Dec 10th to 16th: Second Week of Advent

Reading: Part I — August 1, 1993 to August 14, 1993, p, 21 to 78

I offered a few words about keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus as we
live in the storms of our century. . . . Mostly I wanted to express
my conviction that with a clear spiritual focus we won’t
drown in the fearful insecurities of our lives. (p. 61)

Thank you joining us on this Advent journey. Your thoughtful comments have prompted a rich and fruitful discussion . Last week we followed Henri and his friend Nathan Ball, Director of L’Arche Daybreak community, as they completed their preparations to travel to Ukraine for their two-week visit and mission. I found this comment by Nadiia, a “forced” immigrant from Ukraine in 2014, to be especially noteworthy because her personal story gives Nadiia a unique perspective in our group. She writes: “(Ukraine Diary) 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 and immense suffering. . . .Henri got to the very core of Ukrainians with such an overwhelming love and care that I hadn’t yet encountered.” Her observation reinforces the ideas expressed by Robert Ellsberg in the Preface and Archbishop Gudziak in his Introduction. I think the truth of Nadiia’s comment will become evident in our reading this week.

Henri describes in considerable detail and depth the things he experienced and the relationships he formed during his brief twelve days in the newly-independent Ukraine in the East (of Europe) and he shares his initial post-mission reflections after returning to the West. There is so much to discuss and we want to hear from you. Please share whatever spoke to you or touched you in the reading. Here are just a few ideas that may prompt your thinking.

a) For me, the experience of reading this book is like sitting across the table from Henri listening to him share his enthusiasm, observations, ideas in a friendly conversation more so than “reading a book” about Ukraine. I come away feeling that I know Henri differently and more personally than before. Did you have a similar experience?

b) In her comment Nadiia wrote, “Henri got to the very core of Ukrainians.” Based on our reading this week, do you agree or disagree and why? What insights did you gain into the Ukrainian people and how does that affect your perception and understanding of current events in Ukraine?

c) Henri immediately noticed the physical and emotional/psychological changes in his surroundings after the “huge move from the West to the East.” (p. 22) Later on he reflects on how poverty has had a different effect on the people of Ukraine than those in Latin America (p.42), or even those in Ghana (p.74). Henri writes, “(P)overty in Ukraine strikes me as a poverty that has extinguished the spirit of the poor.” (p.42) What is your response to these differences Henri noticed?

d) On the first day of the retreat, Henri told the attendees that to God, “we are as beloved as his own son, Jesus. . . we can claim our new identify as the chosen children of God.” (p. 56) This is Henri’s core spiritual insight. As we approach Christmas and the coming of Emmanuel (God with us), what can you do to accept and faithfully live out this great truth?

e) The quote at the top of this page about “keeping our eyes on fixed Jesus” taken from the homily Henri preached on the Sunday of the retreat is as true today as it was in 1993. What does it mean to you to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in our difficult world today? What steps are you willing to take in your life to make this happen?

f) After leaving Ukraine, Henri reflects on his friendship with Nathan, writing: “Nathan and I had taken an emotional risk in making the Ukrainian trip together. Our friendship during the past seven years has been intense and complex.” (p. 72) What Henri doesn’t write here is that the challenges of his friendship with Nathan contributed Henri’s emotional breakdown that he discusses in his spiritual masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (“A friendship that at first seemed promising and life-giving gradually pulled me farther and farther away from home. . . . When the friendship broke down completely. . . ” The Return, p., 49-50) Does Henri’s reflection give you any insight into your own friendships or relationships? Share to the extent you are able.

Once again, the prompts above are simply ideas for your consideration. We are most interested in whatever touched you in the readings. We look forward to hearing from you.

May the Lord give you peace.

19 Replies to “Dec 10th to 16th: Second Week of Advent”

  1. A. Yes, I did feel like I was beginning to understand Henri’s mind a lot better. Many times in readings of his, he has a tendency to talk more about the situation than about himself, but in this case, he is showing us his deepest inner feelings and impressions about what he experienced in Ukraine. It is through these earnest feelings that one begins to grasp just how deeply Henri cares about the mentally and physically handicapped, and just how much he felt like this was part of his vocation in life.

