Henri Nouwen, "To Become the Beloved" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a very special episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and then. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, you can help reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri Nouwen, his writings, his encouragement. And of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God. This is 2021, a brand-new year in the midst of the pandemic storm that engulfs the world. How we long for new beginnings and for hope. And as the old year was ending, we offered a very special gift. It was a very intimate interview with Henri Nouwen, sharing on the theme of how to be the beloved. If you missed this, go to our website and you’ll be able to access this podcast. Today, as we begin the new year, we are offering a second podcast in this series, featuring Henri Nouwen. Originally, Henri recorded this talk for his two dear friends, Franz and Amika. The three had been together for a visit in 1991. And throughout that weekend, Henri overflowed with ideas and visions that were currently shaping his spirituality. Franz and Amika encouraged Henri to take time to record what he was processing. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he did. Today, we want to share with you the second recording Henri made. He titled it himself: “Becoming the Beloved.” It is a gem that I hope will inspire you, as you head into this new year.
Henri Nouwen: The first tape I made for you was basically a tape on being the beloved, but now I’d like to speak a little bit about becoming it, and develop some more ideas around it. And you know, it’s interesting that I am a priest and I’ve lived life as a priest for many years, and I love being a priest. But quite often I’ve used words quite casually, you know, as if they were obvious. But this is a time in my life that I’ve rediscovered words that I’ve used a lot, but not always fully understood. So, four words that I’ve used a lot, every day, every day: The words to take, to bless, to break and to give, because I use these words when I do bread in the Eucharist.
I take bread. I bless bread. I break bread. I give bread. And I do that as Jesus did. Jesus took bread. He blessed it. He broke it. He gave it. It’s interesting that these words are used three times in the Gospel of Luke. In the story of their multiplication of bread, when there was this large crowd of people hungry after having listened to Jesus for a long time. And the disciples want to send them away because they don’t have anything to eat. And Jesus receives bread from a little boy that’s there. Five loaves, as he says. And he takes them, he blesses them, he breaks them and he gives them to the people and they multiply. And the same four words you hear at the last supper: Jesus took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, he gave it.
And you see the same words at the story of the two disciples who are walking to Emmaus. And when these disciples have invited Jesus into their home, Jesus takes the bread. He blesses it, he breaks it. He gives them and they recognize him in these gestures. So. these four words, I’ve used a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood their meaning. And so, what I want to do is to tell you a little bit about these four words that may help us to live our life as a life of the beloved and to become the beloved more fully.
And first of all, I just want to let you know that I think these four words summarize, in a way, the life of Jesus. He was taken, blessed, broken, and given. That’s the life of Jesus. Jesus was taken by God. Chosen by God. Sent into the world. He was blessed by God; God blessed Jesus. You can see that very much in these words that are spoken after the baptism in the Jordan, but also the words that were spoken in the Mount Tabor: my beloved. That’s a blessing. And Jesus was broken by God, broken on the cross. That’s the great mystery. God accepted the suffering of Jesus and that he handed his son over to suffering. Jesus was broken. But he was taken, blessed and broken to be given to the world as food.
So, these four words, first of all, in a way summarize the whole mystery of Jesus as the child of God. And I believe it’s true that we are also called to be children of God, sons and daughters of God. You know, that is our life, too. A life of being taken, blessed, broken and given. And so, I want to say a little bit about each of these four words, because I think if we become aware of these realities that these words represent, then we can become the beloved more fully, because we can start living some things that we originally weren’t able to live, because we didn’t know where it was happening.
So, to say, first of all, to be the beloved means that we are taken. And, I like another word actually better: chosen. We are chosen. And if we claim our chosen-ness, and if we see it in our everyday life, then we can become more fully the beloved. Of course, the first quality, the first characteristic, I would say, of the beloved is that he is the chosen one. I really like that word: being chosen. That’s a very interesting word, because in our society, to be chosen means to be chosen for a special role in contrast to others. You know that quite well that, for instance, if somebody is chosen for an award, then others are not chosen. Not everybody can be chosen. And the interesting thing of being chosen is precisely in our world that others are not. And if you’re chosen, too bad for the rest, you know, if you’re not chosen, too bad for you. But I can remember, as a kid, how painful it was. I was never chosen for the football team. And I felt rejected. I felt not chosen. I felt left alone, put aside – all that. Now, what I would like to say is that when we say that we are the chosen ones of God, that doesn’t mean that others are not chosen. It doesn’t mean that at all. In fact, the more we are in touch with our chosen-ness, the more we are able to see the chosen-ness of other people.
