April 10th to 16th: Holy Week—Our Journey Ends

Reading: Letter VII—Listening to Jesus (p. 81 to p. 85)

I pray that you will venture on a life with Jesus. He asks everything
of you, but gives you more in return.
(p. 85)

As we come to the end of our Lenten journey, we read a letter written by Henri in late-August 1986 shortly after his arrival at L’Arche Daybreak to begin his ministry there. Moving to L’Arche was Henri’s answer to what he called the burning question, “How best am I to follow Jesus?” (p. 81) We know now what Henri couldn’t have known then—at L’Arche during the final ten years of his life Henri found the home he was seeking; he suffered a devastating breakdown and a life-threatening accident; through his suffering he discovered and believed in the depth of his heart that, like Jesus, he was the beloved; and he was inspired to write some of his most memorable books including Life of the Beloved, The Inner Voice of Love, his spiritual masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son, and his final book, Adam—God’s Beloved.

In this final letter to Marc, Henri reviews the spiritual journey that he and Marc shared, and that we have benefited from. Henri writes, “My greatest desire was to awaken in you a deep love of Jesus. I’ve told you about the Jesus who liberates, of the suffering Jesus and his compassion; of the Jesus who in humility chose the descending way; of the loving Jesus who challenges us to love even our enemies; and finally of the Jesus of Nazareth who reveals to us the mystery of God’s hiddenness.” (p. 82) (A personal note: As the discussion moderator, it’s wonderful when the author of the book we are reading provides the summary for the concluding post.)

Henri says to Marc, and through him to each of us, “You and I are called to be disciples of Jesus. The differences between us in age, circumstances, upbringing, and experience are small compared with the calling we have in common.” (p. 83) And he reminds us that it is essential to listen to the voice of God in a world that is constantly clamoring for our attention. Henri offers us three forms of listening that were meaningful to him: 1) Listen to the church; 2) Listen to the book (i.e., Bible and other spiritual reading); and 3) Listen to your heart.

Of the three forms of listening, the importance of listening to my heart is my Lenten takeaway and recurring challenge. Henri writes, “You need to set aside some time every day for his active listening to Jesus, if only for ten minutes. Ten minutes each day for Jesus alone can bring about a radical change in your life.” (p. 84). Henri’s words to Marc about the importance of daily prayer could have been directed at me. Deo Volente (God willing) this discussion will inspire me to step away from the hectic world and to spend quiet time every day listening to Jesus —especially on those days when I’m certain that I’m too busy to take the time to pray.

As many of you have been doing, please share whatever touched your heart in the readings or your reflections from this week or anytime throughout Lent. Once again, I want to thank you for joining to share Henri’s Letters to Marc About Jesus during our journey toward Easter. It has been a privilege and a blessing to travel along with each of you—those posting comments and those walking with us silently. We are all on the road to God’s heavenly kingdom and it’s comforting to know we are not alone.

On behalf of the Henri Nouwen Society, may you and yours have a blessed Holy Week and a joyous Easter season.

Peace and all good,

P.S. Please join us on Wednesday, November 23rd when we will begin our Advent book discussion with welcome and introductions. The book selection for our Advent discussion
will be announced in early-fall.

 March 27th to April 2nd: Fourth Week of Lent

Reading: Letter V—Jesus: The Loving God (p. 53 to p. 64)

If anyone should ask you what are the most radical words in the gospel you
need not hesitate to reply: “Love your enemies.” . . . Love for one’s
enemy is the touchstone of being a Christian. (p. 54)

Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show
us that the love we most long for is given to us by God—not because
we deserved it, but because God is a God of love. (p. 58)

There you have it: the love of God is an unconditional love, and only
that love can empower us to live together without violence. (p. 60)

Normally I begin each post with a single excerpt from the reading that I find meaningful, relevant to the theme of the reading, and that I hope might prompt our discussion. This week is different—and not just because I selected three excerpts. I would encourage you to take a few minutes now, right now, and reflect on these excerpts.

