Henri Nouwen, "To Be 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: Nouwen Then. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, you could help reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri Nouwen’s writings, his encouragement and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God. We have a Christmas present for our Henri Nouwen listeners, readers and donors around the world. We’re delighted to bring you a wonderful recording of Henri Nouwen that we discovered at the Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives at the Kelly Library of the University of St. Michael’s College. 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 the 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. It’s a beautiful, inspiring, and intimate recording by Henri Nouwen himself, titled “To Be the Beloved.”
Henri Nouwen: So let me just talk a little bit about the spiritual journey that I am becoming aware of and tell you a little bit how I think that maybe also other people, your friends and my own friends, can be brought into that journey or be stimulated by it. Because I really feel that what I’m living, I’m not just living for myself, I’m living for other people. And when you and Amika sort of encouraged me to make a tape, and when you encouraged me to be a little bit more explicit about what I’m living, I really felt I could do it, not because my journey is so terribly important, but because what I’m living is not just for myself.
Well, the words that I like to start with are words that were spoken to Jesus. And these words are, “You are my beloved; on you, my favor rests.” And for a long time, I’ve read these words, but the last few months, they have become very important for me. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and he came out of the water, there was a voice, a voice that said, “You are my beloved; on you, my favor rests.” And I suddenly realize how intimate each word is. God spoke to Jesus and called Jesus his beloved, his favorite one.
And I suddenly became aware that these words that were spoken to Jesus are words that are also spoken to me, because Jesus keeps saying: “Just as the Father loves me, so he loves you.” So, Jesus is the Son of God, but we are the children of God, just as Jesus is a child of God. And so, the belovedness is the quality of every one who is a son or a daughter of God. We are the beloved. And I realized suddenly, how hard it is for me to believe that. In many, many ways I resist that, because I think that I’m not very beloved. I constantly think of myself as a failure. I constantly think of myself as not living up to my own expectations of myself. I constantly find that I’m not such a good person.
So, there is another voice in me that is very strong and that keeps saying, “You’re no good. You’re useless. You are a failure. You’re no good, no source of life for others,” or whatever. And I have to fight that, because there’s real strong in me that dark force that keeps calling me names, and I sometimes pay a lot of attention to these voices. And it’s that believing that voice that says, “You’re no good. You’re useless. You have nothing to offer. Your life is a waste. You’re not life-giving.” All that.
Suddenly, I realized how much attention I had paid to that. And when I listen to that, I become dark inside, and I become bitter and resentful and angry and jealous sometimes. There’s something happening in me that is really very, very destructive.
And sometimes, you know, I come to moments in me that I think, gee, I wonder if life is worth living. I mean, so far can it go. And I realize I have to catch myself thinking that. And the older I become, the more these voices can sometimes intrude themselves on me because my life gets shorter, and I suddenly realize that I don’t have an eternity to live. So, I realize that maybe all my hopes and expectations of my little life, are not being realized and here I am, a failure. So, these voices can sometimes become stronger, as you become older.
Maybe I should be honest with you and tell you that a few years ago, I had a very, very painful experience in which somebody who I really cared for and somebody I was very close to, sort of that we knew that our friendship could not continue. And I really cared for that person, really loved that person very deeply. That breakage really caused me enormous depression. And I became very dark inside. And I said to myself, “You see, you’re not loved. You’re not good. See, this person that you counted on cannot hold on to you.” And so, I became very, very dark inside and so, I became desperate. I felt everything was useless. The whole world, even nature and the things around me were no longer giving me life. It was a very, very critical time in my life, because I could have slipped into a permanent state of darkness and I could have given up on myself.
