Nov 28th to Dec 4th: First Week of Advent

Reading:
1. From Solitude to Community to Ministry (1993), p. 1 to 15
2. Spiritual Formation and Community (1977), p. 16 to 24
3. Finding Solitude in Community (1978), p. 25 to 39

As we begin our Advent journey, my sincere thanks to those of you who introduced yourselves. We have a wonderful group of returning regulars and new participants gathering in this virtual space from across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. to discuss Henri Nouwen’s wisdom and insights in Community. As Henri says in Chapter 1, “Community is not an organization; community is a way of living: you gather around you people with whom you want to proclaim the truth that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.” (p.7) By that definition (and my personal experience), the strength and durability of these book discussions is that 25 years after his death Henri continues to draw people into community where we are nourished, encouraged, and supported. We’re grateful to each of you for joining us this Advent.

Our readings this week provide a unique opportunity to explore how Henri’s thinking and writing evolved from his time in academia to his years as the pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak community. Chapter 1 is a talk Henri gave in 1993 after seven years at Daybreak. (This also the year after the publication of The Return of the Prodigal Son and Life of the Beloved.) It is immediately followed by two publications from 1977 and 1978 when he was teaching at Yale. As we read in Robert Ellsberg’s Forward, “(We) can see not only the continuity in Henri’s commitment to the pursuit of community, but his movement from an attitude that was arguably abstract and impersonal, to something concrete and real.” (p. xiii) You may also discover in comparing these essays how Henri’s language becomes simpler—but no less profound or impactful—in his later writings. Henri concludes his reflection on living a disciplined life in Chapter 1 saying: “Solitude, community, ministry—these disciplines help us live a fruitful life. (p. 15)”
Reflection Questions:
a) Are there specific examples from these three essays of Henri’s changing attitude and simplifying language that touched you? Have you experienced similar changes in attitude on your spiritual journey?
b) How do you live the disciplines of solitude, community, and ministry in your life? What changes might you make after reading Henri’s essay?

In Chapter 2 Henri describes his understanding of community: “Christian spirituality is in essence communal. The prayer life of a Christian can never be understood independent of community life. Prayer in the Christian life leads to community and community to prayer. (p. 21) . . . (W)herever authentic spiritual growth takes place there is always a strengthening of community, and that wherever authentic community is found there is always a growing desire for the deepening of the spiritual life. (p. 22) . . . So spiritual life is always communal. It flows from community and creates community. It is the life of the Spirit in us, the Spirit of God who dwells in the center of our heart and in the center of our lives together. (p.23)”
Reflection Questions: Where have you found authentic community in your life? How has the life of the Spirit in that community influenced your spiritual growth?

The centrality of solitude to the spiritual life is another recurring theme in Henri’s writing; Chapter 3 explores the complementary relationship between solitude and community. Henri writes, “Solitude is not a private space over against the public space of community. . . . Solitude is essential to community life because in solitude we grow closer to each other. . . . We take the other with us into solitude, and there the relationship grows and deepens. (p. 30-31). . . . Solitude is inseparable from community because in solitude we affirm the deepest reality of our lives together, namely, that as a community we are like the hands pointing to God in prayer. (p.37)”
Reflection Questions: How do you practice solitude in your life? What is the role of solitude in the authentic communities to which you belong? What is your reaction to Thomas Hora’s symbol of the relationship between solitude and community (p. 37)?

We look forward to hearing from many of you this week. The reflection questions above may prompt your reflections, 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 not choose to post comments. We are all God’s beloved sons and daughters and everyone is welcome here.

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

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42 Responses to Nov 28th to Dec 4th: First Week of Advent

  1. Christopher Ciummej says:

    Community and solitude have been two disciplines that, for most of my life, I unfortunately have viewed in the way Henri describes it in Chapter 3, that is, that solitude and community are two separate identities, so to speak. In a community, in my case, my family, having two elderly parents who are very set in their ways can often make solitude seem like a better option than being close all the time. However, there are still needs to be met for those one loves regardless. I learned from these chapters that one can certainly love and participate in their community, while also using my solitude to center one’s self TO others, rather than away from them.

