Henri Nouwen "The Covenant of Inclusivity" | 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. This week, we have a very special Christmas present for you. Henri Nouwen gave a wonderful talk on inclusivity. What an appropriate topic for the times we’re living in! In May of 1995, Henri spoke at Noroton Presbyterian Church in Darien, Connecticut. He speaks of the new covenant God made with his creation, a covenant that is essentially inclusive. What an inspiring and empowering message as we head into Christmas! Dear friends, I believe you’re going to enjoy Henri Nouwen’s passionate talk on inclusivity.
Henri Nouwen: God created a covenant with God’s people. A covenant – the word “covenant” means to come together, convenire, that means to come together. And you know, that covenant was first established with Abraham, with Noah, with David. And that covenant was very much a covenant to say, “I’m with you and I will protect you. And I will keep you together and defend you against your enemies and those who threaten you.” But when God sent his only Son to us, he made a new covenant. And that new covenant is a covenant with all people, because God took on human flesh so that all human flesh could be lifted up into God. And I don’t know if we always realize that the new covenant is a covenant that is essentially inclusive. That includes all people from all kinds and from all places. It includes Jews as well as Gentiles. It includes people from all races. It includes people from all ages. It includes people from all the parts of the world. When Jesus had died, he descended to the dead in order to call into his covenant those who had been waiting for the Messiah. And he says, “When I am lifted up in the cross and lifted up in the resurrection, I will draw all people into myself.”
And therefore, if you look at the cross and if you look at the resurrection, you see humanity there. Yes, Jesus, but the Jesus who has lifted you and me and all people into himself. And one of the great tragedies of the Christian history is that Jesus has often been used to exclude people.
And it’s not easy for us to constantly say to our brothers and sisters, “You belong to that covenant because it’s a covenant with all of humanity.” The Jesus of the gospel is the Jesus who calls all people into unity. By that they may be one as you and I are one, and may all people from all races and all ages be one, belonging to that same human community. May they all be the beloved sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters for each other. That is the core of the new covenant, that we all belong together and that any division and any separation and any segregation and any exclusion is not in the Spirit of the one who died on the cross and who sent us his Spirit and said, “My Spirit will blow wherever it wants.” And I want you to, this afternoon, to claim that, that you belong to the Lord who wants to include everyone.
And I want to tell you that for me, that has been a whole journey and a very painful journey. Because I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic in Holland, in a time that Catholics were clearly not Protestants. And that Christians were clearly not Buddhists or Hindus. And that somewhere, I was raised in a very safe garden with very clear boundaries that said, “I am Catholic and not Protestant. I’m Christian and not Buddhist. I am a believer and not an unbeliever.” So, somewhere my world, safe as it was, had all these fences around it that made me very clear that I was not like the others. And it’s practically been a lifetime job to break down these boundaries, because it feels safe to say, “I am me and not you. I am here and not there. I am this and I’m not that.” And as I was growing, I suddenly realized that the fences of my safe little garden were breaking down all over the place. That my Protestant brothers and sisters were, in many places, calling me to Christ even more fully than members of my own religious community. That people of other faiths were sometimes calling me to prayer in ways that my own Christian brothers and sisters couldn’t. And that people who were not believing, and who in no way knew about Jesus, were loving and caring in ways that were even far beyond my own imagination.
And as I was growing older, I suddenly realized that none of the boundaries were boundaries that Jesus wanted me to live with. And it was as if I was stripped from them and was left with no one but Jesus alone.
And it’s an amazing experience to stand here this afternoon and to say this to you, because it’s a result of a long and painful journey. Because I’m such an insecure person, I’m such an anxious person, I’m such a nervous person, that I like boundaries. I like to say, “This is mine and not yours.” And I’m always comparing. I’m always wondering where I stand in comparison to others. I always want to know what’s better and what’s worse, and what’s this and what’s that. I’m always trying to evaluate things, to judge things, to have opinions about people, to somewhere have a little control over my world. And every time I meet a person – really meet a person – every time I’m getting close to another human heart, I discover that that control is taken away from me.
