"In Conversation with Henri Nouwen, Part 2" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Happy New Year, and welcome to our very special Henri Nouwen, Now and Then podcast. We wanted to start this new year off with a special gift to all those who are part of our podcast and YouTube community of listeners. I’m Karen Pascal, the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society.
This episode is the second of two programs drawn from a conversation between Father Henri Nouwen and Reverend Brian Stiller. In 1995, these two met at L’Arche Daybreak, a home where Henri Nouwen lived the last 10 years of his life. The full discussion between Henri and Brian is very inspiring. If you missed the first part, I urge you to access it on our website or on our YouTube channel.
In this interview, Brian asked Henri what his concept of hope is. Henri shares how we can nurture the footprints of God in our life, and he shares his insights on prayer. These two recordings are some of the very best interviews that we have with Henri Nouwen. Brian asks deep and challenging questions, and Henri is so animated and alive in his responses.
Brian Stiller: Henri, you define hope this way: “Hope expects the coming of something new. Hope looks ahead towards that which is not yet. Hope accepts and risks the unspecified.” The news every night tells me that it is hopeless, and yet the essence of your analysis of the gospel is that hope is at the very core of belief.
Henri Nouwen: Hope has something to do with the promise. There can be no hope without a promise. And we are invited to live with the promise that says, “I will fulfill the deepest needs of your heart.” That’s what God is saying. “I have loved you. I’ve given you a heart, a restless heart, but a heart that is restless so that I can give you rest, or that I can give you all you need.”
So, to live with hope is to live with a promise. And what I want to say is that you can only hope if that what you’re hoping for has already touched you, that what you’re hoping for, you already know a little bit. I always desire, in a way, that of which I know something. And so, the mystery of hope is that, in a way, you are aware that something needs to be fulfilled, but what needs to be fulfilled somewhere already has touched you. Somewhere, the love that you want to come to fulfillment is already part of you.
That’s why I feel that if you live with hope, you are able to live very much in the present, because you can nurture the footprints of God in your heart, in your life. You will have already had a sense of what’s to come. And the whole spiritual life is saying, God is right with us now, so that we can wait for his coming, and we’re waiting with hope. But because we wait with hope, we know that what are you waiting for is already at work in us, and we have to nurture that.
Now, it’s interesting that we live in a world where people don’t know much about hope. They know about wishes. The whole Christmas period is full of wishes: “I wish a gift. I wish this. I want that.” It’s very concrete. It’s, “I want a toy. I want a car. I want a new house. I want a new job. I want. . .” We’re all very specific. That’s wishing. “I wish this, that, such and so.”
And hope is precisely that you say, “I don’t know how God is going to fulfill his promises, but I know he will.” And therefore, I can live in the present with the knowledge of God being with me, hoping and trusting that the deepest desires of my being will be fulfilled.
It keeps the future very open. You know, it’s not a controlling way of living. It’s not saying, “I want to have a hold on my future. I want to be sure this is going to happen, or that’s going to happen. I want to be sure that all these things are in place when I get there.”
That’s an anxious, controlling, nervous ego of me, that I want to be reassured that I have enough to survive.
Brian Stiller: Isn’t gambling based on hope?
Henri Nouwen: No, no.
Brian Stiller: Why not?
Henri Nouwen: Gambling is, in a way, all addictions are, in a way, ways to control your future. You want to have the satisfaction; you will have it now. And you get it and you realize it doesn’t fulfill your deepest needs and you want more. And it doesn’t fulfill your deepest needs, and you want more.
And so, instead you stuff yourself up with whatever, with food or with alcohol or with sexual fantasies or whatever. Addiction is kind of wanting to control your own future and, in a way, being so afraid that things might happen that are different from your own plans.
Brian Stiller: So, is hope giving away the future?
Henri Nouwen: No. Hope is to open yourself up to let God do his work in you in ways that are beyond your own imagination. That’s what Jesus says. When you were young, you put your belt on and went where you wanted to go. But when you got spiritually older, you stretched out your hands, let other people gird you and lead you where you rather wouldn’t go.
