Advent With Henri | Week 3 - Hope

Henri Nouwen decorating the Christmas tree, L’Arche Daybreak, 1994; used with permission by The Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, Canada. Photographer unknown.

 

🎧 Conversation with Gabrielle and Robert Ellsberg

(Click above to listen to this week's Podcast)

“The situation in our world is frightening, and many people experience deep anxieties.  More than ever we will be tested in our faith.  I hope and pray that the Lord will deepen our faith during these weeks of Advent and will fill us with peace and joy, which belong to his kingdom.  Hope is not optimism and I pray that we all will be able to live hopefully in the midst of our apocalyptic time.  We have a promise and God is faithful to his promise even when we are doubtful and fearful.  As Paul says: “Our hope is not deceptive because the Holy Spirit has already been poured into us.(Romans 5:5)

  • Letter from Nouwen to Catherine Dueck Doherty (founder of Madonna House), December 20, 1980, in Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, 44.

Readers of Henri Nouwen will be familiar with his habit of describing the spiritual life as a series of movements – from loneliness to solitude, from fear to love, from hostility to hospitality to name but three examples.  Today, I want to focus on Nouwen’s insights about the movement from fatalism to hope.

A fatalistic person says, “What is the use?;”  “Nothing can be done about it;” “You can’t change the world;” “You must be practical and realistic.”  I expect we have been hearing these sentiments around us quite a lot lately.  Maybe, we have even uttered them ourselves. 

Is this Advent period the ideal time to consider becoming a hopeful person instead?

First, a clarification: taking a hopeful position in life is different from being optimistic.  Nouwen explains: “Optimism is the expectation that things – the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on – will get better.  Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom.  The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future.  The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.” (Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)

Let’s slow that down and focus on the last part of the sentence and ask ourselves: Do I have knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands?  You might want to take out your journal and explore what stirs in you from this question.

For myself, I can tell you that I can’t always hold onto this way of being in the world. But, Nouwen’s portrait of God in The Return of the Prodigal Son has certainly helped me to hold on to this vision of reality more frequently.

Recall Nouwen’s image of God: “Looking at the way in which Rembrandt portrays the father, there came to me a whole new interior understanding of tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness.  Seldom, if ever, has God’s immense compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant way.  Every detail of the father’s figure – his facial express, his posture, the color of his dress, and most of all, the still gesture of his hands – speaks of the divine love for humanity that existed from the beginning and ever will be.” (Prodigal Son, 88)

A hopeful person trusts that life is in good hands.  In Rembrandt’s painting, the hands of the father rest on the shoulders of the returning son.  It is under these hands that Nouwen kneeled and was blessed.  He notices that one hand is like the mother.  The other like the father.  The hands that hold us are feminine and masculine – a perfect, balanced circle of love.

But, as we know, particularly when life gets difficult, we are not always open to God’s love.  In fact, as I write in my book Henri Nouwen and the Return of the Prodigal Son, “Nouwen’s book is so healing because it helps people who struggle with feelings of unworthiness to receive God’s love again.”(p.108) By naming self-rejection and connecting it to our reluctance to receive God, Nouwen touches on a core truth about many of us: we have deep wells of unworthiness.

Often, just when we need God’s love the most, we decide to go it alone – we get practical and realistic – but Nouwen models a different way.  He shows us that a hopeful person can instead “choose for the light” and allow ourselves to be loved (see Nouwen, Prodigal Son, 108-109).  I noted in my book that in the parable, love is always there. On page 143, I write, “Nouwen shows us how to soften our boundaries and open to this field of loving.  For many of us, learning how to receive God’s love, becomes transformative and profoundly healing.”

The question is will we allow ourselves to met by God as we come down the road this Christmas? We know that Nouwen’s struggle to accept God’s love would continue long after his book was published but this is strangely comforting.  We too can leave and return from “the distant country.” The difference now is we know, even if we forget now and then, that we are God’s beloved.  We are not walking in circles we are walking home. 

With this comfort, with this consolation, we can choose to move from fatalism to hope. Let’s live in hope!

Questions to ponder:

Write, draw, paint or imagine a portrait of God.  How is your portrait the same or different from Nouwen’s portrait in The Return of the Prodigal Son?

Think back to all the times God was present in your life.  Start at the beginning of your life (you might want to start with the phrase “I was born”) and think of as many episodes as you can where God was present, ending with where you are in life now.  It is likely it wasn’t just in the good times but also in the hard times.  What do you carry with you of value from these encounters?  How do these memories of God’s presence in your life affect your “trust that all of life is in good hands?”

Robert mentions reading about the lives of saints each morning with his wife Monica.  What saints or people have modelled for you how to live a hopeful life?

Some people describe reading Henri Nouwen as an “unlearning.” Is there anything you are unlearning by studying Henri Nouwen and his book The Return of the Prodigal Son?

What stops you from receiving love?  Will you allow yourself to be met by God as you come down the road this Christmas?

 

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