  2. I was struck today by this excerpt: “I realized that I should not be too fast in calling people to joy, peace, and gratitude. Important as that is, many… need a space to express their accumulated feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, resentment and deep, physical and emotional fatigue. They need to be heard with a heart that wants to understand.” I so identify with this, both in regards to myself and to others. It’s so tempting to “fix” oneself or a friend quickly, rather than facing the full extent of what has been so very hard. I guess it’s where counseling often steps in to play a vital role in healing, but how much better it would be if we allowed ourselves and others to really feel all the wounding and trauma that life brings, without swiftly applying a bandaid, however true it might be. I want to be that sort of friend who can wait and really listen and understand first. And, yes, in time, offer the joy, peace and gratitude, as well.

    1. I agree with you and Henri, Trish! As a person who has lost several people that I dearly loved over the last few years, I can attest to the need to take as much time as one needs to truly work through such feelings.

  3. Reading Henry Nouwens entries in his diary has made a deep impression on me, the people of Ukraine has been suffering for decades and their mood is grim and sad. They find great comfort in their faith.
    Great respect for Zania how she is trying to help handicapped people get out of their isolation, as Andriy said; ” She made a person of me” (pg45). On page 43:” For them there are no schools, day programs or workplaces, they are always home and need to be cared for by the women of the family”. Those people need help.
    As a mother of a severely handicapped daughter I feel how fortunate we are with great care and I am very thankful for that.
    Unfortunately the ongoing war has made the situation worse for those people depending on help. They need a lot of prayer.

  4. I wonder whether part of the sadness and despair that Henri noticed was due to the historical persecution of religion. From wikipedia: “During the period of Soviet rule (c. 1917–1991) the governing Soviet authorities officially promoted atheism and taught it in schools, while promoting various levels of persecution of religious believers and of their organizations. Only a small fraction of people remained official church-goers in that period, and the number of non-believers increased.”

  5. These are some of the passages that touched me.
    P49 – “the main reason for not taking them out was … their feelings of shame.”
    P68 – “I found it very hard to leave without shaking hands with each of the men. … They have a place, they have a bed, they have food. But do they have a friend? … Do they ever feel truly loved”
    P73 – “Not by looking at each other but by looking together at the needs of others did we come to the realization of how important we are for each other.”

    1. Thanks for sharing these Pat. I’m a little behind in my reading of this profoundly moving account, and have just finished this section. I, too, was deeply moved by his encounters with “the least of these” as Jesus would call them. As the sister of both a developmentally disabled brother who lives in a group home, and a brother who lives in subsidized housing with schizophrenia, I realized that, though neither situation is ideal, they are far better provided for than these poor souls that Henri encountered. Yet, I am aware that there is more to be done here as well, and it has truly lit a fresh fire in me to be part of that solution, rather than bemoan the challenges I see.

  6. We have a very loose connection to folks in Ukraine who maintain a lovely homestead for adult handicapped boys and men. I keep thinking of them as I read Henri’s diary. At one point during the Russian invasion, they all evacuated to Germany for a bit, but I believe they are all back home now. In the chaos of all else happening in the world and in our country (US), it’s easy now to forget what is still ongoing in Ukraine. I don’t want to do that. I am grateful for this diary. I am so struck by how Nouwen considers each one of the handicapped folk he meets to be gifts. How I need to have my vision transformed to see all people as just that, gifts. I have a long way yet to go….

    1. Trish, I agree with what you say about needing my vision to transform to see the gift of each person; not for what they do but for who they are. I listened to a Henri Nouwen Now and Then podcast this weekend in which he said, “We are not asked to be productive, we are asked to be fruitful.” It really struck me and caused me to pause. I have a strong need to be productive. What can being fruitful instead of productive mean for me? What could it mean for someone who is not able to be productive? I am beginning to develop an understanding of the difference but I want to continue to think on this and discern more deeply what it means.

