The gift that was Henri Nouwen

Fr. Henri Nouwen was perhaps the most popular spiritual writer of the late 20th century and his popularity endures today. More than seven million of his books have been sold world-wide and they have been translated into 30 languages. Fifteen years after his death, all but one of his books remain in print.

Many things account for his popularity, beyond the depth and learning he brought to his writings. He was very instrumental in helping dispel the suspicion that had long existed in Protestant and Evangelical circles towards spirituality, which was identified in the popular mind as something more exclusively Roman Catholic and as something on the fringes of ordinary life. Both his teaching and his writing helped make spirituality something mainstream within Roman Catholicism, within Christianity in general, and within secular society itself. For example, American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, is the book that has had the largest impact on her life.

He wrote as a psychologist and a priest, but his writings also flowed from who he was as a man. And he was a complex man, torn always between the saint inside of him who had given his life to God and the man inside of him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthy yearnings, wanted to take his life back. He was fond of quoting Soren Kierkegaard who said that a saint is someone who can “will the one thing,” even as he admitted how much he struggled to do that. He did will to be a saint, but he willed other things as well: “I want to be a saint,” he once wrote, “but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience.” He confessed in his writings how much restlessness this brought into his life and how sometimes he was incapable of being fully in control of his own life.

In the end, he was a saint, but always one in progress. He never fit the pious profile of a saint, even as he was always recognized as a man from God bringing us more than ordinary grace and insight. And the fact that he never hid his weaknesses from his readers helped account for his stunning popularity.

His readers identified with him because he shared so honestly his struggles. He related his weaknesses to his struggles in prayer and, in that, many readers found themselves looking into a mirror. Like many others, when I first read Nouwen, I had a sense of being introduced to myself.

And he worked at his craft, with diligence and deliberation. Nouwen would write and rewrite his books, sometimes five times over, in an effort to make them simpler. What he sought was a language of the heart. Originally trained as a psychologist, his early writings exhibit some of the language of the classroom. However, as he developed as a writer and a mentor of the soul, he began more and more to purge his writings of technical and academic terms and strove to become radically simple, without being simplistic; to carry deep sentiment, without being sentimental; to be self-revealing, without being exhibitionist; to be deeply personal, yet profoundly universal; and to be sensitive to human weakness, even as he strove to challenge to what’s more sublime.

Few writers, religious or secular, have influenced me as deeply as Nouwen. I know better than to try to imitate him, recognizing that what is imitative is never creative and what is creative is never imitative.

Where I do try to emulate him is in his simplicity, in his rewriting things over and over in order try to make them simpler, without being simplistic. Like him, I believe there’s a language of the heart (that each generation has to create anew) that bypasses the divide between academics and the street and which has the power to speak directly to everyone, regardless of background and training. Jesus managed it. Nouwen sought to speak and write with that kind of directness. He didn’t do it perfectly, nobody does, but he did do it more effectively than most. He recognized too that this is a craft that must be worked at, akin to learning language.  

I dedicated my book The Holy Longing to him with this tribute: “He was our generation’s Kierkegaard. He helped us to pray while not knowing how to pray, to rest while feeling restless, to be at peace while tempted, to feel safe while still anxious, to be surrounded by light while still in darkness and to love while still in doubt.”

If you are occasionally tortured by your own complexity, even as your deepest desire is to “will the one thing,” perhaps you can find a mentor and a patron saint in Henri Nouwen. He calls us beyond ourselves, even as he respects how complex and difficult that journey is. He shows us how to move towards God, even as we are still torn by our own earthly attachments.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)

The voice of God will guard us on our path

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 15 (Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)

Some of the crowd had been laughing and jeering at Peter and his companions, who seemed to be babbling and very emotional and excited about something. The conclusion of elements in the crowd: they had been in to the wine and were drunk.

Peter quickly disabuses them of this misconception. He explains (in the omitted verses) that this is the pouring out of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and that it signals the arrival of the end days. Things are going to be very different now because all believers were being empowered by the Spirit rather than a chosen few. Peter also relates the story of Jesus — the deeds of power and compassion, the wonders and signs, and His status as the one sent by God. He hurls a barbed accusation at his fellow Jews by recounting the betrayal and execution of Jesus. God reversed their judgment and affirmed the status and teachings of Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Peter drives home the point that Jesus is now enthroned as Lord and Messiah. As the import of his words sink in there is only stunned silence — then the inevitable question: what can we do now? But the gift that Jesus brings is for everyone and the invitation to be baptized is accepted by many that very day.

Christian community is where we find the Lord in one another

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 8 (Acts 2:14, 22-28; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35)

Many people fear the light and run from the presence of God that calls for change. Strangely, religious people are not an exception and at times the worst offenders. Every new glimmer of hope and light has been opposed, resisted and feared from the beginning of time until today. People continue to persecute and kill those who challenge humanity to move beyond fear and blindness.

