Dec 19th to Dec 25th: Fourth Week of Advent & Christmas

10. From a Heart of Stone to a Heart of Flesh: Conversion and Community (1995), p. 110

We’ve reached the final week of our Advent book discussion of Community. I want to begin by thanking everyone who has joined our community for this spirit-filled and fruitful journey—those posting comments and those reading and reflecting silently.

When preparing the reading schedule earlier this fall, I decided that in these hectic final days before Christmas we should limit ourselves to just one chapter. Little did I know then that Chapter 10, written nine months before his death, was a distillation of Henri’s wisdom and insights about living a spiritual life. For me, this chapter is one of Henri Nouwen’s most meaningful writings.

In these few pages, Henri calls us to daily conversion and then he shows us the way. He integrates his deep understanding of our human condition that was honed during his years of study and teaching with his life in an “intentional community” (p. 130) at L’Arche Daybreak. Henri’s time at L’Arche included his emotional breakdown in December 1987 followed by seven months of emotional and spiritual counseling, a near fatal accident where he was hit by a car while walking on an icy street, and almost a decade as a beloved pastor where he found the home he had been seeking. It is from this lived experience that Henri derives his profound spiritual insights and the practical roadmap to the spiritual life described in this chapter. You are encouraged to re-read pages xi to xii in the Foreword for Robert Ellsberg’s excellent summary.

This chapter contains so much to ponder that I am reluctant to identify specific text excerpts that were meaningful to me. You might consider the following questions.
Reflection Questions:
a) In what ways do Henri’s reflections on the need for conversion of our hardened heart, developing a heart of flesh through life in community, and the disciplines of community provide insights into your life?
b) What specific steps do you feel called to take in the new year to address the constant need of conversion from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh described by Henri?

As always, we look forward to hearing from many of you. You may respond to the reflection questions or share whatever is on your heart—from the reading this week or throughout our Advent journey. Once again, thank you for joining for our Advent book discussion. It has been a great blessing to share this journey with you.

The Henri Nouwen Society and I want to wish you and yours a blessed and joyous Christmas. May the peace of the Lord be with you this Christmas and throughout the year.


20 Replies to “Dec 19th to Dec 25th: Fourth Week of Advent & Christmas”

  1. One of the most important themes in the last part of the book was Henri’s advocacy of spending time with the poor in order to gain a genuine sense of knowledge of God in community. As a Catholic, much of my youth was spent saying a lot rather than doing and participating. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that seeking out the poor, be they in spirit or otherwise, is a profound ways to both help a fellow member of our global community, but also to help ourselves understand the difficulties of others, as well as a deeper knowledge of God in our own struggles. We raise each other up. It is very hard to do that in personal isolation.

  2. It is Christmas Eve and we’ve come to the end of our Advent book discussion. (Of course, if you still have comments, please make them. They will be posted.)

    I’d like to close with a reflection from my perspective as a member of the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS)–a branch of the Franciscans comprised of laity and clergy in the secular state committed to following Jesus in the footsteps of St. Francis.

    Although Henri Nouwen was not a Secular Franciscan, he wrote that St. Francis of Assisi was his favorite saint. (The Road to Daybreak, p. 9). There is strong evidence of the Franciscan charism in our reading this week. It begins in the first sentence, “I want to speak about the constant need of conversion that we have in life.” This echos the call to daily conversion found in the OFS Rule, “…let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls ‘conversion.’ Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.” (Rule, Article 7)

    Christmas was St. Francis’ favorite feast. According to Franciscan scholar William Short, OFM, “What impressed Francis so deeply about the feast of Christ’s birth was its simplicity, humility, and poverty. In many ways Christmas helped to form Francis’ notion of god is. . . . the divine Word chooses poverty voluntarily as a form of life.” (Poverty and Joy, p. 41-2) These same themes permeate Henri’s writing, especially this week.