I’m a priest, but I discover you are, too. I met God and I discover that others do, too, in different ways. And suddenly I realize that the Jesus that I came to know in that safe, little garden, that I came to know in that very protecting church, that I came to know in that very loving family, that cared for me and loved me and saved me, finally was saying, “Henri, you’re on your own. There is no realm in this world that should not have a place in your heart, because my heart is beating for the world, and your heart is part of mine. And I want your heart to be open for every person that you ever will meet.” And it’s like a stripping. It’s like a stripping off safety and saying, there is no safety except in the One in whom all humanity has been lifted up. And who sends me into this world. And I think going to L’Arche was simply one way of stepping over a boundary, to realize that the people that were most marginal in the society and that I had never even paid any attention to, who were the ones who have never read the Bible, had never discussed any theology, who had never explored any mystery with their minds, were calling me to the heart of God.
And people who couldn’t speak or who couldn’t walk or who couldn’t even express themselves in any articulate way were revealing to me that I was loved before I was even born, that I was held safe from all eternity and that I didn’t have to go around proving myself. And time and time again, I discovered that people who I consider to be “other,” different, “over there,” strangers not belonging to my circle, were the people who brought me back to the center of God’s heart. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. And suddenly I realized that there are so many people who in my perspective were poor, but who are rich with the blessing, and brought the blessing to me, to bring me closer to that incredible mystery that God loves me and loves you and loves all people with the same unconditional love.
And dear friends, I just want to simply say that that is something for us to live, to live the truth that all people in this human family are your brothers and sisters, and that all people in this human family are loved by God with the same unconditional love as Jesus was loved by God. That Jesus came to reveal to us what it means to be safe in God’s embrace. That Jesus came to say, “I am the beloved son of God. And I come to you so that you can claim for yourself that you are God’s beloved children, that you are God’s beloved son, that your God’s beloved daughter. And that’s the truth of who you are, whether you know about Jesus or not, whether you are in prison or free, whether you a prostitute or whether you are a queen, whether you are this or that – you belong to me. And I embrace you with the love that is the same love with which I embrace my only Son, Jesus.”
And I think it’s so hard for us, because we are so fearful people. And we so quickly say, “Oh yes, but…” And still, I believe that as you and I claim that incredible truth of our belovedness, that you will start experiencing an enormous freedom, a freedom so great that there is a place for every human being in your heart. A freedom that is so immense that you no longer have to judge, to evaluate, to decide who is better and who is worse. A freedom that allows you to call people home and say, “I don’t need to hear your story, but I love you. And there’s a place for you in my heart.”
I don’t think you or I really know fully what that freedom is, because somewhere, we don’t even know how it would be to live a life without judging, without condemning, without evaluating, without putting in place. And still, Jesus is saying, “Let your heart be as inclusive as my heart. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will be not condemned.”
And trust that as you walk this world as the beloved son or the beloved daughter of God, you will suddenly discover that you have new eyes to see and new ears to hear the voice of God in those you least expect. Once you have claimed the truth about yourself, once you have claimed for yourself, your belovedness, you can see the belovedness of other people. Once you have believed that you are chosen as God’s beloved child, you see that every other human being is chosen, too, and does not compete with your chosen-ness.
Once you know that God dwells in your heart, you’ll see God whenever you go, speaking to you, to people, to events. You cannot see God in the world, but the God in you can see God in the world. Spirit speaks to spirit. Heart speaks to heart. God speaks to God. And when you have darkness in your heart, you’ll gather the darkness up wherever you go. And when you have light in your heart, you’ll gather up the light wherever you go. And that’s why it’s so tremendously important that you claim the light, that you claim the love, that you claim your belovedness for yourself. You might say, “I don’t believe that I’m worthwhile unless I do something relevant or something popular or something successful or something powerful.”
