Dec 17th to 23rd: Third Week of Advent

Reading: Part II: Friday, August 5, 1994 to Sunday, August 21, 1994
(p. 79-128); Afterword, August 2022 by Laurent Nouwen (p. 129-139)

Henri, thank you for visiting Ukraine twenty-nine years ago, thank
you for giving me Andriy and many other good friends,
thanks for your diaries, thanks for making my life
worthwhile, thank you for your never-forsaken
belief that we are all free as beloved
sons and daughters of God.

—Laurent Nouwen (p. 138)

We have reached the Third (and final) Week of Advent in this shortest possible Advent season. Thanks to each of you for joining us on this Advent journey—those of you posting comments and those following along quietly. We are blessed by your presence.

In our readings this week, Henri and Nathan return to Ukraine with three other member of the L’Arche Daybreak community for what proved to be another fruitful two-week mission to a long-suffering nation. As well known as Henri was as a writer, Nouwen was first and foremost a pastor, and many people considered his greatest gifts to be his inspirational teaching and preaching. In Henri’s diary entries we join him as he and the team prepare for and participate in the weekend retreat and the leadership seminar. As a long-term Nouwen reader, I gained new insight into Henri’s careful preparation and sensitivity to his audience—two keys to effective ministry.

Henri continued to deepen his understanding of the Ukrainian people writing, “we had met many very talented young people with obvious leadership gifts, but… without a lot of encouragement and guidance it would be hard for them to claim these gifts… (due to) the low self-esteem not only of the individuals but of the group as a whole.” (p. 119) As Laurent Nouwen writes in the Afterword, the discovery of Henri’s diaries led to Laurent’s unexpected more than two decade mission to Ukraine. Laurent was able to see for himself and share with us the fruit that was born as many Ukrainians rose from “passive depression to positive action” (p. 137)—a trait that the world has acclaimed in their response to the Russian invasion. I’m confident that Borys, Zenia, and Henri’s other Ukrainian fiends would echo and expand on Laurent’s beautiful quote at top this post.

Once again, there are many ideas in our reading we could discuss this week. You are encouraged to share whatever touched your heart. As Henri wrote, “But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal.” Sharing your personal insights will enlighten and enliven us all.

Here are several ideas that touched me that you might consider for your reflections:

a) Henri defines hope: “although reaching beyond the present moment, allows me to live in the present moment with courage and confidence.” (p. 86) How do you understand hope?

b) Henri asks a question for us all: “Do I have the courage to call people to a radical call to Jesus and the Church?” (p.89) What is your response to Henri’s question?

c) Henri writes about churches in a way that rings true today: “Churches remind us about deep piety as well as painful divisions, of humble service as well as a lust for power…” (p. 97) How does Henri’s observation reflect your experience of churches today?

d) During the the retreat Henri, “spoke about claiming our identify as the beloved sons and daughters of God…” (p. 100) How do you claim your own belovedness?

e) Reflecting on the Ukrainian nation, Henri writes, “It is the handicap that comes from a broken history, from centuries of oppression and exploitation, from neglect and indifference of wealthy nations, from the social sins of injustice and greed.” (p. 128) Where in our world today do you see this handicap manifest? What can we do about it?

Once again, thank you for joining us for our Advent book discussion of Ukraine Diary. We look forward to hearing from you throughout the week—in response to one of the prompts or anything that touched your heart. On behalf of the Henri Nouwen Society, I want to wish you and yours a joyous Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Peace and all good.

15 Replies to “Dec 17th to 23rd: Third Week of Advent”

  1. One of the things that really struck me in the second half of the book was that Henri seemed to have more of a sense of direction and purpose than in the first half. While he still struggles with doubts about what the Ukrainian people think of him and his colleagues, he doesn’t let that stop him from trying to offer insight and help in the best ways he knows how to!

  2. One thing I forgot to mention in my last comment, I noticed with interest and some jealousy that every day Henri and his friends celebrated the Eucharist.

    1. That’s something that I have had the privilege of during a few short periods in my life, and celebrating the Mass daily is such a wonderful, mystical, and transformative experience!