Here is what I found. In these few pages, written to his nephew Marc three days after Easter 1986, we have the heart of Henri’s spiritual message and, as Henri writes, “the heart of the gospel” (p. 61). Henri tells Marc (and us) that only God’s unconditional love will fulfill our heart’s desire. As I mentioned in the Welcome post , these letters were written a year after Henri gave a series of talks that began with the question, “Are you following Jesus? I want you to look at yourself and ask that question. Are you a follower? Am I?” (Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, p. 11). Henri’s message is Jesus’ message—and perhaps that’s why I’ve found Henri to be a reliable spiritual companion on my journey. By reading Henri, I can better follow Jesus. For that reason, here is a fourth excerpt for your reflection, the one from the First Week of Lent.

If you were to ask me point blank, “What does it mean
to you to live spiritually?” I would have to reply,
“Living with Jesus at the center.” (p.7)

The themes that Henri distills here are expanded upon in his writings in the final ten years of his life. His central insight that, like Jesus, we are God’s beloved, while not explicitly stated, is present in this letter, “God loves us not because of anything we’ve done to earn that love, but because God, in total freedom, has decided to love us.” (p. 55) What happens when we don’t know or believe that we are beloved? “The enormous propensity to seek recognition, admiration, popularity, and renown is rooted in the fear that without all this we are worthless” (p. 56) How are love and violence related? “Whether we do violence to others or to ourselves, what we long for in our heart is a nonviolent, peaceful communion, in which we know ourselves to be secure and loved.” (p. 57) What about faith? “(W)hen Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved, so that you can abandon every false way of obtaining that love. . . . It’s a question of trusting in Gods love.” (p. 58) Henri then ties these ideas together this way: “Jesus sees evil in this world as a lack of trust in God’s love.” (p. 59) So how should we respond? “Jesus challenges us to move in a totally new direction. He asks for a conversion—that is to say, a complete interior turnaround, a transformation.” (p. 61) And that response, that conversion, can begin Here and Now, another of Henri’s themes and the title of a wonderful Henri Nouwen book of brief reflections. Finally, Henri points us to the importance of belonging to a community, the necessity of prayer, and, as a Catholic Christian priest, the Eucharist as “God’s love. . . offered to us not in the abstract but in a wholly concrete form: not as an example or theory, but as food for our daily life.” (p. 63)

Let me share with you a challenge this week’s reading posed for me. Henri says, “you have to begin praying for your enemies.” (p. 62). While I don’t find myself with many “enemies” there are certainly people in my life that I find irritating and aspects of society that I find very disheartening—the rampant polarization in our churches and politics among them. And I find it far easier to try to ignore those people and situations, rather than to pray for them. Perhaps this is the conversion that I am called to this Lent.

Uncharacteristically, this week I shared my reflection on the reading rather than presenting questions for your consideration. Please do not let that stifle your response to this important letter. What did you read and how did it affect you? Were you challenged and how did you respond? Please share what you discover. If my reflection prompts your thinking, you are encouraged to respond, positively or negatively. We’ve had a rich and fruitful conversation this far and I look forward to hearing from many of you this week.

May the Lord give you peace.

March 20th to March 26th: Third Week of Lent

Reading: Letter IV—Jesus: The Descending God (p. 39 to p. 50)

In the gospel it’s quite obvious that Jesus chose the descending way.
He chose it not once but over and over again. At each critical
moment he deliberately sought the way downwards. (p. 44)

As several participants shared, last week’s letter “Jesus: The Compassionate God” was more difficult to discuss than the earlier letters, so it was not surprising that fewer comments were posted. That being said, the deeply personal experiences and insights that were provided greatly enriched our Lenten community. We are grateful both for those of you who have openly shared your thoughts and those that are following along in quietly.

