Life of the Beloved
A review of Henri Nouwen's book by Geoff Westwood
Like most people I feel sure in the weird days we have been through filling time seemed the thing most difficult to do. Somehow Janice managed that for me quite nicely thank you ??. However, this time has given me the opportunity to catch up on my reading. There are quite a number of theology books that I accumulated during my Reader study that have remained on the bookshelves. So, I took myself up there a few weeks ago and my eyes eventually rested on the book that is the title of this reflection. The author is Henri Nouwen who was a catholic priest and the writer of books guided by the work of the spirit. It is actually a two volume book the other work is entitled Our Greatest gift and it looks at good ways to die: which is also an inspiring book. I hope in this short reflection that I can convey something of the authors message.
The premise of the book began with an exchange he had with a journalist from the New York Times, whose name is Fred Bratman, who came to interview him regarding the works that he had published. During the interview Fr. Henri sensed this individual was going through the motions and had no real interest in the job at hand. After the interview Fr. Henri asked him what the issue was, and Fred told him that he really wanted to write a novel, and he couldn’t find the time, or money to support that goal. Short version Fr. Henri asked Fred to come and work with him, and he could spend as much time during that period as possible to write that novel: so, began a lifelong friendship.
After a number of years, and during a walk-through New York, Fred asked Fr. Henri to write a book that he and his friends could relate to because there was a spiritual void in their lives that “things” couldn’t fill. That undertaking proved to be the basis for the book.
Underpinning this book is the fact that we are beloved and chosen by God. I will go through the book chapter by chapter, so a sense of continuity is maintained.
Chapter 1 Being the Beloved
This chapter is based on the words spoken from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. The words, “you are my beloved” do not rest solely on those of us who call ourselves Christian, but to all of humanity whatever path is followed.
Belovedness is a gift that we need to pass on to whoever we meet but that gift can only be given if we claim it for ourselves. The words “you are my beloved” are so easily drowned out by voices telling us we are ugly, worthless, a nobody unless we can prove the opposite. It is so easy to fall into line and accept those voices which leads us to what Fr. Henri tells us is a state of self-rejection. This really spoke to me, as soon as someone accuses me of something, or is critical of me, that dark place inside me says there you are told you so! Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts that sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”.
In my life in what seems a small way I have known I was beloved but always hankered for that something that would unequivocally prove it. When I think back, I can recognise that small voice in words from my parents, my in-laws, Janice, the kids, my friends and of course my church family. Even then there is the temptation to think, ah but what if they really knew me!
Ultimately, we were loved long before our parent spouses, children, friends ever knew us. That is the truth and the truth spoken by the voice calling us the beloved.
Chapter 2 Becoming the Beloved
The authors premise and the next step is that once we acknowledged the truth that we are the beloved we are then faced with the call to become who we are. Therefore, becoming the beloved is the great spiritual journey we all are called to make. Augustine’s words: “My soul is restless until it rests in you O God” capture well this journey. Fr. Henri attests that because we are always looking for God, looking for love, yearning for complete truth, is testament to the fact that these are things, that we have to some degree, already found. Deep in the recesses of our minds, and hearts, there lies hidden the treasure we all seek. We know it’s preciousness, and we know that it holds the gift we most desire: a life stronger than death.
Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to us from above down into the ordinariness of what we are, in fact, thinking about, talking about and doing from hour to hour.
In order to identify the movement of the spirit the author uses four words which are the basis of the next chapters, based around the communion. They are, Taken, Blessed, Broken and Given.
Chapter 3 Taken
This is the first step in the spiritual life because it acknowledges with our whole being, we have been taken, although chosen is a somewhat more appropriate word. From a personal perspective I know I have been chosen because people have come into my life noticed my uniqueness and have expressed a desire to know me, to come closer to me and to love me. This is the way that God has seen us from all eternity as special, precious beings.
We live in an extremely competitive world where in the worlds societies there are “chosen ones”, and their devotees, whether readers, listeners, viewers or more likely these days “followers” extract some vicarious pleasure from knowing or being close to them. Being chosen as the Beloved of God is radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their uniqueness. It is not a competitive choice but a compassionate choice.
We are advised not to surrender the word chosen to the world but dare to claim it as our own. Holding onto the trust that we are chosen is the bedrock to build a life as the Beloved. Losing touch with this exposes ourselves to the temptation of self-rejection.
How often are we told “You are nothing special; just another person among millions; your life is just one more mouth to feed, your needs just one more problem to solve”. These are increasingly powerful voices.
