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.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. –Saint Mother Teresa
This quote reminds me that we are all connected, even those whom we might have come to view in a negative light, like Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Philippe. We can be deeply disappointed by the behavior of others but we remain connected.
I think the descending way takes me there, to connect to others, to serve others, to sit aside my judgment and simply do what has been placed in front of me.
I’m not as successful at that as I would like to be but I try. I think that’s what is expected of me, to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the path in front of me.
I have the same experience as some others, that is, that Covid stopped my volunteer work. Since my adult daughter has an autoimmune disorder and I am older than 65, I felt like I needed to protect myself as much as possible. I followed the strictest of CDC guidelines and have isolated myself a great deal in the last 2 years. If I was still working, I would not have been able to do that. But, I have paid a price for that isolation. I have only attended church on-line for two years. Today Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion (see CAC.org, daily meditations for more detail) was titled ‘Fear is Contraction.’ I would say that the fear of getting COVID really contracted my life and caused me to avoid others. My world became very small and my usefulness became very little. I have joined an on-line Centering Prayer Group this year and continue to practice Centering Prayer although I am a beginner. I love how Henri Nouwen speaks of ‘having to walk through the weeds’ to get to our core. I have a lot of weeds. Now that Covid is becoming more endemic, rather than pandemic, I am planning to return to church and find my new descending path to walk with others in their suffering. I am a Methodist so I am trying to more deeply understand what Henri Nouwen is saying about the Eucharist. In the Methodist Church, the first Sunday in the Month is Communion Sunday. I hope to return to church for the 1st time in 2 years next Sunday and partake of Communion and meditate on the idea of Jesus descending. These are my scattered thoughts. 🙂
My experience resonates with your journey through loss of usefulness and service. As a result of the pandemic, I joined a Methodist church. The nondenominational church I belonged to was not taking the pandemic, nor my ministry calling, or ministry in general seriously. You are not alone in this journey. Many like you and myself have begun to wrestle with the comforts of separation. I find irritability with the disappointments of people’s tendencies comes quicker than before.
As I read this chapter, I wondered, where can I go that is comparable to the descending journey Henri took when he went to L’Arche? I have been praying and seeking God’s direction for a place to find Jesus among community. I dare not fill time up with some volunteer position that is intended for another person, yet I do not know if I can wait much longer. It is a difficult place, to discern being stuck from being still.
The point is that in seeking, we are still journeying.
I am interested in finding an online prayer group. May you be blessed in every step of your journey.
Sherieta, I just now saw your comment. It’s always good to know that someone has similar experiences. I LOVE where you said ‘to discern being stuck from being still.’ Even though I have been ‘stuck’ at home a good bit, by choice, during the pandemic, I have learned to be more ‘still.’ You’re right…being ‘still’ is part of the journey. May God bless you on your journey.
Question #3 A retiree, I was hoping to find a way to get closer to Jesus through volunteer work. The Covid-19 pandemic put an abrupt halt to everything. I personally wonder if that is what it was supposed to do. I struggle with how to help family and friends who are drowning in the madness of this very secular culture. I have been leading a very isolated life this past six months , once again, as my age and health history puts me at risk of not surviving Covid19. Daily prayer practices at home, the occasional Mass online has been my way of life. On page 49 when Henri writes, “If you yourself are seriously searching for the specific way you must walk to follow Jesus, then I beg you not to do so on your own, but within a eucharistic community” was a sign on the path for me, as I struggle with discerning which way. It was as though he was writing that to me personally. I am grateful that I can now return to the Sacraments and Mass.
The section of this this week’s chapter that was most challenging to me was in the next to last paragraph on page 47: “The descending way is the way that is concealed in each person’s heart. But because it is so seldom walked on, it is often over grown with weeds. Slowly but surely we have to clear the weeds, open the way and se out on it unafraid”
Henri lays out his own process, focused on prayer, that he follows to help him clear the weeds in his own life. He also lays out some very instructive words on page 49 about not following this path on our own but by experiencing the eucharist in a faith community setting.
Both of these thoughts have been very much on my mind recently due personal circumstances so they are very challenging words to consider.
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?
While attending Just Faith in 2006, I first learned about Social Justice workings within the Catholic Church and through the programs Immersion experiences learned the difference between ‘doing for’ people in need and simply ‘being with’ them in solidarity. On one such experience we joined a farmworkers march from Burlington to Mt. Vernon after a day spent touring the farmworker housing. At the end of the tour, the guide pointed to the shack that he lived in when he first came to America, stating that he was currently a legal citizen who’d put his children through college. I reminisced living in a shack myself, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as moving to that area and finding work was difficult. I actually started out working in a greenhouse harvesting Boc Choy, so really not that far off from the farmworkers experience, although worlds apart.