But you know, these are the temptations that Jesus lived in the desert. The demon said, “Prove that you are lovable.” But Jesus says, “I am the beloved. I have heard a voice that calls me the beloved. I have heard a voice deep speaking within me saying, ‘You are my beloved child. On you, my favor rests.’ And I don’t need to go around proving myself and separating myself and making war with people and hoarding and clinging. I don’t have to do it, because all that I need to know, I know already: that I am God’s beloved child. And I am that from eternity to eternity. And no world will ever take that away from me.”
You and I are called to claim that same truth for ourselves, to claim the truth that you are God’s beloved child. And it’s hard to claim it, because of your tendency to self-reject, to say, “I’m not so good. And if people really would know me, they wouldn’t love me. And if underneath, I did this and I did that and I should be ashamed and I feel guilty.”
And it’s all there. It’s all there in your history: “And this did happen. And that happened, and I’m no longer worthy to be loved.” But that’s the voice of the darkness. That’s the voice of the demon. That’s the voice that makes you exclude people and separate yourself from others.
But if you are willing to hear the voice of God that speaks to Jesus, and that Jesus wants you to hear, then you will know who you are. And if you claim that, you’re free. That’s called the freedom of the children of God. The freedom not to have to judge, not to have to condemn, not to have to put in boxes, not to have to say, “You are more than I, or less than I; you’re separate from me.”
And you can live that inclusiveness of God as you claim your own spiritual freedom and your own true identity as a child of God.
I want to suggest two things to you. Very simple things. First of all, is to pray. And you know what prayer is? Prayer is to listen to the voice who calls you the beloved. That’s what prayer is. Prayer is not – God doesn’t need our prayer. God knows what you need. Prayer is to listen to the one who says, “You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son.”
“Yes, Lord, but I did it.”
“You are my beloved son.”
“Yes, Lord, but maybe if you really would know me…”
“You are my beloved.”
And if you’ve not been silent, you’re not going to hear that in the first place. What you’re going to hear is, “Oh, I forgot this. And I should have done that. And I am so mad at her. And why didn’t she say that to me?”
And you know, your whole inner life is like a banana tree full of monkeys jumping up and down and trying to get you confused. All these voices who tell you how confused you are and how unfree you are and how compulsive you are and how obsessive you are and how restless you are. You say, “My God, I better get busy so I don’t even have to deal with the whole thing!”
But there’s a small voice underneath all of that. It says, “Daughter, stay here. Son, stay here. Be quiet. Let me tell you something. Let me remind you of something: You’re my beloved child, you’re my beloved son, you’re my beloved daughter. Can I hold you? Can I talk to you? Can you dwell with me? Can you stay here? Do you have an address, so I can address you? If you’re always gone, running around anxiously, I can’t even tell you who you are. I want to tell you who you are. Sure, you can go into the world and be busy. Fine, enjoy it. Enjoy the beauty and suffer the pain, but never forget who you are. You’re my child. And I sent you in this world for a little time. For 10 years, for 20 years, for 50 years, for 60 years, for a hundred years, maybe. I sent you into this world and then I’ll call you home. And I’ve said to you from all eternity, ‘You are my beloved child.’ And I’m sending you into the world to give you a little chance to say, ‘Dear God, I love you, too. I. too.’”
What is life? It’s an interruption of eternity. It’s a little interruption from being home to being home again, and being homeless for a while so that you can from within say, “Yes, I want to be home. I want to be home. I didn’t know I was home, but now I know, I miss it. I suddenly realize that I come from a place where I was beloved and that I belong to God. I suddenly realize in the pain and the struggle of my life that I come from home and that I’m back on the way home so that I can claim that home with my full freedom as a child of God.”
