Advent With Henri | Week 2 - Winter
Christmas 1990 with Henri Nouwen, Sue Mosteller, Patsy Ramsay and Elizabeth Buckley at the Dayspring, L’Arche Daybreak. Photo by Paula Keleher; courtesy of L’Arche Daybreak collection.
Note: It will be helpful to listen to my conversation with Sr. Sue Mosteller prior to reading this reflection.
This morning I walked to the river that runs in the valley a few blocks from my house in Toronto’s west end. It was a beautiful day and my first real winter walk of the season. The clean, white snow crunched under foot and the glorious rays of the sun, shooting from a cloudless blue sky, cast diamonds on the surface of the rapidly-running water. At one point, I stopped walking and became absorbed by a pair of bufflehead ducks bobbing in the distance. As I stood watching them, other walkers passed by and I heard one of them say, “Ew, there’s a dead animal!” My attention shifted from the happy ducks and fell instead upon the bloated body of a lifeless racoon. It wasn’t more than a metre from where I stood. How had I missed it?
This experience calls to mind Henri Nouwen’s wisdom to be careful about where we put our attention and to be attentive to how we see. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, he admits myopia when stuck in the role of the elder son. He wrote, “When jealousy, resentment and bitterness have settled in my heart, I become unable to see what is already given to me. I am so focussed on the seeming preference of God for the other that I completely lose sight of what is given to me.” (as quoted on p.42 of Henri Nouwen and the Return of the Prodigal Son)
Like Henri, we too are faced with choices on how to see – do we choose to see life? Or do we choose to see death? What we see is what makes our world, and in this time of Advent, as we in the Northern Hemisphere enter into the winter season, what do we see? Where is our attention?
From Henri Nouwen we learn the value of developing a spiritual vision. He demonstrates this kind of seeing by the way he penetrated Rembrandt’s painting by sustained gazing. He didn’t evaluate, judge, or compare. Instead, he entered into the painting and looked deeply at each figure. Then, he entered into each figure, and looked at the world through their eyes. In doing so, his heart opened. He felt compassion. He became aware of his belovedness.
One can’t study Henri Nouwen without eventually hearing his call for developing a spiritual discipline to create space for God in our lives. One such discipline is spiritual seeing. It is the practice of taking a specific image into our meditation/prayer time. This is called Visio Divina or “divine seeing” (see p.37 of Henri Nouwen and the Return of the Prodigal Son). Sr. Sue’s story of visiting the art gallery with Henri, as told to me in our recorded conversation, helps us understand how to do this a bit more.
Winter is a good time to go inward and introspect. Can we snuggle into a cozy spot and ponder the images of the Christmas story? Can we nestle in and tend to what is incubating in us?
When I meditate there is always this moment where I allow myself to fall into the darkness. My eyes close and I enter the dark mystery of my being. I can feel it expanding. I try to expand with it, letting go of thoughts or appraisals of what is happening as I do. This has a quality of winter to me. I am letting go, becoming still, and dropping into the hands of God.
My duck/racoon story also brings to mind the idea that winter is part of the circle of life. We are born and we die. We flourish and we fade. We build ourselves up and then we are stripped down to the bare essentials. Sue spoke about growing older as a time to give our deaths away. She asks the question: “How can I live now so that when I die my death is an optimal blessing to my family, my friends, my church and the world?” She approaches her diminishment as a chance to spend more and more time in prayer. Like Henri, who calls us to become the father/mother, she teaches us how to be elders. (Sue is mentored in how to give her death away by Father Ron Rolheiser who in turn references Henri Nouwen. See Rolheiser’s article Insane for the Light: The Final Stage of Human Maturity and Christian Discipleship)
Some questions to ponder this week:
What are you not seeing because of fear, distraction, or busyness? How can the reflective time of Advent be a catalyst for calibrating your life at a different speed?
Can you use the open field that may have opened because of the pandemic to nestle into yourself and spend some time contemplating one image in particular? What images from the Christmas story can you take with you in your Visio Divina practice?
Sue talks about the image of abiding. Does it resonate with you? What does it mean to you to abide with God as God abides with you? Read John 15 and enter into the story (this is Lectio Divina or “divine reading”).
On p.139 I write: “The Return of the Prodigal Son is a story of Nouwen’s journey from a needy, anxious university professor into a needy, anxious pastor, but he has grown in consciousness. He is not living his neediness in the same way. The light of awareness has entered the dark places and changed them.” Can you think of a time in your life when you “saw” in the darkness? How did this change you?
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