  3. I wanted to participate in this discussion, but on Nov 27th, I got sick & then, we had to accommodate a family from Ukraine whom we sponsored through the U4U program. They arrived in the US on Dec 14th. I spent the last couple of days reading Boris’s Introduction & Laurent’s Afterword for the English edition, as well as skimming through my Ukrainian copy & re-reading those places that touched my heart when I read it the first time.

    What can I say? Being my beloved spiritual mentor, Henri helped me to focus my attention on what matters. As a Ukrainian, born in the USSR, who left her home country almost ten years ago & had not experienced any atrocities of a full-scale war, I was struggling to find the right perspective on the whole situation with my home country.

    On the one hand, traumatized by both the USSR & post-Soviet Ukraine, I could have turned my back on everything that is going on there now in an attempt to leave everything & build a brand-new life here in the US as some immigrants do. On the other hand, I could blame myself for leaving & not being with my country in the very darkest times of its history as some patriots do. Instead, Henri & his team – Boris, Zenia, Laurent – lovingly show me that there is actually a third way.

    I can become a bridge between East & West, between poor people of Ukraine & rich people of the United States, helping both sides to understand each other better & supporting my nation on the way from “fear to dignity.” Experienced the “post-totalitarian trauma and complexes” first hand, I can be compassionate to other Ukrainians scattered throughout the whole world, help them to find healing, claim “their God-given worth,” and discover “their identity as people beloved by the Lord.” It’s a hard path to take, but I believe that this path is going to “make my life worthwhile” & together, with Laurent, I want to thank Henri for that!

    Suppose any of you guys would like to serve Ukrainians & representatives of other post-Soviet nations to break their cultural barriers & to practice their English-speaking skills. In that case, you can do it from the comfort of your home for just one hour a week, as we always need native English-speaking volunteers in our online club: Those Americans serving with us say it is the best hour of the week for them! Please let me know if you are interested & I would be happy to share with you about this unique opportunity to welcome wounded newcomers & to help them feel at home here in the USA!

    1. Nadia,
      I timidly answer your call. My language skills outside of English are extremely limited at best. Also, I have 3 regular daily zooms, a weekly one, and a few monthly ones. And, last but not least, I am a bit on the introvert side (not extreme, but not gregarious either).

      That said, I would love to learn your schedule and join if it doesn’t collide with mine. How can we exchange contact info short of typing it in the message?

    2. Thank you for your post and reflective words Nadiia. I think your discernment is truly guided by the Holy Spirit as it speaks to serving into the plight of so many Ukrainians in this moment through your unique position. I have sponsored 4 Ukrainians so far through the U4U program and while I support, understand and have absolutely no judgment regarding those who make the decision to leave, there does exist a sadness at what your beautiful country is losing vis a vis this diaspora. I pray that all who who have left will eventually be able to return with their gifts and talents to share their experiences that will bring new life to a free Ukraine.
      I am very interested in your online welcoming and English practice with those who have left and settled here. I am getting ready to head back to Ukraine 1/28-2/27 but after that would love to participate. Please let me know at your convenience what I need to do to get started. Thanks and blessings to you Nadiia!

  4. P102 Henri reminds the bishop (and us) to remain grounded in reality when he quotes Fr. Ed who told the bishop, “If you have to go home to kill a pig, go home and kill the pig.”

    P112 “We realized that these young people had more need for spiritual support, personal attention, and individual care than they had for leadership formation.” “So the ‘workshop’ needed to be about something other than job training.”

    Henri seems always grounded in reality, knowing everyone’s belovedness while acknowledging God through Jesus as his source. From my perspective now I would have loved to have studied under him, but even if I could have qualified for a top flight university like he taught at, I would have written him off as too liberal, too soft, too idealistic.

  5. I have kept coming back again and again to something Henri said earlier on….that we are “not called to be productive, but fruitful.” This, he learned at Daybreak and especially with Adam, and later it became his hope again following the 2 trips to Ukraine. He must have felt some sense of powerlessness and inadequacy as he reflected on the disparities he witnessed, and the way in which the world seemed to have abandoned Ukraine. But then, when reading his brother’s Afterword, and seeing how this mission played out following Henri’s death and the many years since, it is clear that Henri’s heart and investment in Ukraine bore much fruit. I pray that many will read this diary of Henri’s so that it can continue to spur us on to bless Ukraine even more, as well as other people and nations who feel a similar isolation, poverty, and abandonment.
    As always, I am so impacted by Henri’s words and so touched by the heart that inspired them. Thank you Ray and others for introducing this book to me and making this rich discussion possible. May God bless each of us in the year to come with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands and feet to act.