We need to celebrate our chosenness, constantly saying thank you to God for having chosen us and thank you to all who remind us of our chosenness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening our consciousness that we are not an accident but a divine choice
Chapter 4 Blessed
Us insecure human beings are always in need of a blessing. Children need to be blessed by their parents, and parents by their children. It is helpful to understand what the author means by “blessing”. In this context he is taking it from the Latin benedicere. The word benediction, that is used so often in church, is literally, speaking (diction) well (bene) or saying good things about someone. I guess we all need to hear good things spoken of us. There is surely a need today to affirm one another. To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer. It is more than a word of praise or appreciation, more than pointing out someone’s talent. Giving a blessing is to say “yes” to a person’s Belovedness.
The blessings that we give to one another are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity. We need an ongoing blessing that allows us to hear in an ever-new way, that we belong to a loving God who will never leave us alone, but will remind us always that we are guided by love every step of our lives. We return to the voice that said to Jesus “You are my Beloved Son, on you my favour rests”. These are the words that sustained Jesus throughout his life, through all the troubles that he endured and the doubts that he encountered. When we continue to hear that deep, gentle voice that blesses us, we can walk through life with a stable sense of well-being and true belonging.
The sense of being cursed can come easier than the sense of being blessed. We need to hold onto the our Belovedness. Good words are being spoken to us and about us-words that tell the truth. The curses-noisy, boisterous, loud-mouthed as they may be-do not tell the truth. They are lies; lies easy to believe, but lies, nevertheless.
Fr. Henri offers two ways to claim your blessedness.
The first, and perhaps the most obvious way is through prayer, more importantly listening to that deep voice of love. Personally, I am trying to get more into the habit of listening in prayer instead of just presenting my “shopping list” to God. This I find is not an easy thing to do. I am so afraid of hearing I am not good enough, that I quickly give into the temptation to start, and keep talking in order to control my fears. To push aside and silence the many voices that question my goodness, and to trust that I will hear a voice of blessing demands real effort. We have also been given practical advice by Bev on how to take the voices of the mind into the love of God given to us in the heart.
The author offers a suggestion to listen is to listen with a sacred test: the obvious one I guess is the Lord’s prayer.
The second suggestion is attentiveness. By that he means listening to the blessings that come to you day after day and year after year. Often, people say good things about us, but we brush them aside with remarks such as, “Oh don’t mention it, forget about it etc.” While these remarks seem to be expressions of humility they are, in fact, signs that we are not truly present to receive the blessings that have been given. It has become difficult for us to stop, listen, pay attention and receive gratefully what is offered to us.
Fr. Henri advises that not claiming your blessedness leads to the land of the cursed; there is no middle ground.
Chapter 6 Broken
We all to some degree live broken lives. From a personal perspective I have lived through a number of periods of self-doubt and depression. This awareness is never far beneath the surface because we are all aware that none of us will escape death- the most radical manifestation of our brokenness.
The leaders and prophets of Israel who were clearly chosen, all lived very broken lives. And we, the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either.
Our sufferings and pains are not simply interruptions of our lives; rather they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells the world something about me. The way you are broken tells the world something unique about you. Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique.
Fr.Henri maintains that although many people suffer from physical or mental disabilities, and although there is a great amount of economic poverty, homelessness and a lack of basic human needs, the suffering which he was most aware of on a day-to-day basis was the suffering of a broken heart. The most painful feelings are those of being rejected, ignored, despised and left alone. He felt that human beings can suffer immense depravations with great steadfastness, but when we sense that we no longer have anything to offer anyone, we quickly lose our grip on life. Instinctively we know that the joy of life comes from the ways in which we live together and that the pain of life comes from the many ways we fail to do that well.
This, I believe, can be witnessed in the period of isolation, lockdown and uncertainty that has befallen us all recently. We have witnessed spontaneous generosity with which friends, and total strangers have formed community groups to help all those isolated and in need of a cheering phone call or collecting shopping. This crisis gave us a chance to look afresh at our brokenness.
The author offers two ways of responding to our brokenness. The first response is to face it squarely and befriend it. I know this sounds counterintuitive. Our first reaction to pain whether that be emotional or physical is to avoid it at all costs, keep it firmly at arm’s length. Fr. Henri felt that we have to find the courage to embrace our brokenness, to make our most feared enemy into a friend and to claim it as an intimate companion. He felt this was especially true of the pain that comes from a broken heart. The anguish and agony that result from rejection, separation, neglect, abuse and emotional manipulation serve only to paralyse us when we can’t face them and keeping running away from them. Fr. Henri felt that when we need guidance in our suffering, it is first of all a guidance that leads us closer to our pain and makes us aware that we do not have to avoid it but can befriend it.
