Henri Nouwen "Spiritual Disciplines for a Busy Life" Part 2 | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. So, we invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Today, you’re in for a treat. You are going to hear Part Two of Henri Nouwen’s talk on the spiritual disciplines. This was given at a consultation on parish ministry in January of 1992 in Orlando, Florida. If you missed Part One on the spiritual disciplines, you’ll find it on our website under Resources. Today, we’ll hear Henri Nouwen complete the series, with four more spiritual disciplines. Henri’s goal was to equip and encourage people in ministry and, typical of any Henri talk, he breaks up his message with Taizé chants. Let’s listen in to this wonderful time of teaching with Henri Nouwen.
Henri Nouwen: I want to say a little bit about the next discipline, which is daily routines. And it simply means, what do we do with things that we do every day? I’d like to say a little bit more about it, because our community is basically doing a lot of things that so quickly are being perceived as just routines: dishes, diapers, cleaning, buying. And the great question about our life is, “How can the most simple daily tasks become a form of prayer, of spiritual life?” To “confess” is also to praise. Confitemini means “praise.” The Lord quoniam means “because,” he’s good, bonum. Let me sing that to you:
Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonum. Confitemini Domino. Alleluia.
Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonum. Confitemini Domino. Alleluia.
Just a word about ministry as a discipline. The great discipline of ministry in the context we’re talking is to really believe that the person who comes to you comes for your conversion. And that’s a very radical turnaround. That is the hardest to live, but that’s what we been talking to you in our community about, that quite often, I came to the community to help somebody and that person who I came to help became a teacher. The first person who I was called to care for, his name was Adam – can you imagine? Adam. Adam couldn’t speak and cannot speak and Adam cannot walk and Adam cannot dress himself. He’s very epileptic, he has very severe difficulties. But I tell you that Adam, who I was afraid of in the beginning because of his handicap, Adam became my teacher.
And at the beginning, I was so afraid because I had to take him to the bath and undress him and be very careful that I wouldn’t hurt him and he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t respond. And I was always worrying about helping him. But gradually, when I spent one hour and two hours and three hours and every day with him for quite a few hours, gradually, I discovered that for the rest of the day, Adam was always somewhere in my mind. And somehow, I realized that these hours with Adam had become hours of silence, hours of prayer, hours of contemplation, and that Adam in his silence and that Adam in his passivity, in a way, because he couldn’t do anything, called me to the basic truth of my life. Adam, who I came to help, started to become my teacher, saying to be with me is better than to do anything. Saying to me, “I can’t speak and I can’t think, but I can love you.” And the heart is more important than the mind.
And Adam was saying to me, “I need a whole lot of you to stay alive.” And Adam in his weakness created our community ine the people around him, and called us to community. He taught us that to be is better than to do. He taught us that the heart is more important than the mind. He taught us that living together is better than living alone. And he made us do it, because we had to live that way for him to live well. But he became our teacher. And Adam is a very handicapped person, but I tell you, every one of us are handicapped. And everyone who comes for ministry to you is handicapped and asks you to help. And if you really believe you call as a minister, your first vocation is to discover and to discern what this person is bringing to you for your conversion, for your healing. In a way, to minister is to create space for the other to convert you. Ministry is to create space so that as the other sees your conversion, he or she is healed. That’s the great mystery. The healing often takes place when people who ask for healing discover that you are being renewed, and not just becoming more depressed or more burdened or more tired.
And I might as well mention right away the next discipline. And that is spiritual reading. Because somehow, you have to keep reading about God in order to keep that perspective going. And what do you have to read? Well, Scripture. But please think about it, about the treasures of the church. And today, I know I’m talking a little bit from my own tradition, but I would really encourage you to read the mystics. Read the mystics.
And there are Protestant mystics and Catholic mystics and Hindu mystics, but read the mystics, because the mystics speak about the communion with God. And out of that communion they speak and they act. And you and I know it, and maybe it’s not meant as a judgment, but it’s at least mentioned as an observation that I am very much part of, because I love your work and your ministry, and I’m doing it with you. But we are so not thinking in moral terms, in moral issues, in issues in the first place. And we have important issues. The issues of the poor, the issues of the handicapped, and the issue of women, and the issue of gays, and the issue of power, and the issue of oppression, the issue of the Third World – and there are very important issues.