  2. Sharon Hickey says:

    I’m from Queensland, Australia, and have been following Henri Nouwen for 20 years. As a Hospital Chaplain his work has imbued my own service to the sick and dying. Now unwell myself and unable to work, while still relatively young my local parish community, this community and my own prayer life is what sustains me and brings me peace. Thank you for your service in providing this community. I will continue to follow along quietly enjoying the gift of this community.

  3. Connie McMahon says:

    I am with those of you who saw solitude as ‘me time.’ Henri writes ‘ in spiritual life, the word discipline means “the effort to create some space in which God can act”‘ and states ‘Solitude is being with God and God alone.’ Asking: ‘Is there any space for that in your life?’
    I have had the mountaintop experience in college just once, although alcohol was involved. Years later I experienced several mini mountaintops working with the Gazette Sunday mornings delivering missed papers, which entailed sitting in a parked car at sunrise waiting on dispatches call. I cherished those Sunday mornings even if they meant getting up at 4 in the morning.
    I now work at a Front Desk in which ‘being available for guests’ requires a lot of standing around with nothing to do. My first instinct was to learn more about ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ and to use that time in prayer. Since that time of course, the Monkey Mind has come along, and I’ve found all kinds of distractions to kill time. Last night I took that time to just be, repeating the Mantra ‘The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”. As in confirmation, tonight I got the opportunity to spend more time repeating the Mantra awaiting a tow when my car broke down at sunset at the beach…

  4. Ray Glennon says:

    Friends,
    In your comments this week, several of you mentioned Henri’s teaching that solitude leads to community which leads to ministry—and that these disciplines should be lived in that order. Some of you might be interested in reading A Spirituality of Living, part of the Henri Nouwen Spirituality Series published by Upper Room Books. Edited by Henri’s former teaching assistant John S. Mogabgab, this short book draws on the essay in Chapter 1 and other materials in the Nouwen archives to provide Henri’s answer to the unspoken, yet essential, question, “How shall we live?” For more information or to order: https://www.amazon.com/Spirituality-Living-Henri-Nouwen/dp/0835810887
    Blessings,
    Ray

  5. Nadiia says:

    I want to give my reflection on the first three chapters of this book another spin by looking at them from the perspective of married people. It is so painful for me to see my friends filing for divorce after 15 to 20 something years of marriage… I wish the younger generation could open their ears towards such spiritual mentors as Henri Nouwen, but younger people prefer to hear teachers that tease their ears with what they want to hear: “Dream Big! Everything is possible! You can do it on your own! God will help you in anything you put your mind to it!” So sad. Yet, how simple and profound is what Henri suggests: our solitude with God is the foundation of everything – healthy marriage, healthy friendships, healthy ministry, you name it. Without it, we are just a bunch of needy porcupines, hurting each other, leaving, bumping into other ones, and continuing to get stuck in this “circle of life” while our Heavenly Father patiently waits to welcome us into His loving embrace.

  6. Marge says:

    Thank you, Ray! Your sharing clarity of insight/summary into the progression of Henri’s unfolding understanding is so helpful and provides patience and assurance that God continues to work in our hearts and lives, bringing the original unity to the forefront repeatedly in many and various ways as Henri so wisely, vulnerably and profoundly writes of/speaks to/lived into/reveals accordingly. I’m so grateful for everyone’s insight, sharing of faith journey through this online ministry and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s leading.

  7. Ray Glennon says:

    Friends,
    I thought I’d share an example of how I see Henri’s abstract attitude and language changing over time.

    Let’s begin with this from Chapter 3 (1978):
    “One way to express this (note: that solitude is essential to community) is to say that in solitude we are given the awareness of a unity that is prior to all unifying actions. It is that place where we come to realize that we were together before we came together and that community life is not a creation of our human will but an obedient response to the reality of our being united.” (p. 32) This certainly sounds like Professor Nouwen to me!