And that is something, in this world that is so full of competition and comparisons and all that, that’s not very easy to grasp. But the mystery of the spiritual life is that when you become more and more aware of your chosen-ness, you will have eyes to see the chosen-ness of others. What does it mean to be chosen? To be chosen means to be seen in your uniqueness. You are a unique person. You are special in my eyes. I tell you, that is something that we need to know, because we’re very tempted to think about ourselves as not very unique, not very special.
I know people who said, well, you know, I’m just one of the many. I’ve even talked to people who said, well, you know, I came in this world because of some fluke or some accident. My parents weren’t even planning to have another child, but here I was. So, they didn’t really want me. And here I am. Some people walk around in this world with a feeling of not being chosen, not being seen in their individuality. That’s a very deep pain, not being special in the eyes of the lover, not being special in the eyes of people. They feel very, very much undesired, unwanted, just one of the crowd.
And it belongs to the essence of the beloved to be chosen. I have chosen you from all eternity. I have seen you in your uniqueness. It’s really important. And it’s important because it helps us also to no longer compare ourselves to others. No, I’m chosen. I’m unique. It doesn’t mean I am like everybody else. It only means that I have my life to live and nobody else is called to live the same life. I’m unique. I have a role to fulfill in this world that is unique, because God has sent me into this world to fulfill the task he has given me, but it’s a different task than other people’s tasks.
And it’s important to be aware of that. And I am unique in God’s eyes. I am chosen, I am loved in my individuality. I am not like others. And I might feel that others do certain things better or certain things worse, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I have my own unique call in life and I have to live that. But that’s not because I come out well in comparison to other persons, but because I have been seen by God in my uniqueness, and chosen. And the beautiful thing about it, as I said earlier, is that once I’m in touch with that, I can really encourage other people, because I see that they are unique, too, but it’s no longer a threat to me. I’m not crying, “Oh my goodness. He’s much better than I” or whatever. No, no, no. I’m just enjoying the goodness of others.
Okay. As second quality of the life of the beloved is that the beloved is the blessed one. I really think that’s very important. That you and I and we realize that we are blessed. Blessed. You know, the word blessed in Latin comes from “benedicere.” You know, the word “benediction.” Benediction. Blessed. And the word benediction really means “bene,” which is good. And diction comes from “dicere,” which means to say. To bless means to say good things about somebody. To bless somebody is to say good things about the person.
And I hope that that makes sense to you. We have to be aware that good things are being said about us by God, by the lover, by the one who has chosen us. Good things are being said about us. You are good. You are my favorite one. I look at you with eyes of love. I bless you. I say good things about you. And I keep saying good things about you. So that is very important, that we are aware that we are blessed. And I tell you, I feel more and more that there are many people who don’t realize how blessed they are. They’re not in touch with your blessing, or they don’t feel they are blessed. Many children don’t feel blessed by their parents. Many people don’t feel blessed by their friends or by their colleagues.
If you know, I live in a community with mentally handicapped people in Toronto. That’s where I am. And I’ve told you a little bit about it. But, in that community, people really need to be blessed, often. They need to hear good things about them because in their mental pain, they constantly lose touch with their goodness. They feel cursed, often. “I’m a burden, I’m a burden,” they often feel. “I’m a burden for my parents. I’m a burden for my friends. I’m a burden for society. I can’t make money. I can’t do anything useful.” Or whatever. And so they don’t feel, or they don’t know themselves blessed.
Let me tell you a little story that really has moved me immensely. A few months ago, I was in Toronto, in a house for mentally handicapped people. And one of the people, her name is Janet, said to me, “Henri, would you please bless me.”
And I didn’t know exactly what she meant. And what I did. I put a little cross on her forehead with my finger. And she didn’t respond very well to that. She says, “Oh no, no, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t help me. I want a blessing.”
And I said, “I just gave you a blessing.”
And she said, “No, no, no, that doesn’t work. That doesn’t work.”
I said, “Well, what does she want?” But anyhow, so I went to the service that I was asked to lead, and we had the service. And afterward I said, “Janet has asked for a blessing, and maybe she can tell me what she wants.” And this was interesting: When I said that she immediately stood up and walked right up to me.
Now I was standing in the circle of people and I had a wide long alb on, a long gown. And she put her head against my chest. And I sort of put my arms around her and the sleeves, these big sleeves of that gown, just covered her completely. And so, she was totally hidden in my embrace and that’s what she really wanted. She wanted to feel safe in my arms. And what was so important was that, at that moment she wanted me to say good things about her. So, I held her in that embrace. And I said to her, “Janet, do you know how much you’re loved? Do you know how much I care for you? Do you know how important you are? The people who are here really love you. You’re really important. You’re really very, very special. We love you.”
