Henri Nouwen "The House of Fear & Love" | 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 to audiences all around the world. This week, we have such a wonderful program to share with you. You’re going to be able to listen to a talk Henri Nouwen gave in 1985 at a conference in Northern California. It’s so timely, given the ongoing challenges and fears we’re facing with this pandemic. Henri speaks to the reality of fear. He says we are tempted to let fear rule our lives, but in this wonderful talk, he introduces us to what it means to choose not to live in the house of fear, but in the house of love. We invite you to share this podcast and the Daily Meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen. And we can remind listeners that they are called not to live in the house of fear, but in the house of love.
Henri Nouwen: If there’s one thing that has overwhelmingly impressed me over the last few years, by just meeting people and traveling around, it is how fearful we truly are. It’s amazing. It’s really amazing to see how afraid we are. A fear that pervades, sometimes every part of our being. And some way or another, it’s always the fear for the unknown, for that otherness. It’s fear for emotions and feelings in us that we consider strange and we sort of do not like to deal with that. It can be feelings that frighten us too much to even let them come close to our consciousness. Feelings of grief, feelings of loss, feelings of lust, feelings of greed, feelings of violence, feelings of revenge – somehow, we are, “No, no, no, that’s not us.” And then there is that fear for the other, the stranger. We lock our homes. Some stranger: Who’s that? Who are they? Can I trust? And we are living in a world in which they have more and more strangers. Aliens. So we have to start calling them “illegal” alien. And they don’t belong to us. They don’t belong to our home. Who is that other person, that other group? What if they are coming? Whatever: The Russians may come. The Nicaraguans may come. The refugees may come. And I’m afraid what he might do to me.
And a fear deeper, maybe, than all those fears, is for somewhere there is someone who’s looking at me and might get me after all. And sometimes the best of theology hasn’t even taken that fear away. It’s still there. Maybe the one whom we call God is having his own personal computer where he’s adding up our sins and guilt and will get us when we get there finally, will tell us how bad we really are. And we sort of felt that we had overcome it, but suddenly it’s there again. Fear, fear.
I am overwhelmed how fearful we are, but I want you to know one simple thing. That fear is born at the same time that love is born, and they never will be totally separated. For the first time that you or I could recognize that your mother or your father or your brother were not you; for the first time that we became aware that there was an other, and that my mother was just not part of my body, but that my mother could go, two things became possible: I suddenly could love the other because there is an other to love. But I also suddenly realized that that other person whom I could love could decide not to come back to me. And from this very moment that I realized that I am not the whole universe, but that there are others who move on their own feet, I know I can love, but I also can be terribly afraid that the one whom I love might not return to me. Right at the moment that love is becoming possible, fear also becomes possible. Right at the moment that you decide to love someone deeply, you know that you will live a life where fear is constantly a possibility. Every time you get involved with people, you risk a relationship. You enter into intimate communion; you are going to find out how afraid it is. Think about the many mothers who wait on their children to come home in the evening. I remember the only reason I came home on time was I didn’t want my mother to be so worried.
And I’m not talking about when I was a kid. I was 45 years old and going back to Holland and I was traveling over the whole world in planes and got myself into problems. When I came home to see a friend, my mother was worried when I wasn’t home at midnight. Real love always has that possibility, of fear. And I want you to hear that the task of our life is to make love the dominant tone. And the temptation is always to let fear become that that finally makes us make our decisions. There will always be fear, but when fear becomes that what rules our lives, then we have become slaves without freedom. And the task is to, again and again, reaffirm that love is stronger than fear. The opposite of fear is love, and the opposite of love is fear, not hate. And I ask you very carefully to think where you are afraid, how you are afraid, when you are afraid.
I think in this world in which we live, we are increasingly tempted to make fear our house, to live in the house of fear. To let our decisions of what we are doing, what we are seeing, what we are thinking, be determined by our fear. And you know, quite well that the people who can make you buy into their agenda of fear, I don’t want to have power over you. Power means the ability to push the fear buttons of the other:
“You better do what I tell you to do, because if you don’t do that, you’re going to lose your job.”
“Oh, I don’t want to lose my job. Oh, I will do what you say.”
“You better help me build some more bombs, otherwise the Russians are coming.”
“Oh, I don’t want the Russians to come.” [You build your bombs.]
“If you don’t do that, your kids are not going to have a college education.”
“Oh, then I’m going to keep this bad job to save enough money. Then if they get older, they’ll have enough money.”
“If you don’t do what I tell you, then something terrible is going to happen.”
“I don’t want that to happen.”
“No, no, no. I don’t want it to happen. So I will do what you say.”
