Dec 19th to Dec 25th: Fourth Week of Advent & Christmas

10. From a Heart of Stone to a Heart of Flesh: Conversion and Community (1995), p. 110

We’ve reached the final week of our Advent book discussion of Community. I want to begin by thanking everyone who has joined our community for this spirit-filled and fruitful journey—those posting comments and those reading and reflecting silently.

When preparing the reading schedule earlier this fall, I decided that in these hectic final days before Christmas we should limit ourselves to just one chapter. Little did I know then that Chapter 10, written nine months before his death, was a distillation of Henri’s wisdom and insights about living a spiritual life. For me, this chapter is one of Henri Nouwen’s most meaningful writings.

In these few pages, Henri calls us to daily conversion and then he shows us the way. He integrates his deep understanding of our human condition that was honed during his years of study and teaching with his life in an “intentional community” (p. 130) at L’Arche Daybreak. Henri’s time at L’Arche included his emotional breakdown in December 1987 followed by seven months of emotional and spiritual counseling, a near fatal accident where he was hit by a car while walking on an icy street, and almost a decade as a beloved pastor where he found the home he had been seeking. It is from this lived experience that Henri derives his profound spiritual insights and the practical roadmap to the spiritual life described in this chapter. You are encouraged to re-read pages xi to xii in the Foreword for Robert Ellsberg’s excellent summary.

This chapter contains so much to ponder that I am reluctant to identify specific text excerpts that were meaningful to me. You might consider the following questions.
Reflection Questions:
a) In what ways do Henri’s reflections on the need for conversion of our hardened heart, developing a heart of flesh through life in community, and the disciplines of community provide insights into your life?
b) What specific steps do you feel called to take in the new year to address the constant need of conversion from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh described by Henri?

As always, we look forward to hearing from many of you. You may respond to the reflection questions or share whatever is on your heart—from the reading this week or throughout our Advent journey. Once again, thank you for joining for our Advent book discussion. It has been a great blessing to share this journey with you.

The Henri Nouwen Society and I want to wish you and yours a blessed and joyous Christmas. May the peace of the Lord be with you this Christmas and throughout the year.


Dec 12th to Dec 18th: Third Week of Advent

7. Holding Ground (1987), p. 66 to 80
8. From Communion to Community: The Contemplative Journey (1991), p. 81 to 98
9. A Spirituality of Community (1992), p. 99 to 109

Once again, Henri’s words have sparked deep and insightful comments from many of you. We learn from each other and grown in our understanding when we freely share our various perspectives on the readings. I’m especially grateful for the warm and supportive dialogue that is occurring within our Advent community.

Our first reading this week is based on a talk Henri gave in March 1987, about six months after his arrival at Daybreak. As a committed Nouwen reader but non-expert, it seems to me that this trip to Honduras and the subsequent talk could have helped Henri bring closure to his Latin American experience as he began this next phase of his life in community. Perhaps Raphael became that transitional figure for Henri—a deeply handicapped young man from global south that was living in the same type of community that Henri had recently joined. Touched by Raphael and drawing on his lifetime love and study of scripture, Henri understood his mission in a new way—to hold his spiritual ground and “never to surrender to fear, to pray unceasingly, and to act faithfully by waiting for the Lord” (p. 68)—a universal mission that would guide him for the rest of his life.

The second and third readings were presented about thirteen months apart in 1991 and 1992 and can be seen as precursors to the talk we read in Chapter 1. By the time Henri gave these talks he had suffered and recovered from a severe emotional breakdown in late-1987 that had caused him to leave Daybreak for seven months for intensive psychological and spiritual treatment that ultimately led to the most fruitful period of his life. At the time of these talks Henri was finishing his spiritual classics The Return of the Prodigal Son and Life of the Beloved, both published in 1992.

In Chapter 8 we begin to see the fruits of that healing reflected in the reference to the gospel story from Luke, Chapter 6. Henri writes, “So communion, community, and ministry are places we want to be, but also where we experience great pain and great struggle.” (p. 82) Henri was deeply aware of that pain and struggle. In this chapter we first encounter Henri’s core spiritual insight that “this is what Jesus wants you and me to be, the beloved sons and daughters of God. . . it is only as the Beloved of God, as the beloved daughter, as the beloved son of God, that you might start to get an inking of what it means to live in community and minister.” (p. 85)

In Chapter 9 Henri challenges us recognize, “I’m not the difference that I make, but the sameness I share. . . . Our humanity, our basic identity is not so much rooted in where I am different. What we share or have in common is so much greater than our differences.” (p. 100-101) And what do we share? We are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Henri uses examples from life at L’Arche to show us how to live our shared humanity. We begin by claiming our humanity—it is through solitude and prayer that we enter into communion with God and we know we are beloved. We then reclaim our humanity by embracing our sameness and sharing our gifts and our poverty in community. Finally, we proclaim our shared humanity as we go out from community in service or ministry to those we encounter on our journey.

