I’m a fan of the writings of Henri Nouwen. Before his death in 1996, the Holland-born author and theologian served as a Catholic priest; taught at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard; worked with Trappist monks in New York’s Abbey of the Genesee; lived with the poor in Peru; and became pastor at a L’Arche community for the mentally disabled in Canada. Along the way, he wrote over 40 books.
One of the hallmarks of Nouwen’s works is his honest sharing of his personal struggles. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in his Inner Voice of Love, originally a series of “secret journal” entries written during a period of deep depression. In the introduction to the book, Nouwen writes that it was only at the urging of friends that he decided to have The Inner Voice of Love published.
In the book’s pages, Nouwen touches on themes that strike chords with many cross-cultural children and adults, global nomads, and others who are physical or spiritual “strangers in a strange land”—with those who are looking for a community and home to call their own. In fact, it was shortly after he joined the community of L’Arche, what he called his “true home,” that Nouwen was faced with his depression. “Just when I had found a home,” he writes, “I felt absolutely homeless. . . . It was if the house I had finally found had no floors.”
Over the course of the next six months, Nouwen moved from agony “to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.” Following are some of the “spiritual imperatives” that Nouwen wrote to himself during this journey, as he sought the path home:
Coming Home and Trusting Your Heart
Sometimes people who do not know your heart will altogether miss the importance of something that is part of your deepest self, precious in your eyes as well as God’s. They might not know you well enough to be able to respond to your genuine needs. It is then that you have to speak your heart and follow your own deepest calling.
There is a part of you that too easily gives in to others’ influence. As soon as someone questions your motives, you start doubting yourself. You end up agreeing with the other before you have consulted your own heart. Thus you grow passive and simply assume that the other knows better.
Here you have to be very attentive to your inner self. “Coming home” and “being given back to yourself” are expressions that indicate that you have a solid inner base from which you can speak and act—without apologies—humbly but convincingly.
Sharing Your Pain as a Fellow Traveler
You wonder whether it is good to share your struggles with others, especially with those to whom you are called to minister. you find it hard not to mention your own pains and sorrows to those you are trying to help. You feel that what belongs to the core of your humanity should not be hidden. You want to be a fellow traveler, not a distant guide.
The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. . . .
But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.
For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart.
You Are Welcome Here
Not being welcome is your greatest fear. . . . It is the deepseated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived.
Everything Jesus is saying to you can be summarized in the words “Know that you are welcome.” Jesus offers you his own most intimate life with the Father. He wants you to know all he knows and to do all he does. He wants his home to be yours. Yes, he wants to prepare a place for you in his Father’s house.
Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.
(Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, New York: Doubleday, 1996)
[photo: “To die by your side,” by Hugo Marcelo Mendez Campos, used under a Creative Commons license]