• Sean Mulrooney "The Human Journey Into Loneliness" | Episode Transcript

    Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us reach more people. Our goal is to allow the wisdom, honesty, and encouragement found in the life and writings of Henri Nouwen to speak to a world hungry for meaning.

    Now let me introduce today’s very special podcast. Dr. Sean Mulrooney is the Chair of the Henri Nouwen Society. Sean is also a professor of philosophy at St. Augustine’s Seminary and at Regis College here in Toronto. In the spring of this year we asked Sean to lead a one-day retreat here in Toronto. The theme was Alone in the Desert, a Lenten retreat with Henri Nouwen as Guide. This was intended to be a meditation on loneliness and what to do about it. Despite having the internet and social media, more and more of us are feeling alone and disconnected. Sean helps us understand why this is and what we can do about it; how we can connect more with ourselves and with our community and with our God. I invite you to listen to Dr. Sean Mulrooney’s morning session on this very special one day retreat.

    Sean Mulrooney: So today I want to talk to you about loneliness and what to do about it. Although we like to talk about our own loneliness about as much as we like to talk about our own sexually transmitted diseases, loneliness is rampant in our society and in us. Last year in the United Kingdom, a Ministry of Loneliness was set up not by the church, but by the British government to address the crisis of loneliness in British society. And we’re not much different. I mean, we’re Canadian so we don’t talk about anything important, but the problem is here. And my talk this morning is called The Human Journey into Loneliness. And my afternoon talk is called The Christian Journey Away from Loneliness. In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says that, “Loneliness is like the Grand Canyon.” And I thought, yeah that’s true; loneliness is that big, a deep incision in the surface of our existence. But then Henri goes on to say this, “. . . which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and of self-understanding.” Today we’re going to explore the depths of meaning found in that single sentence.

    And I realize a number of people here will be Henri Nouwen fans, I would even think most, but I also know that there’s some people in here who don’t know anything about Henri Nouwen. So just very briefly, Henri was a Roman Catholic priest born in Holland in 1932. He was a professor of pastoral theology at Notre Dame, at Yale and Harvard. And as well as being a popular teacher, Henri also developed an international reputation for writing books on the spiritual life that were accessible to everyone, to Catholics and Protestants, to Christians and non-Christians, to believers and non-believers.

    But Henri wrote The Wounded Healer almost 50 years ago. And as far as loneliness goes, how is it with us today? And the comments that I’m going to make here are meant to evoke something in you. I’m going to tell you my story, but my story isn’t your story. But I offer my story in order for it to resonate in your heart. So you have to supply that part. I’m just doing half of it you have to do the rest.

    So where am I? If you ask me, I am on my computer, that’s where I am. I’m a professor and so I do research and write lectures. The computer is amazing for both. If I’m writing a lecture on Aristotle and want to consult the Greek text I used to have to go to the library. Now it’s online and I can consult it from anywhere in the world, 24/7. And before I had a computer, I used to write my lectures long hand and that meant scribbling out one passage and writing another one above it and using a million arrows to indicate where the next passage goes. It was quite a mess. Now you type, delete, cut, and paste. It’s all clean and easy.

    And we’re on our devices for entertainment too. We listen to music on iTunes. We watch movies and TV shows on Netflix. We download podcasts. We watch YouTube. Guys play video games like Dark Souls, Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto. Our phones are always with us and our social lives are lived out through texting, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. When my 17-year-old goddaughter got a new iPhone for Christmas, I asked her, “What does your new iPhone do Rachel?” And she said, with shining eyes, “What doesn’t it do?” Our devices are powerful, entertaining, and fast. It’s amazing what we can do with them. And I don’t want to erase that. I really don’t. But there’s a dark side to all this that we didn’t see coming.

    As much as technology facilitates our lives it also chokes our lives; as well as connecting us to what we need and want. Our devices beckon us to what we don’t need and what we don’t want. We’re not just occupied, but we’re preoccupied with technology. So in answer to the question, where are we? I would say we are on our devices and so we are distracted. That’s the word, “we are distracted”. And distraction comes from distrahere, two Latin words. ‘Dis’ means dispersed in different directions. And ‘trahere’ is the word where we get tractor and a tractor is something that drags. So if you’re distracted, you’re being dragged in many directions.

    And that’s certainly how I feel all the time. As well as watching the highlights of the Raptors game, I end up reading the comments on the game and listen to an analysis of the game and answer email and watch a Family Guy clip on YouTube. And so I bet you don’t have the same list as me, but supply your own list. What happens when you go online and the different directions you get dragged in? Some of us obsessively watch the news so we can roll our eyes at the latest thing that Donald Trump has done. We’re often on our devices when we’re eating alone and increasingly we are often on our devices when we’re eating with other people. Many of us take our devices – we’re getting intimate here – many of us take our devices to bed and pick them up first thing in the morning, to check for what is [unclear], but we always need it with us. We’re texting while we’re walking and, incomprehensibly to me, we’re texting while we’re driving. We’re always waiting for the irresistible ping from our computers or the vibration of our cell phones. And what I want to evoke is that feeling of always being on call. Just imagine what that feels like. You don’t have to imagine because we all have it. (Comment from audience) We don’t all, I’m sorry you’re quite right Mary Lou. And that’s one of the reasons why I love you is that you’re not like that. I should say most of us. It’s so good, Mary Lou.

    Since we’re distracted, we’re not present to those around us. And since we’re not present to those around us, we are lonely. We don’t want to be lonely. We want to connect. That’s why we use social media. The desire for connection with others, I think, is perhaps the most real thing in us, but it’s rarely fulfilled by using technology. The promise is there, but the fulfillment isn’t. Ironically, the results are actually the opposite. Study after study shows that we feel more disconnected after using social media than we did before using it. And if you consult your own experience, you already know that that’s true. So having said that, that we’re distracted and we’re lonely because of social media, I want to say one more thing. And that is that social media are not the cause of our loneliness.

