Dec 12th to Dec 18th: Third Week of Advent

7. Holding Ground (1987), p. 66 to 80
8. From Communion to Community: The Contemplative Journey (1991), p. 81 to 98
9. A Spirituality of Community (1992), p. 99 to 109

Once again, Henri’s words have sparked deep and insightful comments from many of you. We learn from each other and grown in our understanding when we freely share our various perspectives on the readings. I’m especially grateful for the warm and supportive dialogue that is occurring within our Advent community.

Our first reading this week is based on a talk Henri gave in March 1987, about six months after his arrival at Daybreak. As a committed Nouwen reader but non-expert, it seems to me that this trip to Honduras and the subsequent talk could have helped Henri bring closure to his Latin American experience as he began this next phase of his life in community. Perhaps Raphael became that transitional figure for Henri—a deeply handicapped young man from global south that was living in the same type of community that Henri had recently joined. Touched by Raphael and drawing on his lifetime love and study of scripture, Henri understood his mission in a new way—to hold his spiritual ground and “never to surrender to fear, to pray unceasingly, and to act faithfully by waiting for the Lord” (p. 68)—a universal mission that would guide him for the rest of his life.

The second and third readings were presented about thirteen months apart in 1991 and 1992 and can be seen as precursors to the talk we read in Chapter 1. By the time Henri gave these talks he had suffered and recovered from a severe emotional breakdown in late-1987 that had caused him to leave Daybreak for seven months for intensive psychological and spiritual treatment that ultimately led to the most fruitful period of his life. At the time of these talks Henri was finishing his spiritual classics The Return of the Prodigal Son and Life of the Beloved, both published in 1992.

In Chapter 8 we begin to see the fruits of that healing reflected in the reference to the gospel story from Luke, Chapter 6. Henri writes, “So communion, community, and ministry are places we want to be, but also where we experience great pain and great struggle.” (p. 82) Henri was deeply aware of that pain and struggle. In this chapter we first encounter Henri’s core spiritual insight that “this is what Jesus wants you and me to be, the beloved sons and daughters of God. . . it is only as the Beloved of God, as the beloved daughter, as the beloved son of God, that you might start to get an inking of what it means to live in community and minister.” (p. 85)

In Chapter 9 Henri challenges us recognize, “I’m not the difference that I make, but the sameness I share. . . . Our humanity, our basic identity is not so much rooted in where I am different. What we share or have in common is so much greater than our differences.” (p. 100-101) And what do we share? We are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Henri uses examples from life at L’Arche to show us how to live our shared humanity. We begin by claiming our humanity—it is through solitude and prayer that we enter into communion with God and we know we are beloved. We then reclaim our humanity by embracing our sameness and sharing our gifts and our poverty in community. Finally, we proclaim our shared humanity as we go out from community in service or ministry to those we encounter on our journey.

Reflection Questions:
a) In a comment last week Charles wrote, “I was drawn by the interweaving of Henri’s
writing. . .” and he mentioned several specific items. Are there threads in the readings this week that are interwoven with each other or those of earlier weeks in a way that touched your heart or gave you new insights? Please share.
b) This week, as in all of Henri’s writing, there are so many seemingly simply, yet profound, insights to ponder. Here are a few I underlined. If any of these “speak” to you, please share what you are hearing.
— Belonging to the world means dividing the world into those who are for you and those who are against you. Belonging to God means seeing the world as a world whose people are deeply and intimately loved and thus are truly brothers and sisters. Whatever we do, therefore, should be done with the universal compassion of God. (p. 72)
— We are not called to heroism, but to martyrdom. Heroism calls attention to ourselves. Martyrdom calls attention to God. (p. 79)
— It is really interesting to realize that every time in history that someone really lived in community with God, community happened around him or her. (p. 89)
— And so community is always a life of gratitude—it’s a eucharistic way or living, thanking people for their goodness. (p.92)
— That is the main movement of the gospel. It is not upward mobility, but downward mobility. That is, to become like others and discover in your sameness, in your solidarity, in your connectedness and your sense of belonging, to experience there, the joy, peace, the love, the sense of well-being. I think that’s very much what our communities are about. (p. 102)

As always, please share whatever touched your heart in the reading this week or during our Advent journey. We look forward to hearing from you.

