21 December 2008

A better symbol of the Incarnation, I can hardly imagine.

Holy Inefficiency of Henri Nouwen

Once when I was dining with a group of writers, the conversation turned to letters we get from readers. Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson mentioned an intense young man who had been seeking spiritual direction from both of them. They responded as best they could, answering questions by mail and recommending books on spirituality. Foster had just learned that the same inquirer had also contacted Henri Nouwen. "You won't believe what Nouwen did," he said. "He invited this stranger to live with him for a month so he could mentor him in person."

Most writers jealously protect their schedules and privacy. Nouwen, broke down such barriers of professionalism. His entire life, in fact, displayed a "holy inefficiency."

Trained in Holland as a psychologist and a theologian, Nouwen spent his early years achieving. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, averaged more than a book a year, and traveled widely as a conference speaker. He had a resume to die for—which was the problem, exactly. The pressing schedule and relentless competition were suffocating his own spiritual life.

Nouwen went to South America for six months, scouting a new role for himself as a missionary in the Third World. . . . Finally, Nouwen fell into the arms of the L'Arche community in France, a home for the seriously disabled. He felt so nourished by them that he agreed to become priest in residence at a similar home in Toronto called Daybreak. There, Nouwen spent his last ten years, still writing and traveling to speak here and there, but always returning to the haven of Daybreak.

His small room had a single bed, one bookshelf, and a few pieces of Shaker-style furniture. The walls were unadorned except for a print of a Van Gogh painting and a few religious symbols. A Daybreak staff person served us a bowl of Caesar salad and a loaf of bread. No fax machine, no computer, no Daytimer calendar posted on the wall—in this room, at least, Nouwen had found serenity. The church "industry" seemed very far away.

After lunch we celebrated a special Eucharist for Adam, the young man Nouwen looked after. Later Nouwen told me it took him nearly two hours to prepare Adam each day. Bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, guiding his hand as he tried to eat breakfast-these simple, repetitive acts had become for him almost like an hour of meditation.

I must admit I had a fleeting doubt as to whether this was the best use of the busy priest's time. Could not someone else take over the manual chores? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted him. "I am not giving up anything," he insisted. "It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship."

Nouwen has said that all his life two voices competed inside him. One encouraged him to succeed and achieve, while the other called him simply to rest in the comfort that he was "the beloved" of God. Only in the last decade of his life did he truly listen to that second voice.

Ultimately Nouwen concluded that "the goal of education and formation for the ministry is continually to recognize the Lord's voice, his face, and his touch in every person we meet." Reading that description in his book ¡Gracias!, I understand why he did not think it a waste of time to invite a seeking stranger to live with him for a month, or to devote two hours a day to the menial care of Adam.

A single image captures Nouwen best: the energetic priest, hair in disarray, using his restless hands as if to fashion a homily out of thin air, celebrating an eloquent birthday Eucharist for an unresponsive child-man so damaged that many parents would have had him aborted.

A better symbol of the Incarnation, I can hardly imagine.

By Philip Yancey, publushed in Christianity Today.

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