It’s precisely in separation, it’s precisely when we feel away from home, that we are yearning for home. And if you can claim the truth of who you are while you travel, you’re a free person. And you can call every human being to it, because every human being is searching for a home. That’s what L’Arche is about: a home for people with disabilities. That’s what a family is about: a home where we can be safe on the way home. That’s what all ministry is about: to call people and give them a sense of home in the midst of their pain, and to remind them where they are going.
And that’s what Jesus was about: “I’m going to the house of my father, and in the house of my father are many dwelling places, and there are enough for everyone. And I want you to come home with me to where you belong. I’ve given you a heart that belongs to God, and it will only be restful if it rests in God.”
That’s what I mean by inclusivity. That is what I mean by this incredible beauty of your and my vocation as a Christian: to be alone, rooted in the heart of Christ and at the same time, to be together with all people, no one excluded.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I felt this talk by Henri Nouwen was so timely, calling us to choose unity, a deep challenge for the times we’re living in. We’re grateful to the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives at the Kelly Library at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, for the use of this audio-video recording. When Henri delivered this talk at Noroton Presbyterian Church, he added a second part, which is on compassion. If you go to the notes for this podcast, you’ll find links to this talk on inclusivity and compassion on our YouTube channel. Henri’s a delight to watch in action. If you have a little trouble understanding Henri’s thick, Dutch accent, you’ll find a transcript for the podcast on the episode page.
Be sure to watch for our first podcast in the New Year of 2022. We have another wonderful recording of Henri Nouwen teaching on how to find our sacred center. This will be an inspiring teaching as you enter the new year. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. If you enjoyed this podcast, please let us know, give us a thumbs-up or a good review and share it with others.
From all of us at the Henri Nouwen Society and the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust, I want to wish you a blessed Christmas and a very happy New Year. Thank you so much for supporting the work of the Henri Nouwen Society. And thanks for listening. Until next time.
Henri Nouwen "The Covenant of Compassion" | Video Transcript
I want to talk about the covenant of compassion. The covenant that Jesus offered us, that is a coming together, is not just a covenant to include everybody, but it’s also a covenant of compassion. And just for a moment, just let me ask you to look at Jesus. Jesus is the compassionate one. And if you read the letter of the Hebrews, you will discover there that the priesthood of Jesus is based on his compassion. He became in everything like we are. He became human, and nothing human is alien to him. He is a perfect mediator, precisely because he is just like we are. He has a body like we have. He has to grow up, like we have. He has to try to learn, like we have. He has to struggle, like we are. He is dying, like we will.
Jesus is the compassionate high priest, because he was fully human and lived our humanity to the full. There is nothing in you – no pain, no joy, no anguish, no sense of separation – that wasn’t also in him. He is there with you in everything; he has taken on your humanity and my humanity, so that in the deepest sense, all that you are has been embraced by God. That is the priesthood of Jesus. That is compassion. The word comes from com, which means “with.” And “passion” comes from pati, which means to suffer. The word compassion means suffering with, being with, crying out with, feeling with, being with. And the name of Jesus is “God with us.” He’s suffered with us, his compassion, your passion and my passion are lived with him and therefore Jesus is called the compassionate one. And I want to, just for a moment, ask you to realize that you and I are called to live that compassion in this world. And the structure of the world in which we live is not compassion. It’s competitive. We are living in a competitive society in which our identity is precisely based on not being like others.
And in this very mysterious way – or not so mysterious way, actually, understanding way – a lot of our sense of self is precisely based on this. You know the Olympics? I have the gold and you have only the silver and you have only the bronze. I’m getting in the paper because I’m a minute faster than you are. I am a little better, a little faster, a little more important. I am the difference I make. I am the person who makes the contribution that you cannot make. I am accomplishing something that makes me stick out and be different. And it’s precisely where I am different that I experience my identity. I experience my sense of self. I experience who I am. And it’s in this competitive world that finally ends up being divided between the rich and the poor and the powerful and the powerless and the hungry and the satisfied, in this world where we’re constantly dividing things up in a competitive way. It’s in this world that God appears as the compassionate one.