On this Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday for many)—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

18 Replies to “Dec 12th to Dec 18th: Third Week of Advent”

  1. Friends,
    I was reflecting on our readings this week as my wife and I worked on a short talk we gave to the Worldwide Marriage Encounter group to which we belong and several ideas came together for me.

    In Chapter 9 Henri writes, “I am not the difference I make, but the sameness I share.” (p. 100) That is certainly true in a community, even more so in the intimate community that is a marriage. So often I will get irritated at minor areas where my wife and I see or do things differently and that can blind me to our sameness—that fact that we are the beloved son and daughter of God—and that we have been called by God into our marital community. What Henri writes about his life in L’Arche applies to our marriage, “the longer. . . we lived together I realized that the difference was really so very little compared to what we have in common.” (p. 101) Unfortunately, I also forget this far too often and need to ask for the forgiveness Henri mentions several pages later.

    When we discussed the idea of our sameness and our differences, my wife said she sees the same thing. However, my wife is much better than I am at looking past those differences to the many ways we are the same and how we love and care for each other (and we definitely do). She said when our differences start leading to irritability or frustration, she turns her attention to the many aspects of our relationship for which she is grateful. And our differences no longer seem as important to her. This “attitude of gratitude” was a timely reminder for me–and gratitude is a discipline that Henri emphasized in Chapter 5. He wrote, “Community is to be a eucharistic community. That means a community of thanks-giving. That is the core Christian attitude: gratitude. . . gratitude has to be carried out in the world in the world at every moment of our life. . .”

    Finally, Henri’s emphasis in Chapter 8 of the “second loneliness” touched my heart. He reminds us that no community, not even the (imperfect) love shared in a good marriage, can satisfy our deepest longing (for perfect love). “There is a second loneliness that you discover in community, that you discover in friendship, that you discover in marriage. . . . Could you consider claiming this second loneliness as a place that calls you into an always deeper communion? That way leads you back to the mountaintop to discover communion (my note: with God) at a new level, where there is new life for you. This is an important takeaway for me and one that I pray I will be disciplined enough to bring into the New Year and beyond.

    This comment has gotten too long. May each of you be blessed. And join us for the final week of our discussion starting on Sunday.


  2. Community can indeed be a challenge, but it a challenge willingly taken on when we remember our humanity and the gifts that we all bring to each other. As a person who enjoys his solitude and quiet, it can often be a challenge for me to find meaning in community right off the bat. Hence, taking the time to delve deeper into said community, whether that be family, friends, or work, and understanding people on deeper level. For example, I get annoyed with certain family members on a regular basis, but life with them is still a much more valuable and enjoyable experience than falling victim to loneliness. Knowing your heart and mind are key.

    1. Appreciate your comment, Christopher, and do believe also each of us knowing our hearts and minds is key to being able to take time to delve deeper into the communities we find ourselves in. Knowing our hearts and minds helps us to not give up on relationships prematurely and just end up with a community of people feeling badly about ourselves. The healing from that takes a lot of time and repentance and solitude and prayer, in my experience anyway. I think not feeling victimized by people or situations and apprehending that love does prevail strengthens our Souls.

      1. Absolutely, and I agree, that’s the essence of forming community. Being able to contribute our specific God-given gifts fully, and using them to better be fruitful, as Jesus says. And yes Sharon you are right… if we discern our community incorrectly, it can lead to all sorts of heartbreak and unnecessary distance from God. When we feel at peace, I think, genuinely, is when we know we’ve arrived safely.

  3. As Henri writes it’s very important that we dare to claim our sameness as the source of our humanity, of our identity. All of humanity may very well have a longing to be united to The divinity and humanity of God . We ,as Christians ,unite with Jesus and strive for communion . Now ,As Henri writes ,belonging to God means seeing the world as a world whose people are deeply and intimately loved and thus are truly brothers and sisters. Each of our Sonship and daughtership united with the others sonship and daughtership is where community happens.Our longing for joy ,peace, love , and sense of well being are met there . CS Lewis had a line in his sermon Weighted With Glory he said I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen . Not only beacause I see it but because by it I see everything else . It give’s explanatory light to everything else.I think this why when someone really lives in communion with God , community happens around them. Communion and community belong together . We belong together .We then find all human beings are part of our ( my) humanity. We discover what Thomas Merton discovered .An inner sense of belonging . Everybody is shining like the Sun. We have gratitude for everyone’s goodness which is well worth celebrating

  4. Henri Nouwen’s emphasis on downward mobility provides an overarching theme to a spiritual life. God comes down to us as one of us to live with us as Jesus. Jesus comes down to the margins to be with those whom society deems to be beyond. Jesus enters the agony and scandal of Crucifixion. He heads down into Jerusalem where the danger is. It’s the only way out – through the Cross. And part of this downward mobility is going deep into your own pain. James Baldwin said that the reason people kept on hating was that once they stopped hating they would have to deal with the pain. Job has to enter the very depths of his suffering before he has a personal encounter with God that shakes him to the core.