Those who can control you with their agenda of fear are the ones who have power over you. Those who can make the questions of fear your questions are the ones who are enslaving you. Whether that is family, whether that is city, whether it’s nation, whether it’s rural, whether it’s a church – it doesn’t matter.
Many of our questions are questions raised out of fear. And any time you can make people buy into those questions, you have power. Jesus never answered any question that was raised to him, if you check it carefully, because they were questions out of fear:
“What kind of power I’m going to have? Will I sit on your right hand or your left hand?”
“When are you going to sort theses Romans out?”
“What about this woman that has been married to seven men? And what will happen once she comes to Heaven?”
Jesus never answered any of them. Jesus does not answer questions that come out of fear, because when you buy the question of fear, the answer is going to increase the fear. Jesus answers in a way that the question becomes a new question, a question that does not belong to the house of fear, but is the question that belongs to the house of love. Every time a person asks you a question, you have to ask yourself, “Where does the question come from? From a fearful heart, or from a heart of love?” And the first task you and I have, whatever we do as counselors, as educators, or as ministers or as social workers is, “Can we convert the question from a question of fear into a question of love?”
The whole call of the gospel is to move from the house of fear, into the house of love. That’s the great news: that God invites us out of the house of fear, into the house of love, which is the house of freedom. Free to move, free to think, free to talk, free to love, free to be together.
“O, how I desire to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
And in the Psalms, there is that word again and again:
“The Lord is my house.”
“The Lord is my dwelling place.”
“The Lord is my temple.”
“The Lord is my refuge.”
“The Lord is my awning.”
“The Lord is my tent, and I want to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
I want to make that my true house, my true home. And then when finally the great Word comes, the Word in whom all is created, became flesh and dwelt among us. It literally says, “… and pitched his tent among us.” Literally, built a tent among us. That is what incarnation means: that God decided to build God’s tent among us.
That is who Jesus is at the very first encounter. Andrew and John: “Lord, where do you live?” “Come and see.” And they stayed with him the rest of the day. It was four o’clock in the afternoon: “Come in my house.” And that house remains the same. “I’m going to my father to prepare a place for you, because in the house of my father are many dwelling places. I want to take you with me.” And finally, there is that word that maybe he says it in a way that he couldn’t even believe it would ever be said: “Make your home in me. As I have made my home in you. I want to be your home, your dwelling place.”
That’s the house of love, the house to which we are invited to move, out of fear into love. The house of perfect love, the perfect love that casts out all fear.
And what I would like to do in these days while I am here, we could talk and sing together, is to simply start wondering how it looks like to live in the house of love. What that is. To look at it in a very personal way, but also in a global way.
And in the 15th chapter of John, Jesus says, “Make your home in me, as I have made my home in you.” I think that’s intimacy.
“And whoever remains in me, with me in them, bears fruit in plenty.” And that is fruitfulness, fecundity.
And then he says, “I’m telling you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” And that is ecstasy. And it’s then we realize that the gospel of John is the gospel of intimacy, of fecundity, of ecstasy. That was exactly what Jesus was inviting us to – to live an intimate, fruitful and ecstatic life. And those three qualities are the qualities of the house of love. The house without fear.
You can talk about sexuality. We know that intimacy and fruitfulness and ecstasy have something to do with that. You can talk about marriage and family. We know that intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy have something to do with that. You can talk about handicapped people and you can wonder. And the poor and the oppressed, and you can wonder where they live. Intimate, fruitful and ecstatic. And you can look over this whole world with all its violence and all its terror. And you can say, we have to proclaim that God wants the people of God to live together. Intimately, fruitful and ecstatic. “Make your home in me, as I have made my home in you.” Intimacy has something to do – has everything to do – with being at home.
And I don’t know if it’s your observation, but for me, homelessness has become one of the most painful qualities of our contemporary life. There are prisons. There are mental hospitals. There are nursing homes where people seem to be not at home. There are thousands, millions of people who have fled their homes. This is the world of the refugees. People who cry out for a place, a safe home, a sanctuary.
But frankly, that’s very visible. And you might say yes, that’s true. But I see it even much more close to home. I teach to students, hundreds of students, and they are not at home. They live in little rooms and feel lonely. And then I meet people who have a home. And they say … Like yesterday, I called somebody and she said to me, “I’m so lonely. I am old and lonely. My beautiful home with my flowers and my little pictures and my memories are not enough to give me a sense of [being] at home, because nobody comes to visit me.”
Homelessness. Inner homelessness. Outer homelessness. That’s what our time seems to be – a time of homeless people. And we have to come in touch with our own homelessness to see the great, great vocation to make our home in God, to start living an intimate life in the midst of a world where homelessness is one of the most pervasive characteristics.