One thing he advises is that this is a step that shouldn’t be taken alone. We all need someone to keep us standing in it, to assure us that there is peace beyond the anguish, life beyond death and love beyond fear. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey towards the full realization of our humanity.
The second response to our brokenness is to put it under the blessing. Fr. Henri feels that this is a precondition to befriending it. Our brokenness is so frightening to face because we live under the curse. Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying “I always suspected that I was useless or worthless, and now I am sure of t because of what is happening to me”.
The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. I think we all know that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Around us the powers of darkness are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us.
Fr. Henri concluded this chapter with the following scene from a musical work by Leonard Bernstein called Mass a work written in memory of John F Kennedy that embodied for him the thought of brokenness put under the blessing. Towards the end of this work, the priest, richly dressed in splendid liturgical vestments is lifted by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the pyramid collapses, and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off and the glass chalice falls to the ground and is shattered. As he walks through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt – children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise”. Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realised that broken glass could shine so brightly”.
Chapter 7 Given
For Fr. Henri it is only as people who are given that we can fully understand our being chosen blessed and broken. In the giving he feels that it becomes clear that we are chosen, blessed and broken not simply for our own sakes, but so that all we live finds its final significance in its being lived for others.
We all experience the joy that comes from being able to do something for another person, again we are noticing that during this current Covid period. The simple joy of people in our street who came out every Thursday evening at 8 O clock is a small way of giving something out of pure joy and thankfulness. Also seeing our daughter Grace, the other day, I could see the joy she had when she saw Eva or Connie smile. Their smiles were a gift to her who was grateful to see her children so happy. Although it often seems that people give to receive the author believes that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple, pure desire to give. The simple joy that can be taken from going to the shops and picking out a present for a loved one. We become beautiful people when we give: a smile, a handshake, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…. all of our life.
Janice and I celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary during lockdown, and I still recall the confidence that receiving the gift of her love gave me. Most importantly she loves me for who I am and not for what I could earn or accomplish. Just as well really??. Also, I was giving her something unique that she couldn’t give to herself: a home, a place of safety and fruitfulness. I guess we both knew that this was something that needed to be worked on day to day especially on days when we experienced some distance between ourselves.
In today’s highly competitive and greedy world Fr Henri feels we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on us having. But I don’t believe that anyone is truly happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. This truth however becomes apparent when we are confronted by our brokenness. Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so too, do our lives. Clearly that does not mean that we have to inflict pain on each other or others to make us better givers. As we have seen earlier broken glass shines brightly only a fool would break glass to make it shine. As mortal people, brokenness is a reality of our existence and place it under the blessing, we will discover how much we have to give-much more than we dreamt possible.
The analogy is made in the book to the sharing of a meal, which can be expressed as ‘breaking bread together’ which perfectly articulates the breaking and giving as one. When we eat together, we are vulnerable to one another. Eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup call us to live together in unity and peace.
The question then arises how can this be accomplished in a society that speaks more in having than giving? It is suggested that there are two directions: giving oneself in life and giving oneself in death. When I first read this brief paragraph my reaction to the latter was very much how?
First of all, our life is the greatest gift to give-something we constantly forget. When speaking about giving we immediately think about our talents. However, focussing on our talents, we tend to forget that our real gift is not so much what we can do, but who we are. The real question is not “What can we offer each other?” but “Who can we be for each other? It is wonderful when we can repair something, give advice or wise counsel to someone. However, the greatest gift is how our life shines through what we do. As we grow older, we discover what we have to offer are our joy of living, our own silence and solitude and our own sense of well-being. When we ask ourselves “Who helps me most?” we must answer “The one who is willing to share his or her life with me”
It is important to distinguish between talents and gifts. More important than talents are our gifts. We may have a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust and many more that I am sure you could list. These are true gifts we have to offer each other.
Secondly, and the challenging one giving ourselves in death as well. Since it is true that we are broken to be given, then our final brokenness, death, is to become the means to our final gift of self. I hear you say. How can this be true? It seems that dying is the great enemy to be evaded for as long as possible! Still one of the very few things we can be sure of is that we will die
For the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, dying is the gateway to the complete experience of being the Beloved. For those who know they are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, dying is the way to becoming the pure gift.