    Before social media people were lonely, before social media there was television and alcohol and drugs. And before that, there was talking politics and talking about other people. We often talk about others so we don’t have to look at ourselves. As Henri says, entertainment, hard work and a busy social life are often ways to avoid looking at ourselves. So although computers and social media magnify our loneliness, they don’t cause our loneliness.

    So why are we so lonely? We don’t start our lives lonely. We start out united to our mothers in the womb, we’re then surrounded by family and we’re in touch with our hearts and therefore with our real desires. Childhood is a time when we know our hearts. And so it’s a time of both delight and devastation.

    If you want to know what delight looks like, see a three-year-old with an ice cream cone, this is the best thing ever. If you wanna see devastation, watch the ice cream cone fall off, watch the ice cream fall off the cone onto the ground. Yeah. Right? Delight and devastation. That’s what little kids are like. That’s why they’re so delightful. There’s no twilight with little kids. They’re a hundred percent on or a hundred percent devastated. When we’re young none of us are half-hearted. But living from your heart doesn’t last long. Soon children are required to conform to what others say. Parents, society, religion, and friends all put demands on us. We have to learn not to be so self-centered. And part of that is well and good. But part of it is not.

    I want to tell you a story. Karen already mentioned that I’m a single father and my son Janeh is 27 now. But I still remember when he was four years old, he woke me up at dawn and he told me, he said, “Tato”, that’s the Macedonian word for dad. He said, “Tato, the sun comes up slowly, not like a frog.” And then he showed me with his hand. He says, “Tato the sun comes up slowly, not like a frog”. And I thought, I just thought this is delightful. I had, if you can believe it, I had made it to the age of 35 and I had never noticed the difference between the sun and a frog and that the sun moves very slowly when it’s rising. And you know, and for kids, time goes very slowly. So the sun’s going really slowly. And obviously for some reason, Janeh had gotten up before dawn and he was watching the sun and it was so remarkable that he had to wake up his sleeping father and tell me about this. And I thought, this is really astonishing poetry and beautiful originality. Nobody, nobody told him to do that. He saw it for himself; it’s so remarkable and delightful. And then he started at school and his conversation went from frogs and the sun to video games, running shoes. And he knew once he was in grade one that Adidas, Nikes and Fila’s rock, and all other shoes are just not worth having.

    So you see what’s happened here is that he had something original, creative and beautiful. And then his opinions about running shoes and about video games were the opinions of every other boy in grade one at the time. It’s what happens. I think it’s a real fall to go from what you really love and know to what everybody else is saying, but so it is.

    And while the gradual process of socialization is necessary for all of us, that’s not the real reason why we abandon who we are. I think the real reason we abandon who we are is that it is simply too painful to always live from the heart. It is too painful to go out into the world, looking for love and to be told, I don’t love you.

    I’m convinced that our early experience of our loves and their shattering defines us. If you read Henri Nouwen’s biography, you will learn that as a child, he was incessantly asking his parents, do you love me? He had a loving mother and a demanding father who had no sympathy for weakness or failure. Although Henri was gregarious and intelligent he was also physically awkward with an insatiable appetite for love and attention, Because he incessantly clamored for his parents’ love, first his father and then even his mother became exasperated with him. But Henri’s not the only one to experience heartbreak as a child. Let me tell you some heartbreaks of my early life. And there are so many. The first heartbreak that I remember is when I was four, I found a baby bird that had fallen out of the nest. And I brought the baby bird to my mother. And I said, “Mom, there’s a baby bird here. And I want to save it.” And my mom had this look of sadness on her face and she says, “Oh, Sean, you know, when the baby birds fall out of a nest that’s usually kind of it, you know, they don’t survive.” And I said, “No, I am going to feed it and take care of it and you will see it will survive.” And I did everything in my power and the bird died the next day. And I was heartbroken. Yeah, that’s the first heartbreak I can remember. [audience: how old were you?] I was four and then there’s going to school. And I remember when I was going to school the kids were playing marbles. So the normal marbles were called shooters. And then we had other marbles that were called beauties and they were sort of special. And what you would do is you would take your shooters and you would try to hit the beauty from a certain distance and if you hit it, then you won it. And I thought this was so exciting. So I came home and I told mom, “Mom, I wanna play marbles.” And my mom found the marbles that we had at our place or she bought some other ones, whatever it was. Anyway, I went to school and I was playing with some unscrupulous grade threes. And the result is I had no marbles at the end of recess. And like the three year old with the ice cream cone, I was so happy with the marbles. And I just thought this is going to be the best thing. And I just got cleaned out the first day and I was devastated. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. And that’s just what it’s like. And I’m sure you can supply your own stories of heartbreak from when you were a child. Oh, I was also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. So it’s been over 50 years since they’ve won anything. So there’s just heartbreak there. By the way, I’m no longer a Leafs fan. I’m an ex Leafs fan. I just, I’m sorry, I can only take so much.

    And so since the devastation of love sought and denied is so painful, we soon stop openly seeking love. We do so to protect ourselves from devastation, but we also thereby cut ourselves off from delight. We start lying about what we really want, first to others and then to ourselves. So once we’ve given up on heart’s desire, what do we seek? Well, there’s a couple of answers. The first obvious one is we seek pleasure. Everyone likes pleasure. What’s not to like? But pleasure isn’t happiness. Imagine going out to an expensive restaurant after you’ve had a big fight with your beloved, maybe you’re both dressed up to the nines and look fantastic. And the food is amazing and you are obviously completely miserable. As much as we all enjoy pleasure, mere pleasure is never where our hearts lie. So what do we seek when we give up seeking our heart’s desire? Well, another answer is we seek power. First the obvious, and it just came to me, it’s very simple. For males do you know what power means? Power means muscle. If you’ve got muscles and you’re a guy, other guys respect you. You look good too, muscular guys, women like to look at muscular guys. That’s what guys do for power, guys get muscle. For both sexes Mary Lou? Yeah?