And then I sort of made her look me in the face. And I looked at her straight in the eyes. And then I said to her, “Janet, you’re a really wonderful person.”
And she starts smiling and she’s smiling, smiling. And then she walked back to her place. Now that, that was a blessing.
And the amazing thing was when I had blessed her that way, everybody else started to smile. And quite a few of the handicapped people put up their hands and said, “Can I have a blessing, too?”
So, they all came up. And then finally, finally, some of the non-handicapped people, the assistants said, “Listen, you don’t have to be handicapped to be blessed. I mean, I need a real blessing, too, because I need to heal things about myself. That gives me courage and hope.”
And so, one of the men, a 24-year-old guy, strong and big and healthy-looking, came up to me and stood right in front of me. And I said, “John, you want a blessing?”
He said, “Yes.”
So, I put my hands on his shoulder and I said, “You are blessed.”
And so, blessings are words we need to hear, to give us courage to live well. And to know that we are the beloved. And I tell you, once we know that, once we hear good things about ourselves, we are able to say good things to each other. You need to bless each other. That’s really important. We need to say to each other, “You are a good person.”
It doesn’t mean to give compliments to each other. I mean, that’s a whole different thing, you know: You’re special in the sense of you’re going to do something that others cannot do or, or little trophies. That not what I mean. Blessing is to help people become aware of their goodness and their basic humanity, their basic goodness. It has nothing to do with compliments or little affirmations, of saying, “Well, you know, you did it well, good job here or not so good job there, or this is unique or applause or any of that. That’s not it. Blessing is much deeper. It comes from calling people good. You are blessed.
And it’s important that we start discovering where the blessing comes, because if we are not in touch with our blessedness, we start living as the cursed one, as if we are cursed as if bad things are being said about us. And you know, in our world, that’s constantly a great temptation, that we think we are cursed. We are no good. And that keeps tempting us to think “You’re no good.”
Now, the third word is “broken.” We are broken. And I want to say something about that to you. Because I really feel that it’s very important that we have an understanding of our brokenness.
We are broken, and each human being is broken. And you might be very concrete about that yourself, if you think about it. I’m very broken. I know where I’m not well together. I know where I’m not making it or I know where I am not together. And each of us experiences our brokenness in a unique way. And lately I’m more and more aware that human brokenness is mostly connected with relationships. Relationships with friends, with husband or wife or children. People suffer enormous brokenness in relationships. People have a broken heart quite often, because they would so much like to have a good relationship with a person but it doesn’t work and they can’t talk to a certain person, or they cannot feel comfortable in a certain situation. And they realize, “I’m broken. I can’t fix it. I can’t make it. I’m broken.”
And each person is broken in a different way, in a unique way. And we experience our brokenness often as something that makes us very lonely, because nobody else seems to be able to really understand this fully, you know. Broken. And that’s true. You know, we are also very unique in our brokenness. You don’t have to say, well, my brokenness or my pain is not so terrible because some people have a greater pain. We are unique in our brokenness. And we are lonely there. Very, very lonely, very lonely. And when I think about my brokenness, I often have to realize that where I am most broken, I am also most alone and least understood. I am really, really by myself. And I cannot always find the total understanding that I would like to.
And so, brokenness is something very, very personal, very intimate, very deep. And we live in a society that sort of wants to fix brokenness, to say, “Let’s do something about it and get you back in shape.”
But most of our brokenness, that’s very deep, cannot be fixed. It’s part of our being. We experience it as something that you can’t just simply do something about. I realize, for instance, what I most suffer from are things that have been with me as long as I can remember, in my whole way of being. I suffer from things that are so deep that I can’t just do away with it, so to speak, and I have to. So, I am personal. And one of the great challenges is, how can I embrace my brokenness? How can I befriend my brokenness instead of trying to fix it, to heal it, to make it right away better. The great challenge that I have is to embrace my brokenness, to befriend my brokenness, to not run away, to not avoid it, to not do as if it doesn’t exist. But to welcome in a certain way, my own brokenness and say, that’s also me. I’m unique, but also unique in my brokenness. And I have to live it as something that belongs to me.
And I want to acknowledge it, to look it in the eyes and say, “Yes, that’s me. That’s me. I am wounded. I am broken. I suffer.”