    Now let’s look at a similar thought from Chapter 1 (1993):
    “It’s precisely in the hub (note: the image of the wagon wheel where God says, ‘live in the hub’), in that communion with God, that we discover the call to community. In solitude you realize that you’re part of a human family and that you want to live something together.” This is the voice of a pastor speaking to his community.

    The abstract “unity that is prior to all unifying actions” in 1978 has, by 1993, become the “communion with God.” And the 1978 phrase “we were together before we came together” has been replaced by “It’s precisely in the hub,” drawing on the concrete image of the wagon wheel Henri had just described. While Henri’s message remains the same, it has become far more accessible–and memorable. For me, that is a major reason why the spiritual wisdom of Henri Nouwen continues to speak to people today 25 years after his death.

    Ray

  8. chuck says:

    Nouwen is clearly onto something.Solitude,community,ministry may comprise the essence of spiritual life. When all 3 are present in rightful order ,with balance ,they give us the essential pillars for the spiritual life. I think Mother (saint) Theresa knew this . She refused to let her ministry be “just a bunch of social workers”. They started the day with 3 hours of solitude/community prayer before any ministering. The 3 do feed off each other and are dependent on each otherJesus and I (interior life) without community keeps the revelation of our immaturities, lack of sensitivity , etc hidden and love of neighbor will be incomplete.Ministry will be compromised from its fullness.keeping the 3pillars present and balanced is a life long endeavor. You can clearly see when Henri understood this and when he was doing this. The people we have the honor of revealing the love of God to could also pick up on this imbalance.I think Henri had such compassion for others that he was highly motivated to get this right. He disciplined himself in all 3 areas and was quite fruitful.He found a way to work beyond his comfort zone. What courage he was blessed with.

  9. Dana McGowan says:

    Hi all. Dana from NY. Recently retired teacher. Spending more time in prayer, continued advocating for those who can’t and focusing on where my life is headed now. Devotee of Dorothy Day.
    Community was a concept I emphasized with my students who felt alone in their
    daily living in this crazy world. Had them spend time in silence and communal activities, events, and retreats. Me? Nouwen astounded me with his belief that solitude was not what I thought it was! My idea of solitude was time for myself and yet as he wrote, it caused guilt and resentment and irritability. Now I need a paradigm shift and need to reread these chapters because I need to process this new viewpoint. And discover how I can be part of what he is espousing. Maybe I am in some ways. But that is what this personal journey is all about, right?

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Hi Dana,
      Welcome to the discussion and beginning your retirement years. My wife and I are both retired educators.

      I too had to reread Henri’s understanding of solitude, having assumed that solitude is time for me to do what I want. His insights do indeed require a shift in our perspectives.

  10. Henri offers this glittering definition of community: “Community is a gift of the Spirit” and “is foremost a quality of the heart which enables us to unmask the illusion of our competitive society and recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and sons and daughters of the same Father” (23).

    In other words community comes from God and is not of our own making. Second, it seems to be grown by dropping the mind down into the heart humbly sharing ourselves within the holding power of prayer and the safety of scripture (lectio divina, p.17-18).
    I noticed Chris D. and Suzanne Shaffer referenced praying with others as a place they have found (are finding) community with others.

    Reading Henri’s insights and reflecting on my own experiences of community, I realized how spot on his definition was. My first experience of genuine community was Bible School in Lake Arrowhead, CA. All of us were novices and we knew it. We learned from God in one another. The second place was as a pastor leading a women’s Bible Study group in Acton, MA. Here, we inductively read the text placing ourselves in the storyline and deeply listening to what God said to his historical audience and to us personally. Finally, I now attend a Sunday School in KY called the Prodigals. Our facilitator explained that though the group was mostly made up of professionals, chaplains and seminary professors, all of us are only prodigals returning to God with our hearts in our hands.

  11. Suzanne Shaffer says:

    Chapter 2: Where have you found authentic community in your life? How has the life of the Spirit in that community influenced your spiritual growth?