    There is another important connection between the Franciscan understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus and the Feast of Christmas and the writing of Henri Nouwen. It is a central to Franciscan theology that the incarnation 0f God’s Word, the Son, Jesus, is the supreme expression of God’s love. It is the highest good and the correction of the sin of Adam and Eve was a ‘lesser good.” From all eternity, it was God’s intent that Jesus would enter into God’s creation as a human, whether or not Adam and Eve had ever sinned. Said another way, if Adam had not sinned, Jesus would still have come. but would not have come as Redeemer. This is at the heart of Henri’s understanding that, like Jesus, we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Henri writes, and this is really important (and Franciscan), “Jesus became human precisely to help us claim our humanity as our greatest gift.” (p. 119) This is why Henri can write, “I believe that the real joy is not in being different but in being the same. That’s an enormous spiritual truth. To rejoice in being human.” (p. 119) And why do we rejoice in being human? Once again, here’s Henri: “Although I might not feel so good about myself all the time, basically I know in a very deep way that I am the beloved daughter and beloved son of God. I know that I am well in the deepest part of myself. I am a good person because God has created me. So I will live according to that truth.” (p. 117)

    May the firm knowledge and belief that you are God’s beloved enter your heart this Christmas and remain with you forever. And as St. Francis said to those he met, “May the Lord (the Prince of Peace) give you peace.”

    Thanks for joining our Advent journey.

    1. Thank you, Ray, for bringing it altogether for us, Henri Nouwen’s wisdom and lifetime gaining spiritual insights and St. Francis and Franciscan wisdom and lifetimes gaining spiritual insights, the importance of ongoing conversions for each of us, being so inter-related and knowing deeply God is our True Home—Food for the journey. Peace and all good.

    2. I also thank you, Ray, for leading us. Your words have helped me to more fully understand Henri and I have appreciated learning a bit more about the Secular Franciscans. Happy New Year to you..

  3. In his daily meditations from yesterday, Richard Rohr includes quotes from author and poet Kathleen Norris that address many of the points raised by Henri in this last chapter. These include the need to be “attentive,” our weaknesses and “poverty,” and [from Isaiah (62:1–5)] that we are the “beloved of God.” I include below a few excerpts that seem to resonate so well with some of Henri’s key points from chapter 10.

    “It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we do accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Our sacrifices may be great. But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas.”

    “[At Christmas] we are asked to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness. We are asked to be attentive, and keep vigil for the light of Christ. . . . We, and our world, are broken. Even our homes have become places of physical and psychological violence. It is only God, through Jesus Christ, who can make us whole again.”

    “The prophecy of Isaiah [62:1–5] allows us to imagine a time when God’s promise will be fulfilled, and we will no longer be desolate, or forsaken, but found, and beloved of God. We find a note of hope also in the Gospel of Matthew [1:1–17]. In the long list of Jesus’ forebears, we find the whole range of humanity: not only God’s faithful, but adulterers, murderers, rebels, conspirators, transgressors of all sorts, both the fearful and the bold. And yet God’s purpose is not thwarted. In Jesus Christ, God turns even human dysfunction to the good.

    “The genealogy of Jesus reveals that God chooses to work with us as we are, using our weaknesses, even more than our strengths, to fulfill the divine purpose. . . . In a world as cold and cruel and unjust as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth in a stable, we desire something better. And in desiring it, we come to believe that it is possible. We await its coming in hope.”

    Kathleen Norris, “Christmas Eve Vigil” in God with Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, ed. Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolf (Paraclete Press: 2007), 121, 122–123. As cited in Richard Rohr’s meditations for December 22, 2021.

    FYI: On his podcasts, I have heard Richard Rohr praise Henri Nouwen and acknowledge his significant influence on his own work

  4. Friends,
    Throughout our Advent journey there were numerous places where Henri described his understanding of community, often in the form “Community is. . .” If someone was asked to give a presentation on Henri Nouwen and community, the following excerpts might be a good place to begin. Of course, these quotes are mere pointers to the richness of Henri’s insights that we have encountered as we read Community.