I loved that shack and came to it after having read an article about a family that spent the summer in a campground while the husband commuted back and forth to work. I figured if a family could do it, why couldn’t my boyfriend and I? He’d grown up in poverty and had for a time actually lived in a lean-to in the woods so while adept, he wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea but was enamored with me. We later married in that campground. While there, the basics took up most of our time and life was very simple. It used to be common for couples to reminisce fondly of the early days and how lovely they were even though they were lived out in abject poverty. I wonder if that holds true today.
As I near the end of my working years, I hope move closer toward that simpler life and create within it, the space to be of service to others.
I was taken aback by the crimes of the 2 men associated with L’Arche. It really upset me because these men brought suffering onto innocent victims. With that off my chest, I’d like to share my experiences with persons having physical or developmental disabilities. Like Nouwen who found joy and gratitude in the poor in Peru, many of the children and adults in the special programs I worked in, gave me such unconditional love. I was so happy and content more than anywhere else, in my little classroom with Catherine tugging on my shirt for chocolate, Miriam calm in her favorite blanket, and Michael’s and Christopher’s smiles with each small success. I felt my true self in the company of Alice, and Bob and others released from an historic and inhumane institution. “Upward mobility” as Nouwen called it, was forever out of my life.
Thank you for your frank and honest reply to the information about the sexual abuse of women perpetrated by Fr. Thomas Philippe and Jean Vanier. It is a deeply regrettable chapter in the lifegiving story of L’Arche International, an organization of people with and without intellectual disabilities, sharing life in communities.
For the people of L’Arche, and as it should be for all of us, mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our life journey. L’Arche celebrates the unique value of every person and recognises our need of one another. These values of L’Arche certainly influenced and are clearly evident in the life and writing of Henri Nouwen.
May the Lord give us peace.
Often, when I close my eyes to pray, and I sometimes expect that prayer will somehow eventually elevate me to a plane of less suffering. What Nouwen is saying in Letter IV is quite the opposite. To descend into poverty and into the darker parts of the world is tough on its own, but doing so on a mission from God to help, so to speak, takes even more resolve. We could all stand to be a bit more grateful for what we have, as well as willing to share with those who have nothing.
1. (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)
A. These observations may be more true today than they were in 1986. The rise of the internet and people spending so much time online, which has the appearance of connection, but is so ephemeral that one false move and poof!….that connection is gone.
1. COVID has brought on new challenges. My pastor was insistent that our church begin to meet in person once again as soon as it was safe to do so. Since my husband has a chronic disease that affects his immune system and we take care of his 97 year-old mother, I felt that I had to keep fighting for the church to continue an online presence so I could maintain connections with my church family.
2. 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)
A. Fr. Nouwen’s insight was brilliant. My needs are so great that no person can be my rock. I have to rely on Jesus to listen and care for me. It took me a long, long, time (30 years!) to finally accept that reality.
3. 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)
A. The descending way found me. My 17 year-old son died by suicide in 2017. As a result, I had to leave my rewarding (ego and monetarily) job and move to my husband’s hometown. After a year of not finding employment in my profession, I gave up and realized that my life was now taking care of my husband’s elderly mother, who has dementia, and is combative, which is challenging. It has taken me almost four years to fully come to accept my new life. I relate so much to this particular letter.
I have to say, the ‘Descending’ path of Jesus was a new, although perfectly obvious concept for me. I can see it plainly though. I have always believed and felt in my heart that Jesus is a very personal God. But I always felt that I was lacking because I could not leave everything and follow; relating with the young man in the gospel who Jesus asked this of. But I knew I could do other things based on works of mercy and prayer as an alternative, not realizing that that was my heart’s ‘Descending’ path. The most precious of these works has been volunteering in our local Catholic Charity’s Infant Supply closet helping needy parents provide for their young children. The joy I found in helping there was unmeasurable. Unfortunately, as I am elderly, when Covid hit, I stopped volunteering. Now, as a result of these readings, I am restarting in this ministry again – Tomorrow.
Hi Kathleen! I agree! It’s a concept that’s right in front of our noses as children of God, yet we rarely see the positives in putting ourselves in that position voluntarily.
Hi. Same here. My volunteerism came to a screeching halt with Covid. It became easy for me to stay home and be complacent. You remind me to get back to helping others who don’t realize how much they’re helping me.
Hope it’s able to pick back up soon!