    Remembering my times in religious community as a professed Catholic sister, I know now what a gift it was to have people to pray with, serve with in a shared ministry, laugh and love with on a daily basis. In the end, it wasn’t my calling, but I will never ever regret the time I spent there and how much it changed me for the better, precisely because we were praying, living (and wrestling with) community, and serving.

    After my time in a more formal spiritual community, I have yet to replace that same kind of bond and support that we had there. I am hoping that by reading this book, I can either recognize existing possibilities, or create community where possible.

  12. Barry Sullivan says:

    Reflections on spiritual formation and community (1977), chapter 2

    In comparing the first essay from 1993 with this one from 1977, I did indeed, detect that “Henri’s language becomes simpler—but no less profound or impactful…”

    In particular, I was struck by Henri’s insights regarding community (pp. 21-24), which were true in 1977. However, they are especially important for us in 2021, when a strange form of hyper-individualism and competitiveness seem to have infected our land. This appears to be resulting in genuinely ridiculous decisions among some about, for example, how we deal with a pandemic or whether one even exists! Perhaps the rise of social media and other means of finding information or misinformation may be the reason for some of this. Are our “individual rights” really more important than the lives of my neighbor and others in the community? Why do people “see” things so differently? Was the insurrection at the nation’s capitol building a serious, historic attack on our country’s democratic system or just another mild protest? One can find “information” silos to support either stance, strange as it may seem to me.

    A confession. Several years ago I too was more attuned to the individualistic mindset. Is it my increased age; the changing tenor of the times; increased loud stridency (“my way or the highway”); a better understanding (I hope) of Jesus’ main messages; other reasons for my different perspectives?

    I would humbly offer that this essay, written many years ago, can be applied more broadly to our societal plight today. It deserves deep attention. As Henri notes: “When word, silence, and guidance as ways to the heart are introduced into a basically individualistic milieu, they might simply feed our narcissistic tendencies and lead to spiritual self-centeredness” (p. 22).

    Relating to these deep insights from Henri about community (pp. 21-24), someone retweeted this today from Rosemary Wahtola Trommer:
    And if it’s true we are alone,
    We are alone together,
    the way blades of grass
    are alone, but exist as a field.

    Henri’s diagnosis from 1977, as applied in his essay about spiritual formation and community, should be considered deeply as it might be applied more broadly to our nation and world today.

    Henri: “Community itself is foremost a quality of the heart which enables us to unmask the illusion of our competitive society and recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and sons and daughters of the same Father” (p. 23).

    Again, Henri’s unique appeal to me is the timelessness of his insights about the spiritual life, social issues, human psychology, and so much more!

    Barry

  13. Sherman Bishop says:

    “One way to express this is to say that in solitude we are given the awareness of a unity that is prior to all unifying actions. It is the place where we come to realize that we were together before we came together and that community life is not a creation of human will but an obedient response to the reality of our being united. Every time we affirm that solitude belongs to the essence of life together, we express our faith in a love which transcends our interpersonal communication and proclaim that we love each other because we have first been loved (1 Jn 4:19).” Pg. 38 (in my Kindle Edition)
    Henri writes so consistently about the importance of solitude and prayer, of “wasting time with God”. When I read him I see him as a spiritual giant. Then I think of the sharing Henri offered in “Sabbatical Journey”, in which his own doubts and needs plagued him. He seemed to live a frantic life that year of “sabbatical rest” even as he often lamented not having more time to pray and meditate. Solitude, of the type Henri writes about here, is another expression of a goal of the human life that is never reached, but always becoming. In September I remember thinking this was an admission of failure. Perhaps it is important to understand God’s role in this life of solitude. If the practice of being alone, quiet and receptive is to ground one in the love of God, that love is limitless. We are constantly being drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the Divine. I think of John’s prologue to the Gospel, in which he says, “For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace”. (John 1:16) Could Henri’s struggles be the process of growth, pointing him/us to the reality that all the gifts of God must be received in faith. And faith seems never to come without doubt, and tension and our own sinfulness hard at work within us. When one finally tires of that struggle and surrenders to God, in that moment might we be drawn just a bit more deeply into the love of God? But not all the way, the next struggle may just be more grace upon grace.

