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.  

 

🎧 Conversation with Gabrielle and Sr. Sue Mosteller

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 prayerLike 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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Comments

Danielle - December 18, 2020

Hi everyone, I enjoyed the conversation with Sue so much. I actually laughed out loud as she described the situation at the gallery with Henri. I can relate to Sue’s position 100% here. What an amazing gift that Henri had to be able to become a part of these paintings and pieces. I feel like sometimes I am more like the golden retriever from the movie UP – “Squirrel!” :)
One of the things that I find myself struggling with often, is being patient for God’s timing. I often get ahead of the Spirit of God and go ahead and fix things myself. The problem is, I am finding that even though i truly believe my idea is a great one and is useful…. gosh, I am not having success and people are probably getting frustrated with me. Sometimes, I feel like I am being very sensible and offering up thoughts and suggestions to others that are golden nuggets! It isn’t until the response i receive in return is a head-scratcher to put it mildly…that i realize “oh gosh… why don’t i just allow God to do this” The struggle is real. I am beginning to understand that sitting in quiet and just observing and listening may be my best bet. I’m a bit behind because suddenly work has picked up, but I really want to find an image to contemplate and attempt to experience in a way that Henri would and would make him proud!

Gabrielle Earnshaw - December 13, 2020

Welcome Ann. Nice to have another Canadian in the mix. I believe we are four now from Toronto, Pickering, Vancouver Island and Ottawa. I am drawn to taking a posture of surrender as well. Perhaps it is linked to what Henri Nouwen experienced as sharing his vulnerabilities and wounds with others? Are there links we can see The Return of the Prodigal Son to surrender? On pg. 50 of my book, in the section about Anton T. Boisen, I write: “Nouwen saw then, and forever afterward, that it is our weakness and vulnerability, specifically those aspects of ourselves that we want to keep hidden, that give the most light.” Does this resonate with the posture of surrender?

Ann Robertson - December 13, 2020

Hello from Ottawa, Canada. It was lovely to hear Sr Sue Mosteller speak this week. I did a number of day and weekend retreats at L’Arche Daybreak when I lived in Toronto, some of which focused on Henri Nouwen and which were led by Sue.

I read The Return of the Prodigal Son as my chosen Lent reading more than 20 years ago. I don’t remember it occurring to me, then, that it was a book for Advent so I have gone back to it with a different perspective. Thank you for that.

I have always loved Advent as it has always felt like a time of “joyful expectation”. This year, because of events in the world and also personal loss, I have become more mindful of Advent as a time of “waiting”: awareness of waiting, sitting in the space of waiting – without expectation, without really knowing how to wait or what it is that I am waiting for. This year, Advent feels more like surrender – to what and where that surrender will lead, I don’t know.

Gabrielle - December 12, 2020

Another hearty welcome to everyone who has introduced themselves to the group over the past couple of weeks. Welcome to Carol, Danielle, David, Shirley, Nancy, Mary Anne, Jean, Graeme, Nicole, SJ, Joan, Jody, Julie, Kim (congratulation on your book!), Maxine, Sister Madeleine, and Mona! You’ve shared your hopes and sorrows, as well as your strengths and challenges. This nourishes us all. Thank you.

And welcome as well to those who are reading/listening along silently. You are important too.

How is the Advent waiting going? What have you been “seeing” lately with your spiritual vision? What part of my conversation with Sue struck you as important for you to hear right now?

For my part, I am being attentive to how often I get impatient with God’s time and try to “fix” a situation myself. I am trying to use my daily walks to the river to stay present in the moment and feel gratitude for each step.

Gabrielle Earnshaw - December 11, 2020

In the 1970s and 1980s, Nouwen made several trips to Latin America exploring a potential vocation as a missionary. He later publisher his diary from time he spent in Peru and Bolivia as Gracias!: A Latin American Journal (1983). One of his December entries connected with what Graeme shared yesterday. Nouwen writes:
“It is Advent again. In his sermon this morning, Oscar Uzin said: ‘Be alert, be alert, so that you will be able to recognize your Lord in your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, your teachers, but also in all that you read in the daily papers. The Lord is coming, always coming. Be alert to his coming. When you have ears to hear and eyes to see, you will recognize him at any moment in your life. Life is Advent; life is recognizing the coming of the Lord.’"

Gabrielle Earnshaw - December 11, 2020

Graeme, your comment made me think about how important music has been in my life, and no more than now. I was listening to Brian Wren’s Joyful is the Dark – a beautiful hymn with profound words the other day. It was deeply comforting.

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming
majesty in darkness, energy of love,
Word-in-flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Graeme Doyle - December 10, 2020

I am struck by how easy it is to gain insight by changing the speed at which we process information, and how using different senses to process things adds new layers and perspective to the everyday things in our lives, that we take for granted. A simple thing, yet, how many miss the experience of seeing, feeling ,hearing, and then internalizing that experience, just because they are living life at warp speed with the camera stuck in “selfie” mode? Realizing your abilities may be different than someone else’s, and learning how to “see” the world by using a different approach, adds a texture and richness to our everyday living. Becoming more aware of the gifts of those around me, makes me more appreciative, of the relational aspect of living, and truly understanding others. How much more effectively can we engage in our walk towards the Light using this knowledge? I’m thinking it just might elevate the journey!

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