Henri Nouwen "Service & the Movement Outward" | 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. We invite you to share this podcast and our free daily meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen.
Welcome to a very special podcast featuring a talk that was given by Henri Nouwen to a Sojourners’ gathering in 1986. The conference was called Roots of Christian Conscience. It brought together peace, justice, and mercy activists from across America and beyond. Henri was a keynote speaker, and the talk he gave is perfect for Easter. He titled it Service: The Movement Out. You are in for a very inspiring and passionate challenge to understand who we belong to, and to understand that because we belong to God, we are sent into the world to serve. Here is Henri Nouwen challenging us with a message from the past that is perfect for today.
Henri Nouwen: Faith, my ship. When we are able to say “yes” to God’s love, when we are able to realize that we indeed belong to God’s love, then we are sent into the world to serve, to minister, to care. “You do not belong to the world,” Jesus says to his disciples. “And that’s why I am sending you into the world, just as my father sent me into the world.”
It is precisely because we are not imprisoned by the fears of the world that we can minister in the world, that we can be among the people and serve. Now, I’ve been wondering how Jesus serves, and I just want to take you for a moment to that place of the Last Supper, because there Jesus says that he is going to show how far his love goes. And John remarks, “He had always loved those who were His in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was.” And what does Jesus do? Two things: He washes his disciples’ feet, and he gives them his body and his blood. And for a moment, I just want you to see the mystery of this service of God to God’s people.
In John’s gospel, we read about the washing of the feet, and what you see there is God bending over and touching the feet of his disciples. That intimate place where we walk on this earth, where we are connected with the ground. That most sensitive of all places, where all our nerves sort of come together right there in our feet. Reflexologists know about that. They know how much there is to a foot, and Jesus touches his disciples’ feet as a bent-over God who bends down and touches that intimate place and holds it there and washes it. What you have to see is that the God in whom and by whom we are created bends over. He does not cling to his being different, but empties himself and becomes as we are, and goes even farther by bending over and touching us where we stand on the ground. That’s service.
And then he takes bread, and then he takes the cup, and then he says, “Eat it. Drink it.” But maybe, we don’t hear that anymore, but Jesus is saying, “This is my body. Eat it. This is my blood. Drink it.” Or we better say, “Eat me. Drink me. I do not want to hold back at all. I want to make myself your food and your drink. Eat me. Drink me. I don’t hold back. My love is not conditional. My love has no boundaries. Eat me, drink me. I am pouring myself out totally. I want to be your food, your drink.”
He bends over to wash his disciples’ feet and he says, “What I have done to you, do that to one another.” He says, “Eat me.” And he says, “Drink me.” And then he says, “Do this in memory of me.”
It is not simply that Jesus asks us to repeat this gesture, but Jesus asks us to pour ourselves out. To become bread of the world, drink of the world. To become a cup that should be drunk to the bottom. You know what that means? I think what it means for us is that we have to dare to follow Christ in becoming the bread of the world, in washing each other’s feet, in entering fully and totally into the life of this world, and suffering the life of the world with the people of the world. Why this? Why that? Why such? Why so? I don’t know, brothers and sisters, I don’t know. “But I am with you. I am among you. I am not running away from you. I have no solutions, but I’m with you. Eat me, drink me. Let me wash your feet.”
It’s so hard for us to hear this, because we want to do something about things so fast. But Jesus is not, first of all, the one who came to take our pains away, but to become part of them. He is the compassionate God, the God who suffers with us. The caring God, the God who cries out with us. And you and I serve, first of all, by crying out with the people, by being with the people, by living in this world as a world in which you can become a voice that is Christ with the people, whether you see any results or not. Jesus’ life was a failure in the eyes of the world. He became one of us and died outside of the walls as a criminal – unrecognized, unrewarded, left alone by his disciples. Wash each other’s feet, pour yourself out.
You know that we – and I’ve heard a lot of that here among you, and I hear that in myself all the time – we want to see some results. We want our actions to succeed. We want to see some bread turn into loaves and we want to see some visible success. When we jump from the tower, we hope that at least the TV is going to be there. We want some influence and some way of saying, “I at least make a difference in this world, and maybe I can stop the Vietnam War. Maybe I can end the nuclear race. Maybe I can stop the testing of the bombs. And if I do, finally I’m worth something. Finally, I am a good Christian, because I could stop the evil powers and say ‘no,’ and it stopped and I did it.”
We want to see success, even the success that we call service, ministry. We want to see some cures. We want to see some changes. We want to see some products. We want to see something new happening because of us. But Jesus never asks us to be productive. Jesus asks us to be fruitful. And a fruit comes out of a broken ground. A fruit is not something you make, but you receive as a gift. When two people come together in total vulnerability and say, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” a child can be born. And you know, a child is not a product. A child is a fruit.
When you look at that child, you’re not going to say, “Ah, he looks exactly as I predicted.” No, you say, “Wow, this is the most beautiful child that was ever born.” And you’re always right.
Fruits are born, and two people love each other because they love each other. People don’t make love to make children. People love one another and receive the child as a fruit. When we become vulnerable, broken, naked, disarmed, we can trust that fruits will be born – even when you or I won’t see it or know about it. Even when you or I might say, “My life is a failure.” When we live our lives in love, we can trust that it will bear fruit in our life or later.
