farewell brings a quiet invitation to understand our life as a constant departure from the familiar to the eternal, from what we enjoy in temporary ways to what we will one day enjoy forever. And we will experience the departure of others. They too partake of this world’s inevitable transitions.
We are helped in this letting go of those dear to us through remembering for them and what we remember for ourselves. When we leave the safe body of our mother we are ready to breathe on our own and to start on the road to selfhood. When we depart from the close center of the family where we are the center of attention, and go to school, we have the chance to test our potentialities and develop new friendships. When we leave home to attend college, we receive the freedom to re-evaluate the many things given to us and integrate what we consider as meaningful. When we leave our parents to marry or enter religious life, we can experience the challenge to build our own home and to give life to others. And when we retire from our work, we may have the long-delayed possibility to come to terms with some of the basic dimensions of life.
If life, then, is a constant departure, a constant dying away from the past, to reach more independence, more freedom, and more truth, if our final departure gives us the final independence, freedom, and truth for which we have been groping throughout our entire lives, why could it not be for those we love?
If this is true, death is no longer the cruel destiny of man that ruins all efforts, turns every attempt to live into ridicule, and crushes all creativity into meaningless crumbs—it is a signal to deeper understanding. And in the light of Christ’s departure we can say that we can love not in spite of death, but because of it. Let me tell you a fairy tale.
Once upon a time there was a young man who was living in a big city. Every evening he went to the same restaurant and ate at the same table. He felt very alone. But one day he saw that there was a beautiful rose on his table and a feeling of warmth came into his heart. And he came back day after day and looked at the rose during his meals. Sometimes he was sad, sometimes happy, sometimes indifferent, sometimes angry. But although his moods were different he noticed that the rose was always the same. He did not understand.
And then, very carefully, he touched the rose—a thing he never dared to do before. But when he felt the hard edges of the leaves he suddenly realised that the rose did not live. It was a plastic rose. And the young man stood up in anger, pulled the rose out of the dry vase, and crushed it between his fingers. Then he cried and felt more alone than ever before.
We are not made to love immortal things. Only what is irreplaceable, unique, and mortal can touch our deepest human sensitivities and be a source of hope and consolation. God only became lovable when He became mortal. He became our Saviour because His mortality was not fatal but the way to hope.
We have seen many departing from us. Thousands are leaving: great leaders, dear friends, and many others unknown but part of our lives. We loved them because they could not be replaced, because they were human. Perhaps we may start seeing through Christ’s farewell that even these days can be days of hope, making free the way for the Spirit to come, to open the closed doors of our fears and leads us to the full freedom and the full truth.
And to gratitude. The main character and narrator of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev discovered something of this. He longed to draw and paint as an artist from his youngest days.
And I drew, too, the way my father once looked at a bird lying on its side against the curbs near our house. It was Shabbos (Sabbath) and we were on our way back from the synagogue.
“Is it dead, Papa?” I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.
“Yes,” I heard him say in a sad and distant way.
“Why did it die?”
“Everything that lives must die.”
“You too, Papa? And Mama?”
“Yes,” he said. Then added. . . .”But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher.”
I couldn’t grasp it. I forced myself to look at the bird. Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?
“Why?” I asked.
“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom made His world, Asher.”
“So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious.”