  6. Reading the Ukraine Diary and reflecting on the comments shared here has been an extraordinary experience. Prior to February 24, 2022 I had no personal connection whatsoever to Ukraine and to my shame, pretty much no idea as to the tragic history of this beautiful and complex country. Henri’s reflections and insights on his experiences and encounters, have helped me to begin to try and make sense of a truly irresistible draw that keeps me returning gain and again in the midst of war that goes beyond a simple desire to help. His insights have have articulated for me the draw that has up to now just been a sense of a people, of a pain, of a longing that he identifies on p. 114 saying “There is a deep sadness in the heart of Ukrainian people…a thousand years of long-suffering, oppression, poverty, and the violet death of millions of people have engulfed this country in darkness..” His statement on how close joy and sorrow are when sharing the incident of little Halyna who had wandered off and then was found unharmed, I have witnessed daily in the generosity and welcome of the Ukrainian people I have come to know and love. I am so grateful for this experience, for a deeper general and personal insight and for coming to know Henri through this diary. As I prepare to head back to UA next month I plan on taking several copies of this book to share with some Ukrainian friends I’ve made but also other volunteers I work with in the hopes that they too will come to better understand their experience through Henri’s insights. I look forward to reading more of Henri and to the next study!

  7. Just finished reading Ukraine Diary and will reread. There is so much in this book that I was not aware of. Particularly, what communism did to stifle people’s need to have a relationship to God and their freedom to grow their faith (and hope) and spirituality. I am so dismayed now or even angry our own government is so bogged down in hesitating to give the Ukrainians the aid they need to win the war for their freedom as a people to have freedom to worship and pray without fear of losing that freedom again. It was compelling to me that so many young Ukrainians were eager for what Henri Nouwen and Nathan and their team were sharing and teaching and leading into genuine community and yet in my own little family and church, the young people “do not see” or seem to see the difference church can make in their lives. The whole thing is perplexing. Very, very glad to have had this book selected for this Advent reading and grateful to you, Ray, and all the participants for moderating and sharing thoughts and insights on this very needed book Henri Nouwen wrote, and also his brother continued on in the work.

  8. I see Hope as a desire and an expectation that God will fulfill his promises to us . This does require trust that God will provide the Grace we need in the present moment to be guided in uncertainty without the need to know certainty .This gives us the freedom to be compassionate and to approach the heart of Jesus when we deal with each persons unique situation. In this case the oppressed.I think Henri understands the psychology of the person he is ministering to meeting them where they are and yet still delivering the true Gospel

    1. I agree with you Chuck! It’s good that God works through our weaknesses and shortcomings as well as our strengths, because otherwise hope would be much harder to come by!

  9. Such a challenging issue to grapple with as we live in the reality of the kingdom of God being present, and still “not yet.” I think the bottom line of hope for me is that God is with me, even during the worst. Makes me think of Isaiah 43: “When you face stormy seas I will be there with you with endurance and calm; you will not be engulfed in raging rivers. If it seems like you’re walking through fire with flames licking at your limbs, keep going; you won’t be burned.” There are no easy answers as we live this out, that’s for sure.

  10. I have been struggling with the idea of hope. Henri defines hope on pg. 86. Then he adds that the people in Ukraine find themselves in a present that is “a prison to escape from, a trap to get out of, or an experience to suffer through as best as one can.” Hebrews 11 also highlights people of faith who never received what was promised to them. Abraham never got the land. “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder was God. (Hebrews 11:10)” But Henri opened that paragraph by insisting that hope was not just connected to the afterlife. In the prison, the trap, the suffering, how is God present in those moments? How does God show up? Is hope simply believing that God is worthy of our trust? Is hope seeing that God is present?

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