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.

March 13th to March 19th: Second Week of Lent

Reading: Letter III—Jesus: The Compassionate God (p. 23 to p. 36)

I know now in a completely new way that if I am to succeed
in fully living my life, in all its painful yet glorious
moments, I must remain united to Jesus. (p. 25)

We are grateful for the many personal and thoughtful comments that have made the first week of our Lenten journey together both fruitful and rewarding. Our reading this week—Letter III Jesus: The Compassionate God—was written four days after Letter II. I find it interesting that we are reading these letters over a time interval similar to when they were originally written, as if Henri was writing and sending these letters directly to us in the present day.

Henri opens this letter by telling Marc about his trip to Colmar the previous day to look at the Isenheimer Altar. He notes that he had while he already intended to “write about the suffering and resurrection of Christ. . . . I have a feeling that I had to see (emphasis added) it in order to find the words for the letter.” Deep contemplation of art was a spiritual discipline for Henri as is evident in his spiritual classic The Return of the Prodigal Son and his lesser known Behold the Beauty of the Lord—Praying with Icons, published the same year as Letters to Marc. For Henri, to really see an a piece of art is to allow it to “speak to the heart that searches for God.” (Behold, p. 24) Henri writes, “I remained at the Isenheimer Altar for more than three hours.” (p. 25). The insight that appears at the top of this post was among the fruits Henri harvested after seeing the altar.

By © Jörgens.mi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In his reflections on the altar, Henri emphasizes, “The record of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus forms the kernel of the “good news” about Jesus. . . The gospel is, first and foremost, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story constitutes the core of the spiritual life” and that this is “the most far-reaching event ever to occur in the course of history.” Henri challenges Marc (and us) to allow the truth about Jesus to renew our hearts. Deo volente (or God willing), our discussion this week will help us to do just that.

This is a rich letter. Is the truth about Jesus a reality for you and how does that truth renew your heart? You are encouraged to reflect and share whatever touched your heart. Here are a few thoughts that may help get you started, but please don’t feel limited by them.

  1. To look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him. (p. 30)
    We see this in a brutally graphic and violent way in Ukraine today. Yet this is a universal challenge. Reflect on the crosses and hopes in your life and share to the extent you are willing.
  2. God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom. (p.31)
    What is your understanding of the relationship between are freedom and compassion?
  3. Living for other people in solidarity with a compassionate Jesus: that’s what it means to live a spiritual life. In that way you too achieve freedom. (p. 34)
    How has compassion for others in solidarity with Jesus led to you to freedom on your spiritual journey? What challenges do you face and what blessings were received? If possible, please share your story.
  4. In the end, my desire is just to get you to read the Bible and develop your spiritual life for yourself. My letters are only meant to spur you on a bit. (p. 36)
    Henri shares his objective with Marc. So, how is he doing thus far? Is Henri spurring you on? What questions or inspirations have arisen for you? What actions might you take as a result?

We look forward to another great week of discussion. Thanks to each of you for joining us whether you are posting comments or following along silently.

May the Lord give you peace.