I suffer when people say certain things about me or to me. I suffer when I cannot express myself the way I want to express myself. I suffer in my sexuality because I just have feelings and emotions that I don’t know how to deal with, and I’m lonely in these feelings. I suffer in my inability to accomplish certain things that I so much desire. You know, all these: I suffer in my inability to say to my wife or to my children or to my husband what I really want to say. I wish I could say what’s in my heart, but I can’t; there’s enormous suffering. And I wish I could reestablish this communication. I can’t do it. I just don’t know where to start and I suffer for my incapability. But I think as the beloved children of God, we’re called to embrace our brokenness and to put it under the blessing.
That’s an important word: to put our brokenness under the blessing. You know, quite often we live our brokenness under the curse. We say, “I’m no good. And you look what happens. There’s all these terrible things happening to me. And that proves I’m no good. That proves I am no good.”
So, we start living our brokenness as an argument for our curse. We say, “I always felt I was no good. I never dare to say it, but now I know it very clearly. And I’m no good.”
And I think that’s an enormous temptation, to live our brokenness under the curse. And if we live our brokenness under the curse, a little brokenness is enough to destroy us.
Our brokenness can really pull us right down. And so, what you have to do is to say, “No, I’m going to live my brokenness as the beloved, as the blessed one. I’m going to put it under the blessing so that my brokenness can become a brokenness that leads me to new life. That is a brokenness that helps me to grow. Jesus speaks about it a lot. You know, he says, “Didn’t you know that the Son of Man had to suffer and so enter into his glory?”
If you translate that you could say, didn’t you know that the brokenness that we have is the way to new life? This can lead us to a greater intimacy with the Lover who calls us the beloved. That is the great mystery.
And I remember a scene out of The Mass of Leonard Bernstein, you know, the famous director died recently, the director of the New York symphony. He composed a piece called The Mass. And it was like an opera. And you saw a whole group of people forming a pyramid. And on top of the pyramid was the priest, beautifully vested in gold vestments. And he was carrying in his hand, a big glass chalice, and he was sort of on a pedestal, you could say. And suddenly the whole pyramid fell apart. All the people got off and, and the priest fell down right from the top of the pyramid to the floor. And he was stripped from all his vestments and he was left there in his blue jeans, in his t-shirt. And he looked around at all the people scattered in all directions. He’s totally confused. And while he was walking on the, on the floor, he suddenly noticed that the chalice that he had been carrying was broken in many, many pieces. And he looked and he looked, and as he looked, he said, “I never realized that broken glass can shine so brightly.”
I never realized that broken glass can shine so brightly. And he stood there, fixed on that glass, of that broken chalice. And these words really, have always spoken to me: that our brokenness can suddenly become a source of light, it can shine brightly, and it can open us to the light. But only when we live it under the blessing, only when we live it as people who trust that we are the beloved and who can say, “Yes, as I suffer and as I go through this difficult time, I’m becoming more and more aware that I am the beloved, that pain also brings me closer to the knowledge of who I truly am – the blessed one, the beloved.
And then finally, there is this word, “given.” We are blessed. We are broken to be given. And I want to say something about it: Our life is a life for others. Our life is a life in which you are called to give ourselves to others. And one of the things that I’m becoming more and more aware of is that our deepest desire of our heart is to give ourselves to others. You know, quite often we say, we’ll give something, or we’ll give part of this. Or we start thinking about what is mine to hold, what is mine to give? But basically, the deepest desire for life is to give ourselves to others. To give ourselves away.
And I don’t know if people are aware of it, but there’s a deep, deep satisfaction in giving ourselves. And by that, I don’t mean giving presents or giving gifts, but basically giving our life, living our life for others, for our children, for our wife, for our friends, for people – but some way to trust that we come to our greatest fulfillment by giving ourselves. I think that’s something we have to learn more and more. And as we are chosen, we are blessed and broken so that we can become food for the world, bread for the world.
And that’s the mystery of life. We are created so that we can give ourselves to others. And so that our life can bear fruit as we give it. I mean, that’s something that is very, very mysterious. But, you know, dying is the greatest act of giving. And there’s a lot of dying going on our lives. You know, you have to let go of things. You have to let go of certain expectations, certain relationships or certain successes or whatever. And you have to trust in this. We let go of it. We’ll find more joy, more hope, more life. And if you talk to people who had to give themselves fully, they’ll always talk about that as they give themselves away, they found more life.
And I really believe that the final act of dying, the physical death, the end of our life can become an act of giving. Jesus himself speaks about it a lot. He says, “It’s good for you that I die because when I die, I can give you my spirit, and my spirit will lead you to the full truth.”