And so let’s just think about it for a moment. And first of all, I want you to realize that fear does not allow intimate, at home-ness. Fear always makes us do two things: to run away or to cling to each other.
When the disciples got scared in the garden of Gethsemane, they ran off. And when they got together, after Jesus’ resurrection, out of fear they clung together like a little clique. There was no intimacy there. There was no at home-ness. There was fear. Fear made them run away in different directions and fear made them hold onto each other. It’s amazing how fear leads to distance. Prisons are put far away and mental institutions are far away from the center.
But also fear in the academic world. I’m living in a world of people always talking about subjects, but they keep distances by all sorts of intelligent discussions, but they don’t dare to get close and show that they don’t know it all yet. Seminars are battlefields. They are “yes, but” games: “Oh yes, fine. But…”
Many, many seminars are places where people come together, so-called to learn from each other, but end up proving that they don’t need each other and therefore create that incredible distance. And if you ever have traveled in the Third World, in Guatemala City, or in Bolivia, you see those houses of wealthy people surrounded by those huge high walls with a broad fence on top of it, you realize that those people want to keep distance from that other world of the poor, and they don’t want to look at it.
I’ve been in houses where they said they didn’t even know they were living in Lima. In Lima, you have the poverty all around the city, just thousands and thousands and thousands of huts full of poor people. But then you talk to some of the wealthier people that have never even been there. They’ve lived their whole life in that city. They haven’t gone there. It’s another world.
And we do that, too, in other levels. And so, distance. But there’s also fear that brings us close. You know, “Let’s get together with our own kind.” “We have something in common, and why don’t we set up a little club?” And what about where sects come from, in a certain sense? Sectarian behavior is the behavior of people who cling to each other out of fear for the common enemy, whatever it may be, they’re all sort of sects.
And none of those people are intimate. There are a lot of people who are members of religious sects, inside the Catholic Church as much as outside of it. Sectarianism is all over the world, all over, within and outside of the churches, so that people cling to their opinions and to each other in rules and regulations and in styles. And you can see how afraid they are.
God calls us to intimacy. God calls us home. The whole call of conversion is: “Please come home. Come home and come into my home where there’s a space for you to move and to be free.”
Don’t be afraid. “Don’t be afraid” are the words that are written over the whole gospel. The angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” The angel says to Zachariah, “Do not be afraid.” The angels are saying to the women at the tomb, “Do not be afraid.” And then Jesus comes, and he says, “Do not be afraid. It’s I, it’s I. Do not be afraid. It’s I. Make you home in me, as I have made my home in you.”
And I want you to start sensing that the intimacy that God offers is not sort of a nice middle between too close and too distanced. It’s not like a balancing act, where we should not get too close and not too far, we should sort of stay in the middle. That intimacy is of another order. The intimacy to which God calls us is a divine gift that transcends that whole line of thinking, with too close and too distanced on the ends. There’s a whole new way of being. It’s a being in God. It’s a being in which we start discovering that we have a home and we have to claim that home as ours. “I have made my home in you. I came to dwell among you. I built my home in your heart, in your community, in your world.” And please build your home where it is. Claim the home that you have.
The problem is we all have a home but we are always absent. We have an address, but we cannot be addressed because we aren’t home. We cannot be spoken to. We cannot hear the voice that says, “I love you. I care for you. You are in safe hands. There is no reason to be so afraid. You are free. Claim that freedom. You belong to me, as I belong to you. You do not belong to this world, as I do not belong to the world. Therefore I sent you into the middle of the world, precisely because you have not you home in the world, but in me. Therefore, we can be in the middle of it.”
If you want to live in this world and you want to live at peace, you have to go back again and again, to the first love, the original love. You can only love one another, Jesus says, because I have loved you first.” And the spiritual life, the life of the spirit is that life in which you keep claiming again and again, and again, that first love. “I have loved you. And I love you so fully, so totally, so unconditionally” that you can live in this world and accept limitations and brokenness and confusion precisely because in the depths of your heart, you know that there is that unconditional, total acceptance.
And the whole life of contemplation and the whole life of prayer is a life in which you want to go back to that first love. That’s what prayer is about: to come to experience that first love; to know that you have been loved first, and therefore you are in your heart, basically a free person if you claim that first love. Long before the original sin was the original love. And that’s what you have to claim. The original blessing of God who says,” I speak good of you.” Bene dicere: Speaking good things. Bene is good, dicere is speaking. Benediction. Blessing. God’s blessing over us is his original blessing in which he said, “I love you totally and unconditionally.”
