Dec 3rd to Dec 9th: First Week of Advent

Reading: Introduction by Archbishop Borys Gudziak, p. xiii to xxxv
Part I: July 24, 1993 to July 31, 1993, p. 1 to 21

This modest, seemingly simple book about a visit to a distant land
is in fact a subtle tale about how encounter genuinely
and radically changes the lives of people.
—Archbishop Gudziak, p. xxxiv

I really want it to be an occasion for some form of conversion. . . .
“You have to make a choice. This can be just one more
educational experience or it can be a chance
to be touched in a vital, new way.
But it is your choice.”
p. 1

A warm welcome to everyone and special thanks to the many people who introduced yourselves. We’re glad that you are here and we look forward to your contributions as we journey together through what promises to be a blessed and fruitful time of preparation for Christmas. Since the Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve, we will compress our schedule so that we will complete the book by Saturday, December 23rd, leaving Christmas week for your final thoughts and reflections.

Ukraine Diary is quite different from Henri’s other books in several ways, and not just because it is being published thirty years after it was originally written. First, it contains a substantial Introduction by Henri’s former student and close friend Archbishop Borys Gudziak that we read this week. Archbishop Gudziak helps us to better understand the Henri Nouwen that he knew (even if he didn’t initially realize his name was pronounced Henry Now-wen) and, equally important, the Archbishop links Henri’s experience in newly independent Ukraine to the events of today in the wake of the ongoing Russian invasion (see quote at top of post). Second, this diary appears to me (a Nouwen reader but not a scholar) to be more akin to a refined draft when compared to his other published diaries such as The Genesee Diary, The Road to Daybreak, and Sabbatical Journey. By that I mean Henri seems at times to be capturing thoughts “for the record” and writing asides to himself, e.g., “. . . I have to tell these (i.e., Borys’ and Zenia’s) stories first so as to be able to write my own” and “Now I am ready to write about the complex history of Ukraine.” These asides provide a window into Henri’s manner of thinking and writing that I have not encountered previously.

As always in these book discussions, we are most interested in learning what touched your heart in the reading. What points did you find interesting and why? What insights did you gain and how may they affect your life? What did you find comforting, or enlightening, or challenging, and why? What questions arose in the reading? Or simply share what you read and how and why it was noteworthy. Here are several quotations or thoughts that that may prompt your reflections.

a) Archbishop Gudziak writes, “But Ukrainians resist. Bravely selflessly. . . People are certain that truth will prevail and that evil will be defeated.” (p. xvii) In these and similar words the Archbishop shined a light on the war in Ukraine and its affect on the Ukrainian people. What influence did our reading have on your perception of the war?

b) Reflecting on his friend, Archbishop Gudziak observed, “Henri was interested in authentic experience with God, not ideology. Most of all, Henri was craving real Christian community. . .” (p. xxvi) How does the Archbishop’s observation align with your understanding of Henri and why (e.g., based on other Nouwen books you may have read). How do you think Henri would have responded to today’s seemingly more polarized church and world?

c) The second quote at the top of this page was written by Henri as he prepared to go to Ukraine. He is seeking conversion, and he knows that it requires a choice. He poses the question, “What am I hoping for?” (p.1) Have you ever sought conversion? What choices were demanded? What did you experience? Please share to the extent you are able.

d) Henri discusses two types of adventures that he anticipated during his time in Ukraine: i) “an adventure in a new world of people, ideas, and aspirations,” and ii) “an adventure in a new inner world inner experiences of faith, trust, and friendship.” (p. 8) What do you think about Henri’s idea of the two types of adventures that he would experience. How might this apply in your life?

e) Henri describes his preparations for his trip, including his historical research and his thoughts on the influence of Eastern Christianity on his faith journey. (p. 10 to 21). Were there any thoughts or ideas that you found particularly interesting or enlightening and why?

We look forward to hearing from many of you this week. The quotations and questions above may prompt your reflection, but pleased don’t be limited by them. Our community thrives and grows closer together when you share whatever touched you in the readings and respond to the comments of others. We are also grateful for those who are joining us for this Advent journey who may decide not to post comments. We are all God’s beloved sons and daughters and everyone is welcome here.

One quick reminder: If you do not see the comments at the bottom of the post, look for the words Recent Comments in the right hand column and then click on the first comment beneath that header. The comments will then open at the bottom of the post. You can scroll to the bottom of the comments to Leave a Reply and your can enter your comment. You can also reply to the comments of others by clicking on Reply just below their entry.

As St. Francis (Henri’s favorite saint) said to those he met,
“May the Lord give you peace.”