And those people whom we remember still as signs of hope, like St. Francis or Dorothy Day or Oscar Romero, were weak people who were in love and trusted that their lives would bear fruit. Fruits are born from a broken ground. When they pierced the side of Jesus, the dead Jesus, the failing Jesus, water and blood came out, the blood of sacrifice, the water of baptism, the beginning of a church, of a new community, a community that was going to live in water and in blood. The most vulnerable life is God’s life. The most naked, disarmed one is God hanging on that cross. And that is where the new community has been born. The community of love, of peace, of joy is born out of total vulnerability of God. And that is what we have to act out in our life. That is to say, we have to dare to pour ourselves out and not wonder what the success of that is going to be.
Thomas Merton: “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on,” he writes to Jim Forest, “You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not, perhaps, results opposite to what you expect.”
Now, as you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea or a cause, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real in the end. It is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And can you let that love become pouring out among the people you serve? Then you can have a life of joy – even when everything seems to go wrong.
Mother Teresa, who worked with dying people, calls for joy over and over again, and I have not met one holy person, whether they’re Jean Vanier or Mother Teresa or St. Francis or Dorothy Day, who were not full of joy, who were full of joy even when things were not getting better, even when the liberation was not coming that they were talking about. Somehow, they were able to live a life of joy and of peace in the midst of a world that seems to run to the end of abyss. But they were not letting that scare them. Not even a nuclear threat was not going to take their freedom away, because they were in the Lord, in that love, and trusted that that would bear fruit, whatever it would be, if that would be worth saying, “No, no, no” against the powers of evil, but detaching themselves, even, from its success.
I remember Philip Berrigan once telling the story, the famous story, I think when he came out of prison and people asked him, “Oh, what does it all do?” He says, “Well, there was this prophet who kept prophesying and saying to the people that they had to change, that they had to convert themselves, that they had to be better. And after 10 years of that preaching, this little boy came to him and said, ‘Hey, prophet, you’ve been doing it now for 10 years and nothing has changed.’ And he said, ‘Oh, boy, boy, boy. I’m not just preaching to change the world. I am preaching to prevent the world from changing me.’”
And somehow, that means that, Thomas Merton says, it’s first of all a question of integrity, of authenticity, of faith, of love, that we say, “No, no to the nuclear race, no to the capital punishment, no to abortion, no to those forms of evil that are against the God of life.” Not just because it’s going to be resultful or successful, but because it comes from that space of love that we say it. That’s very hard and you can only detach yourself from results if you’re in love. Otherwise, you need it too badly. You need to have some trophies on your chimney to say, “I did it.” And when you get old, you want to pull out your rewards out of your drawer and say, “Listen, I did something in life.” But it’s just paper that you show. You have to be in love. When you’re in love, you can detach yourself from results, but can be grateful for all the results that come your way. Truly grateful. Receive them with joy. Wow, they stopped the war. Wow, they no longer test the bomb. Wow, somebody is getting the message. Wow, let’s be grateful and sing to God and dance.
I talked to you about the inward way, the way of an affectionate, loving relationship with Christ. I talked to you about the outward way, the way of service and care for all the people in the world, omnes gentes, but both ways are ways of the cross. Both are ways in which you are willing to be led to places you rather would not go, but you can go because you’re in love. You’re no longer afraid.
And when it comes to service, you might discover sometimes that there is very little reason for optimism, and that many of the things you started don’t work. Many of the protests you got involved with don’t work, and there’s very little satisfaction and you’re being tested, you’re being tested, you’re led to places you rather wouldn’t go. You want to see some success and it doesn’t take place. And you say to yourself, “Wow, why don’t I just give it up?” But the darkness of that is the darkness that is God’s testing you and asking you to be faithful and to keep speaking out whether you have success or not. Knowing that God is purifying your heart, taking out the stones of success and giving you a heart of compassion in which you can be with people, and when you can feel totally vulnerable and weak. The dark night of the cross, the dark night of the soul, that’s the night in which you can be faithful, even when you have a sense that everything is only getting worse. That’s hard. That’s very hard. But if you’re faithful, you will taste the joy and taste the peace somewhere deeply hidden in your heart, far beyond feelings and emotions, and you will know that when everybody might leave you, God is a faithful God who stays with you. Therefore, let me close with the prayer that Thomas Merton wrote and that says so well what I’ve been trying to say. Let us pray:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I’m actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I’m doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. And therefore, I will trust you always. Though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of this, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.
Karen Pascal: What a challenging, life-giving message given almost 50 years ago, but so pertinent for today. Henri Nouwen reminds us Jesus never asks us to be productive. He asks us to be fruitful. It can be quite a challenge to follow Henri’s talk because of his thick Dutch accent. If you’d like to watch this video with subtitles, go to our show notes for this podcast and you’ll find a link to this video on our YouTube channel.
I love watching Henri deliver a message like this. His passion to communicate what is so clear and alive to him literally reaches out to his fingertips. I’d encourage you to explore the Henri J.M. Nouwen archives where wonderful treasures like this recording can be found. We have links to the archives in our show notes, so you could easily access this interesting collection of Henri’s writings and recordings.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. Our goal is to continue to offer the teachings of Henri Nouwen because they are so needed today. We invite you to share them with fellow spiritual seekers. We also hope you’ll consider supporting the work of the Henri Nouwen Society, so we can bring you the daily meditations, the podcasts and special talks featuring Henri Nouwen. If you enjoy today’s podcast, we would be so grateful If you take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up. And please pass this on to your friends and family.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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