    But Henri offers a timely warning on page 68: “But unless we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the suffering we see will consume us.” Just like Peter walking on the waves to Jesus, there is the constant danger of being overwhelmed once we take our eyes off Jesus; overwhelmed by the suffering of others – and by our own. Unless suffering is redeemed then all it does is destroy which is why we keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus. His whole ministry was about healing – making whole that which the world had broken. Thankyou, Jesus.

    1. Hi Glyn,

      Thank you for the thoughtful reflection on our readings. I like your quote from Henri about keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and relating this to Peter’s walking on the waves and the ever present danger we all face of being overwhelmed.


  5. On page 73, Henri states: “Those who have lived for any length of time among the people of Central America in the Spirit of Jesus will readily acknowledge that they have received more than they could ever give. Often they became deeply aware of their own spiritual poverty when they saw the rich spiritual gifts that the poor offered them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22)”

    Twenty-five years ago I went on a Fulbright teacher trip to Eastern Europe to visit Holocaust sites and learn the history where it happened. We were travelers –not tourists. We stayed in stark hotels; most I would have probably never stayed at in the states. During the six weeks I was there, I came to know a teacher with the nickname “Boo.” She was somewhat of a fashionista. I often looked at her, wondering if Boo might be wishing she hadn’t come.

    One evening after dinner, we were talking about how very different our lives were from the people of Poland. As teachers, we made more money in a month than their teachers did in a year. That’s when Boo told of another earlier Fulbright trip to several countries in Africa that revealed to her what she needed to know. I will never forget what she said and paraphrase it here:

    “I had never left the United States before. The plane ride was long and gave me plenty of time to think about all I would see. I never expected to see myself staying in a place with dirt floors and chickens running down the hallway. We were told the water for showers was turned on once a week. I immediately told the director I was going home and need transportation from wherever we were back to the airport. I would pay the cost. He told me that was not possible and not ethical. There were other educators who had applied for my spot. I had an obligation to stay. I spent that night and cried, getting up the next morning determined to go back home. Six weeks later when it was time to leave Africa and return to the states, I cried because I had to leave. I most remember riding in a jeep for miles to reach a remote village –the terrain was stark. Obviously, drought had almost destroyed all vegetation. The huts of the people were small and simple. The villagers saw us coming and ran to welcome us. The joy on their faces made me feel more special than I’d ever felt before. Then I noticed it… In the middle of the village was a small table with a snow-white tablecloth –in the center was a clay pot filled with wildflowers. I was speechless at the love they showed us. I told our interpreter I wondered where the flowers came from? He asked. Early that morning, a group of the women had walked two hours to where they knew there might be flowers growing by a stream. They picked the flowers and then walked the two hours back. I still wonder where the tablecloth came from.”

    Boo continued: “I’ve never experienced such giving in my life as that I received from the people in those small, remote villages of Africa. It was not them that were to be pitied –it was me. They were much richer than we in the United States are despite what most believe. We value stuff, busyness, and ‘what’s next.’ We have forgotten and perhaps have never known the joy of emptying self to love others.”

    Henri saw and felt that love that Boo felt. The recurring theme that permeates his writing is love and embracing others as Christ’s beloved children who have much to teach us and even more to give us.

    1. Patrica,

      Thank you for sharing the moving story about Boo. Yes, as you say, we in the wealthier parts of the U.S. tend to “value stuff, busyness, and ‘what’s next.'” I have had similar experiences traveling in poorer areas of Mexico, including just across the border.

      Boo had a valuable learning experience, indeed. I am glad you shared it with all of us.


    2. Boo’s experience is a transformational one. We don’t really “get it” until we have a similar experience. Then we can become part of their community of joy and welcome. When we step on the down escalator, we transcend into the sameness of the weak and broken. Then we can celebrate! Thanks for sharing that wonderful story.