    Mary Lou: That’s so important though. I think. And so good.

    Sean: And you know, Mary Lou, no one else is saying it, but everybody agrees. It’s true. It is. I agree with you. [unclear response from Mary Lou] I’m with you. And for both sexes, beauty is power. It just is. If you are beautiful, all sorts of things become possible to you. Again, I think it’s sort of the universal experience of women, of young women that when you’re growing up, you know, you are the annoying little sister of your older brother, and then when you’re 15 or 16 and you’re starting to mature and you become very beautiful these guys who are pushing you around and pulling your pigtails and telling you to go away – now, they’re being really nice. Now they’re being nice to you. Not only are they being nice to you, they’re being really nice to you. And that’s power. Beauty is power. And being successful of course is a form of power. If you can’t be muscular and good looking, you can at least be rich.

    And so we develop what I call the resume version of the self. And what your resume is, is your resume is all the good things that you’ve ever done in your life you put them down on one sheet of paper, and then you say, this is who I am. And we all need resumes. I understand that, but there’s a problem here. However impressive your resume is, first of all it’s only half the story, right? It’s the good part and not the bad part. It’s only half the story. Furthermore, your resume never invites intimacy because your resume is about power. It’s about saying how I’m special, how I’m the best, why I should get this job. So power and resumes never lead to intimacy. And social media is the resume version of the self on steroids, 24 /7.

    And of course we seek pleasure and power together in social life and especially in romance. It does not usually go well. When we don’t live from our hearts we tend to settle for mirroring those around us, especially our romantic partners. I remember having a conversation with a friend, a bit of a heartbreaking conversation, but she was saying, “Yeah, you know, when I go out with somebody and I really like them, I’m not myself. I’m very careful around them. I find out what that person likes and then I mirror that because I don’t want to be rejected. I just can’t take the rejection.” It’s too painful to show who we really are and risk rejection.

    Once we give up on heart’s desire and start seeking power, we’re condemned to advertise our successes and hide and deny our weaknesses. The good face that we show to the world is what the psychologist, Carl Jung calls ‘the persona’ and what Thomas Merton calls ‘the false self.’ We cultivate and display the part of us that gets approval and we reject and hide the part of us that doesn’t. So we don’t live whole lives. Do you know what the Latin word for whole is? The Latin word is integere and that’s where we get integrity. So to live with integrity is to live a whole life, but most of us don’t live whole lives. We live half-lives. We become increasingly artificial and unhappy, and we don’t want people to get too close because then they’ll see who we really are. And that the persona is only half of who we are and even, or should I say, especially, the gorgeous, the successful and the intelligent are unhappy because everyone always has something to hide. So whenever we seek power, no wonder we are lonely.

    So what can we do about this loneliness that inhabits the center of our lives and inhibits us from really living? Well, I want to give you a rather surprising suggestion. I mean, I’m a pretty boring person, so I don’t get to surprise people very often, but this is the surprising suggestion that I have. If you want to stop being lonely, you need to go out into the desert alone. I suggest that we are lonely and unhappy not because we’re not good looking enough, or we haven’t met the right person or we aren’t successful. More fundamentally I think, we’re lonely and unhappy because we have lost touch with ourselves. We’re isolated from other people because we’re isolated from our own deepest self. Because we’ve been seeking pleasure and power, we’ve lost touch with our own hearts; that part of us that feels delight and devastation. And we cannot possibly be happy when we don’t even know who we are or what we want. So what are we going to find in the desert? Probably you will not find your heart’s desire right away, but in the desert we can lose our distractions and then we’re free to find out who we really are and what we really want. So I’d like to play, not the whole song, but a bit of a song by a group called the Indigo Girls, two gay women from Atlanta, Georgia. And this is a song of theirs, the beginning of the song it’s called Watershed.

    Thought I knew my mind, like the back of my hand,

    The gold and the rainbow, but nothing panned out as I planned.

    And they say only milk and honey’s

    Gonna make your soul satisfied.

    Well I better learn how to swim ‘cause the crossing is chilly and wide.

    Twisted guardrails on the highway, Broken glass on the cement,

    A ghost of someone’s tragedy, how recklessly my time has been spent.

    They say that it’s never too late. But you don’t, you don’t get any younger

    Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger,

    I better learn how to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.

    So, you know, the song goes on from there it’s just an awesome song, but the last line, that is the thing that I hold onto. I mean, it’s something. That line has been resonating in me for about a decade now. We have to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger. And we usually do the opposite. When I am obsessed with checking my email every two minutes, God knows why I’m checking my email every two minutes. I don’t have an earthly beloved who is sending me a message saying, “You’re just so wonderful this is fantastic.” It’s always more work, but I’m just doing this. I just keep on. And I’m distracted from everything else because I’m checking my damn email. It’s very odd; it’s addiction, is what it is when you’re doing that. So, what I usually do is I feed my emptiness and then what you do is you starve your hunger. But the Indigo Girls have it right. I better learn how to starve my emptiness and feed my hunger. Now as children we weren’t strong enough to face devastation alone. So we put all our energy into seeking power, but we’re no longer children and so it’s time to recall what our hearts really want. Going to the desert is the only way to happiness and which is much the same thing, it is the only way to stop being lonely.

    Karen:  If you like what you heard, stay tuned for part two with Dr. Sean Mulrooney. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content, book suggestions, and other additional material, including a link to books to get you started in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. And thanks for listening, until next time.

  • Sean Mulrooney "The Christian Journey Away From Loneliness" | Episode Transcript

    Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now, and Then. Because we’re new to the world of podcast taking time to give us a review or thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us reach more people. Our goal is to allow the wisdom, honesty, and encouragement found in the life and writings of Henri Nouwen to speak to a world hungry for meaning.

