March 27th to April 2nd: Fourth Week of Lent

Reading: Letter V—Jesus: The Loving God (p. 53 to p. 64)

If anyone should ask you what are the most radical words in the gospel you
need not hesitate to reply: “Love your enemies.” . . . Love for one’s
enemy is the touchstone of being a Christian. (p. 54)

Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show
us that the love we most long for is given to us by God—not because
we deserved it, but because God is a God of love. (p. 58)

There you have it: the love of God is an unconditional love, and only
that love can empower us to live together without violence. (p. 60)

Normally I begin each post with a single excerpt from the reading that I find meaningful, relevant to the theme of the reading, and that I hope might prompt our discussion. This week is different—and not just because I selected three excerpts. I would encourage you to take a few minutes now, right now, and reflect on these excerpts.

Here is what I found. In these few pages, written to his nephew Marc three days after Easter 1986, we have the heart of Henri’s spiritual message and, as Henri writes, “the heart of the gospel” (p. 61). Henri tells Marc (and us) that only God’s unconditional love will fulfill our heart’s desire. As I mentioned in the Welcome post , these letters were written a year after Henri gave a series of talks that began with the question, “Are you following Jesus? I want you to look at yourself and ask that question. Are you a follower? Am I?” (Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, p. 11). Henri’s message is Jesus’ message—and perhaps that’s why I’ve found Henri to be a reliable spiritual companion on my journey. By reading Henri, I can better follow Jesus. For that reason, here is a fourth excerpt for your reflection, the one from the First Week of Lent.

If you were to ask me point blank, “What does it mean
to you to live spiritually?” I would have to reply,
“Living with Jesus at the center.” (p.7)

The themes that Henri distills here are expanded upon in his writings in the final ten years of his life. His central insight that, like Jesus, we are God’s beloved, while not explicitly stated, is present in this letter, “God loves us not because of anything we’ve done to earn that love, but because God, in total freedom, has decided to love us.” (p. 55) What happens when we don’t know or believe that we are beloved? “The enormous propensity to seek recognition, admiration, popularity, and renown is rooted in the fear that without all this we are worthless” (p. 56) How are love and violence related? “Whether we do violence to others or to ourselves, what we long for in our heart is a nonviolent, peaceful communion, in which we know ourselves to be secure and loved.” (p. 57) What about faith? “(W)hen Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved, so that you can abandon every false way of obtaining that love. . . . It’s a question of trusting in Gods love.” (p. 58) Henri then ties these ideas together this way: “Jesus sees evil in this world as a lack of trust in God’s love.” (p. 59) So how should we respond? “Jesus challenges us to move in a totally new direction. He asks for a conversion—that is to say, a complete interior turnaround, a transformation.” (p. 61) And that response, that conversion, can begin Here and Now, another of Henri’s themes and the title of a wonderful Henri Nouwen book of brief reflections. Finally, Henri points us to the importance of belonging to a community, the necessity of prayer, and, as a Catholic Christian priest, the Eucharist as “God’s love. . . offered to us not in the abstract but in a wholly concrete form: not as an example or theory, but as food for our daily life.” (p. 63)

Let me share with you a challenge this week’s reading posed for me. Henri says, “you have to begin praying for your enemies.” (p. 62). While I don’t find myself with many “enemies” there are certainly people in my life that I find irritating and aspects of society that I find very disheartening—the rampant polarization in our churches and politics among them. And I find it far easier to try to ignore those people and situations, rather than to pray for them. Perhaps this is the conversion that I am called to this Lent.

Uncharacteristically, this week I shared my reflection on the reading rather than presenting questions for your consideration. Please do not let that stifle your response to this important letter. What did you read and how did it affect you? Were you challenged and how did you respond? Please share what you discover. If my reflection prompts your thinking, you are encouraged to respond, positively or negatively. We’ve had a rich and fruitful conversation this far and I look forward to hearing from many of you this week.

