from loneliness to l'arche
When I was at Harvard teaching about Jesus to hundreds of people from all over the world, I was miserable. It was then that I unconsciously touched the strong voice from my childhood that spoke to me about the simple way of Jesus. I began to wonder if my proclaiming the Gospel wasn't the best way of losing my very spirit and my connection with the Divine in my life. Harvard is a very ambitious institution, interested in the best and the brightest, in power, upward mobility, political influence, and economic success. Talking about Jesus there wasn't easy and I felt pressure to adopt the model of the university, to become more competitive and to "make it" as a professor in that environment. Separated by death from the loving relationship with my mother, I also felt very lonely, detached in prayer, unable to respond to those who wanted to become my friends, and without a community around me. I knew that I had to do something, but I felt desperate because I didn't know what to do. I began to ask Jesus in times of prayer for directions out of my pain.
One morning in my little apartment a knock came at the door. The little woman standing on the step smiled at me. "Hello," I said. "What are you doing here so early in the morning?"
"Well," she answered, "my name is Jan Risse."
"What can I do for you?"
"Well, I've come to bring you greetings from Jean Vanier."
Now the name Jean Vanier was just a name for me. I admired his communities, called L'Arche, that welcomed people with disabilities, and I had even mentioned Jean Vanier in one of my books. But I had never met him. So again I said to Jan Risse, "What can I do for you?"
She continued to smile and replied, "Well, I come to bring greetings from Jean Vanier."
"Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. So, what is it that you really come for?" I asked.
"Well, I come to bring greetings from Jean Vanier."
Conscious of my busy day ahead and hoping to bypass the small talk, I said, "Did you want me to give a lecture somewhere, or give a seminar, or a talk? What can I do for you?" She looked at me and suggested that I invite her to come in! I stood aside and said, "Sure, you can come in, but I have a class and then I have a meeting and I'm completely tied up until suppertime."
In my living room she turned and said, "OK, that's fine. You go off and I'll be fine right here until your return." Thus, she came in and I left for the better part of the day. Upon my return in the early evening I gazed at my room. The table was covered with a white linen cloth and beautifully set with candles, a bottle of wine, fine china, and flowers in the center. Astonished I exclaimed, "What's this?"
"Oh, I thought you and I could have dinner together," she casually replied.
"But where did you find all these beautiful things?" I asked.
"From your own cupboard!" she said, pointing to the buffet. "You must not look around your own house very often!" She had created this wonderful dinner for the two of us with candles and wine--from my own house!
I found her a room on campus and she stayed for three days. We had a few visits and she came to my classes and then she left. Her last words to me were "Remember, Jean Vanier sent his greetings."
I sat in my chair and said to myself, "Something is happening. This visit wasn't for nothing." But then nothing happened for many, many months until the phone rang one day and Jean Vanier was on the other end of the line. "Henri," he said, "I'm on a retreat here in Chicago and I was thinking of you. Is there any chance you could come and join us here?"
I hastened to reply, "Jean, I have already given a number of retreats this year."
Jean answered, "I'm not asking you to give the retreat. I'm here on a retreat with a number of people from L'Arche worldwide, and I just thought you might like to be here to pray with us. We're all in silence, so you don't have to worry about talking to lots of people. You and I could visit and it might be a rest for you."
Almost immediately the same sense that something important was happening prompted me to drop everything and go to Chicago for several days. Nobody was talking, but more than fifty people were together there for conferences, meals, sharing, and worship. Apart from a daily visit with Jean in which I shared my angst in Harvard, I enjoyed a silent retreat with people from L'Arche around the world. When it was time to leave I felt rested as well as challenged by something Jean Vanier had said to me in passing at one point: "Perhaps our people [i.e., people with disabilities who live in L'Arche] could offer you a home."
That one sentence touched a chord in me and seemed like a prophetic call, so I visited Jean in his L'Arche home just north of Paris the next time I went to Europe. I felt relaxed with the people with disabilities and in general I experienced peace, rest, and safety in the community. I knew Harvard wasn't the place for me, so I resigned at the end of the year and took a writing sabbatical in Jean's community at Trosly. While I was there, the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada, called me to come there for three years as their pastor and I said "yes" to their invitation.
The following year I found a wonderful home at Daybreak, and there completed the first part of my journey from loneliness to L'Arche. But it was a surprise to discover that there was still a way to go. A long way.
In my L'Arche formation the word most used was the word "home." L'Arche is a home. Jean had said to me, "Maybe our people can offer you a 'home.' " Daybreak was saying, "Our community wants you to be pastor, and we think we can offer you a 'home.' " Because my life had always been lived alone and because of inner loneliness, that word, "home," touched me in my heart. In the competitive world of the university, "home" was not a significant word. "Institution," "success," "financial gain," and "power" obliterate the concepts of "community," "intimacy," and "togetherness."
Because I was longing for belonging and a sense of home, I came to L'Arche filled with new hope of finding fulfillment. It was a shock for me during the first three years at L'Arche to gradually realize that "home" might mean something other than what my heart craved and my flesh desired. I was under the illusion that home was the pure experience of warmth, intimacy, and affection, and at the beginning there was a lot of that. But the longer I lived at Daybreak the more I realized that I might have to give up home in order to find it. While living with handicapped people and their assistants at Daybreak I sensed that the Lord was inviting me to something that I was certainly not ready to live.
