March 28th to April 3rd: Holy Week — The End of the Journey

Reading: August 1 to 30th entries and Afterword, page 208 to 226

Henri died at peace with himself, his family, his own faith community
of L’Arche, his friends, his vocation as a priest, and the God whose
everlasting love had been Henri’s beacon for sixty-four years.
–Nathan Ball, p 226

We come to the end of another Henri Nouwen book discussion. And before we gather again in November for our Advent book discussion, we will have marked the 25th anniversary of Henri’s untimely death on September 21, 1996. Nathan Ball’s concluding words could be Henri’s epitaph for a vibrant life well lived. I’m confident that when Henri met his Lord, he was greeted with the words, “Welcome, my good and faithful servant.”

Many of you have observed and commented on the busy, almost frantic, pace of Henri’s life and his sabbatical year. Sandra went so far as to call it Henri’s not-Sabbatical Journey. There is a great deal of truth in that. I believe, with the benefit of hindsight, it was also a great gift to us all. As Sr. Sue notes in the Foreword,

“Henri meets, celebrates, consoles, counsels, and connects with over a thousand people, and in friendship he mentions six hundred of them by name.” (p. vii)

It is in describing these many encounters that Henri is able to share his life’s wisdom–and to do so in a way that is meaningful to believers and seekers, God’s people, everywhere. Lest we forget, it was also during this year that Henri wrote Bread for the Journey (daily meditations), Can You Drink the Cup (a powerful reflection on living a spiritual life), prepared the Inner Voice of Love (his private journal containing “spiritual imperatives”) for publication, completed a near-final draft of Adam – God’s Beloved, and wrote the reflections that became Sabbatical Journey. Each of these books was informed by Henri’s relationship with his many friends.

Sr. Sue also points out that, unbeknownst to Henri, in his final year he was living out words he himself had written in his book Our Greatest Gift,

“I believe that this lonely task of befriending my death is not simply a task that serves me, but also a task that may serve others. I have lived my whole life with the desire to help others in their journey, but I have always realized that I had little to offer than my own, the journey I am making myself.” (p. xi)

Turning to our reading for this week, I will offer three items for your consideration. The first is the contrast between Henri’s reaction to the Olympic games (August 1st) and the emphasis our world places on competition and winning compared to Jesus saying “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (August 9th). The second is Henri’s question to himself, “Is this my vocation (pastoral care and ministry) or is it better to stay home and write more? (August 26th). And, finally, Henri’s reflections on courage and its relationship to our heart–the center of our being (August 28th). I will also point out that Nathan’s Afterword contains the best description that I have read of Henri’s final days.

As many of you have been doing throughout Lent, please share whatever touched your heart in the readings or your reflections. Once again, I want to thank you for joining to share Henri’s Sabbatical Journey during our Lenten journey. 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,
Ray

P.S. Please join us on Wednesday, November 24th when we will begin our Advent book discussion with welcome and introductions. Our Advent book selection will be announced in early-fall.

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20 Responses to March 28th to April 3rd: Holy Week — The End of the Journey

  1. Sherman Bishop says:

    I too want to thank everyone who participated in this journey through Fr. Nouwen’s sabbatical year. This is my first time participating in a study like this, and I was moved by the writings of Henri, and by comments made by you.
    I wondered throughout the season if Henri’s repeated comments of how tired he felt was not due to the hectic schedule but rather was a sign of his heart disease. Hard to know if that’s the case, but a good reminder to all of us to pay attention to our bodies as we move thro0ugh life.
    May all of you enjoy a blessed Easter, and experience the joy of the Empty Tomb in the steps you take through life.

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Sherman,
      May you also have a blessed Easter. Thanks for sharing your reflections on the readings as well.
      Barry

  2. Ray Glennon says:

    Friends,

    As I prepare to attend to attend the Easter Vigil Mass, I want to once again thank each of you that joined us on this Lenten journey to follow Henri on his Sabbatical Journey. As always, it was a rich, spirit-filled, and enlivening discussion.

    Let’s conclude with the words of Henri Nouwen’s favorite saint, St. Francis of Assisi: May the Lord give you peace.

    Happy Easter. He is Risen!

    Ray

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Ray,
      Thanks again for the fine leadership. I truly enjoyed the book, your valuable insights, and the reflections from others.

      While in Assisi a couple of years ago, my wife and I purchased matching rings made in that city by Humilis that include the blessing, which is based on Numbers 6:24-26 (benediction of Aaron, or priestly blessing) and I believe was on a letter(s) from Francis. The carving on each ring actually includes the full blessing. To include all the verses, the carving is on both sides!