    Now let me introduce today’s very special podcast. Dr. Sean Mulrooney is the Chair of the Henri Nouwen Society. Sean is also a professor of philosophy at St. Augustine’s Seminary and at Regis College here in Toronto. In the spring of this year, we asked Sean to lead a one-day retreat here in Toronto. The theme was Alone in the Desert, a Lenten Retreat with Henri Nouwen as Guide. This was intended to be a meditation on loneliness and what to do about it. Despite having the internet and social media more and more of us are feeling alone and disconnected. Sean helps us understand why this is and what we can do about it, how we can connect more with ourselves and with our community and with our God. I invite you to listen to Dr. Sean, Mulrooney on this very special podcast for Now and Then.

    Sean Mulrooney: So, you know I’ve been preparing for this talk for a couple of months actually, and getting my ducks in order and what do I want to talk about? How am I going to focus it? And it’s something when you have a focus everything in your life tends to support the focus. And so a friend sent me an email, having nothing to do with my talk and she sent me a poem by email and what the poem is about is precisely what we’re doing here. I didn’t ask for it, it just showed up. I love it.

    So I want to share this poem with you. It’s by actually a very well-known American poet, her name is Mary Oliver. She died last month and she’s the favorite poet of many people. This is a poem called Wild Geese.

    You do not have to be good.

    (already, I’m feeling better about myself.)

    You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees.

    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    For me this is what I was just saying. What we need to do more than saying I’m a horrible person, I’ve gotta go out in the desert and do penance and starve myself, is that you have to go out into the desert to rediscover your heart, who you are and what you love. Let me read it again. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    What do you think the small groups are about saying,” this is what happened in my childhood. This is what’s keeping me back from life”. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile, the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

    Yay, Mary Oliver, is what I say. Now I can imagine someone saying to me, Sean, what you’ve given us so far is fine, but it is also the worst kind of psychological narcissism. And when I say, I imagine someone, I imagine my younger brother saying this to me. So far, you have been asking us to look at what makes me lonely and what keeps me from being happy. And there has been no talk of God at all, but Christianity is not about love of self, but about love of God and love of neighbor. So what’s going on? In response, I will quote a passage from Henri Nouwen’s, The Wounded Healer: “If we don’t tend to our own wounds, the fulfillment of our unrecognized needs becomes our concern.” This is very true. If you have somebody in your family who’s like this, or if you are like this, if you have something in your past that you are very angry about, you will be angry with everybody that you meet. You’re not conscious of being angry, but you will be angry with everyone you meet and everyone will feel your anger. So Henri says this: “If we don’t tend to our own wounds, the fulfillment of our unrecognized needs becomes our concern. Temporarily concentrating on ourselves is a precondition for true hospitality.” So that’s why I say you go out into the desert and look at your wounds, look at your false self, look and find out who you are. And then you can be open to connecting with other people.

    But speaking of God, I do want to speak of God in this second talk. The first talk was the human journey into loneliness. And this second talk is called The Christian Journey Away from Loneliness. Who do we expect God to be? I think for most of us, God is the boss. God’s powerful. Actually, according to Judeo Christian teaching, God is all powerful. Now, if your goal in life is to get power for yourself, encountering an omnipotent being is very bad news. Going to see God then becomes like going to a Principal’s office when you’re very small. Like all other powerful people in your life, God becomes a threat. You think I better not make him angry or I am in big trouble. And if you see God as the boss, then you’re not going to look for him. You are not going to seek him. On the contrary you are going to try to avoid him or appease him or charm him or trick him into liking you. That’s what you do with people who are the boss.

    But the Christian story is that that is not who God is. According to Christians, God’s perfect self-revelation is in Jesus Christ. The question of God now becomes, Who is Jesus Christ? Well, that’s what the gospels are about. At the beginning of the synoptic gospels when Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan, the skies open and a voice declares, “This is my beloved son. This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” As many of you know, in The Life of the Beloved, Henri says that since Jesus is both perfect God and also perfect human the words, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased,” is spoken by God, not just to Jesus, but to every human being. You are my beloved. And at this point, my first reaction when I read this in Life of the Beloved by Henri, is when you hear, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased,” this is my reaction: “Who are you talking to? You must be talking to somebody behind me.” It’s when like that beautiful woman waves hi like this, and you wave hi back and you think, oh, this is nice. She’s waving at somebody behind you. It’s not you. Okay. And this, ‘you are my beloved” is, that’s how we all feel. Who are you talking to? Which is very interesting. It shows you where our self- image is for most people.

    But it really is pretty unbelievable to hear, “you are my beloved.” It’s not what we expect when we go to the Principal’s office, right? I wonder if that’s ever happened. You’re hauled out onto the carpet and that’s what you hear. Anyway, Henri says, “Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power.” But what’s the biggest problem according to Henri? Self-rejection. “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life, because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us beloved.” Who is God? According to Christians, God is someone who offers us unconditional love and nothing else. Actually, God doesn’t just offer us unconditional love. God is unconditional love. Anne Lamott put the point humorously. She said, “God has to love you, it’s his job.” I would put it slightly differently. God has to love you, it’s his nature. So imagine being called into God’s office, being called into the big principal’s office, what do you think that God might say to you?


    You are the lily of the valley, you are the lily of the valley, you are the lily of the valley, I love you.

    You are the Rose of Sharon, oh, you are the Rose of Sharon, You are the Rose of Sharon. I love you.

    You are the fairest of 10,000. You are the fairest of 10,000. You are the fairest of 10,000. I Love you.

    Sing Hallelujah, Hallelujah, oh oh Sing Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Sing Hallelujah, Hallelujah, I love you.

    You are the lily of the valley, you are the lily of the valley, you are the lily of the valley I love you. I Love you. I love you.