Now that’s hope: to allow yourself to be led to new places that are not the places that you might have in mind. Living with hope allows me to be with dying people. Living with hope allows me to be with people with AIDS.
Living with hope allows me to be in situations that are, in the eyes of the society, hopeless: “Nothing is going to change here. And why do you spend your energy with handicapped people who are not getting any better? Why do you get an education, and then you spend all your time being with people who can’t even talk?” All that.
And I say, “No, no, no. I believe that precisely there, God is fulfilling his promises, but in ways that are far beyond my own imagining.”
Brian Stiller: You write, “Hope is anchored in God’s self-disclosure in history.” So, hope is rooted in something substantial, absolute, real. It isn’t just hoping that everything will work out all right.
Henri Nouwen: Hope is nothing to do with optimism, but many people think hope is optimism, of looking at the positive side of life. Jesus doesn’t at all speak that things are getting any better. When Jesus talks about the end of time, about the future, he describes wars and nation against nation and people in anguish and seeing earthquakes. This is what we have right now.
And there’s no place where Jesus said, “One day, you know, it’d all be wonderful.” And he talks about this enormous agony, but he says, “You pray unceasingly. That will keep your heart focused on me and keep your heart so that you can stand with your head erect in the presence of the Son of Man.”
And don’t get distracted by it all; remain focused. Now, that doesn’t mean ignoring the pain of the world. The opposite. But don’t think that things will clean up or get better, and then you’ll find there won’t be any wars anymore, and no illnesses and no sickness. Jesus is saying, “The world is the world. The world is dark.” And it remains dark.
Brian Stiller: Henri, one of the most difficult things for many of us is prayer. And as you trace the movements of spiritual life, you talk about prayer being from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from illusion to prayer. How are we, in this very busy world, to understand prayer?
Henri Nouwen: Well, there are many ways of talking about prayer. Prayer for me means truthful listening. Listening. Listening to the voice who calls me the beloved. Listening to the truths of myself that God announces to me. And therefore, solitude is very, very important. Solitude comes from the word solus. That means to be alone with God, and to let God tell me who I am.
Let me give you a very simple example. When I pray, I simply go into a quiet place sometimes for half an hour – every morning, mostly. And I take a sentence like, “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.” Okay. “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.” Well, I want all sort of things. I want all that, I want this, I want that. I want such. I want so. My whole life is full of wants, and restlessness and anxiety.
But the truth of myself, in real spiritual truth, is there’s nothing I shall want, that God will give me everything I really need. And so, when I enter into solitude, I’m listening to the voice of truth that says, “There’s nothing you shall want. I am your shepherd. I’ll care for you. I will guide you.”
And I have to claim that. And it’s very, very difficult to claim it, because as soon as I am in solitude, I realize that my head is like a banana tree full of monkeys jumping here and there: “I could do this. I could go here. I could write a letter to my mom. I shouldn’t forget that. I have this appointment. At five o’clock he’s coming, then I have lunch with him later on.” Dah-dah-dah, and all these things, bup-bup-bup. I’m going crazy in my mind about them. Better I should stop this solitude and get going, so at least I don’t have to be so nervous.
But that shows that our head is a garbage can of stuff and anxieties and preoccupations. And so, the discipline of solitude is to gradually and very gently, actually, to say, “Oh, yes, I have to write this letter. Oh yes, I have to go there. Oh yes, I have to do that. But the truth is, the Lord is my shepherd and there’s nothing I shall want. I’m still mad at this person, and I want to tell them back.”
And I will often say, “Why did he say this to me? I should have said that. Oh yes, that’s true.” But the Lord is my shepherd. I want to go back to the truth. And the interesting thing is that when I pray that way, gradually, the truth descends from my mind, into my heart.