And if you want to know what praying is, it is to claim that place. If you have no time anymore to be with God and God alone, to enter into that place of first love, you will keep running into illusions. “Do you love me? Do you care for me? Oh, yes. You love me now, but what about tomorrow? You say I’m great, but I’m afraid that tomorrow you won’t any longer.” You keep wondering about if people really care, really love us. And we keep always being disappointed because the more affirmation we receive, the more we doubt if we will keep it. Unless we go back to that place and say, “No, no, there is a home. There is a place.” I want to apply this a little bit, because I think that one of the great struggles of our time is what I’ve come to call “interpersonalism,” in which we expect of each other an intimacy we cannot offer.
Just for a moment, I want to show you that whether it is marriage or whether it is friendship or whether it is a loving relationship or whether it is community, we always have to realize that we cannot give to each other something that we don’t have. And what I see, and maybe you see it, too, is that many relationships are such that one person says, “I love you. I’m very attracted to you and I want to get closer and we’re quite compatible. And why don’t we try it out together? Maybe we should start living together and maybe we should start understanding each other. And I really feel very good about you. I really feel very at home with you. I really like you. I really love you. I really care for you.
“And I’ve been now for two years with you and I still don’t know if I really understand you. I’ve talked to you now for so long, and I still wonder what you really think about me. I try to hear you, but I really feel lonely, even now we have been married so long. I thought that this friendship would take my loneliness away in here. I still feel that you don’t really hear me. And I thought that this community was finally giving me this real sense of belonging in this world. And we have all these little conflicts going around. Maybe we should take it at a distance. Let’s try it again. We’ll just try it again. Why, what about asking somebody for advice, talking to somebody else for a while? Yeah, maybe. Nah, yes. It hurts, as frictions. Maybe you should just go.”
Somehow underneath all of this, this love coming together as interlocking fingers is based on a hope that some human being is going to take that final, deepest loneliness away.
And with that expectation, we make another into a god. And when we make another person into a god, we make ourselves into a demon, because we’re going to ask of other people something they cannot give. And then kissing becomes biting. And then caressing becomes slapping. And then listening lovingly becomes overhearing. And then looking tenderly becomes looking suspiciously. And then eventually surrender becomes rape. And then what we wanted to be – loving people – ends up being very violent people. And that need to be together intimately becomes the place where violence bursts out all over the place in hatred, resentment, anger, sadness.
That is the illusion. Then we make each other into gods. But when we can go back to that first love and believe that in our deepest heart, God has built God’s home. And then you find that home. And then I dare to claim that home as the home of the first love, then I have a solitude. I have an inner sanctuary. I have a holy place. It should not be violated. And that is there where God speaks to me and says, “I love you. You don’t have to be afraid. I love you. I love you freely.”
And then when I meet another person, then solitude greets solitude. Then the holy place of the one discovers the holy place of the other. And then the God who has spoken to me in my inner solitude is the same God who has spoken to you in your solitude in a new way. And when I then say, “Brother, sister, I love you,” I’m not [just] saying I love you. I’m saying I love you because I recognize that the God who has spoken to me in my solitude is the same God who speaks to you in yours and calls us together. And friendship, marriage and a relationship of intimacy and community means that we recognize that the God who I have come to know in the most intimate place of my heart is the God who allows me to recognize that presence in the other. And to recognize that we are called together to build a home, not death, and then you can become very close.
But not always. We have sometimes an experience of very large distance, but you keep pointing to the same one who embraces us with that unconditional love, that house in which we dwell and within which we can build our own space and where we can receive guests, children, friends, the needy, the poor, the refugees. That’s what love is. Solitude creates solitude, and together we build a home for others, to be a sign of that first love that we have discovered among each other. So, we become persons for each other. That is, people who are sounding through. “Per” means through and “son” comes from sonare. That means “to sound.” So, we are people who are sounding through to each other a love greater than they themselves can contain, a beauty greater that they themselves can express, a truth greater than they themselves can formulate. “I love you” means you are a window to me for a love greater than you yourself can contain. You are more beautiful, more loving, more caring than you yourself think, because through you a love shines through, a love sounds through greater any love that you yourself can contain, because it’s God’s love. You are a reflection of a greater love. And you know, what is so important is that finally community needs the ability to forgive one another for not being God for one another.
Community is the place where we are able to accept each other as limited, conditional, partial reflections of a love that is greater than one of us can contain. And we can keep forgiving each other for not being God. We can rejoice in the fact that we are partial and beautiful reflections of that unconditional first love. Then there is space. Then there is wideness. Then there is care.