The 3rd question occupies me the most. I appreciate Henri Nouwen writing “The descending way is a way that is concealed in each person’s heart. But because it is so seldom walked on, it is often overgrown with weeds. Slowly but surely we have to clear the weeds, open the way, and set out on it unafraid.” I was avoiding so much conflicts in my heart that I eventually had a breakdown. Paradoxically, working through that has led me to see that I have sort of a call from God and I sort of feel more united with Jesus in that I want to be more focused like him in doing his Father’s Will and less distracted by values and priorities in our world that I recognize now as being pretty weedy. Really, I believe the descending way has been evidenced all along, the heroic heroes in the Jewish scriptures, the prophets, the early Christians facing all the persecution, the desert Fathers, all the monastics, Martin Luther and other reformers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis, all the clergy in today’s Church, people trying to focus on our main problem at hand, following Jesus and helping everyone to be braver and not so preoccupied by weedy worldly values. What I appreciate by Henri Nouwen is he could see into his heart so deeply, chart a challenging path and then write about the wisdom he gained in contemporary language—but also very relatable—and help us to see our freedom more than many other spiritual writers do and not to be so conforming to things we know don’t really bring peace and harmony into our lives and hearts or really in any way into the world. I agree with Henri Nouwen, it is the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper which is primary for us following Jesus and becoming more and more confirmed to His descending way.
I do understand about breakdown, about how it can be breakthrough if we are able or willing to go the way of of even deeper suffering and softening. We are not alone in that journey to the heart of pain, pain offered for the heart of the world. Thank you for sharing.
Such powerful truths, Sharon. Filled with depth and wisdom, and lived experiences! Thanks for your courage and authenticity in sharing!
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?
With our increasing prosperity, we in our society today have become more inward focused. Like what Henri says about society in 1986. As Henri says, “people are more preoccupied with themselves and less time for one another.” I feel that is why we feel most deeply in our heart that question of love. We ask that question, “Who really cares about me? Where do I really feel at home, secure, and cherished? Where are the people with whom I can simply be, without having to worry about the impression I make on them?” In my thinking, that is where the church should excel. That is where relationship and community should take hold in the lives of the people as they deal with the suffering in life. I like to refer to them as those “911” issues where we need help from others.
Last week I talked about my experience in pastoral care. When my wife and I were first married we had three of our parents die within the first eight months of married life together. My mother-in-law died of cancer, my father died in a hotel exposition, my father-in-law died of a stroke. In that time, we had no support from our church in which we were actively involved. Instead, we had friend and relatives who supported us through this time of loss. That was our community of support. We also had each other to give support which made our relationship stronger. This also gave me a compassion to help others and walk with them through their suffering and pain. I have walked that descending way of Jesus making myself available to others. People have told me that I make myself approachable, so they feel comfortable telling me about their needs. As a spiritual director I know that I cannot fix the problem, but I can be with each person as they live through the pain and suffering assuring them of the support, they need and the hope for them in the future. Sometimes I am just there to listen and love them as Jesus expressed love to those he encountered. This has become my passion in the ministry that I do in helping others.
I love how Henri always comes back to the Eucharist and “we become united with Christ and learn to walk the descending way with him.”
I was touched to learn more about the origins and work of Jean Vanier. “He realized that Christ was asking something else of him.” He became aware that God was calling him to something different for his life. “The Ark” “L’Arche.” “He himself felt it to be a bond with the poor in spirit, a bond that demanded of him the loyalty of a lifetime.”
This powerful statement brought to mind those in my early life who knew where they belonged, where they were called, and were comfortable with the descending pathway in their lives rather than the ascending pathway. Personally and specifically speaking of the white Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the Josephite Fathers in New Orleans, LA who were committed to the African American Communities in their educational service to our communities. In addition, all of the African American coaches and teachers I’ve had in my early life in segregation who were committed to building and rebuilding a community of people.
The faithfulness and consistency of “all of the above” are what have contributed to success in my life, and many others. In essence, “the loyalty of a lifetime.”
This study had helped me realize that” Each one of us has to seek out his or her own descending way of love.” Not one path fits all. My way is through silence and my Centering Prayer practice. It is through the silence that my heart has started to become a little lighter. Additionally I know that prosperity does not make people more friendly, loving, but isolates. I have thought about the people in Ukraine and the suffering and how through all their suffering they have a tremendous faith in God and one another. “The descending way of love, the way of the poor. the broken, the oppressed becomes the ascending way of love, joy, peace, and new life.” God Bless the people of Ukraine.
Amen! Truth and Wisdom x !