Dec 17th to 23rd: Third Week of Advent

Reading: Part II: Friday, August 5, 1994 to Sunday, August 21, 1994
(p. 79-128); Afterword, August 2022 by Laurent Nouwen (p. 129-139)

Henri, thank you for visiting Ukraine twenty-nine years ago, thank
you for giving me Andriy and many other good friends,
thanks for your diaries, thanks for making my life
worthwhile, thank you for your never-forsaken
belief that we are all free as beloved
sons and daughters of God.

—Laurent Nouwen (p. 138)

We have reached the Third (and final) Week of Advent in this shortest possible Advent season. Thanks to each of you for joining us on this Advent journey—those of you posting comments and those following along quietly. We are blessed by your presence.

In our readings this week, Henri and Nathan return to Ukraine with three other member of the L’Arche Daybreak community for what proved to be another fruitful two-week mission to a long-suffering nation. As well known as Henri was as a writer, Nouwen was first and foremost a pastor, and many people considered his greatest gifts to be his inspirational teaching and preaching. In Henri’s diary entries we join him as he and the team prepare for and participate in the weekend retreat and the leadership seminar. As a long-term Nouwen reader, I gained new insight into Henri’s careful preparation and sensitivity to his audience—two keys to effective ministry.

Henri continued to deepen his understanding of the Ukrainian people writing, “we had met many very talented young people with obvious leadership gifts, but… without a lot of encouragement and guidance it would be hard for them to claim these gifts… (due to) the low self-esteem not only of the individuals but of the group as a whole.” (p. 119) As Laurent Nouwen writes in the Afterword, the discovery of Henri’s diaries led to Laurent’s unexpected more than two decade mission to Ukraine. Laurent was able to see for himself and share with us the fruit that was born as many Ukrainians rose from “passive depression to positive action” (p. 137)—a trait that the world has acclaimed in their response to the Russian invasion. I’m confident that Borys, Zenia, and Henri’s other Ukrainian fiends would echo and expand on Laurent’s beautiful quote at top this post.

Once again, there are many ideas in our reading we could discuss this week. You are encouraged to share whatever touched your heart. As Henri wrote, “But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal.” Sharing your personal insights will enlighten and enliven us all.

Here are several ideas that touched me that you might consider for your reflections:

a) Henri defines hope: “although reaching beyond the present moment, allows me to live in the present moment with courage and confidence.” (p. 86) How do you understand hope?

b) Henri asks a question for us all: “Do I have the courage to call people to a radical call to Jesus and the Church?” (p.89) What is your response to Henri’s question?

c) Henri writes about churches in a way that rings true today: “Churches remind us about deep piety as well as painful divisions, of humble service as well as a lust for power…” (p. 97) How does Henri’s observation reflect your experience of churches today?

d) During the the retreat Henri, “spoke about claiming our identify as the beloved sons and daughters of God…” (p. 100) How do you claim your own belovedness?

e) Reflecting on the Ukrainian nation, Henri writes, “It is the handicap that comes from a broken history, from centuries of oppression and exploitation, from neglect and indifference of wealthy nations, from the social sins of injustice and greed.” (p. 128) Where in our world today do you see this handicap manifest? What can we do about it?

Once again, thank you for joining us for our Advent book discussion of Ukraine Diary. We look forward to hearing from you throughout the week—in response to one of the prompts or anything that touched your heart. On behalf of the Henri Nouwen Society, I want to wish you and yours a joyous Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Peace and all good.