      Happy Easter to you!
      Barry

  3. Neil Fraser says:

    I think what ministered to me most at the end of the book, was how Henri was remembered by close friends. And how deep down inside throughout the Sabbatical journey Henri could keep in balance being authentically ambitious, patient with others and himself, vulnerable (aware of his own weaknesses and strengths). Henri in writing this book really wanted to process his own life to benefit all of us who would read it.

    This has been a wonderful first book discussion group for me to be a part of with this group. Thank you everyone.

  4. Connie says:

    Tuesday August 27ths entry stood out for me as well. “I realize that institutional life leads to hypocrisy, because we who offer spiritual leadership often find ourselves not living what we are preaching or teaching. It is not easy it avoid hypocrisy completely because, wanting to speak in the Name of God, the church, or the larger community, we find ourselves saying things larger than ourselves. I often call people to a life that I am not fully able to live myself. “
    “I am learning that the best cure for hypocrisy is community. When as a spiritual leader I live close to those who I care for, and when I can be criticized in a loving way by my own people and be forgiven for my own shortcomings, then I won’t be considered a hypocrite.”
    “Hypocrisy is not so much the result of not living what I preach but much more of not confessing my inability to fully live up to my own words. I need to become a priest who asks forgiveness of my people for my mistakes.”
    I’ve learned through the years that being accountable for my mistakes, as soon as they’ve been made, has been greatly appreciated by my bosses, but somehow I’ve never been able to translate this skill to my personal life and tend to be very reserved among my friends and associates. I want to work on building a community where I can be open to being criticized in a loving way and forgiven for my own shortcomings such that I will “openly confess my inability to live up to my own words. “
    I have recently gone back to work after a year’s leave and am very thankful to have great workmates who value caring for elders and understood my need to stay home. I am also grateful for the opportunity to of had the time, along with its constraints, as it led me to a place I would of otherwise never gone. “There is no place like home.”
    I will miss this group and look forward to coming back for Advent.

  5. Barry Sullivan says:

    Henri Nouwen’s spirit lives on! “Adam’s Peace Essay” Assignment at a University.

    Below is a link to an article sent out today (April 2, 2021) by Professor John Fea of Messiah University. His brief discussion illustrates well, it seems to me, the wide reach that Henri still has after all of these years. Included is a YouTube video of Henri.
    Excerpt: “Yesterday my Created and Called for Community students read “Adam’s Peace,” an essay (originally delivered as a lecture) by the late spiritual writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. Nouwen reflects on his experience with Adam Arnett, a severely disabled man who the writer worked with during his stay at a Toronto “L’Arche community called “Daybreak.” L”Arche operates homes and residential programs for people with developmental disabilities. After stints teaching at Yale and Harvard, Nouwen spent the final decade of his career at Daybreak, serving the community as a pastor and caretaker to Adam…”

    “In the past I [Professor Fea] have led a discussion of the text, but this year I decided to show the documentary “Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen. This is worth your time:” The link to the YouTube Video is included at the bottom of his article link: https://currentpub.com/2021/04/02/henri-nouwen-a-journey-of-the-heart/

  6. Marybeth says:

    HAPPY EASTER TO ALL!! Hope to rejoin you for Advent and pray the virus is under wraps by then…

  7. Marybeth says:

    I very much enjoyed reading the Sabbatical Journey of Fr Henri with all of you, and was saddened at the end, thinking that he died too soon. But also glad that his words and spiritual insight live on… His daily writings during this time were so personal yet so relevant for many people on our own journeys. I liked the diversity of the subjects, especially the daily talks during the Eucharist. So much food for thought. Each day something new.
    This week, one of the discussions that inspired me was on August 28, when he wrote about the word “courage, which comes from coeur, which means “heart”. To have courage is to listen to our heart, to speak from our heart, and to act from our heart. The heart which is the center of our being…. courage to take a stance, even an unpopular stance… because from the center of our being we realize how to respond to the situation we are in.” Fr Henri was able to do this… I can only hope and pray that I have the heart felt courage to be as open, loving, and giving as he was (despite his insecurities), even up until his death. A grateful heart ❤️

