Brian Stiller & Henri Nouwen, Part Three | Episode Transcript
Brian Stiller: As I live for Christ, so often I think of the kingdom as that which is coming, that will come into reality when Christ comes and darkness is dispelled, the light takes over and the kingdoms of this world are destroyed and the kingdom of God is forever established. And what happens is that I tend to live in the future. But your mysticism calls me to live the fullness of the gospel in this moment. And this moment is legitimate.
Henri Nouwen: Well, you know, many people live between guilt and worries. Guilt about the past, worrying about the future. And Jesus kept saying, “Don’t worry about the future nor feel guilty about the past, because you are forgiven, but be here because here am I with you; dwell with me.” And Jesus is saying, “The kingdom of God is among us,” or 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, that there’s not an unfolding to take place. But for you and for me, Jesus is saying, be attentive. The kingdom of God is at your fingertips. It’s right here, where you are. And I am the God of the present and not the God of the past.
I’m not used to God in 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. That simply means to trust. And if we are fully present, the present today, we will discover what to do tomorrow.
Brian Stiller: I thought you had 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 I’m totally here for you. And the more you are totally here for me, [the more] 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, now. And if you trust that and you can know it, if you’re totally here now, you will know where to be tomorrow, when tomorrow comes. And you will know that the person you are there with, you can be healed. My greatest concern is that the person I’m with, or the situation I’m in, 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, right at 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, is it tomorrow? Or why do we eat? 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.
Brian Stiller: Henri, as I’ve read your various books, it seems to me that The Return of the Prodigal is a very special book. It’s almost as if there’s the converging of the streams of your thought and experiences over the years. Give us a brief background as to how The Return of the Prodigal through Rembrandt’s paintings became so special to you.
Henri Nouwen: When I saw the poster of the Rembrandt painting in which the father embraces his returning son. I was totally overwhelmed because when I saw it, I felt interiorly, very broken. I felt very, very spent. I felt I’d lost a lot. And that had to do with a lot of things that were happening in my life. And when I saw this embrace, I said, that’s where I want to be. And out of that, I started to think about myself as the prodigal son that wanted to return home. But then I started to study the painting and I went all the way to St. Petersburg to see the original painting by Rembrandt. Then I saw there was the oldest son, too, in the painting and the oldest son suddenly started to speak to me. And I started to realize I may be the younger son, you know, the person who is dissipated, who has lost a lot of things, going all the way to the pigs and wanting to come home.
But I met much more, the eldest son who stayed home, but is angry, who is resentful, who is in a way close to God, in a way close to the father. But then at the same time, not close and resenting my younger brother who did all these things, and resenting the fact that I’m not getting the attention that other people get, and I suddenly realized that I’m the oldest son, myself, you know, in my family, that there was a lot of resentment in me, a lot of not fully enjoying being in the church or being in the community of faith. And I would always be angry about the situation. Your resentment is like cold anger. It’s like having a heart of stone somewhere. And I realized that I was jealous of people.
I was resentful of people. I wasn’t enjoying it. And so, I suddenly discovered I was these two sons, both, and then something incredibly important happened. I got very depressed at one point, and very low and very anguished. And I had to take some time away. And one member of my community came to visit me. And she said, “Henri, you’re talking about yourself being the youngest son. And you’re talking about yourself being the oldest son, but you have to be the father now.” That’s who you’re called to be, the father. And you have to claim that and look at the father in the painting. The father has a hand of a mother and a hand of a father. That’s a male hand and a female hand touching the son. Look at the father who is like a mother with a big cloak, like “under your wings I will find refuge.”
It’s like the mother bird who holds her young safe. Look at the father who can hardly, who has cried a lot in his life. But, he wants to welcome his son back without asking any questions, not saying, “I always told you so, and you should behave like this, and why didn’t you do as I always told you?” None of that. The father didn’t even want to hear the story of the younger son. The father doesn’t even want to hear the story of the oldest son. He wants them to be back home at the same table with him so that they can grow up and become like him. And suddenly, I realized that when the youngest son comes home and the oldest son comes home, they have to become the father, so that they can receive home people. And it’s precisely their immense suffering that they had lived, that allowed them to be a compassionate father to receive people home.
And I suddenly discovered my final vocation is not only to go home, but to bring people home. Not by telling them what to do, but by saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re here.” And I don’t ask any questions. And I don’t want you to tell this whole story. What I’m going to say to my father? He says, just get out the cloth, the beautiful ring, and get out the sandals and let’s celebrate because you’re back. And I have to say that to people all the time, every day. If you’re talking about young people, that’s my task in life to call, to say to people, to hold them. And not just to give them a little lecture, to talk, but to hold them and say, “This is okay.”
Brian Stiller: But you said, I’m the prodigal son every time I look for unconditional love where it cannot be found.
Henri Nouwen: That’s right. If I go to places I want to be unconditionally loved by you or by anybody, or I go downtown or I go to a movie or go to a play. And I hope that this will finally do it for me. You know, I get hooked.
Brian Stiller: I know so many men in ministry who had a bad relationship in their memory, at least, with their fathers. And they’re desperately looking for unconditional love and often what they do is they busy themselves in ministry almost to the place where they think if they work hard enough, they’ll be accepted by their heavenly Father in a way they were never accepted by their earthly father.
Henri Nouwen: You don’t have to deserve unconditional love. It’s there. And the harder you work and try to deserve it from God, the more you burn yourself out. I mean, the question is not to rush, rush, push, push, cling, bang, all these things in order to deserve God’s unconditional love. God’s unconditional love was there before you were even born. And it has nothing to do with your deserving anything. It’s God giving it freely, gratuitously. That’s what grace is. And for people who have been poorly loved by their parents or by their friends or by the church, it’s so important to somewhere be able to forgive them. That they only had a limited love to give. That he only had a limited affection to share. But that dear love of the father and the love of the mother and the love of the teachers and the love of the brothers and friends in this world are limited to reflections of an unlimited love., And I have to dare to claim that unlimited love. And I don’t claim it by being busy. I claim it by solitude, by prayer, by contemplation and by being with the poor who have nothing to give to me in that sense. That’s what Jesus keeps saying: “Invite those who can invite you.” You be, and then you will discover it, you know?
Brian Stiller: So, living in the rat race of today, it isn’t that I leave the race, but that I find the welcoming arms of the Father in the race.
Henri Nouwen: Right. And that you don’t live your life as a race. You can be very busy — I’m very busy, my goodness, and more busy than I should be. And I’m very active; I do thousands of things. And I’m also a little bit compulsive and I’m also a little bit addicted. And then, you know, I’m all these things — I’m not free from any of that. But somehow in the midst of my addictions, whether that’s to being busy or whether it’s to friendships or whether it’s to this or that, somehow in the midst I can go to a place that says, “There’s something more,” and go back to that place. Keep returning home, keep claiming the truth about myself. And I need friends there to remind me, the church to remind me. I need the word of God to remind me. I need the sacraments to remind me. I need to be constantly reminded that I’m not becoming myself in the rat race. I’m becoming myself by stretching out my hands and saying, “Into your hands I commend my spirit. You are my God. And I’m your son and all is here.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!