Dec 10th to 16th: Second Week of Advent

Reading: Part I — August 1, 1993 to August 14, 1993, p, 21 to 78

I offered a few words about keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus as we
live in the storms of our century. . . . Mostly I wanted to express
my conviction that with a clear spiritual focus we won’t
drown in the fearful insecurities of our lives. (p. 61)

Thank you joining us on this Advent journey. Your thoughtful comments have prompted a rich and fruitful discussion . Last week we followed Henri and his friend Nathan Ball, Director of L’Arche Daybreak community, as they completed their preparations to travel to Ukraine for their two-week visit and mission. I found this comment by Nadiia, a “forced” immigrant from Ukraine in 2014, to be especially noteworthy because her personal story gives Nadiia a unique perspective in our group. She writes: “(Ukraine Diary) is one of the best pieces of literature that helps readers, including Ukrainians like myself, look inside the Ukrainian nation’s soul to grasp all its beauty and immense suffering. . . .Henri got to the very core of Ukrainians with such an overwhelming love and care that I hadn’t yet encountered.” Her observation reinforces the ideas expressed by Robert Ellsberg in the Preface and Archbishop Gudziak in his Introduction. I think the truth of Nadiia’s comment will become evident in our reading this week.

Henri describes in considerable detail and depth the things he experienced and the relationships he formed during his brief twelve days in the newly-independent Ukraine in the East (of Europe) and he shares his initial post-mission reflections after returning to the West. There is so much to discuss and we want to hear from you. Please share whatever spoke to you or touched you in the reading. Here are just a few ideas that may prompt your thinking.

a) For me, the experience of reading this book is like sitting across the table from Henri listening to him share his enthusiasm, observations, ideas in a friendly conversation more so than “reading a book” about Ukraine. I come away feeling that I know Henri differently and more personally than before. Did you have a similar experience?

b) In her comment Nadiia wrote, “Henri got to the very core of Ukrainians.” Based on our reading this week, do you agree or disagree and why? What insights did you gain into the Ukrainian people and how does that affect your perception and understanding of current events in Ukraine?

c) Henri immediately noticed the physical and emotional/psychological changes in his surroundings after the “huge move from the West to the East.” (p. 22) Later on he reflects on how poverty has had a different effect on the people of Ukraine than those in Latin America (p.42), or even those in Ghana (p.74). Henri writes, “(P)overty in Ukraine strikes me as a poverty that has extinguished the spirit of the poor.” (p.42) What is your response to these differences Henri noticed?

d) On the first day of the retreat, Henri told the attendees that to God, “we are as beloved as his own son, Jesus. . . we can claim our new identify as the chosen children of God.” (p. 56) This is Henri’s core spiritual insight. As we approach Christmas and the coming of Emmanuel (God with us), what can you do to accept and faithfully live out this great truth?

e) The quote at the top of this page about “keeping our eyes on fixed Jesus” taken from the homily Henri preached on the Sunday of the retreat is as true today as it was in 1993. What does it mean to you to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in our difficult world today? What steps are you willing to take in your life to make this happen?

f) After leaving Ukraine, Henri reflects on his friendship with Nathan, writing: “Nathan and I had taken an emotional risk in making the Ukrainian trip together. Our friendship during the past seven years has been intense and complex.” (p. 72) What Henri doesn’t write here is that the challenges of his friendship with Nathan contributed Henri’s emotional breakdown that he discusses in his spiritual masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (“A friendship that at first seemed promising and life-giving gradually pulled me farther and farther away from home. . . . When the friendship broke down completely. . . ” The Return, p., 49-50) Does Henri’s reflection give you any insight into your own friendships or relationships? Share to the extent you are able.

Once again, the prompts above are simply ideas for your consideration. We are most interested in whatever touched you in the readings. We look forward to hearing from you.

May the Lord give you peace.

Dec 3rd to Dec 9th: First Week of Advent

Reading: Introduction by Archbishop Borys Gudziak, p. xiii to xxxv
Part I: July 24, 1993 to July 31, 1993, p. 1 to 21

This modest, seemingly simple book about a visit to a distant land
is in fact a subtle tale about how encounter genuinely
and radically changes the lives of people.
—Archbishop Gudziak, p. xxxiv

I really want it to be an occasion for some form of conversion. . . .
“You have to make a choice. This can be just one more
educational experience or it can be a chance
to be touched in a vital, new way.
But it is your choice.”
p. 1

A warm welcome to everyone and special thanks to the many people who introduced yourselves. We’re glad that you are here and we look forward to your contributions as we journey together through what promises to be a blessed and fruitful time of preparation for Christmas. Since the Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve, we will compress our schedule so that we will complete the book by Saturday, December 23rd, leaving Christmas week for your final thoughts and reflections.

