The thing I am looking forward to most about attending seminary is all the incredible books I am going to have the opportunity to read. This is the material I love to read about, think about, and talk about and I love the fact that I will be exposed to authors and topics that are new to me, and also authors and topics that are already dear to me. This anticipation has been well rewarded in my first week, as my first assigned reading was Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen has been one of my favorite writers for a couple of years now. The Return of the Prodigal Son was very formative for me, and I was thrilled when I saw his name on my assigned reading list. Not surprisingly, Nouwen’s words in The Life of the Beloved have been affirming and challenging and I wanted to reflect on one of his major points at the end of his book.
Life of the Beloved was written primarily as a response to a request by one of Nouwen’s friends that he write “…something about the spiritual life…” (Nouwen) for he and his friends who did not consider themselves Christians. Nouwen endeavored to do just that, though his friend felt that the completed work still felt firmly Christian. Nouwen encourages his friend, and the reader, to affirm their identity as Beloved. He says, “We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself” (Nouwen). For Nouwen, this is simply a given; it is the starting point for the spiritual life. We start by claiming our identity as Beloved. For the rest of the book Nouwen reflects on how we claim that identity, centering his reflection on four words; taken, blessed, broken, and given. Mirroring the language of Eucharist, Nouwen suggests that these four words describe the processes by which we become and live as the Beloved. The last of these words is the one I’d like to focus on.
In the chapter “Given”, Nouwen discusses the way in which our identity as Beloved is only fully realized when we are given to others. This chapter was simultaneously affirming and challenging, and raised issues for me about love, service, selflessness, and boundaries. Not only that, but I was challenged by the way Nouwen suggests that our brokenness and our ability to give are intermingled. Nouwen, in his gentle way, invites us to befriend our brokenness and place it under our blessing, so that we may “…discover how much we have to give – much more than we may have ever dreamed” (Nouwen). My instincts have always been to fix my brokenness first, and then to give to others out of my mended and healthy self. However, Nouwen suggests that it is the very fact of our brokenness that allows us to give without reservation. For me, that can be a scary proposition. I have found that my ability to embrace my own brokenness or to allow myself to be vulnerable with another person or persons, depends so heavily upon who it is I am giving myself to. It may feel safer to give freely from our brokenness to a friend rather than a family member, or a spouse rather than a church community. And it is this safety, or lack thereof, that often determines if and how I am able to embrace and befriend my own brokenness. I think Nouwen might suggest that I have it backwards, and that is what challenged me most from this chapter. By deciding there are some communities and relationships where I will befriend my brokenness, and others where I will not, I may be hindering my ability to realize my own identity as Beloved. And, he contends, it is this realization that makes us truly able to give ourselves to others. This is quite the cycle.
This topic is one that has often come up in conversations with friends, and I find myself wrestling with it as I engage with Benedictine spirituality. In the Rule of St Benedict, Benedict reminds his monks to deny their own will, to serve each other selflessly, and to compete in obedience. Rule 72 states “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else” (RB). For an introvert like myself, this rule sounds like my absolute nightmare. Am I required to blow up all of my personal boundaries? Do I throw away my own needs for the sake of others? Can I keep just a little of my quiet alone time? Or is that pursuing what I judge better for myself? Christ often recites similar, stark commandments that sound too heavy to bear. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me. I read these commands and I think, “How the hell do I do that?” What does it look like to give ourselves to others? Is it really as daunting as it first appears?
Nouwen says no, and as always has a way of gently reminding us not to be too hard on ourselves. He says “As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being” (Nouwen). Nouwen’s giving is not a call to abandon our own health and boundaries for the well-being of another, it is a participation together with another in our mutual brokenness and our identity as the Beloved. This, to me, is why the Church continues to be such an incredible gift. The worshipping community is that place of safety where we can lay bare our brokenness, embrace it as part of our identity, and reach out to each other in hope and mercy, realizing that in giving we receive. I hope that the Church can be a place where we can learn to carry this identity as Beloved and broken into our other relationships and interactions. We may encounter a more gentle and honest political landscape, a renewed sense of love and mercy within our family and friends, and a fuller sense of self that resists the urge to define ourselves by our failures and our differences. We are Beloved. That is our identity first. Know it, claim it, and may we never forget it.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. 1992
The Rule of St Benedict. The Liturgical Press.