And when we deal with issues, we always ended up asking questions about good and evil and what can we do and what is not good and what is good and where we are presented to. And it’s important, but you can see how it can pull you away and make you tired. Jean Vanier always said to me, “You know, Henri, you know, you can only deal well with issues out of an intimate relation with the other.” If we are allowing the issues to dominate our inner life, then they become moral issues, whether we want them or not. We have to be mystics, we have to be people who live in communion with God, and nurture that and feel connected there. And from there, we deal with the issues and we become moral people. But the moral life has to grow out of the mystical life. And if the church and the Christian community is considered to be primarily dealing with moral issues, people are not going to come, because it doesn’t nurture to hear what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. It doesn’t help the deepest part of our hearts. And many people are perceiving the church still as saying this, yes, and this, no. And we don’t want that. And we fight it, but it is hard to fight unless we live a mystical life or unless we are people who are primarily concerned to help people discover how their anguish and how their pain and how their struggle is a cry for communion. To discover that in their desire to be close to another person, in their desire, in the question of whether they can survive in their question about the relationship, we discover that all of these questions are basically and deeply a cry for communion. And that Jesus came to offer that communion. And its name is Spirit. “I sent you my communion, my Spirit, and my Spirit will pray in you and speak in you and act in you.”
And if you live in communion like Paul lived in communion and Theresa lived in communion and St. Francis lived in communion – all the great people in history, all the great women and the great men who have been standing there in our history are people who are mystics. Mystics, that is, people who experienced the communion with God so deeply that they were free to move, to act and to get involved with issues, without being destroyed by them. And we have to move from a moral to a mystical life. And that’s why I encourage you to read the mystics. Even 10 minutes a day. There are a lot of beautiful books being published lately about the spiritual life, new translations. And some of you mentioned Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, but you have great devotional books from all over the tradition. Julian of Norwich — so beautiful – about God and his mother. There is a whole imagery that’s so there, and people like Hildegard of Bingen. All are so important; know them, and nurture yourself with them.
And finally, as a final word, and that’s the discipline I think I really want you to think about: Who is nurturing you? And you know that question. Is there a spiritual director? Is there somebody who will accompany you? Is there someone to whom you can cry? Someone who after a very heavy day, you can put your arms around and say, “I need your support.” Are there people who really can come together and be vulnerable to each other? All of these disciplines, we cannot live them if we don’t live them together and support each other. In our community, nobody can live without an accompanier. You are assigned to somebody who you are called to talk to a bit once a month, and you need accompaniment. I need accompaniement. I can say all wonderful things to you, but if I don’t have anybody who can hold me, I’m nowhere. I can speak to a large group like you, but I need somebody to hold me safe in a smaller place.
And you need that as much. And if you go home and you’re just alone, you’re not going to survive. And you are responsible for that. You have to call a few people together. “Can I have a spiritual director? CanI have an accompaniment person?” And if it’s not in the same town, maybe are there a few people in the country that love me and pray for me and pray with me. Who prays for you? Who has made that commitment? Who is there you can write to in an intimate way, who is there – maybe two or three or four that can come once a year together, to pray together, to be together, to cry together, and to struggle, to be honest about our pains and our struggles, but also our desire? Who ministers to us? Who tells us about God? Who says, “Be faithful.” Who says, “Hold onto Jesus.” Who says, “Read this book.” Who says, “Let’s be silent for an hour.” Who is holding you physically, but also emotionally and spiritually? Who are these people? Ask yourself. Where are they? All of that is wonderful, but you can’t do it alone. You need other people. You have to really ask where you can find these people. And so that’s a discipline. And don’t complain. Don’t say, “I don’t have anybody. Oh, I can find the spiritual life myself…”
But God doesn’t leave you alone. If you want them, the people are there waiting somewhere. You have to want it. You have to have the courage to say, “I’m going to create some boundaries. So that there’s time for me to celebrate my own life with others.” And to be able to say, “I’m not your minister here, and I’m not your leader. I am here to feel your love for me. And I need you to love me. I need you.” And it cannot always be your wife or your husband. Sometimes it’s good for men to meet together, and for women to be that support for each other. A lot of men need other men to be intimate with. I mean, in a sort of a safe and honest way. A lot of women need other women to be intimate with, and feel they can share some insights. And a lot of ministers might like to have other ministers to be with, to deal with some of their agony. I mean, it might be different for different [ones] of you. You have different needs. I have different needs. But don’t hide them! Say, “I need something,” and ask for it. Some people don’t ask for what they need and therefore they don’t get it.