    Community is a gift of the Spirit which can express itself in many different ways: in silence as well as in words, in listening as well as in speaking, in living together as well as in solitary life, and in many ways of worship. 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, 1977)

    Community is not a human creation but a divine gift which calls for an obedient response. This response may require much patience and humility, much listening and speaking, much confrontation and self-examination, but it should always be an obedient response to a bond which is given and not made. (p. 34-5, 1978)

    In community, the unique talents of the individual members become like the little stones that form a great mosaic. The fact that the little piece of gold is part of a brilliant mural makes it that much more important since it is now an essential part of a bigger picture. When this becomes clear, then our dominant attitude toward each other’s gifts becomes gratitude. (p. 45, 1978)

    Community is the place of prayer and resistance. Prayer and resistance are not just individual heroic acts. I am doing this and I am doing that. Prayer and resistance meet in community. The Christian community is the place where peacemaking becomes visible, where the peace itself becomes present. (p. 54, 1982)

    So community, dear friends, is the place of intimacy, the place of fruitfulness, the place of celebration. . . . (Y)ou are being called, just as I am, to form community, whether it is in your parish, your family, among friends—wherever we are being called to live our life as Christians. (p. 64, 1987)

    The Christian community is a community in which we keep reminding each other of the first love (i.e., God’s love), while not replacing it. Marriage is precisely a relationship where two people are together and get to point each other constantly to a surrounding love that is greater than either of them can hold. That’s also what friendship is about. (p. 92, 1991)

    Community is a place where we are constantly called to lift up each other’s gifts. Not each other’s unique talents, but precisely these gifts of friendship, of peace, of joy, of pain, of sorrow that we have experienced together. (p. 106, 1992)

    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, 1993)

    Community is saying, first of all, that we are people, children of God, loved by God, and chosen by God. That is at the center of the whole vision for L’Arche communities. (p. 117, 1995)

    (T)he Gospel is saying, all the great saints are saying, and the whole Christian position is saying, and all that L’Arche is about is saying, is that real joy comes not from being different, but from being the same. (p. 119, 1995)

    The heart of flesh is characterized not by self-rejection but by self-acceptance. Not by competition but by compassion. Not by productivity but by fruitfulness. That is what creates community. (p. 125, 1995)

  5. Like others who have already posted this week I’ve been very appreciative of the opportunity to read and share this Advent season. This has been a very insightful book for me, one which I will return to often to read and reflect. Let me add my thanks to Ray and the Nouwen community for making this study possible.

    As Henri diagnosed the challenges to community found in our culture, the hard hearts of self-rejection, competition and a need to “be productive” I recognized aspects of my own motivations from earlier chapters of my life. The common thread of all such moments is the tendency to listen to the voices of others and crowd out the voice of God. It is a bitter fruit that always grows from such a “hard heart”. I will say that such a fruit can be a place where the Gospel can be heard. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saves a ‘wretch like me’”. The word of grace and the conversion that grows from it can be quite dramatic for one stuck in a diminished image of his/her own self. But such a conversion is only a catalyst to another, deeper conversion that awaits.

    It is not that I might always compare myself to Jesus, the ideal of what it means to be human. Such a comparison can, at least for the short term, be helpful and motivating. However comparing myself to Jesus starts in the wrong place. The Good News of our faith is not that I should want to be liked Jesus, but that God, in Christ, wanted to be like me. The downward movement of the incarnation affirms my own humanity. Not only in those places where I am strong, skilled and (dare I say it) “proud” of who I am, but in those places where I am vulnerable, weak, and “common”. It is that insight I appreciate most from the witness of Henri Nouwen.

    The quote from this chapter that sticks with me is found on page 99. “So now what an enormous, important spiritual journey it is when we discover that where our healing begins is where joy is rooted.“. Thank you again, all of you who have shard this journey this past month. As you enter into worship in a few days, contemplating again the amazing story of the miracle of God entering our human story, may you know a deep and abiding Christmas joy!

    1. And thank you, Sherman, for your thoughtful reflections on Henri’s penetrating insights regarding community.

  6. Chapter 10 was an excellent reading to end our Advent musings. Written only months prior to his death, it seems to capture essential elements from his years of work and thinking. As Ray noted, this presentation on conversion in community life provides a fine a “distillation of Henri’s wisdom and insights about living a spiritual life.” These pages give Henri Nouwen followers an exceptional look into his profound lifetime of thinking about how to apply the teachings of Jesus in our lives.

    This has been a busier time than I anticipated; therefore, without taking the time to put this in a more coherent order, here are a few thoughts about key sections that caught my attention.

    Three ways in which our hearts become hardened (pp. 111-117). As we age (I am 73), I am inclined to think that we may grow out of (or at least be less susceptible to) some of these. As I think over my life, the competitive nature becomes less of a danger, though I think Henri is correct that the tendency to compare and struggle to emerge on top can be corrosive. Indeed, I think the hyper-individualism of our society, which I see as part of this danger, has become much worse in recent years.