    But God, isn’t just in a good mood at the baptism of his son. Throughout the whole New Testament this is the story. For instance, consider the parable of the prodigal son. After the youngest son has disrespected his father by demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive. And in the culture of the time, asking for your inheritance while your father is alive is saying, ‘I wish you were dead. Give me the money now.’ So after the son has disrespected his father in that way and then he has lost all his money at the casino he comes back and he asks to be taken back into his father’s household as hired help. The father doesn’t listen to his wayward son’s apology. The father doesn’t wait for the son to come back. The father is outside the house he’s been watching for his stupid son to come back. And when he sees him from a long distance off, the father runs out to see him. And when the son says, “Look, I’ll make a deal. I’ll come back to you if you treat me as a hired servant,” the father won’t hear it. He’ll say, “My son is back; this is it. Not only will I accept you back, we will have a party. We will have a celebration because my son who is dead to me has come back.” So the father doesn’t say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll take you back.’ The father is out there waiting for him, shaking with delight because his beloved has come back to him. That’s what love looks like. It’s not very confusing. It’s very un-confusing. That is what love looks like. Believing that God is love and nothing but, is a game changer. It’s not the way we think of God.

    Is God really someone who affirms you in the deepest core of your being? You know, that’s not how most religious people act. That’s not how most Catholics act. That’s not how most priests act. If religious people were characterized by their affirmation of others in the deepest core of their being, there would be no sex scandals. There would be no virulent anti-Catholic sentiment. The churches would not be empty if that’s how Christians behaved. But back to our story. It’s important to recall that it was only after Jesus had received the news that he was God’s beloved that he was sent out into the desert. You can’t go to the desert and drop your power and false self unless you know that there is a true lovable self underneath the false self. So what happens to you when you’re alone in the desert? Well, let me tell you what the desert is. The desert of course is a place of emptiness. There’s no water. There’s no shelter. There’s no food. And there’s no other people. The desert is where you have no roots. There are no distractions to hide behind, no cell phones. And there are no distractions so we have to face ourselves.

    We can’t survive on our own. The desert is meant to keep us searching because we lack comfort, efficiency, security, and community. The desert is a place where there’s no charming other people. There’s no obeying other people. There’s no commanding other people. It’s just you. And then the fateful question arises. Who are you when you’re not supported and held straight by your wealth, by your beauty, by your connections? What remains of you when all that could be stripped away has been stripped away? The emptiness and austerity of the wilderness strips one of any illusion of self-sufficiency and self-reliance and turns one into a beginning when life started. In the desert you’re without power. If you’re strong, it doesn’t matter. If you’re good looking, it doesn’t matter. If you’re talented, it doesn’t matter. If you’re rich, it doesn’t matter. So what happens in this place where you are stripped of all power?

    Let me tell you the first thing that happens. You will certainly have an opportunity to become aware of your false self, of how you have relied on power to live in the world. That’s the first step. Once you do that, if you listen hard, you will probably get a glimpse of your true self. You know, it’s not just Christians, but in most cultures in the world, there is a place and a time where you go out into the wilderness to find out who you are. Indigenous people in North America call it the vision quest and you go, and it’s very serious is that you are not only without food for three days, you’re also without water for three days. This is pretty heavy duty. You’re really getting down to nothing, to just you. And what happens to you when it’s just you? You’re stripped of your false self so you will discover your true self. But you’ll find a good thing happens though, since all your energy previously has been focused on the illusory desire for power when you stop suppressing your heart’s desires much energy suddenly becomes available. And one thing is certain, you can neither manufacture your real desires nor choose them. Instead in the silence, you will discover your true desires.

    How do you do that? You just be quiet and listen. You may be surprised at what you find. And finally perhaps, you will even hear the voice of God, but you won’t know until you go out and do it. So when Jesus went to the desert, what did he find? Well, maybe he found God in the desert, but he certainly found his demons as well. That’s why Jesus had to hear that he was God’s beloved before he went into the desert. Facing the demons on your own is a very scary thing.

    So what happens? Who did Jesus meet in the desert? His demons and his temptations are three. The first was, “Turn these stones into bread.” The second: “Throw yourself off the top of the temple and angels will catch you.” And the third: “Bow down and worship me, worship Satan, and I will give you dominion over all you see.”

    In In the Name of Jesus, Henri names these temptations as: the temptation to be relevant – turn these stones into bread; the temptation to be spectacular- throw yourself off the top of the temple and angels will catch you; and the temptation to be powerful – bow down and worship me and I will give dominion overall  you can see. So, relevance being relevant, being spectacular and being powerful are the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Now the response to these temptations is not, I hope, to be irrelevant, to be boring and to be impotent. Rather since Jesus knows he is God’s beloved because he has been told, he doesn’t have to please others by being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. That’s what you do on Instagram. You show how relevant, spectacular, and powerful you are. But just so, because Jesus knew that he was God’s beloved, he could withstand the temptations. And just as Jesus, so for us too. Our identities and wellbeing do not depend on what the needy people around us who coerce us to do their bidding, want us to do. Our identities and wellbeing lie in our being God’s beloved.

    So what I’d like to do now is talk about some personal desert experiences. I’ll start with Henri Nouwen and then I’ll move to myself. Well, as I told you, and as many of you know, Henri was a beloved Ivy league professor. He taught at Notre Dame Yale and Harvard, very famous American universities. But when he was there, despite the fact that he was packing them in, his lectures on spirituality at Harvard, which is a really, really secular place, Henri was getting 200 and 250 students into his lectures on spirituality. So just sort of unprecedented success. But he was extremely unhappy when he was in academics. So he tried a couple of different things. He went out of the desert, he went out from this place of power that he had to a monastery. He did that twice. He went to the monastery in Genesee, in upstate New York and he stayed there for nine months. And you know what? It didn’t work. He went and you know, you’re supposed to be quiet and be prayerful and stuff drove him crazy. So he thought, okay, so apparently the monastery isn’t for me. But he was able to listen to his heart and say, I tried it and you know what, it didn’t work. So he thought maybe what I need to do is go to Latin America, go to leave rich United States and go to the poor countries in Latin America, go to Bolivia and Peru. Well, Henri tried it there. And that was an experiment that lasted about six months and it didn’t work out there. That wasn’t a fit for him.