  6. When I read the word “martyrdom”, I also think of St. Paul, Oscar Romero, Rotilio Grande, and the 4 Maryknoll sisters. They were my ” heroes”. I believed that was the best way to die, doing the Lord’s work. I briefly contemplated doing missionary work years ago and just a few years ago, I sought to go on a Mary-knoll immersion trip walking in the shoes of Oscar Romero. The travel advisory level was 3 out of 4. My husband talked me out of it due to tourist crime.
    So what was my calling? I didn’t have to die. It was working with children with special needs and my classroom became my community. It was working with the severely disabled at Willowbrook institution. It was being with a gentleman in a hospital whose only movements was his blinking yes or no. I have seen the joy of the powerless, the broken, the marginalized and I felt gratitude and love in their presence. I needed to hear what Henri Noises wrote, that I’m not supposed to focus on saving the world because I feel that’s a great goal but focus on hearing His voice and seeing His face “as he walks with us on the road”.

  7. Chapter 7 Holding Ground (1987)
    Near the end of this section, I am confronted with the quote that Ray wisely emphasized, “We are not called to heroism, but to martyrdom. Heroism calls attention to ourselves. Martyrdom calls attention to God” (p. 79). This comes in Henri’s advice about how we are to discern our own “unique call to action.” Our culture (perhaps most cultures?), is more attuned to the hero, a John Wayne type who will saddle up and ride with gusto and guns blazing. Never mind the collateral damage or whether the hero approach will really accomplish a worthy goal. Indeed, it may make things much worse.

    The suffering Jesus and living in loving communities of solidarity with those who suffer, such as the Raphael’s of the world, is not the American hero-style approach. Nonetheless, Henri’s words and rationale prompt us to look at the reality of the world. A general understanding of history, it seems, will help us see the deficiencies in the hero-guns blazing approach (for example, the wars we have witnessed in our lifetimes). Moreover, a clear-eyed look at Jesus’ Gospel message will affirm Henri’s counter cultural wisdom.

    “Holding Ground” is a profoundly important essay.

  8. “A stay among the Christians of Central America can make us realize how our own fast and competitive society has become pervaded with fear, sorrow, violence, impatience, revenge, malice, lies, and licentiousness, and open our eyes to the fact that even in our own Christian communities the Spirit of Christ has often been extinguished and replaced by the spirit of the world.” (Pg. 69 in my Kindle edition).

    When I read those words my first thought was, “Nothing much as changed since the 80’s”. That could be understood as a discouraging word, but in the context of Henri’s insights of a God who comes to us with “downward mobility”, it may be more of a promise.

    Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.”. Might we understand this to mean that the Christ will always be there to meet us in the poor, in the suffering of those beaten down by the world, in the tears of those who sorrow? I can either lament the all pervading presence of the poor, or I can see the options I have to engage with the poor on a very human level as an opportunity to practice mercy and compassion and, just maybe, encounter Christ anew. I wonder if this is only possible when I truly see the depth of my own poverty and need. Then, and only then, might I encounter, befriend and walk with the poor as equals.

    I like that thought, but then wonder what I should do with the rich, the powerful, the arrogant, those sowing seeds of division and seeking only self-interest and a presumed “upward mobility”? Does a disciple have a second plan for responding to those folks?

    “Belonging to the world means dividing the world into those who are for you and those who are against you. Belonging to God means seeing the world as a world whose people are deeply and intimately loved and thus are truly brothers and sisters. Whatever we do, therefore, should be done with the universal compassion of God.” (p. 72)

    An author I’d recommend is Will Campbell, a self described “White Baptist preacher from the South.”. During the 50’s and 60’s when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was voicing a need for civil rights for all people, Will Campbell heard the truth in that, and as a white pastor in the south sided with the African American community. For that he was ostracized by the white community that had raised him, but embraced as an ally and friend of the black community. He writes of this in “Brother to a Dragonfly”. Years later he felt the tug of the Spirit asking him if he believed the love of God for all people, and the realization that if such was true, then God also loved the segregationist, the Klan member of the south. So he began to reach out to such people, practicing a ministry of reconciliation. For his efforts he found himself ostracized by many of his former friends and allies in the black community. This part of his journey he writes of in “Forty Acres and a Goat”.