      1. Great thoughts. Also, I wonder….how do we come to even see those one might consider “an enemy” to also be a gift? Following Jesus and His ways is so radical. I am over 6 decades old, and still have such a long way to go, or I should say, grow…

  7. As Henri prepared for his first trip to Ukraine, he shared words on pg. 14 that I wrote about last week. He names the “centrality of long-suffering in the spirituality of the Ukrainian people.” He calls them a “waiting people,” defining the waiting as immediate from their oppressors as well as “the fulfillment of the divine promise of eternal joy and peace.” I guess I found his words hopeful and see in their fighting spirit evidence also of hope and resilience.
    But his description of them on p. 42 felt so far removed, so dissonant from the words on p. 14. Their spirit, he writes, has been “extinguished,” “broken,” and their independence at the time is laced with “fear” and seen as “fragile.”
    Now, the “waiting people” “are not full of expectation for a better future.”
    What are the Ukrainians waiting for? How close is the light of their hope to being extinguished?
    I feel deeply their despair, and still light in the darkness, light that the darkness cannot overcome, is a theme of Advent, and, tonight, my prayer for the people of Ukraine.

    1. Laura, The differing descriptions of the Ukrainian people in those different parts of the book also caught my attention and I wondered how it could be so different and why. Had they given up? Lost hope that life could one day be enjoyed again? Did they have their faith ripped from them with all of the war and misery that had been hammered onto them over and over? Or were they simply tired from working and working and never seeing any progress in their situation? Reading about the difference between the demeanor of the Ukrainian People and others who live in poverty in other countries such as Africa and Latin America also made me wonder what was the source of those differences. I don’t have any answers, only questions. If anyone has thoughts on this I would appreciate you sharing to help me understand.

      1. I also ruminated on this. Being oppressed from lack of resources ( food ,shelter,clothes) could be different than being directly oppressed by another government/ people. The latter more crushing Also the baseline faith of the society could come into play.If they are fruitful and not overly attached to productivity when oppressed they remain fruitful. I do think Henri is teasing this out. He brings in the disabled as a gift of fruitfulness completely detached from productivity

        1. I agree with you on this! Henri does make distinctions, but as you say, I think at the time that he was really trying to discern which experience was more oppressive. It’s hard to imagine these horrors when we live in a free society as well.

  8. 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.

    1. Hi Nadia, Welcome to the U.S.! Thank you for what you and your husband have done so bravely to help others. I am currently reading a 2nd book right now, historical fiction about the Dutch Resistance during WW II. It is sad to think that there continues to be a need in this world for people who rescue others from the midst of war. We do not learn from our past mistakes. Thank God for brave souls like you and your husband who help others through such things!

  9. On the bottom of page 30, Fr. Nouwen talks about a book that Archbishop Gudziak planned to write examining the underground Greek Catholic Church. He mentions a plan to conduct “two thousand interviews.”

    Does anyone know if this project was ever published? That would be a fascinating piece to read.

  10. I am struck by the disparity between the consumerism that is rampant during the build up to Christmas, and Nouwen’s writing of the poverty and somber mood of Ukraine.
    And I wonder what life is like in Ukraine now as thousands of Ukrainian face poverty and homelessness due to Russia’s senseless war. What does advent look like to Ukrainians now ?
    Meanwhile life in the USA goes on, as we squabble about aid to Ukraine while we busy ourselves with Christmas shopping, decorations and the menu for Christmas dinner…..

    1. You are right, Dave. In one passage, Fr. Nouwen notes the physical appearance of the Ukrainians while visiting a market. He describes their “tired looking faces” and an atmosphere that is “somber and heavy.” He quotes Zenia saying the vendors “..look a lot older than they are.” (p. 40).

      This is a stark contrast to the farmers market I often visit on Saturday mornings. The atmosphere is festive and those selling their gods are cheerful and upbeat.

      His descriptions of the citizens are striking!

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