On an almost daily basis the media assail us with details of people dying through war, starvation and neglect, and even though we hear regularly that people in our circle have died we pay little attention to our own approaching death. Everything around us encourages to go on as if nothing has happened. When finally, we have to face our own approaching death we try to deny it as long as possible and are perplexed and angry, when we cannot escape it. Fr. Henri believes we are not only called to live for others, but to die for others. He asks how is this possible?
The deaths of those whom we love and who love us, open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion, a new belonging to each other. If love is, indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love. It was only after Jesus left the disciples that they were able to grasp what he truly meant to them. But isn’t that true for all who die in love. This spoke to me on a personal level as recently it was my father’s birthday and I went to the cemetery to spend some time with him and those times we spent together came flooding back. An emotional and deeply moving time.
The author attests that it is only when we have died that our spirits can finally completely reveal themselves. We all know people whose ability to love was limited by their needs and wounds. After their deaths, their wounds and needs that kept them captive no longer inhibit them from giving their full selves to us. Now they can send us their spirits, and we can live in a new communion with them.
People can die in anger and bitterness and with a great unwillingness to accept their mortality. Their deaths can become a source of frustration and even guilt for those who stayed behind. Their deaths never became a gift. They had little to send. The spirit had been extinguished by the powers of darkness.
Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. The choice is clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure or letting go in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope.
The death of the Beloved bears fruit in many lives. We have to trust that our short, little lives can bear fruit far beyond the boundaries of our chronologies. But we have to choose this and trust deeply that we have a spirit to send that will bring joy, peace and life to those who will remember us.
Once we recognise the fruitfulness of our little life, and live it as the life of the Beloved, we see that it is beyond anything we ourselves can imagine. One of the greatest acts of faith is to believe that the few years we live on this earth are like a little seed planted in a very rich soil. For this seed to bear fruit. It must die.
Imagine that kindness to our friends, generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests. Imagine that, in the centre of our hearts, we trust that our smiles and handshakes, and our kisses are only the early signs of a world-wide community of love and peace. Imagine that our trusting that every movement of love we make will ripple out into new and ever wider circles-just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine…could we ever be depressed, angry, resentful, or vengeful? Could we ever despair of the meaning of our short earthly existence?
There will come a time when we have moved beyond this life. The houses in which we live will remain but will be inhabited by other people who will know little or nothing about us. We have to believe, and hope, that our brief, easily forgotten journey in this world will continue to give life to people through all times and places. The spirit of love, once freed from our mortal bodies will blow where it will, even when few will hear its coming and going.
Chapter 8 Living as the Beloved
As we have seen those who are chosen, blessed, broken and given, are called to live a life with a deep inner peace and joy. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.
But what of the other side of it all? What of our desire to build a career, our hope for success and fame and our dream of making a name for ourselves? Is that to be despised? Are these aspirations in opposition to the spiritual life? The world can provide a lot to see, hear, taste and enjoy. The world has a lot to offer as long as we don’t feel we have to obey it. Fr. Henri asserts that the great struggle facing us is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions, and aspirations or to despise money, prestige or success, but to claim our spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it
We need to think of ourselves as having been sent into the world…a way of seeing ourselves that is possible if we believe that we were loved before the world began….a perception of ourselves that calls for a true leap of faith!
Put simply, live is a God-given opportunity to become who we are, to affirm our own true spiritual nature, claim our truth, appropriate and integrate the reality of our being, but, most of all say “Yes” to the one who calls us the Beloved.
The unfathomable mystery of God is the God is a lover who wants to be loved. God not only says “You are my Beloved” God also asks, “Do you love me?” and offers us countless opportunities to say “Yes” to our inner truth. The spiritual life thus understood changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed-yes living and dying-they all become expressions of that divine question: “Do you love me?”. At every point in the journey there is a choice to say “Yes” and the choice to say “No”
Chapter 9 Epilogue
If you can remember as far back as the beginning of this piece you will recall Fr. Henri wrote this book in response to a request from his friend Fred as a guide to spirituality to him and his secular friends who were searching for meaning to their lives. I am sorry to say that Fred did not find that meaning. It appears that Fr. Henri did not realise how far his intended audience were from where he was. After discussing the book with Fred Fr. Henri was faced with the dilemma. What to do with the book? Forget about it, rewrite it, publish as is? For a long time he was confused.
Fortunately for us he had sent the manuscript to a few of his Christian friends who told him how encouraged they had been with what they had read. Which is very much the response of the writer of this reflrction!
“What about Fred” Fr. Henri asked. “Well” they answered, “you might not have been able to write all that Fred needs to hear, but Fred certainly enabled you to write what we needed to hear! Couldn’t you just be happy with that?”