That’s prayer, to let the truth of my belovedness not be an idea that I am sort of convinced of, because prayer is not ideas. Prayer is to let the word become flesh in me. And that, in a way, the words – “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want” – they become flesh in me. And I experience the shepherding presence of God in the center of my being. In a way, these words enter into the inner sanctuary of my life. And it’s like a little room in me or a little space in which I hold that precious truth.
And the amazing thing is, in your solitude and your being alone with God, you have let the words become flesh. And in a way, the word is written on the wall of your inner room. Then, during the day, when you talk to people and be with people, somehow you can be with them from that place. You can, in a way, interiorly say, “You’re welcome.”
Brian Stiller: And you keep looking up at that memo that you’ve written on the wall that day.
Henri Nouwen: And it’s amazing. When I pray for a half hour, I’m totally silent. And sometimes, very confused in the middle of it.
Brian Stiller: Your mind wanders, too?
Henri Nouwen: Oh, all over the place! What do you think? I’m just like you. I’m all over the place. I mean, look at me: I can hardly control my hands. I’m a very restless, anxious, nervous person. I mean, I don’t have any kind of high inner harmonies going on, but I do believe that in the midst of this inner chaos, there is a space where God is saying to me, “Henri, don’t forget, I love you.”
And when I hold onto that, when I have that solitude, and in that solitude, I can really get in touch with the truth of myself. When I then walk in a very busy world with very busy people, I can, in a way, invite people into that place.
Whether it’s a business meeting or whether it’s a discussion on intellectual issues or whether it’s talking with our core members here or whether it’s planning, somehow, in the midst of it all, I can let that word be fruitful.
And I know I’m more attentive. I don’t waste too much of my time. I’m more focused. But when I stop praying — and I do often, you know, when I just think I don’t have time for it or whatever – gradually, I get much more dissipated, and my life gets much less focused and I’m not longer discerning when what I’m doing is really fruitful, and when it’s just more stuff.
Brian Stiller: You wrote in Clowning in Rome, you said, “We’ve gotten used to young people taking drugs. We now must get used to young people taking their lives.” In the midst of the tragedy and the suicide and the enormous inner calamity of people’s lives today, how do we speak the message of Christ into that tumultuous world?
Henri Nouwen: Maybe we shouldn’t speak that terribly much. I mean, I have increasingly come to believe that words are quite often words and not more than that, even when they are words that are quite spiritual. And I find it very, very important that we create in this world, places of healing, places of welcome, places of gentleness, places where people can experience what the word speaks about. And the word is all about the fact that I am the beloved child of God.
And the greatest human temptation is self-rejection. “I’m no good. Nobody cares. I have no contribution to make. People think I’m great, but in my heart, I know I’m a miserable person.”
People constantly lose touch with the original blessing, and a lot of people think about themselves very quickly as being abandoned, being rejected, being pushed away. And that’s where the suicide comes from. It’s an experience of total uselessness: “I have nothing to offer. I’m nobody. Nobody cares whether I’m alive or not.”
And also, it sometimes comes out of a deep anger, you know, sort of one way of getting back at the world.
But to say to these people, I don’t even know if any word will be there, but I do believe that every time people experience genuine care, that they can start listening to the word gradually.
And so, my hope is that in the midst of this world, there will be small communities and families and circles where people are able to be vulnerable together. In an extremely competitive world where you’re constantly pushed to show that you’re better than others, that you are different, we have to really find places of compassion, where it’s simply good to be human with another human being. Where being human binds us – you and I are brothers and therefore we don’t have to compete. And therefore, you can cry and you can laugh and you can say, you don’t have it together. And somewhere in the midst of that, you discover your belovedness.
Brian Stiller: But Henri, the byword today is competitiveness. And so, if you’re managing a corporation, or you’re part of a salesforce, or you’re in a manufacturing community and you’re competing on the world market, how do you come out of an economically driven life of competitiveness into a lifestyle of compassion, when the two seem so antithetical?