And so that’s not just true of Jesus – it’s true of everybody. When we give ourselves away, when we die for others, our life will bear fruit in their lives. When my mother died, it’s now 13 years ago. And she gave her life for children. And I still feel that her life continues to bear fruit in my life.
She died for me, for her children, for her husband, for her friends. And somehow her life continues to bear fruit. That’s an amazing mystery that what we give away bears fruit. Like if the grain doesn’t die, it cannot bear fruit. Jesus says that, and that’s true of every life. So, the dying becomes a human act of giving ourselves away. It can become really fruitful. But I think it’s not just the dying at the end of our lives, it’s just the dying that happens day after day. Little things. You know, it’s amazing how I have to die again and again. For instance, I have to die of certain feelings, to let go of certain negative feelings of people. I need to let go of that and trust that it will bear fruit when I don’t cling to my own anger, to my own resentment, but let it go, let it go.
Remember the story of the multiplication of bread is such a beautiful story because it was a little boy that seems to be a useless little kid that just walks around. And then he has five loaves and he gives them to Jesus. And Jesus takes them. He blesses them. He breaks them. He gives them away. And as he gives the bread away, it multiplies, it becomes more and more and more, so there are even leftovers. And that’s a very much of a journey that we have to make. We’re little people. When we are taken and blessed, broken, then we can be given and our life can multiply. Our life can grow. The more you give away, the more that will be multiplied. And it will bear fruit far, far beyond our own knowledge.
That’s an incredible mystery, that our life can become a gift for others. And as a gift for others, it can bear fruit far beyond our own fantasy, our own expectation, our own thoughts. So, these four words are really important, because they are the four ways in which we become the beloved. We become the beloved as we claim that we are chosen. And as we look at other people, as people who are also chosen and help them recognize their chosen-ness. We become the beloved when we really trust that we are blessed and bless others in return. You bless others, and you start saying good things about other people. You become really the beloved when we put our brokenness under the blessing and help other people to do the same, help people to live their brokenness under the blessing, so that it can become a source of life and light.
You become the beloved when we give ourselves away and help others give themselves away and to die the little deaths of life with generosity and graciousness. And to even trust that our final death will be a gift. And then we become the beloved, we become the light. And one of the disciplines of life is to recognize the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving in our daily lives. We recognize it sort of as we live our lives, but every day we can again come in touch with the fact that we are chosen. To fight the temptation of thinking about ourselves as useless or marginal. No, no. We are chosen people. And every morning that I wake up, I have to choose that again, it’s to see that I’m chosen.
And every day I have to realize I am blessed, to accept the blessing. Where do I recognize the blessing? People say, people visit, people come. Can I recognize blessings in that? Can I recognize the daily events of my life as signs in which the blessing of God becomes visible to me? And can I embrace my brokenness? Can I say, “Yes, I am embracing it, I’m befriending it.” I’m not just trying to get out of it. No, I am not perfect. I have my pains, but I’m not going to live as if I don’t have them. But I embrace them, I recognize them, I put them under blessing and say, “Yes, I can come closer to who I am and to who God is, as I live this way. And then, day after day, I have this opportunity to give myself to others in a good word, in a gesture of love, in a telephone conversation, in a letter. Anything I do, I can just say I have something to give. And the more I give of myself, the more fruitful I will be. You don’t have to hold on to anything. I don’t have to hoard. I just give it away.
And then in this sense, we really can live our life as a blessing, as a joy, as a gift of God, as the beloved. I think we can come more fully who we are, the beloved. So I’m going to leave it by that. And I hope that these four words now mean a little more to you, and that you can experience them in your daily life, too. So thanks for listening and many warm greetings to you.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. We were delighted to be able to offer this wonderful recording of Henri Nouwen to you. In it, he reminded us that we are chosen, blessed, broken, and given. His call to us to embrace our brokenness and put it under the blessing is a beautiful challenge as we head into this new year. Thank you for sharing our daily meditations in these podcasts-with your family and friends. And also thank you so much for giving us a thumbs up and a good review on our podcast. This has been so helpful in connecting others to the resources that the Henri Nouwen Society has to offer. We’re grateful to the Henri J M Nouwen Archives for the fine work they do preserving the writings, teachings, letters, and memorabilia of Henri Nouwen, and we would encourage you to visit their website and explore all the resources that are available for readers, scholars, and fans of Henri Nouwen. For more information related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content, book suggestions, podcasts, links to the Nouwen archives and other resources. Wishing you all a wonderful, blessed 2021. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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