    And so finally what he did at age 54 – So he was a tenured professor at Harvard at this point and still desperately unhappy thinking there’s something missing in my life. And what he did is he came to Toronto. He came to Richmond Hill and he lived in the L’Arche community there. For those of you who don’t know, L’Arche is a community started by Jean Vanier. And it’s a community for mentally handicapped people where mentally handicapped people live side by side with people who aren’t mentally handicapped, who are called assistants in the L’Arche community. And they share their lives together. And Henri found something when he came to L’Arche, he found his heart’s desire.

    Henri could and often did, talk not just to 80 people, as I’m talking to today, Henri talked to hundreds of people when he talked to the Crystal Cathedral, once in California, he was talking to 2000 people at once and he captivated them. But Henri always felt empty when he would come home from those things. He was trying to connect and he felt I’m still not really being held, something is missing. And when he came to the L’Arche community, people who didn’t know he was famous, people who didn’t know his brilliant theological insights but they did know that Henri needed love and they just loved him and he loved it. So it was the best. He found his heart’s desire when he came to the Richmond Hill community, just north of Toronto and he knew it and he says, this is what I’ve been looking for my whole life and I found it. So isn’t that nice, a wonderful story of a Harvard professor who resigned his tenured position at Harvard. And he stepped down to live with mentally handicapped people in Richmond Hill. So it’s a very happy story, except he also fell apart when he came here. And he fell apart –and this is something we didn’t know at the time: Henri died in 1996 but it turns out that Henri Nouwen, this wonderful Catholic spiritual writer, was a gay man. And when Henri came to Toronto and he found the boundaries went down for him and he started living out of his heart, he fell in love and he fell in love with another man. And well, you know, I mean being gay, being Catholic, that’s not an easy thing to do, especially in the 1980s. And not only that, he has vows as a priest, a vow of celibacy. So certain things are not possible for him. Furthermore, the man that he was in love with was not in love with him and actually found it a very suffocating relationship and says, I can’t deal with this. And so Henri came and he found his heart’s desire and his heart was also broken. So and as far as this goes I have to say, when you’re living from the heart, it is the place of delight, but it’s also the place of devastation. That just comes with the territory.

    So that’s some of Henri’s experience. I’d like to talk a little bit about some of my experience too, and my experience of the heart. You know, I was telling you a little bit about my early childhood and about the camera. And I bought the camera and then a kid in grade three, said that’s not a real camera. And I took the back off to show him that it was, and I exposed the film. And so I was really upset. I was so happy that I had this camera, now I wrecked everything. And also for kids, everything is ultimate. So not only had I ruined this particular film, but I thought I had ruined the camera for forever. So I was devastated. But that’s actually the happy part of the story. It gets much worse from there.

    The Principal came. You can see I have a thing for Principals. The Principal came because I was crying and said, what’s going, – sorry, it was a teacher who came out and said, what’s going on? And in my despair I said, “This boy made me take off the back of the camera.” And so the boy and I were dragged into the Principal’s office and under interrogation I cracked and I said, “Well, no, he didn’t actually make me take it off. I took it off myself.” So now this is about as bad as it gets for a grade one is that my camera is ruined. It’s ruined at my own hand. I’ve told a lie to the Principal and now I’m going to hell. Again, you laughed now and that’s okay. I don’t mind that, but that’s what I thought. My theology was pretty simple back then. My parents told me you don’t lie and that’s what I had done. And I thought that’s it for me. So you wanna talk about a sort of devastating experience about what holds me back? That’s my answer. That’s one of the things that held me back for years.

    But there are so many devastations. For me, another desert experience was as a young man, I was in love with a very lively woman. And our personalities were complimentary rather than similar. And so this woman was very very vivacious, very, very lively, sort of very happy. And she found me very introspective and articulate. And so that was the attraction. And after about two weeks of things going well they were sort of horrible for the next five years. And so we had a son together and we separated when he was four years old. And I was voted in my high school so to speak, I was voted as least likely person to be a single father. And anyway, I became a single father, not of my own will, but that’s how it happened. And for years and years this was a devastation for me. And that’s my going out into the desert.

    And this last summer I went to Guelph, to Loyola house in Guelph, for a silent eight-day retreat. It’s my third silent eight-day retreat. I just love them, I have to tell you. But this last year I went there with two questions and the first question is, What is my heart’s desire? What do I want?’ And the second question is, ‘What fears are holding me back?’ You know, you only get to your heart’s delight once you’ve waded through what’s holding you back. So that’s where I started. So what was holding me back? This is what I did on my first and second day of the retreat to look into myself and see, what is it? And I found out that there are fears holding me back. That’s certainly true. But I also found out I’m so much more than that. Not only am I afraid, I have lots of other problems too. I also found a thing that’s holding me back is I was exhausted. I didn’t know I was exhausted, but when I went on retreat, I slept for 10 hours straight. I got up and after I had breakfast, do you know what I did? I went back to bed. I had no idea I was exhausted. It’s so funny when you’re living outside your heart, you don’t know what’s going on inside of you.

    So that’s one thing. There is fear but there’s also exhaustion. Oh and then anger. All this anger started coming out. So that’s interesting. And another thing that I found is that I am terribly distracted when I was in Toronto and it was a discovery for me. When I was in Guelph I had no internet for eight days. Not, you know I’m an old person, I’m 58 years old. So I can’t imagine what it’s like for younger people who grow up with technology, but I don’t even like it an awful lot, but I’m using it all the time. And when I had eight days away from it, it was something else. And without obsessively checking my email every two minutes, I was able to go very deeply and very quickly into my heart. That was a revelation.