You are not you where you’re different from others, but you are most yourself where you are like others. That is an experience that I want you to, for a moment, try to get into that. The joy, not of being different, but of being the same. The joy of belonging to the human race. I don’t know if you ever had an experience that you meet somebody from your hometown: “Ah! You! You are from Darien, too! We’re in California, but you’re from Darien! I’m from Darien, too. Do you know her? Oh, sure. Oh, wow! Gee! Isn’t that exciting? You and I are the same! Isn’t it exciting?”
Now what I want you to be excited and see that a person says, “Why, you’re human, too!” Isn’t that exciting? We both are human! We’re from the same planet. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it exciting to be human? What I want, then, to tell you, is that when you live a life of the Spirit, where you live a life of prayer, where you live a life of belonging to God, you will discover the joy of being like others. You’ll discover the joy of belonging to the human race. I just say, it’s good to be human. It’s good to belong. Thomas Merton – some of you may have heard of him, he’s a monk who wrote a lot, and who was quite known by his writing – spent years and years in the monastery, in a way, to be different.
And then he came out of the monastery, after 20 years, and he ended up in a big supermarket, just doing some shopping. He suddenly had this experience and he said, “Everybody walks around with a halo on their head. They all think, ‘I’m so glad that I belong to the human family.’ Suddenly I have the inner eye to see the joy of being human, to feel that.”
And it’s amazing that in our world, compassion has become sort of part of the competition. Years ago, I went to visit Senator Humphrey. Some of you might remember that name. And we went to him to talk about compassion, and he didn’t know us. So, we walked in his office and said, “Senator.”
And he said, “What can I do for you guys? What’s your problem? What did you come to lobby for?”
I said, “Well, we just want to know what you think about compassion in politics.”
And he was totally confused. He was totally confused. And he had never had anything happen to him so crazy, that somebody walked in his office and said, “What about compassion?” And he was very confused. And then, he walked to his desk and pulled out this pencil.
And he said, “You see this pencil?” He says, “You know, that’s competition at the point. And on the very end is an eraser, and that’s compassion. And when we hurt somebody too much with the pen, we turn around and rub it out.”
In our society, compassion is only part of the competition. Competition is the basic line, but compassion is something that we have to do once in a while, not to make it too bad. And Jesus turns it all around and says your true joy, your true fulfillment comes from compassion. From being with people. From suffering with. From being able to say, I am brother and your sister and I’m with you. And I want you to realize that the word “care” is the same. It’s a Celtic word, chara. That is exactly the same word as compassion. It means “to cry out with,” and you and I are called to make care and compassion the basis of our life. That’s very, very hard, but you know something about it, because you know, somewhere, that when you were in pain, those who came to you and stayed with you, even when they couldn’t do anything about it, they are your friends.
It’s not the one who can fix you. It’s the one who is not afraid to be with you, even when you cannot be healed or cured or changed. And it’s hard for us, because we want to fix the situation. I want to fix you. I want to help you. I want to cure you. I want to make you different. I want to do something about your situation. And I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m only saying that finally, what is most healing is that someone is going to be there with you, even when that person cannot change you. “I’m your brother, I’m your sister. I’m holding your hand. I’m listening to you. I’m going to be where you are.”
We live in a community where nobody is going to change, in terms of their handicaps. We only get worse. We have never the satisfaction of a cure, but we are called constantly to be with one another, to be with one another, and to be with one another precisely where it hurts, precisely where it’s so difficult. And I want to tell you a very great mystery that you know, but maybe cannot articulate, and that is this: That where you live your compassionate life, sorrow and joy always touch each other, always. In a competitive world, sorrow and joy are really separated. You cannot be joyful when you’re sorrowful. You cannot be glad when you’re sad.