May the Lord give you peace.

19 Replies to “ March 27th to April 2nd: Fourth Week of Lent”

  1. I remember one time when I was humiliated in front of my co-workers by a friend. I had a very hard time trying to forgive her, much less love her. I prayed that I would have a sliver of a ‘crack in my heart’ to allow God’s spirit to come into me and help me to forgive her. It took a while for me to forgive her. As far as praying for our enemies, I pray for God to change Putin’s heart. If I think of the words that Henri Nouwen said about our needing love and resorting to violence to try to get it, I pray that Putin can feel God’s love. That’s a hard thing to pray! Of course, I pray for the people of Ukraine daily and even for the Russian soldiers. It’s hard to imagine God’s view of man’s inhumanity to man. I guess we see that with Jesus on the cross.

  2. A wonderful letter filled with encouragement to keep praying and to learn to forgive those who have hurt by praying for them until our hearts change Henri reminded me to accept that God’s love for us is unconditional and that my struggle to do so is intensified by life’s experiences in a culture dominated by the belief that one must do something to earn it (love) Grateful to be reading this book and for all the wonderful sharing in this group. Thank you

  3. Having said that it is challenging to forgive, I also learn that praying for my enemies, someone who hurts me, is the third way leading me away from my revengeful and hurtful feelings. I prayed that God protects me from their hurts. I prayed that God reveals their wrongdoings to them. I prayed that they feel remorse for what they have done to others. I prayed that they confess and return. I prayed that God saves me from not being a victim. I prayed that God helps me to take on my own responsibilities. I prayed that God strengthens me through this experience. And I prayed that God transforms all curses to be blessings.

    1. I appreciate your carefully thought-out prayers for people who have hurt you, SW Huang, and am inspired by your example to broaden my own prayer life in praying for people who have hurt me and at times continue to do hurtful things to me. Thank you for sharing and for your voice and spiritual experiences related on this Henri Nouwen book-reading Lenten discipline.

  4. The concept of love is complex no matter what age one is. The notion of having to accept that we, as humans, are truly alone in this world except for God, is a hard pill to swallow, especially because so many of us rely on and cherish our loved ones, friends, etc. yet if chiefly this respect for the peace and ebb and flow of love that allows us to recenter our minds in God’s Grace.

  5. Dorothy Day, as one of many giants, was termed a “radical.” I’ve heard Jesus called a “radical.” As if it means different from the usual as far as loving your enemy and the marginalized. Although difficult, are these really radical concepts? Being a pacifist. That’s radical? Being present with the unwanted.
    That’s radical?
    Loving those persons incarcerated requires us to radically understand those who “want nothing more or less to be loved, but who have been unable to express that longing other than through violence…” (p.57) Is it so radical to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty? I don’t know how to forgive those in the criminal justice system who lack the understanding that “violence invariably breeds violence” (p.64) But if I “wish to learn the love of God…you have to begin by praying” (p.62) for those you despise. So I pray for those in power to have the “courage and the confidence to follow the way of Jesus to the end.” (p. 62) PS I enjoyed and related to the comments about this inspiring letter.

    1. I really enjoy Dorothy Day! She was not perfect, openly admitted it, and worked hard to help the imperfect of society to find God and peace.

  6. Yes, SW Huang, That is so true.
    That is the thing I struggle with all my life , to forgive my enemies, or people that has hurt you or done wrong to you! I agree with you that tha process can go on for years and at a certain point you think you are ready to forgive and things happen that remind you of the whole process and you can start all over again. I am still not ready with something that happened to one of our children almost forty years ago now. I cannot forgive the person that did harm to her in a severe way! She is now living in a group home in an organization based on the philosophy of L’Arche and I have an enormous respect for her caregivers that treat their clients in a human way, look at what they can achieve and not at what they cannot. That is also what we see in Henry Nouwen’s approach with the people he has been living with in L’Arche. The love for those people is unconditional , the way Jesus loves all of us unconditional. And Jesus love for them is unconditional .
    Still, the problem for me stays, how to forgive the person who caused this all.