  14. Suzanne Shaffer says:

    Chapter one: What struck me the most was the “order” of solitude, community, ministry. Mostly, I have done as Henri described – try it myself, ask for help, then pray (I didn’t want to bother people/God until I had to). But this is backwards!

    Other thoughts – I love the definition of discipline as “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” This is something I look forward to!!!! Usually I think of the word as a burdensome thing – like the associations I have with dieting or exercising…there’s always a moment of failure and feeling bad…

    The wagon wheel metaphor is very useful! Centered in the hub of love, versus running on the rim to catch up. Probably going to get squished! I feel good just imagining the difference!

    • Liz says:

      What a great image. Henri says, “In my home country, the Netherlands, you still see many large wagon wheels, not on wagons, but as decorations at the entrances of farms or on the walls of restaurants. I have always been fascinated by these wagon wheels: with their wide rims, strong wooden spokes, and big hubs. These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center. When I move along the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once.”

      When we spent time in Holland we saw many yards with wagon wheels decorated with flowering plants. Rather than tossing out a piece of Old World history this display called attention to life- giving. Similar to the center of the labyrinth where one enters the inner circle, receives grace and brings that blessing back to whence we came.
      Reminders to be filled with Godness before encounters with others.

  15. Chris D Eggert-Rosenthal says:

    as my spiritual journey continues. I was delighted to read about the terms. discipline and discipleship. This was always difficult for me to grasp, The explanation makes greater sense to me now. Solitude, community and ministry. The solitude part is where I have fallen down over the years, in fact I suspect I was just not ready to listen. I would find a place to be quiet but always gave way to those voices telling me what was waiting for me next Focus was difficult. Things have been changing, I can and do find time to reflect and listen, more successfully that before. Understanding community as just the place where we find others has also helped, The terms where two or three are gathered–has take on new meaning. Prayers shared with a friend, a new experience for me as a practice. Has brought new joys to my life.
    I will continue contemplating the first lecture and move on to the next tomorrow.,

  16. Barry Sullivan says:

    Reflections on Chapter 1: From Solitude to Community to Ministry (1993)

    I note especially his link between the words discipleship and discipline and, importantly, the three disciplines he outlines that we must follow if we are to truly follow Jesus: solitude, community, and ministry. In a clear, straightforward message he thoughtfully summarizes these disciplines, which we must trust will bear fruits even if we don’t see them now.

    His insights on these disciplines deserve much reflection for each of us. Especially thought-provoking was his section on ministry. We (I) must always trust and remember that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, which will enable us to go out and “heal.” Also, I must think more about how to express the “healing ministry” through compassion and gratitude. These don’t come easy for us at times. But as Henri notes:

    “Can you be grateful for everything that has happened in your life—not just the good things but for all that brought you to today? It was the pain of a Son that created a family of people known as Christians. That’s the mystery of God” (p.12).

    The other day my granddaughter broke her leg in two places (today she turned 12 and got her booster shot). I read in the news that Minnesota has about the highest number of new COVID infections in the nation and the hospitals are full. Nonetheless, I need to recall that quote above from Henri.

    These are my initial thoughts during a hectic early week.
    Blessings to all.
    Barry