Henri Nouwen: By taking little steps in that direction. Just little ones. I don’t tell people to leave their business or their companies. What I hope that people do is to make a little step towards the places where God prefers to dwell, and that is in the heart of poor, weak, marginal people. And I tell you, I know a lot of businesspeople who do that, who spend an hour or two a week to go to a dying friend, who are extremely gentle with people. And for them, they know very soon that although the competition is there, it’s not the foundation of their life. The foundation of their life is compassion.
And so, the competition becomes the game of the world they have to learn how to play well, but they know that their spiritual identity is not rooted there, that their spiritual identity is connected with this one person or these two persons or these three persons and somehow, there they discover themselves.
And the point is not that they should help somebody. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is they should somewhere discover their own deepest, vulnerable humanity in communion with other people’s vulnerability, and there discover what real community is, what real fellowship is, what real brotherhood is.
And I have no fantasy that the whole world will become one beautiful brother or sisterhood. I mean, look what’s happening in Bosnia, and what’s happening in Africa. People are murdering or killing each other and the world is full of violence and war. The question is, are we simply saying we’re going to be passive victims of that, or can we make inner choices to live something different in the world? You know, Jesus didn’t change the world, in a way. What Jesus did is he shared vulnerability and offered hope in the midst of a very, very dark world. He was the light that came into the darkness, but the darkness didn’t understand him. But he was there.
Brian Stiller: So, in the midst of that suffering, one of your lines, as you say, “Joy is based on the knowledge that while the world is shrouded in darkness, Christ has overcome the world.”
Henri Nouwen: Yes. Yes. Well, one thing about joy, and I really think I want you to hear that, is that joy in our world is never separated from sorrow. Never. And the world in which we live wants to separate them.
Brian Stiller: Does sorrow give rise to joy, or are they inseparable?
Henri Nouwen: No, no. The world in which we live is saying, “You cannot be sorrowful and joyful at the same time. If you’re glad, you cannot be sad. If you’re sad, you cannot be glad. If you’re happy, you cannot be unhappy at the same time. You’re one or the other.” That’s why they have this funny word, “happy hour.” One hour of the day, you’re at least happy.
Brian Stiller: We can drink twice as much for half the cost.
Henri Nouwen: And the spiritual vision is precisely the opposite. It’s the opposite. And every great spiritual leader will say that. Saint Francis said it, Mother Teresa talks about it, Jean Vanier talks about it. That is, that when you go to the place of sorrow, right there you will find joy. Right In the midst of human pain, you will suddenly discover that something is emerging. And that is new life. And it’s like a labor pain. The woman in labor pain has enormous sorrow, but right in the midst of that sorrow, something is being born that gives new life.
And I think that, quite often, we think that if you go to the places of sorrow, like to a dying person, to a handicapped person, or a person in prison, or a person with AIDS, you’re going to be overwhelmed with misery and pain, and you want to stay away from it. But the fact is that anybody who can do it, who can move to these places, will discover that the person they go to will offer them something that is of enormous joy.
And joy is something else than just “happiness.” It’s the experience of being the beloved. It’s the sense of, I am sent into this world with a task. I am here to announce good news and in a very profound way, by just living who I am and living it faithfully and directly, and I don’t have to deny the darkness. I can just be in it, but clinging to the truth of who I am is a real, real, real joy. It’s always right there where the sorrow is most – that’s my life.
Brian Stiller: When you talk about embracing pain, isn’t that a bit naïve?
Henri Nouwen: No, it’s not naïve at all. It’s taking up the cross. It’s embracing the truth of who you are, embracing – I even want to say to befriend your sorrow, to befriend your pain, to befriend your truth. If I am a person who experiences a lot of anguish and pain, the question is not how to live as if that’s not there and look in another direction. It’s much more saying, can I say, “That’s me, that’s me. I am very anguished here.” I dare to call my pain by its right name. And I dare to go to you and say, “Brother, I’m in pain. This is really hurting me. Can you be with me? I don’t know what to do about it, but can you be with me in this peril?”
