Henri Nouwen used to publish some of his diaries under the title On Mourning and Dancing. The title was wholly appropriate since those diaries chronicled much of his own struggle to give public expression to what was bubbling up inside of him and, at the same time, respect a highly sensitive self-consciousness and reticence that made him hesitate to publicly express those same feelings.

And so his writings are a rare expression of both inner freedom and inner fear. His thoughts and feelings are sometimes tortured, but that’s what makes them rich. It’s not always easy to find that delicate balance between healthy self-expression and unhealthy exhibitionism, even if you are Henri Nouwen — or perhaps especially if you are Henri Nouwen.

We can be instruments of God’s reign

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First Sunday of Lent (Year B) Feb. 26 (Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)

What is the connection between a beautiful rainbow and the aftermath of a catastrophic flood? To our own minds, there is no connection at all. The flood is the result of natural forces — rain, wind and tides — and there is little or no meaning in it. A rainbow, as beautiful as it is, is caused by the sun being refracted through the moisture in the air. But if you are a person living in the ancient world, every manifestation of nature is the hand of God. Ancient people “connected dots” — event “B” occurred after event “A,” therefore “A” must have been the cause, with God as the ultimate connection between all events.

Other sheep not of our flock

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I grew up with strong, conservative, Roman Catholic roots: the Baltimore Catechism, the Latin Mass, daily rosary, daily Mass if possible and a rich stream of devotional practices. And that’s a gift for which I’m deeply grateful.

But that wonderful grounding also brought with it a distrust of all religious things not Roman Catholic. I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church was the only true Church and the only road to heaven; so much so that we were strongly discouraged and tacitly forbidden to participate in any Protestant services. In fairness to that catechesis, we didn’t believe Protestants and other religious communities were doomed to eternal perdition, but we struggled mightily to articulate how this might take place. Among other things, we postulated a place we called Limbo, where sincere, non-Roman Catholics with good souls might spend eternity, happy but without God.

We need to re-sensitize ourselves to God’s compassion and mercy

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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Feb. 19 (Isaiah 43:18-19, 20-22, 24-25; Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12)

Humanity has a huge memory problem. On the one hand, we are far too quick to forget things that should be the source of wisdom. It is very easy to sweep unpleasant or painful actions and events under the mental carpet and refuse to learn from our mistakes. On the other hand, often the problem is just the opposite: an overactive memory and a refusal to let go of the past. People (or groups) can cling to traumas and injustices and continually relive them. They can engage in a lot of inner self-flagellation and self-hatred.

From Valentine’s to ashes

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Anne was a pretty young blonde. She always had men interested in her, had friends, intelligence and a good career, and was a generous, good-hearted person. How surprising to hear, later on, she’d found her good looks a point of difficulty.

She’d learned that often people were interested in her body but not the rest of her; underneath her popularity she had trouble finding self-worth. So though she took good care of her body, she was not on good terms with it.

Jesus reaches out with compassion

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Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Feb. 12 (Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; Psalm 32; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)

Fear is a constant human companion. People fear many things — irrationally for the most part — but especially those things that are different in ways that are deemed to be threatening.

Don’t let minor irritations take away from today’s grace

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“When grace enters, there is no choice — humans must dance.”

W.H. Auden wrote those words and, beautiful as they sound, I wish they were true. When grace enters a room we should begin to dance but, sadly, more often than not we let some little thing, some minor mosquito bite, blind us to grace’s presence.

Face adversity with courage, humility, grace

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Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Feb. 5 (Job 7:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39)

Most people have shared Job’s feelings and thoughts at least once in their lives. There are times when life seems futile, burdensome and joyless. And as we grow older the years seem to fly by with ever-growing speed. Often things do not turn out as we had hoped or planned. Dreams fade, relationships sour and fail and there are many heartbreaks and disappointments along the way.

Chastity as purity of heart and intention

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To live a chaste life is not easy, not just for celibates, but for everyone. Even when our actions are all in line, it is still hard to live with a chaste heart, a chaste attitude and chaste fantasies. Purity of heart and intention is very difficult.

Why? Chastity is difficult because we are so incurably sexual in every pore of our being. And that is not a bad thing. It’s God’s gift. Far from being something dirty and antithetical to our spiritual lives, sexuality is God’s great gift, God’s holy fire, inside us. And so the longing for consummation is a conscious or inchoate colouring underlying most every action in our lives.

And so it is hard to pray for chastity because to pray for it, seemingly, is to pray that sexual yearning and sexual energy should lessen within us or disappear altogether. And who wants to live an asexual and neutered life? No healthy person wants this. Thus, if you are healthy, it is hard to put your heart into praying for chastity because, deep down, nobody wants to be asexual.

A haunting equation — lightness vs. weight

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In her novel Final Payments, Mary Gordon articulates an equation that has long influenced Christian spirituality, for both good and bad.

Her heroine, Isabel, is a young woman within whom a strong Catholic background, an overly strict father and a natural depth of soul conspire to leave her overly reticent and overly reflective, looking at life from the outside, too self-aware and too reflective in general to enter spontaneously into a dance or trust any kind of gaiety  

Jesus lends power to the Word

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 29 (Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 95; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28)

So many people claim to speak for God. There are voices that clearly communicate the divine will, while others reflect more selfish or even evil motives. Through the babble of voices it is surprising that God ever manages to be heard.