TODAY'S BREATHING SPACE
Henri Nouwen’s birth as a clown, 1992; attributed to Peter Doll; courtesy of L’Arche Daybreak collection
Entering a second childhood is to integrate all that we have experienced into a whole – and entering life as though born again. (Earnshaw, p.7)
Thanks to all for continuing to join me and the Paraclete Press team on this Advent journey with Henri Nouwen. It is a great blessing to be sharing this time with each of you. For our final week together we are exploring the theme of renewal.
In my book, Henri Nouwen and the Return of the Prodigal, I begin with the story of Nouwen’s rebirth as a clown on his 60th birthday (p. 5). It is a vivid metaphor for the spiritual transformation that he underwent after seeing Rembrandt’s poster for the first time. And certainly, much of what I explore in my book is about his nine-year journey of renewal.
In Greek, the word ‘renewed’ is ananeoo which means to be renovated by an inward reformation. According to Kenneth S. Wuest, the scholar who provided the translation, the construction of the Greek makes it a transitional and continuative process.
If renewal is continuative and involves an inward reformation, we might ask, what are we renewed from and what are we renewed to? For insights, I referred to Nouwen’s book Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life (1981). Nouwen suggests that we are renewed from “self-deceptive games” and we are renewed to “Christ-like lives, lives shapes by the same love that exists between the Father and the Son.” To be renewed is to allow the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us.
To help us explore this theme and reflect on how it applies to our lives this Advent, here are a few excerpts and questions you might consider. You are invited to share and reflect on any aspect of our theme this week that touches you.
My conversation with Father Raymond Mwangala, an Oblate priest and Nouwen scholar, helps deepen our reflection. You might want to listen to it before reading further.
(Click above to listen to this week's Podcast)
“In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen lets go of the compulsions to run away from difficulties, to hold on to fear, to cling to resentment and childish fantasies. By letting all go he comes home to himself. Gradually, he steps into an entirely new way of being.” (Earnshaw, p.7). Do you have your own “self-deceptive games” that keep you stuck? Are you encouraged to let go of any of them this Advent? What would it mean to come home to yourself? What would “an entirely new way of being” look like for you?
Spiritual rebirth is a dominant theme in The Return of the Prodigal Son, and like renewal it is linked to inner freedom. “What is this freedom? According to Nouwen, it is to enter a second childhood as expressed by Jesus, who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3) (Earnshaw, pp. 6-7) What qualities of innocence of childhood do you need to recover before truly entering the Kingdom of God? (see The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp.49-55; Earnshaw, p.142).
Part of the power of The Return of the Prodigal Son is related to Nouwen’s ability to give us “a new entry way into the beauty and scope of Jesus’s message of love.” (Earnshaw, p.10) How did reading Nouwen’s book renew your ability to love? Nouwen’s story shows us that his transformation led to renewed engagement with the world. How is your love expressed in your relationships? Are you more capable of blessing others now? What does Nouwen teach us about the correlation between reconciliation and renewal? (see Earnshaw, p.20, 57).
In the penultimate year of Nouwen’s life he compiled 365 meditations about the spiritual life – a kind of end-of-life compendium of wisdom learned. In that book he expands on the meaning of renewal to include the whole earth. He writes, “Our final homecoming involves not just ourselves and our fellow human being but all of creation. The full freedom of the children of God is to be shared by the whole earth, and our complete renewal in the resurrection includes the renewal of the universe. That is the great vision of God’s redeeming work through Christ.” (Nouwen, Bread for the Journey). How does your Advent renewal (if you are experiencing one) connect with the groans of the planet? What might you do to “lift up” creation as part of your Advent journey?
For Nouwen, his renewal, his transformation, his rebirth, was related to his struggles. “We see that indeed Nouwen’s life was transformed by “his painting” and that while he never completely overcame his struggles, he was able to live them in a new way.” (Earnshaw, p.11) Does this resonate with you about the nature of renewal? How have your struggles contributed to or inhibited your renewal?
“One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offers us a completely new beginning.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.53) What does this quote tell us about Nouwen’s view of renewal. How can we apply it to our own lives? What keeps you “clinging to your sins”?
Father Raymond suggests that to be Christ-like is an invitation to drink the cup that God has given us (see Nouwen’s book Can You Drink the Cup?). Are you ready to drink your cup to the full? What are the sorrows? What are the joys?
What aspects of winter relate to renewal in your life? What aspects of summer?
Tell us if/how reading The Return of the Prodigal Son changed your life? What aspects of your life were renewed?