Brian Stiller: So, if my spouse walks out on me, I embrace that?
Henri Nouwen: When your spouse walks out on you, and there is no way to restore that relationship, can you live with that enormous pain in such a way that doesn’t make you bitter, angry, jealous, resentful, and the rest of your life destroyed?
Brian Stiller: So, your attempt is not to absolve the pain.
Henri Nouwen: My attempt is to recognize that in my life, something happened that is extremely painful. How can I choose to embrace it, to live it as my pain and trust that that pain is labor pain, that somewhere will bring new life to me. How can I choose to live it?
That’s what Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “Make a cross for another person.” He doesn’t say, “Make a cross for yourself.” He says, “Take up your cross, your unique suffering.”
And you don’t have to look for suffering. You don’t have to make suffering. You don’t have to make it harder on yourself. The question is, can you look at your pain and really embrace it as your way in which God leads you to a new place?
Brian Stiller: But Henri, we live in this antiseptic world where we do everything to avoid pain and suffering. We have the white coats. We have the closed doors. We have the soft music. And whether it’s in the death of a person or the physical pain of a person, we do everything to ameliorate pain. Don’t we?
Henri Nouwen: We do not believe that pain is good for anything. I’m not at all against medication. I’m not, not at all. I thinking there’s enough pain. If we have a way to take pain away, we shouldn’t not do it. That’s not what I’m saying.
But there’s a lot of pain we cannot change. I’m speaking about the pain of a broken life or the pain of a relationship that didn’t work out, or the pain of feeling depressed, or the pain of feeling anger.
Brian Stiller: Or losing your job at 55 years of age.
Henri Nouwen: But it might be even deeper. The pain of me being Henri and still having the same character problem that I had when I was 18. Can I embrace it? Can I say, “Yes, that’s happening. I’m not going to be without this impatience or this anger or this restlessness, but I am willing to say, ‘This is me.’”
But I’m also trusting that if I am faithful to me and my own unique life story, then out of that, life can come. I cannot be like that person or like that person or like that person. I’m just me. And I have my own journey, with my own unique pain and my own experience of rejection, my own needs. Can I just claim them and trust that precisely when I’m faithful to my own unique story, I will meet God right there, right in my pain?
That’s what Jesus says to the people of Emmaus. He says, “Didn’t you know, you foolish people, didn’t you know, that the Son of Man had to suffer, and so enter glory?” Oh, he’s not just saying that about himself. That’s the story.
Brian Stiller: So, they needed new eyes to see.
Henri Nouwen: Yes, and he was saying, “That’s true for you, too.” You have to say to yourself, “Can I realize that, in the midst of my anguish and my suffering and my dying, finally, is the way to something new?”
Brian Stiller: You said that you had a conversion by watching a gay man die of AIDS. That you got new eyes, that out of their pain, you saw something different.
Henri Nouwen: I have been with people who have suffered with AIDS, and are living with it. And I’m asking myself constantly, “What does this mean?” And I have discovered that in circles maybe that I would least expect, I would see people caring for each other in new ways. [There was] a young man who knew that he only had a few more years to live, and who suddenly came closer to God in ways he had never been before. I think people are saying, “After I had AIDS, I have suddenly realized what it means to be loved and cared for.”
And that doesn’t happen automatically. I’m not trying to generalize it. But I’ve seen people with AIDS who are able to live their mortality in a very direct way, and look it right into the eyes, and are able to discover God’s presence in a very unique way they never have experienced before.
That’s not just for people with AIDS. You and I are dying, too. I’m 62, and I might have 20 more years to live. I really have to be ready. My greatest vulnerability is the fact that I’m going to die, and that’s not bad news.
Jesus says, “It’s good for you that I die so I can send my spirit.” And we have to be able to say that, too, in some way, to our friends. “It’s good for you that I finally go. Because when I go, I can send the spirit of God to those who I’ve loved.” And then I can continue to be fruitful in the lives of other people.