  7. “He asks for conversion…Not an easy thing…”(p.61). As I began this season of Lent and this book reading, I wanted change. Big change. The kind that would erase doubts that I had drawn nearer to God in this time. Just as I had settled to read this very nurturing chapter, I thought about how often God through Christ is drawing me nearer to Him only because He loves me. Yet, I equally as much find myself pulling away, like a childhood tantrum that wants to stay at the park longer regardless of how late the day may be. Once again, Henri, though we have never met in person, has been a great spiritual encourager. I consider how much God loves us, but how unbelievable that is to our consumerism induced society. We want to bargain with God for more of His love. I am reminded in this chapter of how exhausting and useless that formula is.
    The more I try to find spiritual change, drawing nearer to Christ at the center of my life, the more angry and disappointed I become. With myself and others. It’s true what Henri states, “violence begets violence.” Where in this child of God, disappointment and complaining begets more criticism, avoidance, and anger towards those who are drawing nearer to God either.

    1. I wasn’t finished. But maybe the Spirit determined I had said enough. Now moving forward being reminded to pray for my “enemies”, or at least those who seem to be an enemy in the moments of weakness and disagreement, I have a fresh perspective to walk in prayer, in presence and with grace to find the inner change I truly need.

  8. Wow! What a powerful chapter!!! Just when I was thinking that maybe this particular book study was not for me, I’ve been floored by a knockout punch! Wow!!! That Four Letter Word: LOVE! So much to absorb, digest, and reflect upon. Trusting that I can get off the canvas before the count of ten. Perhaps I’ll be back with more to share.

  9. Appreciated very much this whole chapter. Actually, I think maybe Henri Nouwen helped me to a bit maybe understand that saying of Jesus “But it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” I’ve always been puzzled by Jesus saying this, it seems uncharacteristically pessimistic or something. But then, in the same paragraph on page 61, Henri Nouwen writes that “It’s practically impossible to lay yourself open to other people who are ill-disposed or indifferent toward you. Real vulnerability can only be fruitful in a community of people who are searching for God together.” Henri Nouwen shares that he had one or two friends he counted on for his “adventure”. By my calculation, I figure I’ve got three friends and that’s probably all that can squeeze through that narrow gate I’ve been looking at for quite a long time now. I have quite a few friends that, for whatever reasons, simply don’t seem to resonate with me very passionately on the same wave length. Praying for others and communing every time it’s offered and also Eucharistic Adoration are all convincing advice offered by Henri Nouwen. Finding this book to be very encouraging and helpful. Glad and thankful it is the selection!!! The comments also help me to reflect more deeply.

  10. Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show
    us that the love we most long for is given to us by God—not because
    we deserved it, but because God is a God of love. (p. 58)

    The one concept that slapped me alongside of my head in this Letter V, on page 56.

    “A state of mind that makes us live as though our worth as a human being depends on the way others react to us. We allow other people to determine who we are. We think we are good if other people find us to be so; we think we are intelligent if others consider us intelligent; we think we are religious if others think so too.”

    I find myself falling into that trap often. Nouwen says that this is coercive love.

    “The love I am really looking for is the love that God offers me, and Jesus came among us to make that divine love visible and offer it to us. . . . If we had a firm faith in God’s unconditional love for us, it would no longer be necessary to be always on the lookout for ways and means of being admired by people; and we would need, even less, to obtain from people by force what God desires to give us freely and so abundantly.” (pp. 57-58).