    On the other hand, I see some of those in my generation and older who become more inclined to self-rejection. Perhaps self-rejection is most likely in those who are young and struggling for recognition and foundering over self-identification as well as the older generation. Regarding the latter, I have seen highly successful academics who, after retirement, fall into the self-rejection tendencies that Henri describes. So far, my part-time work, grandkids, and volunteering has kept me plenty busy and affirmed by others. Nevertheless, Henri’s insight that it becomes difficult to follow Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” when we are not satisfied with ourself (see p. 112).

    His discussion about how we define “productivity” is important. Again, in my earlier years I was probably much more concerned about productivity as measured by “tangible results,” such as a better job and pay, recognition by “important people,” a nicer car, etc. Not that I have totally transcended such thoughts! But I don’t think this is as important as it once was when I was younger.

    The Gospel and Community (pp. 117-118). “The whole Christian message is to say that we are interested in community…” not “the way of life of competitiveness and productivity.” Although much of this particular message is directed at smaller communities, such as L’Arche, it obviously has a more expansive impact. As he notes: “If you combine self-rejection, competitiveness, and greed, and compulsive productivity on an international scene, then conflict and wars are the result.” Our world today, would be a much safer place if each of us, including world, state and local leaders, would see that we are the beloved child of God.

    The Gospel, Compassion, and Community (pp. 118-121). These insights from Henri: “The basic call in life is not to cure. Why not? Because you are going to die anyway at some point or other. Curing is not the great event. The great event is caring. Caring is compassion.” This reminded me of a comment I heard on a Kate Bowler podcast. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and was facing difficult treatments. I believe she had asked a colleague at Duke University for prayers in relation to her illness. His response was something like this: “miracles are only temporary.” Even if we are “cured,” that will only be temporary. We all have the same end, part of that “sameness” we share with the rest of humanity. As Henri says, “Jesus became human precisely to help us claim our humanity as our greatest gift” (p. 119).

    There is also much in the remaining pages, especially regarding disciplines in a community, that I found penetrating to me as well. Also, I need to focus more on Ray’s reflection questions. I will try to get to those items later.

    Happy fourth week of Advent to all!

  7. The last two years have been relentless. As if the pandemic wasn’t enough there has been so much bereavement and illness and loneliness. But God takes a curse from Satan and turns it into a blessing. If you can’t go out then you have go inwards, deeper and deeper, until you encounter His presence. The journey of faith no longer takes us up mountains but becomes more like pot-holing into deep, silent caverns. It fits well into Advent – weariness becomes waiting, chaos turns into stillness, a light breaks into the darkness.

    Henri Nouwen brings it altogether in this final chapter. If you take the example of Mary and Martha, up until now Henri has been all Mary – the better part – very spiritual, ethereal, almost abstract in his pronouncements. Now he is Mary and Martha combined: spiritual and practical, doing as well as being, heavenly-minded but grounded.

    There are several things that linger with me after reading this chapter. On page 120: “The beauty is we are not called to fix each other and cure each other but to be together and trust that in being together as brothers and sisters, we heal each other.” Healing is not just curing although it often involves curing. Someone is cured of a deadly illness and they are healed. Another is not cured but can face their future with a deep peace. Is that not also healing? And healing works both ways as Henri observes. We heal each other. The channel of God’s healing love is also healed by that love simply passing through to another person. And the fact is that not everyone is going to be “fixed”, at least not in this life. Some will return to the streets. Some will keep falling off the wagon. Illnesses come back. Like Henri says, It’s not about being productive but about being fruitful. The act of loving is more important than the result. Leave the latter to God.

    The steps I need to take in this new year are to return to those on the margins as long as God keeps me healthy. These last two years have been awful as change and Covid brought so much to shuddering halt. This is a new season but when the community you were in got broken up it breaks your heart. Please Lord guide me to where you want me to serve you.

    I have really enjoyed this book and the group. It’s the first one I have been in!
    As we say in Wales – Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! Merry Christmas and a good new year! Blessings.