And it was at this time, really, that I had to trust that the voice that says that I am no good is not speaking the truth. That the truth of myself is that I am the beloved. That the truth of myself is that God loves me unconditionally, completely, long before any human being can love me, care for me and give me affection or friendship or support. You know, that voice of God that says, “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.” That’s the voice that I have to believe in. That’s the voice that I have to trust. That’s the voice that I have to pay attention to. And this I tell you is terribly difficult, because that voice is not very loud. It doesn’t push itself. The voices, all the world around you in a society that says, “Oh, prove that you’re good. Prove that you can do something. Prove that you’re worthwhile. I want to see some results.”
So, these voices are very loud and very noisy, but the voice of God, that first voice of love – that is a soft voice. It’s a very gentle voice. It’s a voice that touches me very softly. And, and sometimes, I cannot hear it well because I’m not paying attention. But I tell you, that’s the voice I have to listen to. “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests. You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.” And what I have to do is to simply sit quietly or walk quietly and let that voice speak to me. And I have to hear that voice saying, “You are my beloved. On you, my favor rests.” And I have to allow that voice to penetrate all the parts of my whole being.
And it’s hard because I know these other voices, but I have to keep listening. You know, it’s interesting. To pray has been always hard for me, but now I realize that what prayer means is first of all, to listen to the voice that says, “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.” To really listen to that. You know, it might be fascinating to play a little bit with words, but that’s a good way of playing. The word “obedience” really means “listening with great attention.” It comes from the Latin word, audire, which means to listen, and obedire, which means to listen with great attention. So “obedience” means to listen with great attention. And to pray, for me, is that high act of obedience – to really listen to the voice that calls me the beloved.
You know, it’s interesting that the word for “deaf,” for not listening, in Latin is surdus, and really deaf is absurdus. The word “absurd” comes from not listening. And my life is absurd and becomes more and more absurd and depressing when I no longer listen to the voice who calls me the beloved, when I am deaf to that voice, and listen only to the other voices telling me to prove that I’m important or valuable, or the voices that say you’re no good, prove it. So, to pray is to be obedient, to be obedient is to listen, to listen to the voice that calls me by my true name and calls me by the name of the beloved, that tells me who I really am. I am the beloved.
Now, I’d like to work a little bit longer around that, because I think there are enormous implications for that. And I’d like to speak a little bit more about what that means, that we are the beloved, because the voice that calls us the beloved is the voice of the first love. The first love. That’s an important word. John the Evangelist says, “Love one another, because God has loved you first.”
So, the voice that calls us the beloved is the voice of the first love. And it’s important because it means that we have been called the beloved long before our father and our mother and our brothers and our sisters and our friends and our church and our colleagues spoke to us, or called us good, or said something about us. It’s very important.
You know, we often spent a lot of time and energy to think about people that have given life to us, and that we have spent our youth with. And you know, what happens in our youth is terribly important. It’s one of the tragedies of life is that those who love us, also wound us. We are wounded by the people who love us. You know, it’s so real. I get upset by my father or my mother or my brothers or my sisters or the people in my church or in the community. I get upset because I love them. They love me. But I also get hurt by them when they don’t do what I hope they will do, or when they don’t give me the attention I desire.
And so, I’m really a person who is deeply loved, but also deeply wounded. And we all are. I’m a wounded person, deeply wounded, and mostly wounded by the people who love me most, sometimes. That’s a tragedy. My father and my mother, you know, they loved me deeply. But they were also so obviously limited. They had their own needs. They had their own weaknesses. And so, as a little baby, as a little child, I wanted them to be God and to give me everything. And when I discovered they don’t, then I get hurt. I get wounded.
And quite often we spend a lot of our energy later in life to explore where and how we were wounded, or we were used or misused, or even abused. And yeah, that’s true. I mean, there’s a lot of brokenness in the most basic relationships of our lives. And so, we’re always wounded people. And sometimes you get even so overwhelmed by it that we see ourself victimized, and we say, “Oh my goodness, I’m victimized by what happened in my youth. These things are so terrible that I can’t even get out of them anymore. I mean, terrible. Look what they did to me. Look what happened when I was young. Look at the terrible things that I had to live through.”
