Wednesday, July 06, 2011
Nouwen, Journey to Daybreak
I have finished my first but hope not last book by Henri Nouwen, Journey to Daybreak, published in 1987. It is a record of his year before entering a L’Arche community full-time. He would eventually end up taking care of a severely handicapped young man full-time, although he still did some writing. I’d like to reflect upon it below.
Nouwen is a Roman Catholic priest, so there will be some obvious differences between us. One I noticed is the difference in our views of poverty. Evangelicals see poverty as a condition to be fixed; a devout Catholic, who has taken vows as Nouwen had, see it as a condition to be embraced. Catholics have a different view of suffering as well. They seem to see it as part of the salvation process rather than a result of it in an evil world.
What touches me most about Nouwen’s writing is his desire for, longing after, insistence on, passion for intimacy with Christ and His people. If you look up Nouwen on Wikipedia, you will find that whoever wrote the article thought that what defined Nouwen was some admissions later in life that he struggled with homosexual feelings and, whether related or not, a lack of true intimacy with people. It is sad that this person reduced his profound life and career to that. Yet the fact that he struggled with it does not bother me. Struggles with sin are struggles with sin, and while sin needs repentance, sin often has a basis in some deprivation or unmet longing. Nouwen writes about friendship and how hard it is with great insight.
One of his entries in the journal is one about Peter and Paul: Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. I have often wondered why these two great apostles are celebrated on the same day. Is not each of them worth a special day?
In his sermon, Father Thomas responded to this question. He explained how there is always danger of playing out one against the other: peter, the simple, uneducated fisherman who had hardly any knowledge of the theological debates of his time and who responded to Jesus in a direct, impulsive way without much distance or criticism; and Paul, the well-educated disciple of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, sharp, intelligent, deeply concerned about the truth, and willing to persecute those whom he considered in grave error. The Church is built on the foundations laid by both Peter and Paul. There are not two churches, one for the simple people who trust their emotions more than their brains and the other for the intellectuals who are willing to debate the current issues. There is only one church, in which Peter and Paul each has his own role and importance. Uncritical Christianity is as dangerous as “pure brain” Christianity. . .
Another great passage is found on page 211: It is so important to be specific and concrete and to identify accurately the moments of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, as generalities do not help much in the spiritual life. Specifics are crucial—they tell the real story. They reveal the real sin and the real grace; they point the real way to renewal.
Nouwen writes very honestly about spiritual pride. He brushes up against the issue of celibacy. “As we spoke (he and Charles Busch, a colleague from Harvard) that chastity is a communal virtue. . . Often we think about sexuality as a private affair. . . But the distinction between the private and public sphere of life is a false distinction and has creted many of the problems we are struggling with in our day. In the Christian life the distinction between a private life (just for me) and a public life (for the others) does not exist. . . . (p. 168.)
I could go on. Get the book. Read it slowly. It’s one that deserves reading slowly.
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