The truth is rarely pleasant and change is difficult. In the case of Jesus, human sin — fear, rigidity, jealousy and suspicion — did their best to destroy Jesus and everything He stood for. All of this was despite authenticating signs and wonders; in fact, these probably increased the level of fear. Peter does not pull any punches in his speech to the crowd. But something that is of God cannot be silenced or killed for truth has a power all of its own. By raising Jesus from the dead God vindicated all that Jesus said and did. Death cannot hold Him — not now or ever again.

Things do not change very much. We still are not noticeably open to people who challenge our perceptions, prejudices and ways of thinking nor do we treat them with much kindness or respect. It is far easier to condemn the ideas of others than to engage in dialogue. After all, there is the terrible possibility that they may be right! We dare not read a passage like the one above with any sense of smugness or superiority. We must always ask the honest question: would we have behaved any differently?

Some look at history and see nothing but a chaotic mass of events without direction or meaning. The author of 1 Peter sees something else: from the very beginning of time Christ was destined to redeem humanity. There has never been a moment in the history of the world in which God was not at work in some way on our behalf. But our author asks: in view of the blood and effort that has redeemed us can we justify a lacklustre or half-hearted response? We should exercise careful and grateful stewardship of the life that we have been granted.

Often we can amass a pile of facts but lack understanding and the ability to see the big picture. In a teasing cat-and-mouse game on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples, an incognito Jesus questions them about the things that have happened in Jerusalem. The broken-hearted and disappointed disciples had witnessed the words and deeds of Jesus but they had unfortunately also been present for His judicial murder. Their bitter story ends with the account of the empty tomb related to them by the women and the fact that the empty tomb had been verified. But in spite of all this there was an absence of understanding and faith on their part. Debates about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity have a rather dismal success rate — they appeal to “facts” and “proofs” but deeper layers of the mind and heart need to be engaged.

The disciples were struggling with suffering — and they have a lot of good company. It is the oldest philosophical and religious question in the world. An even greater difficulty is faced in trying to reconcile suffering with God or God’s representatives. How could God’s anointed one suffer? The passion and death of Jesus was the stumbling block for the first generation of Christians. A rather exasperated Jesus carefully unravels the hidden mystery of redemption in the Scriptures. His suffering is not a fluke or accident but is part of the divine plan — the same one mentioned in the second reading. It is only at the moment of the breaking and distribution of the bread that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus — who promptly vanished from their sight.

This gives us an insight into how the early Christians read, interpreted and appropriated the Hebrew Bible — it was the key to understanding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it was also in the breaking of the bread — the communal meal and prayer — that they encountered Jesus and experienced His guiding presence. Authentic Christian community is more than socializing. It is a place of acceptance, mutuality and trust and where we encounter the Lord in Scripture, prayer and one another.

By embracing the cross we see the Resurrection

One day I was in one of those giant supermarkets. The produce department opened out before me like a football field; within it, a vast bin overflowed with tomatoes. I started picking through them, then realized this activity was a waste of time, as they were all identical, all perfect. Each sphere had a thick, tough pink skin, without dent, spot or mark, all the same size; I knew they’d be relatively tasteless.  

My mind flashed to earlier days, to shelves lined with rows of deep red, thin-skinned tomatoes. These did require selection because some would be bruised or split, sizes varied from tiny to huge, and each was a juicy tasty treat of which its contemporary counterpart offers but a faint memory.

These tomato changes, it occurred to me, are like what’s happening to us: we’re expected to look, smell and feel the same as one another, to have tough skins that never bruise or break, and to be easily gathered, stored and marketed in large quantities. We’ve been standardized; normalized; uniformized.

Uniformizing, toughening people up and making them tasteless aren’t hallmarks of Christianity. At least they oughtn’t to be.

We all share in the divine life

Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 1 (Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)

What fuels the negative forces at work in our world? Human competition, greed, fear and selfishness do the job quite well without blaming Satan or some other sinister force for our troubles. It doesn’t really matter if we are competing for oil, trade, power, military strength, economic advantage or even God. When we are convinced that there is not enough for everyone and that we feel threatened or fearful the “fun” begins — the game of trying to do others out of what we want for ourselves.

This deadly game usually ends in blood and tears. Luke’s depiction of the ideal Christian community challenges this dreary inevitability and offers us a luminous path out of the darkness. This first generation of disciples began to renounce the cause of so much human misery — the notion of personal wealth and property especially at the expense of others. This practice of the radical common life was not common — the Dead Sea Scroll community was a noted exception. But the first Christians were convinced that this was the pattern of the new age that was being born in their time. It was the pattern of a community in which the need for competition or jealousy would be lessened and no one would be humiliated or denied the basics of life.

The Passion according to John

Each year on Good Friday the Passion of Jesus Christ according to John is read aloud in our churches. John’s Gospel, as we know, was written later than the other Gospels, perhaps some 70 years after Jesus died, and those years gave John plenty of time to reflect upon Jesus’ death and highlight a number of aspects that are not as evident in the other Gospels. What are those special aspects?