Brian Stiller: We often think of eternity as something that goes on after we die. And yet, your whole notion of eternity is living life now. You give emphasis to the nowness of life.
Henri Nouwen: Yes. But I’m only being free to totally focus on the here and now because I’m safe from all eternity to all eternity. I mean, that allows me to be here. You know what I mean? It’s not a hedonistic now, like, “let’s live up the moment.” It’s precisely the opposite. It’s like saying, “I can pay attention to your need. I can be with you because I know that together, we’ve been sent into this world to fulfill our spiritual mission, to announce God’s love. And we will be moving back to the place of God’s eternal embrace.”
And our life is just a mission to live something. But if we live the mission, we’d better be here. You know, you’d better be here. You’d better pay attention. If I talked to a sick person, to a handicapped person, I’m not trying to get him anywhere else. I just want to be with this person here and now, because this person, in a way, is Christ for me now, and now matters. Here and now matters precisely because God is a God of the present. and God is a God of the present because he is the God of eternity.
You see what I mean? I don’t know if you if you catch that, but I mean, it’s really true. If I know I’m safe, in a safe embrace from that stretch, from eternity to eternity, I’m totally free to with you here and now.
Brian Stiller: But so often, we’re bound by the memories of the past.
Henri Nouwen: And guilty about the past and worrying about the future. And Jesus kept saying, “Don’t worry about the future, nor feel guilty about the past, because you’re forgiven. But be here, because here am I with you. Dwell with me.”
And Jesus is saying, “The kingdom of God is among us. The kingdom of God is within us. The kingdom of God is right where we are.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that the kingdom of God doesn’t have to come to its full revelation in the, that there is not an unfolding to take place. But for you and for me, Jesus is saying, “Be attentive to the kingdom of God at your fingertips. It’s right here where you are. And I am the God of the present. I’m not a God of the past. I’m not just a God of the future. I’m just where you are. because I love you, and I want to hold you in my embrace, and I want to take you by the hand and guide you through the darkness. I want to be with you and pay attention to what I’m saying to you here and now.”
I mean, that’s what the contemplative life is all about. It’s to be there. And it doesn’t mean that we are not to care for what’s going to happen or to be indifferent. It simply means to trust that if we are fully present, in the present today, we will discover what to do tomorrow.
Brian Stiller: So, I don’t have to be a monk to be contemplative.
Henri Nouwen: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Not at all. Contemplation means to discover Christ in a moment. And if I talk to you now, this is the moment. My great concern for this conversation we are having is that you and I are together. That you are here, and I am here, and that’s all that counts. And the more I’m totally here for you, and the more you are totally here for me, something can happen. Something of God can happen. It can be a spiritual event. This can be the fullness of time for you and me, here and now. And if you trust that, then you can know that if you’re totally here now, you’ll know where to be tomorrow, when tomorrow comes, and you will know with the person you’re there with, you can be healed. My greatest concern is that the person I’m with, or the situation I’m with, is the situation in which God calls me to live the kingdom now.
Brian Stiller: So, the kingdom is liberating of the guilt of the past and anxiety of the future?
Henri Nouwen: Right. It’s being in the present, in the kingdom now. That’s what this community is about. We want to live the kingdom here around the dinner table. We want to say, we don’t want to have dinner in order to do something tomorrow. And we live in a world in which every time you do something, people say, “What can I do with it tomorrow?” Or, “Why do we eat? Well, we eat so we can do something.”
The question is, can we eat because eating is living the kingdom? Can I talk to you because talking to you is living the kingdom? Can I be with friends and say, this is the moment for us to celebrate? Celebration means to lift up the present and recognize God in it.
Karen Pascal: You’ve been listening to a wonderful dialogue between Henri Nouwen and Brian Stiller. They addressed the critical question: “How do we speak the message of Christ in this tumultuous world?” And Henri reminds us, the joy in our world is never separated from sorrow.
Thank you for being with us today on Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. If you’d like to watch this amazing interview, you can see it on our YouTube channel.
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