30 Replies to “Dec 3rd to Dec 9th: First Week of Advent”

  1. b) Reflecting on his friend, Archbishop Gudziak observed, “Henri was interested in authentic experience with God, not ideology. Most of all, Henri was craving real Christian community. . .” (p. xxvi) How does the Archbishop’s observation align with your understanding of Henri and why (e.g., based on other Nouwen books you may have read). How do you think Henri would have responded to today’s seemingly more polarized church and world?

    I agree with the Archbishop in his assessment of Henri’s spiritual character. As in previous books that I’ve read by Nouwen, including Life of the Beloved and Discernment, he is very much interested in the human experiential side of faith, more so than in doctrine.

    I am certain that, were Henri still around today, he would react with dismay at the polarization in the Church and world, and call for calm and understanding. If nothing else, his entire message has been, and continues to be, about bridging the gaps between people and places, and to unify in Christ’s Sacred Heart.

  2. Hello everyone, my name is Nadiia, which in Ukrainian means Hope! My husband & I came to the United States in 2014 when the russian aggression against our country had just started. I write about my “forced” immigration experience, as I call it, in my blog,

    I first discovered Henri Nouwen through reading “The Return of the Prodigal Son” about 2.5 years ago. Since then, I joined five online discussions guided by Ray Glennon. It’s hard for me to find the right words to describe how meaningful it is for me that “Ukraine Diary” was finally published in English. It is one of the best pieces of literature that helps readers, including Ukrainians like myself, look inside the Ukrainian Nation’s Soul to grasp all its beauty & immense suffering.

    In September 2021, I saw my friend posting a picture in her FB story with this book written in Ukrainian. I immediately reached out to Ray & asked if this book can be found here in America. At that moment, it was not so. I then asked my sister-in-law to bring me that book from Ukraine & I literally wept while reading it because Henri got to the very core of Ukrainians with such an overwhelming love & care that I hadn’t yet encountered.

    Fast forward two enormously hard years of the full-scale russian invasion, during which my husband & helped to evacuate & resettle many Ukrainian refugees, including my mom, who at the age of 77 was given one hour to pick up her belongings with all the explosions & shelling going in my home city Kharkiv, I can feel Henri’s words much much much deeper. I look forward to re-reading this book with you all & to witnessing how more & more people learn not only where Ukraine is located on the map as a country but also what kind of Nation it is & what special place God has for it in His Fatherly Heart.

  3. The question about how Henri would react to the polarization of our World allowed me to ponder. With 2 wars and massive loss of life I have been drawn back to Henri’s thoughts on peacemakingSeveral years ago .I listened to one Of Henri’s lectures I think it was from the early 90s about peacemaking. His concepts are well worth understanding. He said we must say no to evil( which he calls death) but importantly say yes to life . He felt our society is Death centered.Moral killings if you will ( now being cancelled) .Others are of no use . That we find comfort in the uselessness of others.Our importance is dependent on the unimportance of others. The line I remember was it is better to be sure of your unhappiness then to be unsure of your other words our society seems to prefer the certainty of misery rather than the uncertainty of joy.I would think that Henri would feel the above would be the reason for the polarization we see. His solution.Say no to evil but you have to simultaneously say yes to life.Humble, compassionate, joyful,and prayerful way of life.Peacemaking then becomes an act of worship. I think he would say the polarization of our world has come from a lack of this theologic response .As Mother Saint Teresa said if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

  4. Hello All; I have enjoyed reading your comments so far. Lots to think about! For me the introduction was an opportunity to hear what it was like to be in a relationship with Henri. He seemed to be looking for God in all of humanity and in doing so able to see the complexity of the human race. The openness to be lead, the humility to seek, the desire for authentic relationships and always seeking how God might be leading. Having the privilege to have spent time with this heart must have been beautiful. When I have meet someone like this something changes I feel my heart settle and a peacefulness fill me because somehow there is so much more room for God to join us.

  5. I’m thinking of the whole concept of Advent as I read this diary. How the Ukrainian people have always longed for a day of justice and equity to arrive, and how much more so must they feel that now. It brings to mind how the people of God must have felt prior to Jesus’ birth, hoping against hope for the arrival of Messiah. Aren’t we always Advent people now? Longing for the fulfillment of what God has begun, the full redemption of all things? I find myself identifying with the psalmists who often lamented, “How long, Lord….” and with John writing at the end, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus…” And this, all the more so as I think of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and now in Gaza. We need to lament, but not as a people without hope. We seek His coming – in our ordinary days, and in ultimate fulfillment. I think I need to better come to terms with being a person of perpetual longing.

    1. “Perpetual longing”

      I agree we are always Advent People. Yet what we have most is the now.

      Going to have to sit with your insights for awhile

  6. Several of you have referenced The Jesus Prayer from Henri’s July 28 writing. That part stood out to me as well. I wondered, what would it feel like to have a prayer pray in me rather than me pray a prayer? As he continued to write how the peasant changed people’s lives simply by meeting him, I think about the power of prayer and how we must learn to wait sometimes for prayer to be answered. If we believe in prayer, aren’t we all then “waiting people”?