    1. Glyn,
      Your reflections are most helpful to me in getting even more out of these readings. For example, I like your comment about Henri becoming both Mary and Martha, “spiritual and practical, doing as well as being, heavenly minded but grounded.”

      It does, indeed, seem that his thinking over the years reached profound insights as he neared his death.

    2. I, too, am drawn to your insights Glyn…

      First, during Advent a theme song for my church community has been “Solemn Stillness, Weary Streets”., text and music written by Christopher & Maria Clymer Kurtz….Must I say more…

      And, combining Mary/Martha has been a thought this past week for me personally as I have work to help my church community offer a Christmas Day meal for the larger community that we are part of. For me….my “Mary” ways propelling me into “Martha” ways..must I say more….

      And I must share, that this past Sunday’s worship within church community took on a much deeper, deeper meaning as Mitch, who struggles with Parkinson’s, led us in worship. I think we were all drawn together in a much deeper, “healing” communion. Must I say more…..

      Truly, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 ESV

      So grateful……God bless each and everyone.

  8. This has been a great book to read and I think I will be re-reading for quite a while as I try to make changes in my life and seek on-going conversions. I am in a community where there is a lot of corporate prayer but also another community which I am struggling with where corporate prayer is downplayed. I am not the sort of person who can start something or become a leader or anything but still the wisdom of Henri Nouwen seems to speak to me as to constructive things I can do to be more fruitful in the second community. “Somewhere as a community, you have to claim your unique corporate spiritual identity. You have to keep renewing that.” Page 128. “How can we keep renewing our corporate sense of being God’s beloved body?” Page 129. “Sometimes there are hard things to say when you gather. ‘It’s hard for me to keep lovinghandicapped people. It’s very difficult for me, but I just want to confess that and bring it here.’ Or you might say, ‘I just had a meeting yesterday, and something happened that suddenly gives me life.’ And that’s not just good for you, but it’s good for others to hear about that. You have to announce to each other on a regular basis, on a weekly or daily basis, the little graces that God brings to you and to share them with each other. That way you can see together that there is something happening here. And we recognize that, and it is beautiful. So the prayer life onone hand is solitude, stopping, being alone. On the other hand, to keep coming together as a body to nurture your life together.” Page 129. All of this was meaningful to me and gives me hope and aspiration to actually be a more fruitful participant to the second community—practice more prayer in solitude, being more attentive to the small moments when I am gathered with them and especially be more intentional about expressing my feelings in an honest and vulnerable way, not placing responsibility on anyone else, trying to be truthful to myself, God and them in this way Henri Nouwen models, not expecting it will be easy but trusting in the wisdom he is trying to bring us that this will lead us to more peaceful and compassionate and deeper Christian communities somehow we find ourselves in, the communities God calls us to participate in and actually everybody become change agents in or something. In this Advent season of hope, love, peace and joy, and also repentance, I think I have more Hope now. Thank you, Ray, and all of you and especially St. Henri Nouwen who continues to speak and teach us in a very meaningful and relevant way as we struggle with the adversities in our stressfull lives. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    1. Sharon,
      I like your reflections on the issues of corporate prayer and spiritual identity along with solitude. I too will be rereading sections of this book, and among those areas are Henri’s thoughts about disciplines in a community, including “prayer as a place where it becomes possible to get in touch with your belatedness,” solitude, corporate prayer in a community, and going to “places of poverty.”

  9. I thank you, too, Kate, for taking time to post. We are with our daughter and son-in-law and two small grandsons after two years of pandemic separation and Kris’s parents died a few years ago. I am finding I need some early morning solitude time each day because my heart is so much on praying that Sofia and Karol are interceding with Jesus that He will especially be watching over and guiding our family, these little children that need all their family in their lives so much. It is comforting to be with others coming closer to Jesus, Kate.

  10. Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to post. Those of us who have lost our fathers can certainly understand. It is surely in God‘s provision that you have been a part of this online community and know the truthfulness of Henri’s words that you are God’s beloved daughter.

  11. Thank you. I just lost my father and this season has been such a time of peace for me as I have been given such a gift from God about the true meaning of advent that each yr I had wanted to make time to reflect on but now this yr finally I am able to.

    1. Kate,
      I’m sorry to hear about your loss. May our heavenly Father welcome your father home and may the Lord give you peace.

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