Brian Stiller & Henri Nouwen, Part Two | Episode Transcript
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 too, or that I can give you all you need. 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, you know? 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 the 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 them. 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 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. I mean, that’s an anxious, controlling, nervous ego of me, that I want to be reassured that I have enough to survive, but. . .
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 fulfills 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, you know, 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, you know, 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 of 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 sort of distracted by it all and remain focused. Now, that doesn’t mean ignoring the pain of the world. The opposite. But don’t think that sort of, things will clean up or get better. And then you find there won’t be any wars anymore. And those 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’ve gone 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 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 hand. 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, you know, whether at 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 now. 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: 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, and 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. You know? And so, my hope is that in this 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 it 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 can’t 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,” you know, one hour of the day, you’re at least happy.
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, 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 naive 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 sort of 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 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 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 or losing your job at 55 years of age. 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 the 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 that, my anguish and my suffering and my dying finally is the way to something new.” 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 in an hour, 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.
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