  8. Sherman Bishop says:

    In the August 27 entry Henri focuses on hypocrisy. “ I realize that institutional life leads to hypocrisy, because we who offer spiritual leadership often find ourselves not living what we are preaching or teaching.“ As a pastor I find it hard to believe that any in this vocation cannot feel that burden. Part of that is the perception (in my mind) of being set on a high pedestal by those who look to one as a spiritual leader. Another explanation for the distance between one’s teaching and preaching and what we practice is our own awareness of the internal struggle taking place. To illustrate, those who have known be through my professional life would call me an extrovert. On tests like the Myers-Briggss personality inventory I score right on the Introvert/Extrovert line, leaning slightly to the introvert side. So others might see in me a high level of confidence, maturity and decisiveness, while I view the same situation through the filters of my internal doubt and awareness that I may be telling others to live a life I have been unable to model.
    That’s the hypocrisy of the institution. As Henri said, “ we find ourselves saying things larger than ourselves. I often call people to a life that I am not fully able to live myself.“
    What Henri wrote next provided a new awareness for me, the role that community and forgiveness plays in this struggle.
    “ I am learning that the best cure for hypocrisy is community. … Hypocrisy is not so much the result of not living what I preach but much more of not confessing my inability to fully live up to my own words.“ The more I read the New Testament the more I am convinced of the role of forgiveness and how that is practiced (or not practiced) on this side of heaven. The heart of the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us as we forgive others”. Matthew shares the full version that was also included in the early Christian book “The Didachi”. Luke shares a shorter version of the prayer. Neither John nor Mark have a story where the Lord’s prayer is given to the disciples, but when teaching in the temple in (Mark 11) Jesus does insert the petition on forgiveness (Mk.11:25). As the earliest of the Gospels written, Mark’s inclusion of this petition gives me some thought that the rest of this prayer grows out of that thought and spiritual practice.
    Confessing one’s failings allows the community to offer grace. Such grace reaffirms the focus on one as a forgiven sinner, and also a teacher pointing to a greater vision of the Gospel of Christ and the role we will we play in enfleshing the truth of Jesus. In this light forgiveness is a bridge over the gulp of hypocrisy, and allows not to be stopped in our tracts, but to go forward with ministry, with teaching and with practicing the truth of the vision that emerges from the Jesus story.

    • Sharon K. Hall says:

      Your post deeply touches me. As a lay woman, even in a small congregation where one would think it might be easier to resolve conflicts, have dialogue, do intimate little Bible studies together, fellowship the most easily and so forth and so on, we have gone through 3 Pastors in I think it has been twelve years. The last one died of COVID-19. And she was the one most trying to make changes which I know I struggled with but was trying. Changes in the liturgy, even though we are diverse racially, we still have problems with being united and also being inclusive of different gender expressions is another problem. I never quite accepted that changing liturgy was the solution but rather overcoming all of our fears of really resolving conflict. Really being clergy in our time in American culture has to be the toughest job possible. I’m having some chagrin now just because I spontaneously wrote “toughest job possible” when I rather believe that we burn out our Pastors here. I do believe too that the “best cure for hypocrisy is community….” and that we all need to rely on God’s timing and interventions into our lives to bring what is dark to the light for the community to actually work. Forgiveness is major, hope is major, faith is major but really two choices that I have seen made by people, coming and going and trying to find places most comfortable or else trying to delve into people’s hurts and wounds on the theory that that works just breeds fear and denial in faith communities. The clergy can’t navigate this all on their own and the people in the pews can’t navigate this all on their own either but I believe somehow everyone all together have to get on the same page with regards to trusting God’s authority. To me, the very frequency of Henri Nouwen’s Eucharists with literally everyone on practically every day or so the journal entries seem to record, are a testimony of how much he relied on God’s authority in his life and Priesthood. But I know I can think all of this but can’t do it either, communion in the community is everything and this being Maundy Thursday, and reading your honesty in your post, I am deeply empathetic to your struggle in providing leadership in the Church.

  9. Michelle says:

    Many thanks to all of you for your wonderful insights and personal reflections. Though I haven’t had the time to write in this space as much as I would have hoped, I have enjoyed immensely the rich sharing. For me, as we conclude our time together, I am struck by the fact that Henri died at peace, as Nathan Ball notes. This guy, who so honestly and forthrightly shared his anxieties and neurosis, in the end, died at peace with himself, his friends, his community, his vocation, and with his God. I cannot think of a better ending or message of hope for the rest of us who struggle with our own anxieties and foibles. I, too, also have loved and been enriched by Henri’s celebration of Eucharist. This reading and discussion group has been like communion for me. Thank you for the fellowship and the opportunity to share a meal of holy Henri together. Blessings and Easter joy to all!