And they are terrible. It’s real, it’s very painful. But I think it’s important to say that even though they are painful, and even though they’re wounding, they don’t have to victimize us. I really believe that. I mean, that’s what I’m coming to discover, that’s what I’m saying. Because the love of my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters and my church is the second love. The first love is a love that did not wound. It does not wound. It’s the love of the one who says, “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.” And that voice was there before I even was born. That’s the mystery. You know, the whole Scripture is full of that.
“I love you with an everlasting love. I have called you from all eternity. I’m holding you safe in my eternal embrace. You are hidden in the palm of my hand. You are hidden in the shadow of my hand. You belong to me as I belong to you. I give myself to you. I love you from all eternity. I have molded you in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you together in your mother’s womb.” And all of these words that are there, in the Psalms and the books of the Old and New Testament. I mean, these words, all speaking about the eternal love of God. It was a love that existed before we were even born.
It’s really important to claim that love, to claim that, because that’s real. That’s not just a thought or a pious idea, but it’s real. Most real, actually. More real than the love of my father or mother or brothers and sisters and all these people is the love of God, because my father, brothers, and sisters are very mortal. They’re not always there, but God is there always. And he holds me, that love. And you know what I want to say? It’s something that is suddenly becoming very real to me, that life in this world is short, quite, but if I know that I am eternally loved, then I also know that when this short life on earth comes to an end, I’m still held safe in that eternal love. That’s why they say love is stronger than death.
You know, even after my death, I will be in that love. I will be in that embrace. I will exist in the arms of God. I will be there because the love that existed from all eternity, will exist for all eternity. It’s an embrace that is there. That’s the core of the good news, that God loves us from eternity, from all eternity and we’re lovers for all eternity. And that I’m safe in that love. And that is the love that my heart most desires. I have been created with a heart that always searches for that first love, that wants that first love, because only the One who has created me can fulfill the desire of my heart, because he has created me with a heart that wants to be eternally loved. Well, that’s the mystery of my faith.
And I’m telling you this story, because this is something I’m saying now, and I couldn’t even say that like a year ago. I’m discovering this through a lot of suffering, through a lot of pain, through a lot of rejections, I’ve lived a lot of painful moments. And I felt very rejected by certain people. And I could really have become very bitter and very dark inside, but helped by certain people to go to the source of my love. And I found there that first love that was always there, but I hadn’t claimed for myself. And now I am a little bit more in touch with it, just a little bit more. I shouldn’t exaggerate, but a little bit more. And I suddenly realized that in the very basic sense that’s where my life is really anchored – in that first love.
And ever since I saw this, I have a new vision of the meaning of my life. You know, I am now 59. And I don’t know how long I will live. Maybe another 10, 15 years. You don’t know, maybe a bit shorter, maybe a little longer. What is the meaning of this little life, these 60, maybe 70 years I will live? The meaning of it, I now realize, is to say “yes” to that first love. Somehow, I have to respond to that first love, I have to say, “I love you, too.” It’s simple like that. Not only do I hear a voice that says, “You are my beloved,” but I speak in response to that: “I love you, too.” And that life is basically an opportunity to freely say “yes” to that first love.
And it’s amazing. You know what? Ever since I’ve seen that, I understand a lot better how to live. You know what, I live the experience of decay. I’m becoming older, so I’m not so strong anymore as I was 20 years ago. But I can live it now differently because I can live it as a new opportunity to say “yes” to that first love. I’ve got a lot of trouble, personal trouble, or also trouble in the community. And then there’s all the trouble of the national and international situations, you know, incredibly painful. But I’m living them now as saying in the midst of all this turmoil and all the troubles, God is asking me to say “yes,” through his voice, calling me the beloved. And when I’m facing my death and realizing that I will die, I realize that my death is just to lead me to a lasting home.