    I appreciate how Henri reminds us in his July 29 writing to anticipate that God is at work here and now including through this book study. We are to wait and watch for the work He is doing in us now. During the height of the COVID pandemic, I was often overcome with the wonderment of how God might be moving in and throughout those events and those days. As difficult as those days were, I knew we were not alone and that God will make good come from the horror of it all. I continue to wait and watch for the good works that are happening under the surface of our society that began to take form during those times. The light that the pandemic shed on the health inequities in our society is one of those places where God is at work and I’m sure there are others we will someday see as well. As Henri writes on July 29, “I keep having a deep feeling that this journey is full of promise, that something very important is in store for us, something that will gradually become clear.” I believe that is what is happening with this book study as well. We are on this journey together, waiting to see what God is up to. Blessings on (y)our journey.

    1. I love the way you described this Julie in applying it to the pandemic. Yes, we are all a waiting people aren’t we, as we pray and continue to live in anticipation of God’s activity in the world. And to pray the Jesus Prayer until it becomes a prayer praying in us, and we in turn radiate the same goodness, kindness and love to those around us….this is how we change the world.

  7. I was quite moved by the trajectory of Henri’s honest trepidation about going to Ukraine at first, to when he believed it to be a pilgrimage. His initial protests to Zenia on page 6, easily justified by worldly concerns (“I don’t speak a word of Ukrainian!”….”what will I be able to do for the handicapped people there?”), to all of his anxieties pushed aside by the simple but profound invitation to “Just come”….
    Isn’t this what God speaks to every human heart? We look, like Gideon, to our own weaknesses and failures rather than to the One who equips us sufficiently for all he calls us to. I have been challenged by this same invitation many times, and especially over the past year since I retired from my career as a secondary school teacher, and have wondered what is next. Not wanting just another educational experience, as Henri describes it, but a sense of mission.

    1. Sue,
      That is a great point!
      On page 2, Fr. Nouwen wrote “Their ‘musts’ conveyed a genuine urgency–almost like a ‘spirtutual must’ –that made me feel I truly must go…”

      This passage led me to ask what “musts” I am hearing in my life?

      1. I agree Christopher! I have often interpreted that urgent “must” to mean all the things in my mind I must get done , checking everything off a too long to-do list. But this is a different kind of urgent must—God calling us to be attuned to his voice, his prompting and for that I need to set my agenda aside, and make sufficient time and space to hear from him. I also thought it had to mean something big, grandiose, but as I seek him more, and eliminate more distractions, I catch the seemingly small but profound things he is revealing to me. It takes me out of myself to notice more those around me. It’s really quite amazing! I’m excited to hear how God speaks to you and others on this journey! Have a blessed day!

  8. “This advent, (the “birth” of an independent and free Ukraine) marked by pain and blood, is transforming the world.”

    It’s often been said that this war is already a world war, it’s just being fought within the borders of Ukraine. I’ve been blessed to witness first hand those qualities Borys speaks of in the resistance of the Ukrainians – bravery, selflessness, solidarity, prayer, charity, faith, sacrifice, and have been personally transformed in their wake, and believe that the world that’s watching will be transformed as well. While I do not yet know Henri, I sense that he would be greatly encouraged by the witness of Ukraine in this, their “Esther moment”.

    1. I was struck by your comment, Joan, that this war in Ukraine is already a world war, just fought within Ukraine’s borders. At this point of world history, it seems like so many countries are wrestling with powerful political forces within them that are so authoritarian and likely to circumscribe citizens’ longings to live out with the most authenticity who God created each of us to be. I had such a limited idea about the history of Ukraine and am glad to be more aware now but also was impressed at learning how Henri Nouwen got involved. In the introduction “Henri became directly involved in forming the vision of the university, which came to place ostracized persons with different mental abilities at the center of its identity. We needed the help and witness of the so-called ‘disabled’ to address the post-traumatic shock, I.e., the post-totalitarian disabilities of Ukrainians shared with some two billion people between Estonia and Albania and China and Vietnam that endured communist rule or continue to do so.” As a neurodivergent citizen myself, I can relate to the struggles of authentically existing in harsh environments and being able to develop real constructive and loving human needs centered communities so your comment really resonated with me, Joan. Thank you for posting.

  9. This diary entry resonated with me:
    “My own prayer life has many ups and downs, but somehow the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me ‘ is always there- even during my driest periods. In its utter simplicity and profound compactness, it keeps me connected with Jesus, especially during times when little else will.”

    Maybe less is more and simpler is better when it comes to prayer ?

    1. Dave, his reflection on this prayer resonated with me as well. I found myself awake in the middle of the night and praying that prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me. And then praying it for others. Yes, it brings me relief that prayer can be as simple as this request for mercy.