  10. Nicola Santamaria says:

    I want to comment on just one passage from this week’s reading. It was the description Henri gives of his conversation with the parents, David and Mary, of the baby he baptised in the 25th August entry.
    “I tried to explain that it [baptism] is a proclamation that the child is not the property of the parents but a gift of God …. In such a simple context baptism is not a ritual or a ceremony but an event that directly touches us and affects our lives.”
    I have been thinking a lot about infant baptism recently or more specifically about the baptism of my granddaughter, Lola, who was born on 16th March last year. She has not been baptised because of the pandemic. My daughter, her mother, wants to be able to celebrate properly and so she is waiting until it is possible to have a public ceremony where we can invite all our friends and relations, something that is not currently possible where we live in the UK. Lola is loved by God, is a child of God, a gift of God. I pray that we can find a priest who has some of the spirit of Henri, who will help us to make this a special event that touches the lives of everyone who is there.

  11. Barry Sullivan says:

    Ray’s comments about Nathan Ball’s words at the end (p. 226 and quoted near the top of Ray’s introduction this week) draws a most fitting conclusion to this important journal from Henri Nouwen’s final days. I have been reading Henri for many years and reflecting on his daily meditations sent from the Henri Nouwen Society for the past few years. This special journal helps to put the past works I have read in perspective, and it certainly provides helpful personal information about his life and thinking.

    In this post I will just note features from Henri’s last days that I hope we all exhibit in our final days: concern for others (loving others as ourselves, again) and an attitude of gratitude. When Henri first spoke to Nathan in the hospital he said, “If I die, do whatever is easiest. I can be buried in Holland if that is best. And tell everyone that I am grateful. I am so very grateful” (p. 224). Later, after it seemed he was going to survive, rather than complaining about why this had happened to him (as many of us would), he said “I am grateful for this unexpected event that will help me to be faithful to the new work to which I am called” (p. 225). He saw this as a sign to slow down, travel less, and focus more on the writing part of his vocation to share Christ with others.”To help others in their journey,” as he said in the Greatest Gift, cited by Ray above.

    This difficult choice was expressed earlier in his inner debate (written on August 26) about whether he needed to cut back on travels and meetings with his wide array of friends so that he could focus declining energies on writing. Both of course were key parts of his ministry. I have to think that, if he had lived longer, he would have missed the personal aspect of his “pastoral care” or “true ministry” (p. 219). As I noted in a reply earlier, I so wish I could have been part of those Eucharistic celebrations that he held in living rooms, “the barn,” hotel rooms, and other areas where small communities gathered.

    A great life. Thank you, Lord, for bringing Henri’s spirit into our lives!
    Barry

  12. Barry Sullivan says:

    Sharon,
    You draw some excellent points from this portion of the book, including those related to communion services in our churches in these pandemic times. One of the themes we saw throughout Henri’s entries in his personal journal was his deep dedication to celebrating the Eucharist. I often thought in reading those that it would have been wonderful to be part of one of his many small eucharistic communities, such as those he held in “the barn.” We read on page 221 about how those at “the barn” expressed their gratitude for the many holy gatherings.

    It seemed that being part of a smaller group when the Gospel of the day is expanded upon by Henri and one could be with others around a table or living room in such a Eucharistic celebration would be a truly meaningful “communion.”

    I wonder, too, how Henri might have dealt with a pandemic. With you, I hope that somehow this pandemic will be an impetus for greater unity in the church.

    Thanks for these important reflections on the readings!
    Blessings!
    Barry

  13. Elaine M says:

    Henri refers to our “mountaintop experiences,” transcendent experiences or perhaps even small epiphanies and “aha” moments that provide hope, strength, consolation, and courage “in moments of doubt, despair, or anguish.” He further notes that “when we are attentive to the light within us and around us, we will gradually see more and more of that light and even become a light for others” (p. 210).

    Surely this book about a sabbatical journey serves as a record of how Henri’s own moments of transcendence (the many enlightening conversations and Eucharists with his friends, new revelations about his father which deepened their relationship, Adam’s funeral, etc.) carried him through periods of depression, self-doubts, and discouragement. I admire his belief that he, despite his own perceived imperfections and failings, was indeed the beloved of God, and he calls us to see ourselves as beloved as well.

    So while I can’t have a sabbatical year as such, I should be able to adopt the practice of writing down my mountaintop experiences: neighborhood renovation projects with my teenage volunteers, our grandchildren painting pillowcases to console my husband on chemo days when he was too exhausted to get out of bed, the day my 14-year-old advisee donated all of her birthday money to buy clothes for the family our little group had adopted for that school year, the reconciliation that took place at a loved one’s funeral, and so much more. Some, like the above, are dramatic and memorable, but more often, they come in the form of that small, still voice reminding us of the blessings of life even in—or especially in—the bad days.