    But just as there have been destructive voices in our lives, for some of us there have been positive voices. Once you stop trying to keep the destructive voices at bay by distracting yourself, you can listen to your heart instead. And you’ll discover that you have also experienced many affirmations as well. And I’d like to tell you two big ones for me. As a young man I was quite shy. And when I was 22 my older brother, who’s a professional musician, said, “Sean, I’m playing three shows in Grand Bend this summer and I’d like you to play guitar and bass for me.” I mean, I never would’ve volunteered to do this myself; no way would I. And even with my older brother, I said, “Well, you know, Mike I can’t do it for two reasons: the first is you need an electric guitar and I don’t have an electric guitar. And the second is one of the shows is playing country music and I don’t know how to play country music. So thanks for the offer but the answer is no, I can’t do it.” And at this point, my older brother said, “As far as the electric guitar– buy one and then you will have one. As far as country music goes, it’s not difficult.” [plays a few chords on the guitar]. At a time in my life when I needed affirmation, I got it. And he persuaded me to play and it was a big summer for me. I got much better at electric guitar than I’d ever been before. I learned how to play country music and a bunch of other music. And it’s because somebody was able to say, “You are my beloved, you can do it.”

    So a few years earlier I came to university. I had no idea what I wanted to do at university. Actually, when I was in high school my thing was math more than anything. And when I was in first year, again, very very shy, feeling very lost at this huge university. I took two science courses, two arts courses, and then there was another course that I needed to take and I asked my older brother again, “What should I take?” And he says, “You should take a philosophy course because the professor is really funny.” And I thought, okay, sounds good to me. I mean, I had no idea what philosophy was. And I took the course and I loved it. And the philosophy professor, I mean he was funny that’s true, but he really didn’t have that much of an influence on me. The person who had an influence on me was my teaching assistant, who was a graduate student. And there was about 20 people in my tutorial. So I’m 18 years old at this point and I was asking a lot of questions in tutorial and my teaching assistant, whose name was Steve, took me aside sometime in October, fairly early on in the game and he said, “Sean, you’re asking a lot of questions and that’s good because that’s how you learn philosophy.”

    (I would say, that’s how you learn anything is you ask questions). And he says, “But you know what, Sean, there’s 19 other students in the class so I cannot spend the whole time answering your questions. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to buy you lunch every month and you ask your questions to me.” So it’s an act of great generosity of this graduate student who had better things to do than to speak to me, but he made me an offer. And this is how I started doing philosophy because of an act of generosity of another person. And when somebody looks at you when you feel lost and you feel worthless and somebody looks you in the eye and says, “I want you to play guitar because you can do it,” or, “I want to answer your questions because you’ve got good questions and this is how you learn.” So, we have these affirmations in our lives as well. It’s so important.

    Now, what difference does listening to your heart make, why would you want to listen to your heart? Going out alone into the desert and reconnecting with your heart doesn’t automatically make you happy. I know some people were reconnecting with their hearts in their reflection and in their small group conversations. And very often when you reconnect with your heart there’s tears. That’s part of the story. But I can say this, reconnecting with your heart doesn’t automatically make you happy but it is the condition for the possibility of your being happy. Put another way. If you are seeking power and are distracted from your heart, you will never become happy. So why listen to your heart? If you are seeking power and are distracted from your heart, you will never become happy. Why listen to your heart because then you know who you are and you do not depend on the broken people around you for your identity. There will still be as many ups and downs in your life as before, but their amplitude is a little less. And more importantly, you are no longer clinging to others for your identity. It’s always a lovely thing when people like you. I don’t know any public speaker who gives a talk and when everybody hates it, they say, I don’t care. Of course we care. And just so I don’t know anybody who is so conceited that they give a talk, they play music and people love it. And then for the performer to say, well, I don’t care if people like it. Of course we care. That’s just human, but there’s a long way between something being hard when people don’t like you and being totally devastated. But when you know that you’re God’s beloved you can live a full life instead of a life displaying your successes on Instagram.

    And what I’d like to do at this point is I’d like to read you a story from a book of Henri’s called, Can You Drink the Cup? And the story is Bill van Buren’s story. And this is – just settle in this is going to take a little while.

    “One very moving celebration I remember was that of Bill’s life story book. A life story book is a collection of photographs, stories, and letters put together as a sort of biography. When Bill came to L’Arche Daybreak – and Bill’s a mentally handicapped man – as a 16-year-old, he brought very few memories with him. He had had a very troublesome childhood and hardly any consistent experiences of love and friendship. His past was so broken, so painful, and so lonely that he had chosen to forget it. He was a man without a history.

    But during 25 years at Daybreak, he gradually has become a different person. He’s made friends. He’s developed a close relationship with a family he can visit on weekends and holidays, joined a bowling club, learned woodworking and traveled with me to places far and wide.” Bill and Henri used to give lectures together -they were quite a sight. “Over the years he has created a life worth remembering. He even found the freedom and the courage to recall some of his painful childhood experiences and to reclaim his deceased parents as people who had given him life and love not withstanding their limitations. Now there was enough material for a life story book, because now there was a beautiful, although painful story to tell. Many friends wrote letters to Bill telling him what they remembered about him. Others sent photographs or newspaper clippings about events he had been part of and others just made drawings that expressed their love for him. After six months of work, the book was finally ready and it was time to celebrate, not just the new book, but Bill’s life, which it symbolized. Many came together for the occasion in the Dayspring chapel. Bill held the book and lifted it up for all to see. It was a beautifully colored ring binder with many artistically decorated pages. Although it was Bill’s book, it was the work of many people. Then we blessed the book and Bill who held it. I prayed that this book might help Bill let many people know what a beautiful man he is and what a good life he was living. I also prayed that Bill would remember all the moments of his life, his joys, as well as his sorrows with a grateful heart. While I prayed tears started to flow from Bill’s eyes. When I finished, he threw his arms around me and cried loudly. His tears fell on my shoulder while everyone in the circle looked at us with a deep understanding of what was happening. Bill’s life had been lifted up for all to see. And he had been able to say, ‘It was a life to be grateful for.’ Now, Bill takes his life storybook with him on his trips. He shows it to people as a man who believes his life is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is a gift for others.