  17. Sharon K. Hall says:

    I wish I could have read this book three years ago. We had a Pastor who had a strong interest in chaplaincy service and in fact was a hospice chaplain alongside of preaching and administering the sacraments. She discerned our Bible studies should focus more on personal sharing and they turned into get-together that felt more like little self-help groups. When Henri Nouwen writes on page 34, “We are living in a time marked by an almost limitless faith in the value of interpersonal expression. The result of this is that we tend to spend many hours exploring our most personal ideas and feelings about ourselves and each other…..but we must not underestimate the limits of our ability fully to communicate ourselves to each other.” Felt like I have found a kindred spirit. After a year I finally quit the Bible study and what I suppose was the goal of closer church relations—for me was not actualized. Then the final statement of the essay, “When solitude is given its rightful place, communities will be able to resist not only the flagrantly visible ills of our society, but also the evils whose roots reach into the depths of our being and threaten the life of our community itself”. I can already see this book is meriting a lot of serious reflection as Christians endeavor to try to bring healing to our fractured communities and build up our churches again—with greater understanding of my needs, there could have been a wiser solution to the Bible study/lay woman’s problem I was having. Thank you for choosing this book for the Advent study!!!

    • Liz says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience with church group. I relate to what you said
      A community can be suffocating the unveiling of one’s true self and unique calling.

    • Marge says:

      I, too, thank you, Liz….perhaps, Henri’s challenge for spiritual formation is calling us to “return” to the disciplines (creating space for God to act) of reading the word of God, meditation..”To meditate therefore means first of all to receive the word of God into our silence….without silence the word cannot become our inner guide…”. The thought that we cannot give what we have not received comes to mind.

      For me, within my church setting, there seemed to be so much emphasis on mission/service for a few years that the foundation for such seemed cast into the background. Small groups were formed based on common interests – needless to say, most if not all those groups had fizzled out, even before the restrictions of covid prevented us from gathering. Perhaps this time of covid has rekindled the deep need for spiritual sustenance…”Spiritual formation gives us a free heart to see the face of God in the midst of a hardened world and allows us to use our skills to make that face visible to all who live in darkness.” May it be so…To God be the glory!

      Yes, indeed, such a timely reading…..so grateful…. again, thank you Sharon for drawing my attention/reflections to a common-felt spiritual-community challenge.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Sharon,
      In reading your comment about your pastor, I thought of something Henri had written in a letter to a Sister and professor of pastoral theology about a common misunderstanding of Henri’s “wounded healer” concept.

      Here is what he wrote (in part): “On page 1o (note: in her article), you write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants [sic].’ This is incorrect. It does not represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds, but that we minister best when we have recognized our own needs and have attended to our own wounds. Our needs and wounds can only be a source of our ministry when they have been acknowledged and given appropriate attention. When we would minister to others out of our own needs and wounds, we would do harm to them. . . . As long as our needs are raw needs and our wounds are open wounds, we will inflict wounds on other and create needs in others without realizing it.” (Source: Love, Henri, p. 194-5)

      • Sharon K. Hall says:

        Thank you for locating this quote from Henri Nouwen, Ray. I have often wished I could make myself as vulnerable as he seemed to be able to do in his books. This clarifies him for me in that it shows that he had gone through much healing before he wrote to help others along the path. I was always uncomfortable in the Bible study class because (1) we weren’t being led in such a way that scripture modeled a realty that we could feel like we were healthily relate our lives, problems, too, and (2) I’m not yet able to acknowledge the extent and also the responsibility for my needs so that things I might share would unfairly blame others and people just free-wheeling in even small group situations with Pastoral care really, I believe, should have some careful guidelines, boundaries, or something. In the end, it was damaging to my trust but not in the Church because I think—and hope—this isn’t the way the Church is going now or something—a lot of emphasis on personal subjective experiences. Sort of confusing to me still, these different clergy styles and what best helps believers to effectively witness our faith in healthy ways and with clear minds. The quote you provided needs more reflection from me still. Thanks again.

        • Sandra Dickau says:

          I have been pondering both of your comments, Ray and Sharon. I have thought about the wounded healer and how we minister out of that stance for years. I have been in groups where we studied Henri’s book The Wounded Healer. I actually think we go to the grave wounded and if we wait till its all dealt with we would never minister to anybody! Ministering however when still raw and bleeding from our wounded being is NEVER a good idea. I think Henri is really talking about vulnerability and humility. As a nurse I have always approached caring for the sick as a privilege and regardless of the personal ‘stuff’ I brought to the bedside in a trauma critical care unit I was there to serve. I am simply amazed at how God has used me in spite of my brokenness over the years. I actually think it is only in that vulnerable humble space that we can truly be of any good. Lastly I think its always a little muddy when it comes to motive. However a prayer of ‘create in me a clean heart’ has helped me serve others.