    It seems so very characteristic of Henri that at age 64, he was still deliberating about his vocation, about how best to use his talents and experience to serve others and to be his most authentic self. Should he return to Daybreak in a slightly altered capacity, work on the documentary, write more books, continue to travel and be more involved with friends? A sentence that really resonated with me is this: “I am feeling that I must begin to say no [to some things], and that is very hard” (p. 219). Though I am older than Henri, I too keep deliberating and even fretting about my options, though I have neither the talents nor the options available to Henri, and my husband, my forever cheerleader and coach, regularly reminds me sometimes I too must just say no. It also occurs to me that many people do not have the luxury of a range of attractive options. A woman I know who is caring for a chronically ill spouse has few life options except for maintaining a positive, prayerful attitude and doing some at-home services for the church while her husband is sleeping. Basically her only option lies in her attitude, her resilience, her faith, and that is true of so many people living in poverty or captivity or dire circumstances. And, like Adam, it is often these people who become our biggest inspirations.

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Elaine,
      Thanks again for these in-depth, insightful reflections that you give us each week. They have added greatly to everyone’s growth from our readings.

      Among other reflections, you provide some keen insights regarding options for the future that Henri was struggling with and our options, which will vary for each of us. I am guessing we are about the same age –- let’s say both older than Henri was at the time! For Henri, a difficult decision involved whether to continue with the very effective but tiring pastoral ministry. As Ray reminds us, Sister Sue said in the forward that he had about 1,000 contacts! Or, focus more time and limited energies on the spiritual writing. From this book and others he has written, we might assume he would have missed the personal involvement with people, which he said he still loves (p. 219). But for Henri and for all of us, as your husband reminded you, there comes a point when we have to say “no.” We can pray that each of us makes a clear-headed decision when that time comes.

      Also, you made a great point about some who may not have many options at this time in their lives. This includes the friend you noted who provides care for her chronically ill spouse. My wife’s sister has similar demands at this time in her life.

      I pray that your husband’s chemo treatments go well and result in renewed health. And keep track of those mountaintop experiences!
      Blessings
      Barry

  14. Sharon K. Hall says:

    Henri’s entry on Wednesday, August 28, is also particularly relevant to my experiences, especially during this pandemic. Henri and his friends were speaking about courage during the Eucharist. That actually speaks volumes to me. I am worshipping a lot–virtual worships and virtual communions. In Catholic worships, the Priests always before distributing communion, also ask us on Facebook to open our hearts to Jesus in spiritual communion. In fact, from amazon, I purchased a book “Spiritual Communion: A Treasure of History for Today” written by Sr. Pascale-Dominique Nau, O.P., written when the pandemic started directly addressing the spiritual needs of Catholics when churches were not open to inside worship. I also worship on-line with Protestants and it seems to me that–because of their theologies–there is a lot more confusion and it has been much harder for Protestants to adapt to this pandemic situation. This whole section in Henri’s thoughts “Often we debate current issues and express our opinions about them. But courage is taking a stance, even an unpopular stance, not because we think differently from others but because from the center of our being we realize how to respond to the situation we are in.” Actually, in my opinion, our minds can think of all sorts of theological positions and rationales but our hearts are the barometer of whether we feel we are connected to Jesus or whether we feel sort of lost and dislocated by our communion theologies. Maybe that is the reason somewhere in the Bible it says that God will write on our hearts and another place it says He will replace our stone hearts with natural hearts or something like that. Not mentioning minds at all. If this pandemic does anything in our world, I’m just wondering if it is going to be the impetus for bringing more unity in the Church and helping the various divided parts to rethink communion theologies? It would be interesting to know, if Henri Nouwen were still alive during this pandemic, what kind of spiritual writing he would be doing as he would also have to wrestle with whether to travel so much, to be with so many people, and all the daily Eucharists he was distributing, would he have felt it necessary to do them any differently than he had complete and normal freedom to do them back then? How would Henri Nouwen has spiritually coped with this pandemic? This little entry on hearts and courage makes me believe he would be even more concentrated on hearts and courage.

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Sharon,
      You draw some excellent points from this portion of the book, including those related to communion services in our churches in these pandemic times. One of the themes we saw throughout Henri’s entries in his personal journal was his deep dedication to celebrating the Eucharist. I often thought in reading those that it would have been wonderful to be part of one of his many small eucharistic communities, such as those he held in “the barn.” We read on page 221 about how those at “the barn” expressed their gratitude for the many holy gatherings.

      It seemed that being part of a smaller group when the Gospel of the day is expanded upon by Henri and one could be with others around a table or living room in such a Eucharistic celebration would be a truly meaningful “communion.”

      I wonder, too, how Henri might have dealt with a pandemic. With you, I hope that somehow this pandemic will be an impetus for greater unity in the church.

      Thanks for these important reflections on the readings!
      Blessings!
      Barry

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