Reflection Questions:
a) In a comment last week Charles wrote, “I was drawn by the interweaving of Henri’s
writing. . .” and he mentioned several specific items. Are there threads in the readings this week that are interwoven with each other or those of earlier weeks in a way that touched your heart or gave you new insights? Please share.
b) This week, as in all of Henri’s writing, there are so many seemingly simply, yet profound, insights to ponder. Here are a few I underlined. If any of these “speak” to you, please share what you are hearing.
— Belonging to the world means dividing the world into those who are for you and those who are against you. Belonging to God means seeing the world as a world whose people are deeply and intimately loved and thus are truly brothers and sisters. Whatever we do, therefore, should be done with the universal compassion of God. (p. 72)
— We are not called to heroism, but to martyrdom. Heroism calls attention to ourselves. Martyrdom calls attention to God. (p. 79)
— It is really interesting to realize that every time in history that someone really lived in community with God, community happened around him or her. (p. 89)
— And so community is always a life of gratitude—it’s a eucharistic way or living, thanking people for their goodness. (p.92)
— That is the main movement of the gospel. It is not upward mobility, but downward mobility. That is, to become like others and discover in your sameness, in your solidarity, in your connectedness and your sense of belonging, to experience there, the joy, peace, the love, the sense of well-being. I think that’s very much what our communities are about. (p. 102)

As always, please share whatever touched your heart in the reading this week or during our Advent journey. We look forward to hearing from you.

On this Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday for many)—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

Dec 5th to Dec 11th: Second Week of Advent

4. The Faces of Community (1978), p. 40 to 45
5. Called from Darkness (1982), p. 46 to 56
6. The Broken World, the Broken Self, and Community (1987), p, 57 to 65

A warm welcome to those of you who have joined our community during the First Week of Advent. The first three essays prompted a week of rich and enlightening discussion. Thanks to those of you who shared comments.

The essays we will discuss this week were written over a nine year period where Henri’s search for community intensified and led him to answer the call to L’Arche Daybreak. The essay in Chapter 4 is the one mentioned by Robert Ellsberg in his Foreword. It was written while Henri was teaching at Yale. In this essay, Henri writes, “to live the Christian life therefore requires radical conversion. It requires us to look for our identify not where we are different our outstanding but where we are the same. (p. 42) . . . (L)iving according to the gospel, living with the mind of Christ, leads to community. (p. 43). . . So sameness and uniqueness can both be affirmed in community. We need to recognize the illusion that we are the difference we make and come together on the basis of our sameness. (p. 45)”
Reflection Questions: Consider the longstanding communities (e.g., marriage and family, church, community) to which you belong. How are sameness and uniqueness affirmed in those communities. Does your sameness or your uniqueness bind you to those communities?

Henri resigned from his position at Yale in 1981 to explore life in a missionary community by working with the Maryknoll brothers and sisters in Peru. The address in Chapter 5 was delivered in mid-1982 and it is based on Henri’s continued interest in social justice and peacemaking (he participated in the 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and was in Atlanta to march King’s funeral in 1968) and his recent experience living in a barrio in Peru. Henri’s understanding of community continued to evolve and deepen, as we read: “Community is the place of prayer and resistance. . . . Community is a new way of being together and living together in which that peace becomes visible as a light shining in the midst of the darkness. . . . Community is that place where we remain vulnerable to each other. In shared vulnerability we make love visible to the world. ‘Look how they love each other.’ ‘Look how they work together.’ ‘Peace is possible, because I’ve seen it.'” (p. 54-55)
Reflection Question: Where have you experienced community as a place of prayer and resistance in which peace becomes visible? When have you shared vulnerability in a community to which you belong? Share your experiences to the extent you are comfortable.

By the time Henri gave the 1987 address in Chapter 6, he had discovered he was not called to become a missionary, he accepted a position at Harvard where he taught for one semester per year and continued his Latin American outreach, he resigned his position at Harvard where he had never felt at home, he spent a year living in the L’Arche in Trosly, France, to experience their community of people with intellectual disabilities, and their assistants, and he accepted the invitation to become the chaplain at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto. At Daybreak Henri was beginning to allow himself to be accepted as a member of a community for who he was and not for what he did. Henri’s spiritual journey since the 1982 talk is evident throughout Chapter 6: In the first few sentences we read, “We live in a broken world. You have seen broken bodies, broken by hunger, broken by sickness, broken by physical and mental abuse. . . . What I start seeing is that Christ is being crucified again.” (p. 57) But as we know, Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. Here is Henri’s response to the broken world. “All over the gospels you hear that voice: ‘Brothers, sisters, do not be afraid, it is I. You don’t have to live in the house of fear. . . . John says, ‘Let us love one another, because we have been loved first by God.’ It is precisely this first love that enables us to let go of our fear. You are loved. You are accepted, long before you could receive or give love. That is the great news of the gospel. You are fully, totally loved. (p. 58-9). Henri then revisits the importance of solitude and community how they are related.
Reflection Questions. This talk was given eight months after Henri’s arrival at Daybreak (and six years before the talk in Chapter 1). What is Henri learning in his new community? How does his thinking evolve from 1987 to 1993? How do Henri’s insights relate to your life journey?

We have another week of fruitful reflection and discussion ahead. We look forward to hearing from many of you in response to the reflection questions or whatever touched your heart this week. We’re grateful to everyone joining us on this Advent journey whether you post comments or follow along quietly.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,