Most hours of our day are sad, so why do we have one happy hour? But the Christian vision and the life of Christ calls us to the truth. That precisely where we are together in sorrow, death is the place where joy bursts forth. [inaudible] The L’Arche community, a community of people with enormous sorrow. And if you want to see joy, come and visit us. And if you look at the cross and you say that Jesus is the one in whom you put your hope, you declare that that place of immense sorrow is the place from where all joy bursts forth. And that is not a beautiful, pious idea about something that happened long ago. That is what you can experience every day of your life. If you finally have the freedom to be with a dying person, you might experience a joy that you never had, right in the midst of your sorrow. And all human joy somewhere is hidden in our sorrow.
It’s from there that burst forth life, glory, hope – a new life. And as long as we live a competitive life and we think that joy means that we are having a victory over another person and can claim something that others cannot claim, that joy is being so superficial, that it is makes us only more anxious, because we are afraid to lose it quickly. But where we dare to be together, to care for one another, to embrace each other in the knowledge of our mortality and say, “Yes, brother, you’re going to die and I’m going to die. And you’re going to suffer and I’m going to suffer. And I don’t know what your life is going to look like. And I can’t fix your marriage and I can’t fix your relationship with your son and I can’t make your children change and I can’t do anything. But I’m your friend. I’m your brother. I’m your sister, I’m with you.”
And don’t be afraid to cry. Don’t be afraid to sob. Don’t be afraid to cry out, “I miss you.” And somewhere I know that the God in whom we believe is the God of a joy that is manifest himself right now in our sorrow. If you care for the poor, it’s not a question of having pity and do something good for another person. To care for the poor is so that the poor can give you the joy that you’re looking for, can give you the blessing. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. And it doesn’t say, blessed are those who console the mourning, but those who mourn, those in pain, those who suffer, have a gift for you to give, that brings you joy.
And I really want to tell you that to be compassionate doesn’t mean to like suffering. It simply means to be who you are with others, who they are. And that’s where real healing takes place. And why is that healing? It’s healing because it creates community. It’s healing because it brings together brothers and sisters. It’s healing because suddenly we know we are not alone. It’s so good to know that I’m not alone. It’s so good to know that you and I are sharing in the same struggle. It’s so good to know that we’re making a journey together. So good to know that we will die, both and all of us, and that we don’t have to be afraid for our death, because at Jesus’s death, our death will be fruitful. Because our final vulnerability is the fact that we going to die, and that our death is a place where we can give to those whom we leave behind, the spirit of love. Jesus says, “It’s good for you that I die, because if I die, I can send you my Spirit.” And we can say that to each other: “When I die, I will send you the spirit of love. And so, if you are afraid for my death and if you’re not afraid to look me in the eye in my mortality, then there will be joy coming to you. And you will realize who you truly are: that we are brothers and sisters, and that we are parents of a generation to come, even through our death, and even bear fruit.
And so, dear friends, I want to say Jesus is the compassionate Lord who invites you to be compassionate. And it’s not a job. It’s not hard work. It’s making your humanity available to your brothers and sisters. It means being the good shepherd who lays down her life or his life for her or his friends. It means to say, what I’m living, I’m not just living for myself. I’m living it for you. It means my woundedness is not just my problem, but it is a woundedness that can be for your healing. It means that your anguish and your pain is not something that is just something to get rid of. Sure, we want you to be cured, but we also want you to live in solidarity with the human race that is in anguish from generation to generation. I want us to claim that and to become living Christ for one another, become priests for one another, become mediators for one another, become people who finally say we belong together. And if we are together, we don’t have to be afraid.
Lord, we thank you that you brought us together this afternoon. And help to have a heart like your heart. Help us to transform our heart into your heart. Make our heart include every human being and make our heart a heart that is willing to suffer with others, so that we can discover the joy of being brothers and sisters. Strengthen us as we leave this place, and make us people who can be a source of hope in the world. Amen.
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