The bulk of John’s account focuses on Jesus’ trial and the eventual judgment that He be put to death. But it is ingeniously written. John writes up the trial of Jesus in such a way that, while Jesus is the one being tried, everyone else is on trial except Jesus. Pilate is on trial, the Jewish authorities are on trial, Jesus’ apostles and disciples are on trial, the crowds watching are on trial, and we who are hearing the story. Jesus, alone, is not on trial, even as His trial is judging everyone else. Hence when Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth? Jesus’ silence puts Pilate on trial by throwing Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself. It’s the same for the rest of us.

Pope earmarks Holy Thursday collection for disaster relief in Japan

Men sit amid debris in an area that was destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, in northern Japan, April 6. (CNS photo/Toru Hanai, Reuters) VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI has decided the collection taken up at his Holy Thursday evening Mass will be used to help those affected by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan.

The March 11 disaster left more than 13,000 people dead and another 13,700 unaccounted for. More than 150,000 were made homeless and many lost their jobs, especially in the fishing industry.

Each year, the Pope chooses where to send the collection taken up during the Mass of the Lord's Supper at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome.

We are one with the divine

Easter Sunday (Year A) April 24 (Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18)

What was Cornelius the centurion expecting to hear? Although a foreigner, a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army, he was a thoughtful and just man, giving alms and offering prayers to the God of the people whom he was governing. That prayer was heard — in a vision, a dazzling figure stood before him and commanded him to ask that Peter come to his house. He has no idea who Peter is or what he is going to say. Peter simply relates the story about Jesus that is travelling through Judea: divine anointing with the Spirit, compassionate deeds of power, betrayal and death. But that is not all: God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, thereby affirming His teaching and deeds. He has transcended death and some of His followers are witnesses.

At this point Cornelius might say, “Fine — great story and a great man, but what does that have to do with me?” The answer is stark and simple. Jesus now stands astride history itself as the judge of the living and the dead but with the desire to grant forgiveness to those who believe in Him.

The unquiet frontiers

Few books have garnered as much respect during the past five years as has Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That respect is well-deserved. Given secularity’s convoluted history, there isn’t any one, normative study that traces out its evolution; but, if there was, Taylor’s analysis might apply for the distinction.

Few scholars bring so wide and deep a scholarship to the area of history and faith. Taylor confesses that he is a man of faith, but strives insofar as this is possible for anyone, believer or agnostic, to not let his own beliefs colour his research. Few, even those critical of the book, accuse him of that. He is generally objective, reporting what happened without either trumpeting or bemoaning it.

And what he traces out is the big story of how we moved historically from a culture and a consciousness within which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to today, where belief in God is merely one option among others and often not the dominant one. Until the full-flowering of modernity we lived with what Taylor calls a “porous” rather than a “buffered” consciousness. A porous consciousness is more naturally mystical. A buffered consciousness is what Karl Rahner had in mind when he said we would soon reach a time when someone would either be a mystic or a non-believer.

'Silent Night' gains World Heritage List recognition from UNESCO

'SIlent Night' has been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in recognition of its role in fostering cultural diversity. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemit z) WARSAW, Poland - The world's most popular Christmas carol, "Silent Night," has been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in recognition of its role in fostering cultural diversity.

"This is a song of freedom for the world, whose beautiful melody and text have inspired versions in more than 300 languages," Michael Neureiter, president of Austria's Silent Night Society, told Catholic News Service.

"Although it comes from the Catholic tradition, its calm, harmonic sound has made it accessible internationally. As such, it's not just a Christian song, but also a human song."

"Stille Nacht," or "Silent Night," was written as a poem in 1816 by Fr. Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr, where he was assigned as an assistant parish priest. It premiered as a carol for two solo voices on Christmas Eve 1818 at the newly established St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, near Salzburg, with music composed by the church organist, Franz Gruber.

The Roots of Forgiveness

In one of James Carroll's early novels, he offers this poignant image: A young man is in the delivery room watching his wife give birth to their baby. The delivery is a difficult one and she is in danger of dying. As he stands watching, he is deeply conflicted: He loves his wife, is holding her hand, and is frantically praying that she not die. Yet the impending birth of their child and the danger of his wife's death conspire to make him acutely aware that, deep in his heart, he has not forgiven her for once being unfaithful to him. He has expressed his forgiveness to her but he realizes now, at this moment of extreme crisis, that in his heart he still has not been able to let go of the hurt and that he has not truly forgiven her.

As his wife hovers between life and death, he sees in her face a great tension, a struggle to give birth to someone even as she desperately struggles not to die. Her agony accentuates the deeper lines in her face and he sees there a dual struggle, to give birth and to not die.

Seeing this, he is able to forgive her in his heart. What moves him is not simple pity but an empathy born of special insight. His wife's struggle to give birth, while wrestling to stay alive, highlighted by the agony of her situation, is like a light shining on her whole life helping to explain everything, including her infidelity.