Ukraine Diary is quite different from Henri’s other books in several ways, and not just because it is being published thirty years after it was originally written. First, it contains a substantial Introduction by Henri’s former student and close friend Archbishop Borys Gudziak that we read this week. Archbishop Gudziak helps us to better understand the Henri Nouwen that he knew (even if he didn’t initially realize his name was pronounced Henry Now-wen) and, equally important, the Archbishop links Henri’s experience in newly independent Ukraine to the events of today in the wake of the ongoing Russian invasion (see quote at top of post). Second, this diary appears to me (a Nouwen reader but not a scholar) to be more akin to a refined draft when compared to his other published diaries such as The Genesee Diary, The Road to Daybreak, and Sabbatical Journey. By that I mean Henri seems at times to be capturing thoughts “for the record” and writing asides to himself, e.g., “. . . I have to tell these (i.e., Borys’ and Zenia’s) stories first so as to be able to write my own” and “Now I am ready to write about the complex history of Ukraine.” These asides provide a window into Henri’s manner of thinking and writing that I have not encountered previously.

As always in these book discussions, we are most interested in learning what touched your heart in the reading. What points did you find interesting and why? What insights did you gain and how may they affect your life? What did you find comforting, or enlightening, or challenging, and why? What questions arose in the reading? Or simply share what you read and how and why it was noteworthy. Here are several quotations or thoughts that that may prompt your reflections.

a) Archbishop Gudziak writes, “But Ukrainians resist. Bravely selflessly. . . People are certain that truth will prevail and that evil will be defeated.” (p. xvii) In these and similar words the Archbishop shined a light on the war in Ukraine and its affect on the Ukrainian people. What influence did our reading have on your perception of the war?

b) Reflecting on his friend, Archbishop Gudziak observed, “Henri was interested in authentic experience with God, not ideology. Most of all, Henri was craving real Christian community. . .” (p. xxvi) How does the Archbishop’s observation align with your understanding of Henri and why (e.g., based on other Nouwen books you may have read). How do you think Henri would have responded to today’s seemingly more polarized church and world?

c) The second quote at the top of this page was written by Henri as he prepared to go to Ukraine. He is seeking conversion, and he knows that it requires a choice. He poses the question, “What am I hoping for?” (p.1) Have you ever sought conversion? What choices were demanded? What did you experience? Please share to the extent you are able.

d) Henri discusses two types of adventures that he anticipated during his time in Ukraine: i) “an adventure in a new world of people, ideas, and aspirations,” and ii) “an adventure in a new inner world inner experiences of faith, trust, and friendship.” (p. 8) What do you think about Henri’s idea of the two types of adventures that he would experience. How might this apply in your life?

e) Henri describes his preparations for his trip, including his historical research and his thoughts on the influence of Eastern Christianity on his faith journey. (p. 10 to 21). Were there any thoughts or ideas that you found particularly interesting or enlightening and why?

We look forward to hearing from many of you this week. The quotations and questions above may prompt your reflection, but pleased don’t be limited by them. Our community thrives and grows closer together when you share whatever touched you in the readings and respond to the comments of others. We are also grateful for those who are joining us for this Advent journey who may decide not to post comments. We are all God’s beloved sons and daughters and everyone is welcome here.

One quick reminder: If you do not see the comments at the bottom of the post, look for the words Recent Comments in the right hand column and then click on the first comment beneath that header. The comments will then open at the bottom of the post. You can scroll to the bottom of the comments to Leave a Reply and your can enter your comment. You can also reply to the comments of others by clicking on Reply just below their entry.

As St. Francis (Henri’s favorite saint) said to those he met,
“May the Lord give you peace.”