henri nouwen: reading spiritually about spiritual things

Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead us to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.

As we read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God’s voice. Sometimes we must be willing to put down the book we are reading and just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.

daily reflection: laying down your life for your friends

Good Shepherds are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep (see John 10:11). As spiritual leaders walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we are called to lay down our lives for our people. This laying down might in special circumstances mean dying for others. But it means, first of all, making our own lives – our sorrows and joys, our despair and hope, our loneliness and experience of intimacy – available to others as sources of new life.

One of the greatest gifts we can give others is ourselves. We offer consolation and comfort, especially in moments of crisis, when we say: “Do not be afraid, I know what you are living and I am living it with you. You are not alone.” Thus we become Christ-like shepherds.

henri nouwen: the authority of compassion

Mostly we think of people with great authority as higher up, far away, hard to reach. But spiritual authority comes from compassion and emerges from deep inner solidarity with those who are “subject” to authority. The one who is fully like us, who deeply understands our joys and pains or hopes and desires, and who is willing and able to walk with us, that is the one to whom we gladly give authority and whose “subjects” we are willing to be.

It is the compassionate authority that empowers, encourages, calls forth hidden gifts, and enables great things to happen. True spiritual authorities are located in the point of an upside-down triangle, supporting and holding into the light everyone they offer their leadership to.

daily meditation: authority and obedience

Authority and obedience can never be divided, with some people having all the authority while others only have to obey. This separation causes authoritarian behaviour on the one side and doormat behaviour on the other. It perverts authority as well as obedience. A person with great authority who has nobody to be obedient to is in great spiritual danger. A very obedient person who has no authority over anyone is equally in danger.

Jesus spoke with great authority, but his whole life was complete obedience to his Father, and Jesus, who said to his Father, “Let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Matthew 26:39), has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (see Matthew 28:18). Let us ask ourselves: Do we live our authority in obedience and do we live our obedience with authority?

daily meditation: being handed over to suffering

People who live close together can be sources of great sorrow for one another. When Jesus chose his twelve apostles, Judas was one of them. Judas is called a traitor. A traitor, according to the literal meaning of the Greek word for “betraying,” is someone who hands the other over to suffering.

The truth is that we all have something of the traitor in us because each of us hands our fellow human beings over to suffering somehow, somewhere, mostly without intending or even knowing it. Many children, even grown-up children, can experience deep anger toward their parents for having protected them too much or too little. When we are willing to confess that we often hand those we love over to suffering, even against our best intentions, we will be more ready to forgive those who, mostly against their will, are the causes of our pain.

henri nouwen: friends as reminders of our truth

Sometimes our sorrow overwhelms us so much that we no longer can believe in joy. Life just seems a cup filled to the brim with war, violence, rejection, loneliness, and endless disappointments.

At times like this, we need our friends to remind us that crushed grapes can produce tasty wine. It might be hard for us to trust that any joy can come from our sorrow, but when we start taking steps in the direction of our friends’ advice, even when we ourselves are not yet able to feel the truth of what they say, the joy that seemed to be lost may be found again and our sorrow may become livable.

henri nouwen: the meal that makes us family and friends

We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table, we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.

That is why it is so important to “set” the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, “This is a very special time for us, let’s enjoy it!”