It leads me to a place where I will be with my lover and in which the one who has called me, who calls me the beloved will be there. And I’ll see him, face to face. I’m a child of God, and the fullness of that has not been revealed to me yet, but it will be revealed to me as I make the final passage and go home, go home, go home. And that’s a beautiful thought: I’m going home to the one has called me the beloved and who has sent me into this world in order to live the life that says, “Yes, yes. I love you, too. Yes, this is painful. But in the midst of the pain, I realize that your love will not go away. Yes. I see a friend die and I don’t want that. It hurts me, but I want to realize while I’m suffering from this loss, that your first love is still there. You walk with me; you are my guide. Your eternal love is there with me, even when at times I don’t feel it, even when I’m not always experienced, it is there.”
So, that’s very important for me. And this very basic reality is something very important for me. Now, finally, I want to say something else that is connected with that. It has something to do with feelings. You know, even though I know that I am the beloved, and even if I listen to that voice, I’m not always feeling it emotionally. Emotionally, I’m still very much in the dark. You know, I don’t always feel that voice like, in an emotional way. And I think it’s important because I’m talking about the spiritual life. The spiritual life is the life in which I listen to the voice who calls me the beloved. But the spiritual life is not the same as the emotional life, nor the same as the intellectual life, because God is greater than my heart, he’s greater than my mind. You know, my heart has certain little feelings and my mind has certain little thoughts, but God is greater than my heart and than my mind. And therefore, I cannot always feel God and not always think God, because he’s greater than my heart and than my mind. And therefore, I have to trust in that voice, that calls me the beloved. Even when that doesn’t always mean that I feel that voice I think beautiful thoughts about it. Quite often, I can be in darkness. I can still experience real depression at times, when my emotions are unable to live up to my truth, so to say, of who I am. And therefore, I think it’s important for you to hear this well, because I want to say that my task is to gradually start acting according to the truth of being the beloved and not always to wait until I have the right feelings.
And for me, that was a really important insight, because when I feel low about myself, I start acting accordingly to my negative feelings or speaking according to those negative feelings, and things get darker and darker. And I think it’s really important that I say, “No, I am the beloved.” And although I don’t feel it directly, I’m going to speak words as the beloved, I’m going to act as the beloved. I’m going to be with others, as the beloved. And I’m going to trust that gradually, my feelings will be converted and my thoughts will be different. But that doesn’t always happen right away. I have to be patient, because I’m living in a world that is very noisy and that keeps attacking my emotions and my thoughts in ways that sometimes are very hard to keep at a distance.
But anyhow, I feel it’s important that I claim my truth and gradually live according to that truth, more and more, you know, so that I become who I am. I am the beloved. Now I have to become the beloved. And that’s a slow process, but it’s a very exciting process, because it’s full of hope. It’s full of hope. From the moment that I claim the truth, that I am the beloved, I know that I have to become more and more who I am. And that requires a decision, a choice. But I have the freedom. I can choose that. That’s the remarkable thing. I can say yes, in very concrete situations. And I can act according to the truth, who I am, you know, when I need some help there, I miss and I fail and I slip into a little depression and I slip into moments of despair. But I know that despair and the darkness doesn’t tell the truth about me –even when I think it does or feel it does. No, no, the truth is that I am the beloved. I’m beloved from eternity and will be for all eternity. Well, it’s nice to say these things to you because it’s helpful for me, but I also hope it’s helpful for you and maybe for some of your friends that are interested in the spiritual life. So, thank you so much. I’ll talk to you soon again on the other side of this tape.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. We were delighted to be able to offer this wonderful recording as our gift to you. It’s been a very difficult and stressful year for so many people. And I trust this will prove to be a timely encouragement and blessing for each of you. Thank you for sharing our daily meditations and podcasts with your family and friends. Also, thank you so much for giving us a thumbs-up or a good review for our podcasts. This 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 to preserve the writings, teachings, letters and memorabilia of Henri Nouwen. And we 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, and links to the Nouwen Archives and other resources. Wishing you all a very merry and blessed Christmas. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!