    2. I also appreciated this entry. It is encouraging to me that someone who I consider to be a spiritual mentor experiences similar challenges with his prayer life as I do with mine.

  10. My heart was touched by the statement on page x “[F]ollowing their long history of suffering and oppression, he responded in the Ukrainian people to a deep hunger for hope and healing…that God’s love seeks out the places where we are most hurt, weak, and vulnerable.”
    I don’t have a lot of memories of my Baba and Gido but I know they came here from the Ukraine to have a better life. My Dad and his siblings are/were all folks who had a deep hunger for hope and healing. They stuck together like glue attempting I believe to find solace which sometimes seemed like a healthy trait, other times seemed to drag each other down.
    My pondering and that which I continue to chew on, has been to welcome hope and healing as my commitment to their memory. I pray the awe and gratitude that fills my heart from God’s graciousness towards me will continue to resonate outward and perhaps into their souls, wherever they are.

  11. In Part One, Fr. Nouwen introduces readers to Zenia Kushpeta. On page 4 he writes “She speaks as if everyone and everything is full of light, beauty, and truth.” This is a particularly beautiful description. We should strive to emulate Zenia’s outlook! Seeing God’s work in everything and everyone that we encounter is a fruitful way to go through life.

  12. I’m sorry not to have signed in sooner but glad to join you now. I have newly moved from Louisville to Boston and still getting my feet on the ground. I am a psychotherapist, retired pastor and spiritual director who is also an Oblate of St. Benedict.

    What spoke to me and touched my heart in Borys Gudziak’s introduction was his developing thread of comments connecting Henri’s penchant to “live simply and sincerely, with attention to the God-given dignity of each person without wasting time on ideological…battles…(xxvii), essentially “to see God in each other” (xxx). He stretched this ‘life stance’ to show its healing force from Harvard students in the US, to suffering people in the Ukraine (xxviii).

    Borys makes the case that Henri’s “gentle touch” was needed in ‘a society that kills systemically, every member” developing a “reflex of protection not only against the system, but one another” seeing others as “dangerous” and losing “trust” (xxix). I think Borys insight here is very deep imparted by the Holy Spirit. It paints a parallel picture of Henri’s healing pilgrimage on two occasions.

    In the same way that Henri was a mentor for Borys at Harvard showing “a relationship between a loving God and the wounded person” which compelled students to “follow along,” Henri brought that same spirit to the Ukrainian people extending “a heart to heart encounter with suffering people with a gentle rapt observer who was ready to listen carefully to their stories” (xxxiv).

    Stacking the stories like that was powerful. If there is anything that the sufferers in our own world, nation and small circles of family and friends need right now is that simple gentle spirit that sits with rapt attention and listen’s carefully to one another’s stories. In truth, we are all sufferers in one way or another (not to diminish in any way the horrors of Ukraine), Maybe the most precious than gift I can give at Christmas, is to slow down, show up and sit with “rapt attention” to other’s stories birthing the Beloved in the Manger.

    1. Beverly, I appreciated your entire comment, but I particularly loved your last sentence, “Maybe the most precious gift I can give this Christmas is to slow down, show up, and sit with ‘rapt attention’ to others’ stories birthing the Beloved in the Manger”

      I want to carry that in my mind and heart this Christmas Season.

  13. I found Henri’s history of Christianity in Ukraine fascinating. “There never has been a time without oppression and exploitation…the Ukranian people have always been used by some outside power,” p 13. I didn’t know. The current war proves his point. And the fact that I didn’t know speaks to the truth of their oppression. A person or a country is exploited when others look the other way or keep their head in the sand. Henri called them “waiting people” on p 14. What is it like to wait as the story of your life, then to know freedom, only to experience an unjust attack again?

    1. Laura,
      The “waiting people” line resonated with me too. The very last part of the sentence that says “….waiting for the fulfillment of the divine promise of eternal joy and peace” inspired me a little. The fact that they can remain eternally optimistic is something we should strive to emulate. Maybe this is why they have fought so courageously so far, much to the surprise of Russia and other pre-war assessments? I believe they trust in the Lord and know that he’ll protect them?

      We can endure our hardships too!

      1. Yes, Christopher! I also believe their waiting with hope is key to their courageous fight. Isn’t also so timely that we are reading this book during Advent, and Henri calls Ukrainians “waiting people”? Just what we are called to in this season.

        1. Really good point, Miss Laura!

          From yesterday’s Gospel:

          Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert!………….May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

    2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there! As a historian myself, whether talking about the Uniate years, or times under various foreign powers, Ukraine has never had that natural independence afforded to so many. I can only imagine the mental pain that this kind of waiting, hope, and loss can cause, over and over again.

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