    The cup of sorrow and joy when lifted for others to see and celebrate becomes a cup to life. It’s so easy for us to live truncated lives because of hard things that have happened in our past, which we prefer not to remember. Often the burdens of our past seem too heavy for us to carry alone. Shame and guilt make us hide part of ourselves and thus make us live half-lives. We truly need each other to claim all of our lives and to live them to the fullest. We need each other to move beyond our guilt and shame and to become grateful, not just for our successes and accomplishments, but also for our failures and shortcomings. We need to be able to let our tears flow freely, tears of sorrow as well as tears of joy, tears that are as rain on dry ground. As we thus lift our lives for each other, we can truly say yes to life because all we have lived now becomes the fertile soil for the future. But lifting our cup to life is much more than saying good things about each other, it’s much more than offering good wishes. It means that we take all we have ever lived and bring it to the present moment as a gift for others, a gift to celebrate.

    Mostly we are willing to look back at our lives and say, I’m grateful for the good things that brought me to this place. But when we lift our cup to life, we must dare to say, I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment. This gratitude which embraces all of our past is what makes our life a true gift for others. Because this gratitude erases bitterness, resentments, regret, and revenge, as well as jealousies and rivalries, it transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future and makes our life, all of it, into life that gives life. The enormous individualism of our society in which so much emphasis is put on doing it yourself, prevents us from lifting our lives for each other. But each time we dare to step beyond our fear, to be vulnerable and lift our cup, our own and other people’s lives will blossom in unexpected ways. Then we too will find the strength to drink our cup and drink it to the bottom.” So Henri goes on to say, “In fact, whatever your deepest wound is, the deepest wound is potentially also your greatest gift”.

    I know that sounds stupid, but let me explain. First of all, be careful here. Henri never says that our deepest wound automatically becomes our greatest gift. On the contrary. This is Henri responding to somebody who’s reviewing a book of his: “On page 10 Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants.” Henri says, “This is incorrect. It does not really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds, but that we minister best when we have recognized our own needs and we have attended to our own wounds. Our needs and wounds can only be a source of our ministry when they have been acknowledged and given appropriate attention. When we would minister to others out of our own needs and wounds, we would do harm to them. It’s very important for us that we recognize how our needs and wounds can be a great source of our suffering and call us to an ever fuller surrender to God’s first love the love that can fulfill all our needs and heal all our wounds. As long as our needs are raw, our raw needs and our wounds are open wounds we will inflict wounds on others and create needs in others without realizing it.”

    But once our wound is tended to, Henri – and this is, I think, may be his greatest insight– Henri has the insight that we do not heal others in spite of our wounds, but we heal others through our wounds. The healed wound is healing for others. Let me give you some examples. The first one that comes to my mind is Alcoholics Anonymous. The way that Alcoholics Anonymous works: if you are an alcoholic, you go to an AA meeting and you have a sponsor and you know who your sponsor is? An alcoholic. And this is brilliant because an alcoholic is great for a sponsor for another alcoholic for two reasons. Number one, the sponsor can’t look down on the alcoholic. Why? Because the sponsor is an alcoholic. So it’s great. And the second reason why it’s so good for alcoholics to have an alcoholic sponsor is the alcoholic sponsor knows all the tricks that alcoholics play.

    Why do they know all the tricks is that they’re so smart? Nope. They’ve pulled them themselves. So when an alcoholic is talking about his drinking, and then he’s trying to change the subject, the sponsor can say, “Oh, you’re trying to change the subject. Interesting. I know what you’re doing because I did it.” So you see the wound of being an alcoholic can make you a sponsor for an alcoholic. You can help alcoholics like no one else because you know what it’s like. For Henri Nouwen, he was able to touch people where they were most needy. And you know why Henri was able to touch people where they were most needy? He was needy. When he was little, he was asking his parents all the time. “Do you love me? Do you love me?” And he would take no assurance, he would just keep on pestering.

    And so he sees when people are hungry for love, he looks at that and he says, “I know that.” He doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re so needy. You’re so demanding”. He says, “That’s me. I know what that is.” So that’s how you become a wounded healer, that place where you feel weakest, and most incompetent is precisely where you can help people. One of the great shames and wounds of my life was my separation from my son’s mother. For years it was devastating to me. I don’t recommend doing that, but that’s what happened to me. And because that has happened and it’s years later, and the wound has healed to a large extent, I feel like I have a special vocation to people who are in marriages where they’re struggling and marriages that have fallen apart. And by the way, I can spot a marriage falling apart from 50 paces. Not because I’m so smart, but because it happened to me. And so I know something and I’m not going to condemn the person, I’ve been through it myself. And so that is how the wound can become a healing wound. Your greatest wound can become your greatest gift. When you acknowledge your wound and attend to it instead of being a self-righteous Pharisaic rule follower who condemns others, you can become a wise and compassionate presence who knows how to help others when they’re in trouble. You will become pliable instead of rigid. The way the Bible and our first song today puts it, “You will have a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.” You will experience yourself as living, not a half-life, but a full life connected with others instead of living an empty life full of condemnation and unbearable loneliness.

    And so I’m just about to wrap up the talk. I’d like to offer you a new image which is not Henri’s image but I don’t really care. There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. I don’t know if any of you have heard of it, but what happens in kintsukuroi is when a dish is broken, you don’t throw it out. Do you know what you do? You mend it with gold. And so you can stop lying about whether you’re broken or not. You are, but potentially you have gold seams where you’ve been broken.

    Karen Pascal: Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this, you’ve listened to the entire day that we spent together with Sean Mulrooney. It was wonderful. It was life giving and life changing.

    If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you take time to give a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your friends and family. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes for our website and any content resources or books discussed in this episode. There’s even a link to books to get you started in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. And thank you for listening, until the next time.

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