As I lived longer in the Daybreak community old demons around my need for affection revisited me, and I began to find it difficult to love freely without being selfish and demanding. I sensed myself going into a dark tunnel leading to a second loneliness unlike anything I had ever lived before. I don't have many words to describe what happened to me, but the story of the prodigal son will help me unwrap for you the gift and spiritual significance of this, my journey.
Reading the story and studying the painting of the prodigal son brought me to recognize that there is a younger child in me that needs conversion, and there is an elder sibling in me that needs conversion as well. Most importantly, however, I realized there is a father, a parent, that needs to be first revealed in me and then claimed by me, in order for me to receive the younger and the elder children that long, like me, to come home. Because of this experience with the parable, I feel more confident that a time will come when we will all share the celebration--not only of the return of many younger prodigals, but also the return of the elder daughters and sons to the home of their true identities as siblings and parents around the table with the Father-Mother-God. The word "home," more than anything else, called me to move forward on my journey to share my life with others in L'Arche.
So on my journey from loneliness to L'Arche I was finally paying attention to my life and to the internal and external "happenings and events" that pointed me to life changes. "Being attentive to the signs" is a wisdom practice handed down through the generations from our very wise and holy ancestors.
These exercises happen within the sacred context of your life. You are invited to listen with your heart as well as with your mind.
Find a quiet space and become comfortable. Look at Rembrandt's painting and gently step into the painted scene as an invisible guest. Situate yourself in the place in the room where you feel most comfortable as an onlooker. Close your eyes and become aware of the sounds in the room. What noises are you hearing? What voices do you hear? Take time to listen to the unfolding scene--from within.
Still in the portrait, open your journal and write what you see and hear. Take your time. Then focus and take note of the feelings your presence there evoked in you. Write how each person and their words affected you. Write what you feel and how your heart responds.
Go to the privileged place in your heart where no one but you and your God have access. Articulate to the One who fashioned you and who is with you always, even to the end of time, your experience as participant in the parable. Stop and listen for the still, small voice of Love. Speak again, then wait and listen. Remain. Abide. Rest.
Heart speaks to heart.
A Wisdom Practice for Those on a Spiritual Journey
Practice #1__BE ATTENTIVE TO THE "SIGNS"
Feeding the pigs and close to despair, the runaway prodigal knew that his life had to change. A certain hope was born when he considered going home, but that was soon replaced by shame, fear, and the utter impossibility of such a simple move. But his options were limited, so glimmerings of excitement around thoughts of "home" persisted. Because he listened, he was one day able to turn with uneasy confidence and begin his journey home.
In those final years at Harvard I also "knew" that teaching in the university was deadening. I prayed, sought advice, and tried to be attentive to inner movements indicating what was to be next for me. Connecting first with Jan Risse and then with Jean Vanier moved me in my heart, and I knew that our meetings were not accidental. I listened. Although the initial idea of moving to L'Arche excited me, it was still with reluctance, fear, and uneasy confidence that I left the university and haltingly stepped into the im_possible.
To live authentically each of us must be aware of our "within." We need to become conscious of feeling content, safe, and in the right place, and of feeling lonely, disillusioned, or mildly depressed. In front of turmoil, what do we do? Wise teachers tell us to be very attentive at these moments, to be open to "signs," feelings, comments, a line in a book, unexpected meetings or events that may move us to consider new directions, to refind balance, and to remain fully alive. Spiritual signs usually have four characteristics: They are simple not complicated, persistent, seemingly impossible, and always about others as well as ourselves. Be attentive when you experience these on your journey. Try to recognize an opportunity as well as a difficulty. Try not to respond too quickly. Pray for wisdom. Seek advice and refuse to act until you have external affirmation for your direction. Take time to believe in your free choice before you move forward in a new direction.
the younger son
I am a Dutchman. Rembrandt is a Dutchman and van Gogh is a Dutchman. These Dutch painters have entered into my heart in a very deep way, so I have them in mind as I speak to you. They have become my consolation and when I find I have nothing else to say, when I have only tears for what is happening in my life, I look at Rembrandt or at van Gogh. Their lives and their art heal and console me more than anything else.
Rembrandt painted the picture of the prodigal son between 1665 and 1667, at the end of his life. As a young painter, he was popular in Amsterdam and successful with commissions to do portraits of all the important people of his day. He was known as arrogant and argumentative, but he participated in the circles of the very rich in society. Gradually, however, his life began to deteriorate:
First he lost a son,
then he lost his first daughter,
then he lost his second daughter,
then he lost his wife,
then the woman he lived with ended up in a mental hospital,
then he married a second woman who died,
then he lost all his money and fame, and
just before he himself died, his son Titus died.
It was a man who experienced immense loneliness in his life that painted this picture. As he lived his overwhelming losses and died many personal deaths, Rembrandt could have become a most bitter, angry, resentful person. Instead he became the one who was finally able to paint one of the most intimate paintings of all time--The Return of the Prodigal Son. This is not the painting he was able to paint when he was young and successful. No, he was only able to paint the mercy of a blind father when he had lost everything: all of his children but one, two of his wives, all his money, and his good name and popularity. Only after that was he able to paint this picture, and he painted it from a place in himself that knew what God's mercy was. Somehow his loss and suffering emptied him out to receive fully and deeply the mercy of God. When Vincent van Gogh saw this painting he said, "You can only paint this painting when you have died many deaths." Rembrandt could do it only because he had died so many deaths that he finally knew what the return to God's mercy really meant.
Excerpted from Home Tonight by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Copyright © 2009 by Henri Nouwen. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.