This week, in “Letter IV—Jesus: The Descending God”, Henri writes about “the love of God made visible by Jesus in his life” (p. 40) which is “the great mystery of the Incarnation” (p. 41). As was mentioned in the Welcome post, when Henri wrote these letters he was discerning whether he was called to live in community with and to minister to the severely handicapped core members at L’Arche and their assistants. He was living in Trosly, France in the original L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier. Henri sees life at L’Arche as a possible way for him to live the descending way of Jesus highlighted in the quote above and sung in the early Christian hymn that St. Paul puts in to his Letter to the Philippians (p. 42). Henri explores this in his letter to Marc.
<Photo: Henri (right) on a street in Trosly, courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust>

Before we begin our reflections, there is something else that we must cover. In the beginning of this letter, Henri writes admiringly of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier and Vanier’s spiritual counselor French Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe. Henri was deeply influenced by both men as made his transition from the “‘ascending’ style of the university to the ‘descending’ style of L’Arche.” In June 2014, L’Arche leadership and the Catholic Church received testimonies from two women denouncing serious sexual misconduct by Father Thomas. This resulted in a canonical inquiry that confirmed in March 2015 the validity of these testimonies “which speak of Père Thomas’ seriously inappropriate sexual gestures during spiritual accompaniment.” Further, on February 22, 2020, L’Arche published the results of an independent inquiry into similar behavior by Jean Vanier. It was found that Vanier had coercive, nonconsensual and abusive sexual encounters with at least six adult women. Regrettably, both Phillipe and Vanier used false so-called “religious” beliefs that had been condemned by the Catholic Church to justify their sexual abuse of women. [The enquiry made no suggestion that Vanier or Philippe had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.] The L’Arche statement can be read here. As the leaders of L’Arche International wrote, “We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions. . . ” With respect to Henri Nouwen, it is important to note that nothing has been identified in Nouwen’s published or unpublished or works indicating that he had any awareness of the totally inappropriate and abusive practices and actions of Vanier and Philippe.

Now let’s turn to our discussion. As always, you are encouraged to share whatever touched your heart in the readings. The excerpts and questions that follow may prompt your reflection.

  1. (I)ncreasing prosperity has not made people more friendly toward one another. They’re better off, but that new-found wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community. . . . people are more preoccupied by with themselves and have less time for one another. . . (p. 42-43)
    This was Henri’s observation in 1986. What would he say today? Does this ring true for you and people you encounter in our world today? What might we do about it?
  2. And the question that perhaps lies hidden most deeply in many hearts is the question of love. “Who really cares about me? Not about my money, my contacts, my reputation, or my popularity, but just me? (p. 43)
    Here we see Henri moving toward his great insight that, like Jesus, we are all God’s beloved. Is this question more pressing in our society today than it was in 1986? Why is that so? Has this question arisen in your life and how did you respond?
  3. For Jesus’ way is God’s way, and God’s way is not for Jesus only, but for everyone who is truly seeking God. Here we come up against the hard truth that the descending way of Jesus is also the way for us to find God. (p. 45)
    As a Secular Franciscan this excerpt speaks to me. Jesus made himself poor by descending into humanity. St. Francis of Assisi committed himself to live a life of gospel poverty as the best way to follow the descending way of Jesus and he instructed his followers to do the same.
    Henri then writes, Each one of us has to seek out his or her own descending way of love. (p.47)
    Where have you encountered the descending way of Jesus on your spiritual journey? How did you respond? What steps might you take in the future as a result of these reflections?

This is another rich and challenging letter and we look forward to reading many of your reflections during the coming week.

May you and yours be richly blessed as we continue our Lenten journey.
Email: ray.glennon@1972.usna. com

P.S. I asked Nouwen scholar Gabrielle Earnshaw to review the paragraph about Henri’s knowledge of Vanier’s and Philippe’s abusive behavior. The text has been slightly updated to incorporate her feedback, with no change to the conclusion that there is nothing in Henri’s published or unpublished work indicating any awareness of these behaviors.