  18. Marge says:

    I will carry the story of the little river that Henri shares from a classmate’s funeral service with me throughout this season of advent. And my question too becomes “How can I prepare myself for total surrender so that my life can be fruitful?”. p. 15 There is an old hymn that expresses, “and my will be lost in Thine”. That catches my imagination and offers possibilities that I can not imagine!

    And, the little boy watching the sculptor (chap. 2)…only God knows what lies within our hearts and can see what we/I cannot see..trustingly not just for self, but in community, and watching for “A new world growing out of compassion.” p. 13

  19. Patricia Hesse says:

    THE DIRTY TABLECLOTHS — Truth Found in the Solitude of a Dirty Kitchen

    Most know little about what happened on the Marshallese Islands, but today Springdale, a town of 80,000 deep in the Ozarks in Northwestern Arkansas, is home to about 15,000 Marshallese, the largest community in the continental United States. There are 3,200 Marshallese students in the Springdale school district.

    When the United States ended its twelve-year nuclear weapon testing program on several of the atolls in the area of the Marshallese Islands, this nation of around 50,000 people suffered greatly from the after-effects. Irreparable damage had been done to the island ecosystem, including the destruction of vegetation and fishing habitats. Additionally, radiation poisoning of islanders located downwind of the Bravo Shot test in 1954 was severe enough to affect subsequent generations in the form of congenital disabilities and chronic disease. The Bravo Shot detonated with 1000x the nuclear power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The story of how this community ended up in northeast Arkansas is too long for this purpose. Today multi-generational families continue to live together –families that continue to suffer from the exposure to radiation and were heavily impacted by Covid 19.

    My daughter’s church in nearby Fayetteville became acquainted with an incredible Marshallese man who worked diligently helping his community. As a result, he was given a position at the church and the financial and human support he needed to help feed those Marshallese in need, preparing foods that are part of their culture. This feeding program has grown and with it the use of the church’s kitchen and large eating area. The once pristine kitchen with the clean, cloth tablecloths now speaks of use and community. In this case, the solitude of this place has become filled with doing and sharing and showing love for one another.

    This past weekend my daughter was alone at the church, setting up for the coffee, tea, and cookies that would be offered after a funeral the next day. The first thing she noticed was that the cloth tablecloths were dirty. As she gathered them up to take them home and wash them, she said she stopped and looked at the tablecloths again. In the quiet, in the solitude of that kitchen, she realized what a gift those dirty tablecloths were. They were evidence of caring and love and togetherness. They spoke of community. In the quiet of that place, those dirty tablecloths became the greatest of blessings.

    I pray that I will slow down and in solitude see the dirty tablecloths of blessings that are all around me.

    • Dana McGowan says:

      Patricia, What a wonderful and inspiring story. It’s like Dorothy Day who saw the image of God in each individual of the marginalized community in which she lived. I had the blessing of this awareness in several experiences in which I carry in my heart always.

  20. Sandra Dickau says:

    Thanks Ray for the reflective questions. There is lots to think about in these chapters. I am not dainty with books, I think the margins are they for a reason and mine are loaded with blue ink, smears and all.
    1) “Are there specific examples from these three essays of Henri’s changing attitude and simplifying language that touched you? Have you experienced similar changes in attitude on your spiritual journey?”
    Henri’s writings over the years (and I believe at this point in my 60’s I have read most of his books) took on a more accessible language as he moved from the cloistered academy to living 24/7 smack dab in the Larche community. He seems to have moved from ‘head’ to ‘heart’ and his writing reflects this in Henri’s lived experience leaking off the page. An example of this is on page 6 – “But you have to pray. You have to listen to the voice who calls you the beloved, because otherwise you will run around begging for affirmation, for praise, for success. And then you’re not free. Oh if we could sit for just half an hour … Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down.”
    Henri is speaking from his own personal experience, his language becomes more colloquial where the next 2 chapters were written out of experience in the academy in the 70’s and seem more ‘teachy’ and informational- should and oughts.

