Sunday, March 02, 2014

Henri Nouwen -- On Finding Belonging

It was a warm July day in 1989 and on the lawns of a large, white clapboard farmhouse between Newmarket and Aurora; a Christian Horizons home for people with disabilities; a group of staff from Brampton, Richmond Hill and Stouffville had gathered.

The tall trees that dotted the two acres on which the house stood, dappled the circle of chairs on the grass with a reflection of the leaves dancing in the breeze overhead.

We could hardly believe who stood before us as the speaker at our staff day apart--the Dutch born theologian, author and priest, Father Henri Nouwen.

For the past three years, Henri had lived at L'Arche Daybreak, in nearby Richmond Hill, as an assistant to a young man named Adam, and through one of our staff, Henny, who also worked at Daybreak, he agreed to speak to us.

I was in awe at meeting the man whose books had impacted me so greatly. How could we prepare for such an honoured guest? But Henny said that the most appreciated thank you for his visit would be a bouquet of wildflowers. 

And then he stood before us, a slightly built man with kind, warm, smiling eyes, and a restless energy! He put us at ease immediately.

He told us his story; how he had lived with an inner struggle all of his life, between accomplishment, ambition and competitiveness on one hand, which he described as the voice of his father; and on the other hand, the voice of the Spirit; represented by the voice of his mother; a voice that said that life was not defined by accomplishments or strength, but rather by embracing weakness and vulnerability.

His journey from the halls of Academia to Daybreak, was a journey born of a longing for communion and intimacy. Although he was in great demand to speak at large conventions, he felt immensely lonely and empty spiritually. 

Henri's path crossed that of Jean Vanier, Canadian Catholic theologian, and philosopher, and the founder, in 1964, of the first L'Arche community for people with disabilities in Trosly Breuil, France. Vanier was motivated to create a place of belonging for people with disabilities, particularly out of concern for the plight of the thousands living in institutions, and he started by inviting two men with disabilities to live with him. 

By the time we met Henri, this complex and gifted man had found a place of belonging himself at L'Arche, and in serving someone with profound disabilities, he found a depth of connection he had never felt before.

In the question and answer period after his talk, Christian Horizons staff shared their own struggles. To someone who was feeling driven to academic pursuits, but striving to find balance, he said: "Don't give up on your studies--they are important. Motivation is the key. We must do it not to earn love, but to proclaim it..."

Another person, a volunteer, questioned her own motivation. She said that her contacts with people with disabilities made her feel like a princess.

Henri said, "Never worry about "Why." No one does anything with pure motives. We need to let the people for whom we do things purify our motives. Living purifies the motivation. If you feel like a princess--enjoy it!"

To someone who said that they received so much through their work with people with disabilities, he said that others grow through our receiving and reminded us that we don't know we have gifts unless someone receives our gifts.

As we shared the pot luck luncheon spread on the picnic benches , I noticed who Henri gravitated to. So many people wanted to talk to him, but it was a man with disabilities who sat down with us for lunch, that he gave his attention to, showing us in action how to give the gift of belonging.

We gave him the best bouquet of wildflowers that we could find, and I also gave him one of my poems that had been inspired by his writings, printed in calligraphy on a scroll. A week or so later, he wrote to say thank you, and said that he kept it in his room and looked at it often. In his kind words he showed how to make someone feel valued by affirming an gift.

Henri Nouwen died in September 1996, leaving a legacy of simplicity and vulnerability. 

Simply Being

What joy there is in simply being:
Touching, tasting, thinking, seeing.
Could there be more joy than this?
Simply being is such bliss.

What joy there is in being simply,
Whether we are young or wrinkly.
Could there be more joy than this?
Being simply is such bliss.

Being simply, simply being,
All the wonder I am seeing,
Of the gift to simply "be,"
Thank you Lord for making me.



Dave Hingsburger said...

oh please tell us that you still have that poem and that you will share it with us!?!

Susan said...

So thankful for those journals of your'n... :)

Belinda Burston said...

Dave, I think it was "With Open Hands," which was inspired by Nouwen's book of the same title. I will post it tonight.

Belinda Burston said...

Susan, what's that dialect you'm speaking in? Lol! And thank you! :)

Warren said...

Hi Belinda, this is a lovely story - I always wanted to meet Henri - I arrived at L'Arche Daybreak a few months after he died, but his writings and stories like yours continue to speak to me, thanks!

Belinda Burston said...

Warren, I missed your comment until today. I'm so glad you liked the story! Thank you. :)