Reading: Letter IV—Jesus: The Descending God (p. 39 to p. 50)
In the gospel it’s quite obvious that Jesus chose the descending way.
He chose it not once but over and over again. At each critical
moment he deliberately sought the way downwards. (p. 44)
As several participants shared, last week’s letter “Jesus: The Compassionate God” was more difficult to discuss than the earlier letters, so it was not surprising that fewer comments were posted. That being said, the deeply personal experiences and insights that were provided greatly enriched our Lenten community. We are grateful both for those of you who have openly shared your thoughts and those that are following along in quietly.
This week, in “Letter IV—Jesus: The Descending God”, Henri writes about “the love of God made visible by Jesus in his life” (p. 40) which is “the great mystery of the Incarnation” (p. 41). As was mentioned in the Welcome post, when Henri wrote these letters he was discerning whether he was called to live in community with and to minister to the severely handicapped core members at L’Arche and their assistants. He was living in Trosly, France in the original L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier. Henri sees life at L’Arche as a possible way for him to live the descending way of Jesus highlighted in the quote above and sung in the early Christian hymn that St. Paul puts in to his Letter to the Philippians (p. 42). Henri explores this in his letter to Marc.
<Photo: Henri (right) on a street in Trosly, courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust>
Before we begin our reflections, there is something else that we must cover. In the beginning of this letter, Henri writes admiringly of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier and Vanier’s spiritual counselor French Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe. Henri was deeply influenced by both men as made his transition from the “‘ascending’ style of the university to the ‘descending’ style of L’Arche.” In June 2014, L’Arche leadership and the Catholic Church received testimonies from two women denouncing serious sexual misconduct by Father Thomas. This resulted in a canonical inquiry that confirmed in March 2015 the validity of these testimonies “which speak of Père Thomas’ seriously inappropriate sexual gestures during spiritual accompaniment.” Further, on February 22, 2020, L’Arche published the results of an independent inquiry into similar behavior by Jean Vanier. It was found that Vanier had coercive, nonconsensual and abusive sexual encounters with at least six adult women. Regrettably, both Phillipe and Vanier used false so-called “religious” beliefs that had been condemned by the Catholic Church to justify their sexual abuse of women. [The enquiry made no suggestion that Vanier or Philippe had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.] The L’Arche statement can be read here. As the leaders of L’Arche International wrote, “We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions. . . ” With respect to Henri Nouwen, it is important to note that nothing has been identified in Nouwen’s published or unpublished or works indicating that he had any awareness of the totally inappropriate and abusive practices and actions of Vanier and Philippe.
Now let’s turn to our discussion. As always, you are encouraged to share whatever touched your heart in the readings. The excerpts and questions that follow may prompt your reflection.
- (I)ncreasing prosperity has not made people more friendly toward one another. They’re better off, but that new-found wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community. . . . people are more preoccupied by with themselves and have less time for one another. . . (p. 42-43)
This was Henri’s observation in 1986. What would he say today? Does this ring true for you and people you encounter in our world today? What might we do about it?
- And the question that perhaps lies hidden most deeply in many hearts is the question of love. “Who really cares about me? Not about my money, my contacts, my reputation, or my popularity, but just me? (p. 43)
Here we see Henri moving toward his great insight that, like Jesus, we are all God’s beloved. Is this question more pressing in our society today than it was in 1986? Why is that so? Has this question arisen in your life and how did you respond?
- For Jesus’ way is God’s way, and God’s way is not for Jesus only, but for everyone who is truly seeking God. Here we come up against the hard truth that the descending way of Jesus is also the way for us to find God. (p. 45)
As a Secular Franciscan this excerpt speaks to me. Jesus made himself poor by descending into humanity. St. Francis of Assisi committed himself to live a life of gospel poverty as the best way to follow the descending way of Jesus and he instructed his followers to do the same.
Henri then writes, Each one of us has to seek out his or her own descending way of love. (p.47)
Where have you encountered the descending way of Jesus on your spiritual journey? How did you respond? What steps might you take in the future as a result of these reflections?
This is another rich and challenging letter and we look forward to reading many of your reflections during the coming week.
May you and yours be richly blessed as we continue our Lenten journey.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. com
P.S. I asked Nouwen scholar Gabrielle Earnshaw to review the paragraph about Henri’s knowledge of Vanier’s and Philippe’s abusive behavior. The text has been slightly updated to incorporate her feedback, with no change to the conclusion that there is nothing in Henri’s published or unpublished work indicating any awareness of these behaviors.