Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

Of Crucial Importance


The best devotional book I have read in the past decade is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, to unpack Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He helped me see that at times I am the wayward younger son, at times the angry elder son, and even at times, the compassionate father. I found his description of the elder son’s reluctance to join in the celebration of the father’s love speaking directly to my own heart.

For me, personally, the possible conversion of the elder son is of crucial importance. There is much in me of the group of which Jesus is most critical: the Pharisees and the scribes. I have studied the books, learned about laws, and often presented myself as an authority in religious matters. People have shown me respect and even called me “reverend” . . . I have been critical of many types o behavior and often passed judgment on others.

So when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, I have to listen with the awareness that I m closest to those who elicited the story from him with the remark, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Is there any chance for me to return to the Father and feel welcome in his home? Or am I so ensnared in my own self-righteous complaints that I am doomed, against my own desires, to remain outside of the house, wallowing in my anger and resentment?

Jesus says: “How blessed are you when you are poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry . . . blessed are you who are weeping . . . ,” but I am not poor, hungry or weeping.  Jesus prays: “I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things [of the kingdom] from the learned and clever.” It is to these, the learned and clever, that I clearly belong. Jesus shows a distinct preference for those who are marginal in society—the poor, the sick, and the sinners—but I am not marginal.

But the story of the elder son puts all of these agonizing questions in a new light, making it very plain that God does not love the younger son more than the elder. In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in, and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behavior. The father moves directly beyond all evaluations to stress his intimate relationship with his son when he says, “You are with me always.” (p. 79-80)

Lord Jesus, thank you for the promise: “You are with me always.”

From Absurd to Obedient

Peace like a River in Colorado

I am on vacation this week, seeking rest and renewal.  I prepared this post before I left, but it contains my hope for this time away.

Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath, writes about Henri Nouwen.

Henri Nouwn was a dear friend of mine, a brother, priest, mentor.   He was also a fiercely astute observer of our worried, overfilled lives.  Henri insisted that the noise of our lives made us deaf, unable to hear when we are called, or from which direction.  Henri said our lives have become absurd — because in the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf.  In our spiritual lives we need to listen to God who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear in our hurried deafness.

On the other hand, Henri was fond of reminding me that the word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “to listen.” Henri believed that a spiritual life was a pilgrimage from absurdity to obedience — from deafness to listening.  If we surrender fully into Sabbath time, we can slowly move from a life so filled with noisy worries that we are deaf to the gifts and blessings of our life, to a life in which we can listen to God, Jesus, all the Buddhas and saints and sages and messengers who seek to guide and teach us.

The world seduces us with an artificial urgency that requires us to respond without listening to what is most deeply true.  In Sabbath time, we cultivate a sense of eternity where we truly rest, and feel how all things can wait, and turn them gently in the hand until we feel their shape, and know the truth of them.

The theology of progress forces us to act before we are ready. We speak before we know what to say. We respond before we feel the truth of what we know.  In the process, we inadvertently create suffering, heaping imprecision upon inaccuracy, until we are all buried und a mountain of misperception.  But Sabbath says, Be still. Stop.  There is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished.  Take time to rest, and eat, and drink, and be refreshed.  And in the gentle rhythm of that refreshment, listen to the sound the heart makes as it speaks the quiet truth of what is needed. (p.85)

Lord Jesus, teach me to listen.

Jesus’ Prayer as Gift

This Sunday the Gospel reading is from John 17, Jesus’ great prayer for his followers.  After finishing his last meal with his disciple, Jeus looks up to heaven and talks to his Father about keeping his disciples safe.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave to me, because they are yours.  All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. (John 17:9-10)

We belong to God and to Jesus, we are woven into the fabric of the Trinity.  Jesus not only prays for us, he models how we can enter into deeper relationship with God through prayer.  Our prayer relationship is a gift from God that we sometimes try to push or pull our way.

Henri Nouwen has written many things on prayer that I find helpful.  The following quote is from his Genesee Diary when he spent six months living at a monastary in 1975.

I wonder if depression in the spiritual life does not mean that we have forgotten that prayer is grace.  The deep realization that all the fruits of the spiritual life are gifts of God should make us smile and liberate us from any deadly seriousness. We can close our eyes as tightly as we can and clasp our hands as tightly as firmly as possible, but God speaks only when he wants to speak. When we realize this our pressing, pushing and pulling become quite amusing.  Sometimes we act like a child that closes his eyes and thinks  that he can make the world go away.

After having done everything t0 make some space for God, it is still God who comes on his own initiative.  But we have a promise upon which to base our hope: The promise of his love.  So our life can rightly be waiting in expectation, but waiting patiently and with a smile.  Then indeed, we shall be really surprised and full of joy and gratitude when he comes.  (The Genesee Diary, p. 129)

Who has been a model of prayer for you and what have you learned from them?

Lord Jesus, like your disciples, teach us to pray.