    In worship today our gospel text was Luke 15:11-32, it is the parable of the prodigal son. I see that unconditional love of God here expressed in the father of this parable who loved both sons unconditionally. He was glad when the lost son came back home but he was concerned about the son who was always by his side. He expressed that in unconditional love for both. Each son sinned against the father but he still continued to love them. I have heard this parable hundreds of times always looking at it from the perspective of either the younger son or the older son. This time I saw it from the perspective of the father. Henri Nouwen has written a book about this parable, “The Return of the Parodical Son.” I am going to have to go and re-read it again from that perspective of unconditional love.

  11. Friends,
    As we read Henri’s letter Jesus: A Loving God, it is a wonderful coincidence that the gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C) for this 4th Sunday of Lent in perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables about the God’s unconditional love: the Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son, or, as Henri refers it in his spiritual masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming—The Parable of the Father’s Love.

    Henri developed a new and deeper appreciation of this parable in 1983 during his first trip to L’Arche when he saw a poster of Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” in the office of a friend. As Henri writes in the Prologue to The Return (p. 3), “A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster. . . set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it.”

    Henri was in the midst of that adventure when he was writing these letters to Marc. He was coming to understand, but had not yet brought to fulfillment, “the hope that thorough Rembrandt’s masterpiece I would one day be able to express what I most wanted to say about love.” (The Return, p. 7). I think we can see some of Henri’s insights beginning to crystallize in this week’s letter.


    1. Ray, great Mind think alike! I posted my thoughts and included reference to The Return of the Prodigal Son as well. I saw your post after I posted mine.

  12. I like Henri’s stance that loving your enemy is the greatest, clearest, and quickest way to experience the revelation of what unconditional love means. Though many don’t receive to themselves the blessings. Similar to how the sun shines on the whole earth, but we can erect shade to block the sunshine.

    In balance I understand where SW Huang’s comment is coming from. Loving an enemy sometimes can’t go further than praying God’s best for them. There are times when interactive acts of expressing God’s love will only result in being relentlessly attacked in return. Praying for and desiring God’s blessings for your enemies also acknowledges another truth Henri shared. That God unconditionally loves everyone equally. Also loving actions done anonymously, as part of a group, or from a distance can sometimes work without being self-harm.

    I liked, but felt challenged by, the contrast of the responses to the Philippians dictator’s election fraud and the cruelty of the Libyan dictator. It is hard when the U.S. military takes aggressive action and is requested to take aggressive action, and is often expected to take aggressive action. I pray that this cycle can change. I appreciate the examples Henri gave of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. We need so much more of that today.

  13. This prayer is very helpful when trying to follow Henri’s teachings
    Anima Christi
    Soul of Christ sanctify me
    Body of Christ save me
    Blood of Christ fill all my veins
    Water from the side of Christ
    Wash out my stains.
    Passion of Christ my comfort be
    Oh Good Jesus listen to me.
    In the wounds I feign would hide
    Ne’er to parted from Thy side.
    Guard me when the foe assails me.
    Guide me when my feet shall fail me
    Bid me come to Thee above
    With Thy saints to sing Thy love
    Forever and ever

  14. In my past 20 years of committed faith life, I found that “Love your enemies” is not a simple sentence, either love or hate. Sometimes, the enemies are abusive, and sometimes, the enemies take advantage of your unconditional love. Love, sometimes, returns you more hurts, yet you know that hate is not an option.

    To arrive at the destination, love, eventually, I would suggest anyone who has similar struggles to read the book, “Don’t forgive too soon” written by Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Dennis Linn. What I want to suggest here is that “Love your enemies” is a process rather than an action. Well, we can forgive in a second, however, the wounds may keep coming to us if we haven’t processed the forgiveness completely in God. The process can take years.

    May every one of us receive real freedom to love the enemies in God.

    1. Thanks for keeping it real! Easier said than done, for sure. There is a real-world that we live in that is not always favorable towards us. Love is still the answer, yet we can not afford to be naive in today’s world. Jesus was no doormat, pin cushion, or whipping boy. Wise and shrewd! One of the early books of MLK was entitled “Strength To Love.”

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