Finally, I want to say something to you that brings all of that into a global perspective.
And I hope you can follow this, because this is a little hard, I think, to feel – not to understand here, but to feel – but try to listen to your heart. What I want you to sense is that when you enter into your own heart and discover there that God has built God’s home, when you enter into your own heart and thus enter into the heart of God, when you enter into the most intimate place where God dwells, you will discover in a very gentle way that the heart of God is the heart of all of humanity. Then you will discover that the heart of God is not an exclusive little home where you can feel safe, but that the heart of God, it is wide as the whole world and embraces all people, all races, all nations in past and present, and from the whole world.
And that somewhere, when you enter into the house of God, you’re entering into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity. And you are in touch with your brothers and your sisters. You are in community, not just with God, but with all people. You cannot be in touch with God without being in touch with all people, because God has taken on the flesh of all people, the flesh of women and men broken, broken, and painful and has taken on the flesh of all people. The past. The future. Far and close. If you want to come in touch and be connected with God’s people, it’s in God, heart that you are connected.
“Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and your neighbor as yourself” does not say 30% for God, 30% for your neighbor, and the rest for yourself. It says, “Love God with all you’ve got.” With your body and mind, your heart, with everything. Love him totally, unconditionally, completely, love him. And then you will discover that your neighbor is in God. That’s where the neighbor becomes neighbor. And that’s where you discover who you yourself truly are, held in that intimate embrace of an unconditionally loving God. That’s why the other word for intimacy is solidarity.
That’s why being intimate with God means to be fully in communion with the world. That’s why the most intimate spiritual life is the way out of alienation and separation. That is why being connected with God is being connected with all God’s people. You cannot be connected with God and not connected with all people. That’s the source of intercessory prayer. It’s not just asking about somebody over there. It’s knowing that all the people are right where you are, in the same house, in the same place, and that you suddenly discover that the Russians and the Nicaraguans and the Ethiopians and the people in Guatemala and Salvador and the poor in Appalachia and the lonely in the cities of our world are right there, right where you are.
The text that you heard yesterday, the beautiful text – “I’m anointed to bring the good news to the poor and sight to the blind – you know what Jesus said immediately after that? He said, “And this is coming through in your listening.” He’s not just simply talking about the poor somewhere else. He was talking about that those whom he spoke about were there, too. If you’re not in touch with the loneliness and the poor and the refugee and the child in you, you won’t recognize them anywhere else.
Intercessory prayer is a prayer that when you enter into the communion with God, you are with the people and you touch the people all over the world. And it is out of that intimate experience of communion that all action flows. It’s the action that sends you out into the world precisely [because] you belong to the people already. You’re part of the people and whatever you do for the poor or for the hungry or for the needy or whether you teach or whether you care for your children at home, or you did live this life or that life, that all has to become an expression of that connectedness with the human life and humanity.
Otherwise, it’s just guilt that drives us around the world. It’s just hitting ourselves over the head. We are too wealthy. We are too educated. We have too much. We should share it. We should give it away because it’s not good. But somehow God doesn’t say that. God says you belong to those people and you belong to the world. And therefore, you will know where I’m sending you and you will go there because you want to go there and not because you feel guilty. Because you are grateful. Because you are grateful people, people who have recognized that you are not lonely, homeless, separated, hidden people. But if you belong to the body, that one great body and that belonging is so intimate, you’re free to go anywhere and feel at home anywhere. Suddenly the whole world becomes your home. That’s what happened with Pentecost.
They were clinging together out of the fear, and the Spirit came in, and they were all over the world. And that is when community started. Community didn’t start before they went out all over the world. The paradox of Pentecost is that a spirit created community. A community realized in mission and sending them out, not to manipulate, but to gratefully announce that you belong together, with people. And when I help the poor person, when I do something for my children, when I help my friends, try to be a good, loving, caring person, I’m just doing, living out my gratitude, living with this knowledge of connectedness, this knowledge of beings in solidarity with the people and in communion with God. So, intimacy and solidarity is one. And life is gratitude. Celebration of that true fact: Perfect love casts out all fear. Do not be afraid. It’s I. Build your home in me. As I have built my home in you. Come, you, to my table. Come. Break bread with me. Listen to me when I speak to you in the center of your heart, and speak to all people to whom you belong. And go out. Proclaim good news. The good news that we are brothers and sisters, and we belong to my body.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I don’t know about you, but it met my heart. Where fear would want to consume me, it called me forward to live in the house of love. And Henri reminded us: Love God with all you’ve got. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we would be so grateful if you take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up, or pass this on to your friends and companions. Thanks so much for listening! Until next time…
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