And it’s much more available than you might think. Ask for it, and the people will come there. I never realized, if you wanted to spend two hours or a whole afternoon just with me, and talking and being quiet. And I’d love to do that. Ask! And it might turn out to be a gift for the other, too. So, really, really, that’s a discipline. Without that, you won’t ever feel that you can remain living as the beloved. I very much believe that precisely the spiritual discipline gets you in touch with eternal life, eternal life, eternal life. And one of the things that makes me very excited about living, is that I know that everything that belongs to God, and that is love, is stronger than death. And that, in that sense, I can really, personally, intimately feel that when I’m in touch with joy and with peace and with the gifts of the spirit, I’m in touch with that which lasts.
And in fact, it not only lasts, but will bear fruit quite often, far beyond my life. That’s exactly what excites me – that on the one hand, I take it into eternity, but the ongoing generations will bear fruit. And I dare to say, maybe it sounds proud, but it isn’t. I want to say to you that really, the seeds you sow in your life, will bear fruit far after that. And I think it’s the excitement of the spiritual life. That’s going to be harder and harder and harder. And that’s what my feeling is. And it’s going to be more joyful, more joyful, more joyful. That’s both going to happen. And I can say that with some assurance. I mean, if you come closer to the fulfillment of your life, you have to give up more and more.
It is something that Jesus says: “When you grow old spiritually, you will have stretch out your hand. Someone else will gird you and need you where you rather wouldn’t go.” That’s the journey of the spiritual life. Spiritual maturity is not finally having control and you can put your own belt on. It’s precisely the opposite. But it’s also true that precisely in that journey, you will find that joy, that ecstasy that belongs to God. And “ecstasy” means to move you out of the static place, out of the fixed place, and catapults you into a new world of experience of thinking, of praying, of living. And it’s a whole new area, and it’s getting more and more unknown, the farther you go into it. But always, you will know, since the last two steps led me to this new joy, I am willing to take two more steps.
I want to say one thing about it: Don’t think about it as an individual, heroic journey, but as a simple walk with your people. I mean, it’s not like, “Oh God, I’m finally going to empty myself out and I’m going to find some great joy. And how do I do that?” If you wanted to buy a television, you’d buy a television. That’s not even an issue. I mean, if that’s fine, it’s fine. You’ll throw it out when you don’t like it anymore. I mean, it’s okay to experiment with things and you know, not be too, too ascetic or too explicit. But trust, trust. But ask your friends and ask yourself, “Do I do it maybe because I don’t have friends to be with? And I sit there for hours alone and I have nobody to talk to. Do I deal with that?”
But very much what I would like to say: Make the journey in community. I can only go the next step when I know people hold me faithful. And really, you know, where are these people? And a lot of ministers are too alone, much too alone. They still think that they have to be pastors of their flock, and that’s true. But at the same time, where can they be really cared for in a real, good way. And then that allows you to take that step, because the people you’re talking to, or you’re ministering to, want to make that same journey. That’s not just for the ministry, but for everyone. And to see it lived out in you somewhere, is an enormous source of hope. But you have to live it out, to be encouraged comfortably. That makes sense? It’s just to conclude that I want to sing one song. If you still have the energy one song, and this is going to be a fun song, so you’ll have all to help me, really. Okay. Could you start?
Jubilate Deo. Praise the Lord. Jubilate Deo.
Omnis terra. Omnis terra.
Servite Domino in laetitia.
Stop here for a moment. Servite means “serve the Lord.” Laetitia means “joy.”
Servite Domino in laetitia.
Okay. Let’s do that again.
Servite Domino in laetitia.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I learned so much from Henri’s teaching and of course, I was struck by his statement that the seeds you have sown will bear fruit far beyond your life. Certainly, Henri Nouwen’s words continue to bear fruit almost 24 years after his death. He wants us to know that the anguish and pain we face is really a call to community and to communion. And he calls us forward to live a mystical life. Oh, what a challenge for people today! For resources related to today’s podcast, or to find Part One of Henri’s teaching on the spiritual disciplines, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content and book suggestions. These archival recordings were made available courtesy of the Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives at the John M. Kelly Library at the University of St. Michael’s College. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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