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A Cry for Mercy by Henri Nouwen
O Lord, this holy season of Lent is passing quickly. I entered into it with fear, but also with great expectations. I hoped for a great breakthrough, a powerful conversion, a real change of heart; I wanted Easter to be a day so full of light that not even a trace of darkness would be left in my soul. But I know that you do not come to your people with thunder and lightning. Even St. Paul and St. Francis journeyed through much darkness before they could see your light. Let me be thankful for your gentle way. I know you are at work. I know you will not leave me alone. I know you are quickening me for Easter – but in a way fitting to my own history and my own temperament.
I pray that these last three weeks, in which you invite me to enter more fully into the mystery of your passion, will bring me a greater desire to follow you on the way that you create for me and to accept the cross that you give to me. Let me die to the desire to choose my own way and select my own desire. You do not want to make me a hero but a servant who loves you.
Be with me tomorrow and in the days to come, and let me experience your gentle presence. Amen.
Our hearts and minds desire clarity. We like to have a clear picture of a situation, a clear view of how things fit together, and clear insight into our own and the world’s problems. But just as in nature colors and shapes mingle without clear-cut distinctions, human life doesn’t offer the clarity we are looking for. The borders between love and hate, evil and good, beauty and ugliness, heroism and cowardice, care and neglect, guilt and blamelessness are mostly vague, ambiguous, and hard to discern.
It is not easy to live faithfully in a world full of ambiguities. We have to learn to make wise choices without needing to be entirely sure.
Returning to Trust by Henri Nouwen
In my own life I well know how hard it is for me to trust that I am loved, and to trust that the intimacy I most crave is there for me. I most often live as if I have to earn love, do something noteworthy, and then perhaps I might get something in return.
This attitude touches the whole question of what is called in the spiritual life, the “first love.” Do I really believe that I am loved first, independent of what I do or what I accomplish? This is an important question because as long as I think that what I most need I have to earn, deserve and collect by hard work, I will never get what I most need and desire, which is a love that cannot be earned, but that is freely given.
Thus, my return is my willingness to renounce such thoughts and to choose to live more and more from my true identity as a cherished child of God.
“You are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4).
Sharing Our Solitude by Henri Nouwen
A friend is more than a therapist or a confessor, even though a friend can sometimes heal us and offer us God’s forgiveness.
A friend is that other person with whom we can share our solitude, our silence, and our prayer. A friend is that other person with whom we can look at a tree and say, “Isn’t that beautiful,” or sit on the beach and silently watch the sun disappear under the horizon. With a friend we don’t have to say or do something special. With a friend we can be still and know that God is there with both of us.
Both Are Necessary
It is true that we need first to clarify and distinguish before we can subtly discriminate. Utterly clear dualistic thinking gets you into the right ballpark. “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). But non-dualistic wisdom, or what many of us call contemplation, is necessary once you actually get in the right ballpark! “Now that I have chosen to serve God instead of ‘mammon,’ what does that really mean?”
Such discrimination will take the rest of your life. Non-dualistic thinking presumes that you have first mastered dualistic clarity, but also found it insufficient for the really big issues like love, suffering, death, God, and any notion of infinity. In short, we need both. If I said any differently, I would be dualistic myself.
Unless you let the truth of life teach you on its own terms, unless you develop some concrete practice for recognizing and overcoming your dualistic mind, you will remain in the first half of life forever, as much of humanity has up to now. In the first half of life, you cannot work with the imperfect, nor can you accept the tragic sense of life, which finally means that you cannot love anything or anyone at any depth.
Nothing is going to change in history as long as most people are merely dualistic, either-or thinkers. Such splitting and denying leaves us at the level of information, data, facts, and endlessly arguing about the same. “My facts are better than your facts,” we yell at ever-higher volume and with ever-stronger ego attachment. This is getting us nowhere, and creating a very unhappy world on all sides.
There are many forms of poverty: economic poverty, physical poverty, emotional poverty, mental poverty, and spiritual poverty. As long as we relate primarily to each other’s wealth, health, stability, intelligence, and soul strength, we cannot develop true community. Community is not a talent show in which we dazzle the world with our combined gifts. Community is the place where our poverty is acknowledged and accepted, not as something we have to learn to cope with as best as we can but as a true source of new life.
Living community in whatever form – family, parish, twelve-step program, or intentional community – challenges us to come together at the place of our poverty, believing that there we can reveal our richness.
Some of us tend to do away with things that are slightly damaged. Instead of repairing them we say: “Well, I don’t have time to fix it, I might as well throw it in the garbage can and buy a new one.” Often we also treat people this way. We say: “Well, he has a problem with drinking; well, she is quite depressed; well, they have mismanaged their business…we’d better not take the risk of working with them.” When we dismiss people out of hand because of their apparent woundedness, we stunt their lives by ignoring their gifts, which are often buried in their wounds.
We all are bruised reeds, whether our bruises are visible or not. The compassionate life is the life in which we believe that strength is hidden in weakness and that true community is a fellowship of the weak.
Discerning the Presence by Henri Nouwen
The Gospels are filled with examples of God’s presence in the word. Personally, I am always touched by the story of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth. There he read from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
for he has anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord.
After having read these words, Jesus said, “This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.” Suddenly, it becomes clear that the afflicted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed are not people somewhere outside of the synagogue who, someday, will be liberated; they are the people who are listening. And it is in the listening that God becomes present and heals.
The Word of God is not a word to apply in our daily lives at some later date; it is a word to heal us through, and in, our listening here and now.
The questions therefore are: How does God come to me as I listen to the word? Where do I discern the healing hand of God touching me through the word? How are my sadness, my grief, and my mourning being transformed at this very moment? Do I sense the fire of God’s love purifying my heart and giving me new life? These questions lead me to the sacrament of the word, the sacred place of God’s real presence.
Living Lent Attentively and Gently by Henri Nouwen
Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time during which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us. Life is a continuing process of the death of the old and the familiar, and being reborn again into a new hope, a new trust, and a new love. The death and resurrection of Jesus therefore is not just an historical event that took place a long time ago, but an inner event that takes place in our heart when we are willing to be attentive to it.
Lent offers a beautiful opportunity to discover the mystery of Christ within us. It is a gentle but also demanding time. It is a time of solitude but also community, it is a time of listening to the voice within, but also a time of paying attention to other people’s needs. It is a time to continuously make the passage to new inner life as well as to life with those around us.
When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.