    For someone like Campbell to walk such a path, I believe can only come from the grounding that Henri writes of so profoundly. Only in surrendering oneself to God in solitude, prayer and silence, and hearing the voice of the One call you beloved, only then might one find the strength to disengage from the agenda of the world and enter into that reality of “being in the world but not of it”. I imagine that it is a profoundly powerful place to be, and also a lonely one, lonely that is except for the voice reminding one that, “You are mine, and you are loved.”. Henri said it better than I can:

    “By speaking about prayer and action in response to the Central American reality, I have tried to restate concretely the Christian call to be in the world without belonging to it, to work for peace and justice while never losing touch with the One in whom we find our identity, to say “No” to the power of death while staying truly alive, to act courageously while praying confidently.“ (pg. 71 in my Kindle edition).

  9. “A gift becomes a real gift through the grateful eyes of the receiver.” p. 74 speaks to me of the mutuality of giver/receiver and this thought comes again, I cannot give what I have not received….

    And Henri affirms this as a “grateful receiver”, when he writes (p. 76) of the “small community hidden away” and being “struck by the power of the powerless”….”the little community looked like a little rose petal on a stormy sea”…”felt the power of love as I seldom feel it.”

    Honestly, I pray I will never see with the same eyes again! Even recognizing and accepting my own church community’s brokenness in this new light, ushers in a new way of being together and of God’s purpose for our life together..”Is it the Raphaels of this world in whose brokenness the compassionate Father recognizes His Son crucified for the salvation of humanity?”

    I have to share that as chair of my Church Life Commission, what I am receiving through reading and participating in this online offering, I pray fervently that Holy Spirit will reveal and be revealed in our gatherings in fresh, new ways and become a firmer/more visual “grounding” that guides what we say and do, and helps us to “hold ground”, with eyes fixed on Jesus.

    Discerning unique call to action (p. 79)….acting in the Name of Christ, together…”Christ and His Church can never be separated”…”that makes even our smallest action part of the great divine work of liberation.” I’m just so encouraged to begin anew…the visual of “the little rose petal on a stormy sea” and identifying “as a fellowship of the weak, held together by our Lord”….so humbled, so helped, so challenged, so grateful for the many specifics/truths Henri lifts out brings forward that undergird community….true gift of God!

  10. The Holding Ground chapter is so insightful and hopeful to me. The two questions I am reflecting on are the one about dividing people into two groups and then the last one on downward. It’s very painful and isolating to be involved in dividing people into two groups. What happened to me in my painful situation was that I was trying to advocate for inclusivity and reconciliation but I think that I am observing that Henri being vulnerable talks about fear and resentment and anger and impatience and all of these things he owns up to. Not making changes in maybe anyone else but himself? Remembering lots of failed attempts I had at communicating with others in the group I was in and the frustration of it all which Henri lists frustration too I think I recall. Upon reflecting about the people in his community who asked Henri if he read his own books, it can’t have been that they weren’t at a level to have discussions on dividing topics and the need for reconciliation but rather Henri and others in his community found ways to share about fear and resentment and anger and impatience and frustration and forgiving each other in this more downward way of coming to their sameness which sounds like it would have been more of a thing for the group I was in to do and led to community rather than the painful failure and actually total fragmentation of community and communion which we were experiencing. The one thing I got out of being with those people is that I am now more motivated to try to understand Henri Nouwen’s wisdom on these relationships between people and how they can be fruitful instead of harmful and losses. And actually not feel very Christian. I appreciate Henri’s quote on page 105 “You sometimes have to say, ‘People, you have to put up with me. I’m going to not change that terribly much. I will try, but I am likely going to be angry again.’ ‘And I know you may be the same towards me too. And I have to not try to force you to be different. I have to accept your limitations.’ Maybe since this kind of language has been modeled for me, in future situations I will be able to generate more effective participation in groups which can seem to be turning rancorous. Am benefitting very much from reading this book, in my opinion.

  11. The commentary on Henri’s book is brilliant so succinct and giving a great resume. I always felt going downwards was the way of Christ and I never heard it so well put before. I wish our religious had understood this in the past, exceptions existed of course. However, a great deal of harm was done and I count myself among the wounded. Thank you.

    1. Norma, I feel the same. There are so many good people who have nothing and yet give everything. These are the people I would want to be in community with, personally.

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