    I have absolutely experienced changes in my attitude on my spiritual journey – in my early years there were a lot of should, ought’s that I gleaned in books, retreats, conferences, the bible. I am married to a minister and in early years of walking along his ministry that manifested in a lot of right doing of stuff in community. I was burning out doing the right stuff- in a pretty right winged Baptist setting might I add. Over the decades as I grounded my being in small group community experience which I purposefully created I began to grow in a depth of spirtual maturity. Community is real people- as Henri says on page 7- “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives”. In small groups I started I invited all, not just the shiny people I liked. There is so much to say here but put simply t moving away from should and oughts to real grounding in solitude -in KNOWING I am loved, we are all loved so deeply by God changed how I approach kindom- (g left out on purpose) living.
    My spiritual formation will never end- this movement from child to mature adult will still be a work in my spirit when I am in my 90’s. Its a daily thing…

    • Ann Marie Hook says:

      I agree with your comment that our spiritual formation will never end. In many ways I feel I have hardly begun. Sometimes I compare my formation journey like an iceberg… The portion under the water is areas needing growth

      • Liz says:

        Thanks for putting the icy spin on our formation. So true that we are unveiled from our masks gradually. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. May all our icebergs reveal the true depths of God’s love.

  21. Ray Glennon says:

    Friends,

    We have had a number of people introduce themselves in the past 24 to 48 hours. Take a few minutes and and learn who has joined our Advent community. You can click on this link http://wp.henrinouwen.org/?p=1902 or use the Recent Posts link to the Nov 24th to Nov 27th Welcome and Introduction post in the top of the right hand column.

    And a warm welcome to those who have recently joined us. We’re glad you’re here.
    Ray

  22. Glyn Davies says:

    Two things struck a chord with me as I read these three chapters. First, when Henri writes in chapter one on page 3 about the correct order of doing things: solitude, community, ministry. How, when we strive on our own strength, we do it in reverse. To launch into any kind of ministry without personal prayer and Christian fellowship preceding it, is a recipe for burn-out. Ministries – especially those that minister to those on the margins, the sat upon and the spat upon – seem to be unable to stay for the long haul if there is no reaching out to God alone and then with others. They start in a blaze of glory and then dry up when initial successes turn to merely persevering. I can’t sustain the rejection of others and the sharing of their pain without the sustenance of God and the fellowship of a loving community – alone with God, just Him and me, and then the company of others. And that lets me know that when things do go well it wasn’t just down to me. If I’m asked to go out of my comfort zone then I need the Holy Spirit and a community.
    Second, on page 5 chapter one Henri writes that when we discover our belovedness by God we can see the belovedness of others and thus bring it out of them. Unless we are loved it is hard to love those who need love – we love because He first loved us. And it is hard to see the loving potential in others unless we know that God loves us. It’s not so much that we are loved. We have to KNOW that we are loved. When we know that in our bones, at our very centre, we can endure almost anything. And we can stay at the foot of the Cross with those who suffer instead of fleeing away from the pain and fear.

    • Liz Forest says:

      Thans Glyn, for your post about burn-out. I can surely relate towhat you said. You said,”They start in a blaze of glory and then dry up when initial successes turn to merely persevering. I can’t sustain the rejection of others and the sharing of their pain without the sustenance of God and the fellowship of a loving community – alone with God, just Him and me, and then the company of others. And that lets me know that when things do go well it wasn’t just down to me. If I’m asked to go out of my comfort zone then I need the Holy Spirit and a community.”
      Relying on my own power gets me two steps forward and one step backward!
      Prayer and ministry are linked. Ora et Labora as in Latin!

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