|—||Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), 87.|
My friend Joey and I—two ministers who have each walked through a fair share of parental suffering in recent months and years—are reading Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer together. We’re asking what it means to minister, to love, to care, to heal from a place of brokenness and emptiness.
In Nouwen’s opening chapter (written in 1972, predating late-20th century postmodern literature and philosophy), he surveys what he calls “the nuclear man.” The nuclear person is the postmodern Westerner who is historically dislocated, ideologically fragmented, and in search of a new immortality. Nouwen presents two alternative ways in which the “nuclear man” responds to this emerging situation: the mystical way and the revolutionary way. One is the inner way, the other the visible way; one is about transcendence, the other about change; one is centering, the other upending.
Nouwen then talks about a third way: the Christian way. He says Jesus was the revolutionary mystic, the one in whom these alternative ways came together. And this way is now an option for us. In fact, for Nouwen, this is the most appropriate response to the “nuclear” situation.
[E]very real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society. Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. No mystic can prevent himself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions.
I have been finding that, at least since my time in seminary, there have been two primary impulses in my spiritual life and vocational identity: contemplative practices and missional engagement. The two, for me, have become opposite sides of the same coin. Without personal engagement in the contemplative life, working for change and ministering to the world tends to lose focus. Without looking for Christ in the world, prayer, silence, and solitude tend to lose their content.
Of course, the one who has shown us this Way is Jesus himself. Again, Nouwen says
Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel.
In another post, I’ll talk about mono-polar, bi-polar, and tri-polar spirituality and how this conception of Christian spirituality has shaped my personal life and ministry.
For now, I’ll say that in chapter 1 Nouwen offers a helpful bringing together of the mystical and revolutionary aspects of the life of Christ as a response to the current situation we find in the world. The first task of the minister—Nouwen’s “wounded healer”—is to understand the experience of the “nuclear man” and to walk in the way of Jesus in the midst of this new time.
An anthology of some of Henri Nouwen’s writings called Show Me the Way is one of the best Lenten daily readings I’ve come across. I share today’s prayer with you (which comes originally from his book A Cry for Mercy).
How often have I lived through these weeks
without paying much attention
to penance, fasting, and prayer?
How often have I missed
the spiritual fruits of this season
without even being aware of it?
But how can I ever really celebrate Easter
without observing Lent?
How can I rejoice fully in your resurrection
when I have avoided participating in your death?
Yes, Lord, I have to die—
with you, through you, and in you—
and thus become ready to recognize you
when you appear to me in your resurrection.
There is so much in me that needs to die:
false attachments, greed and anger,
impatience and stinginess.
O Lord, I am self-centered,
concerned about myself, my career, my future,
my name and future, my name and fame.
I see clearly now how little I have died with you,
really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season
different from the other ones.
Let me find you again.
The quality of my life depends on the way in which I do all these things, on my faithfulness, or otherwise, my cheerfulness and self-forgetting.
Never let me think that any of these details is too trivial or small to matter. I am called to be faithful in a very little.
|—||A Pattern of Prayer|
where there is hatred, let me sow love,
where there is injury, pardon,
where there is discord, union,
where there is doubt, faith,
where there is despair, hope,
where there is darkness, light,
where there is sadness, joy.
|—||St. Francis of Assisi|
Last year, for every season of the church calendar, Ellia and I constructed a short, pre-school aged prayer that we prayed every evening. Every night before bed, Ellia and I would say our Advent prayer, or our Christmas prayer, or our Epiphany prayer…It went decently well last year when Ellia was three, though she had a preference for the Advent prayer. We ended up praying for Jesus’ advent with a lot more regularity than the others.
This year, Ellia’s sensibilities about the church calendar are being refined (as are her parents’), and she has journeyed well as a four-year-old through Advent and then through Christmastide. Today is the feast of the Epiphany. In the West, this has traditionally been a celebration of the visit of the magi. Or better, it is the manifestation (meaning of Greek epiphaneia) of Jesus to the nations. In the Eastern tradition, the central event is the baptism by John, but again the focus is on the manifestation of Jesus as God’s beloved son.
Epiphany (and, for us, the season of ordinary time that follows it) is a time of reflection on the willingness of Jesus not only to come, but to be revealed to us. God did not send Jesus incognito as it were, just an anonymous blood donor sent to effect our justification. N. T. Wright is fond of pointing out recently that, for many Christians, it would have sufficed (following the creeds) for Jesus to have been born of a virgin…and then to have suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and buried. But the Gospel writers spilt much ink to give us a picture of the life of Jesus between the cradle and the cross. This is what Epiphany (followed by Lent) reminds us: that God wants to be known not just believed in; that Jesus is not just an instrument of God but is true Life sent into the world; that the gospel is not just about the magnificence of the incarnation or the resurrection but is also about the manifestation of God in a humble baptism and a human life.
At Epiphany, we travel with the nations represented by the magi to wonder at this gift of God, we hear the voice of God declare at Jesus’ baptism that he is the beloved of God, we begin to take notice of the things that Jesus said and did. On this day of Epiphany, let us draw near to this person and know God.
Our Epiphany prayer, which we will begin praying tonight until Ash Wednesday, is
Jesus, thank you for showing yourself to us.Now show yourself through us.