A Nouwen Situation

NouwenThumbby Brad Nelson
Henri Nouwen was the kind of touchy-feely Catholic priest who is difficult not to like. A prolific author, Nouwen was also famous for his work with L’Arche, putting his money where his mouth was in regards to his ethics.
Here’s a quote from Henri Nouwen’s book Bread for the Journey:

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves, “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.

We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land in which our treasure is hidden.”

I was listening to Dennis Prager the other day, and he’s about the coolest Jew I know. He’s doing an ongoing series on the Ten Commandments and other passages from the Old or New Testament. And Dennis approaches it as (and I paraphrase), “I’m not asking you to believe that any of this stuff is divinely inspired. But ask yourself if it’s not good advice.”

For a Jew or an agnostic to support Christian ideas probably seems a bizarre thing to many, probably particularly to the hardcore atheists. But when one can leap past religious bigotry, bias, and leftist misinformation (and perhaps avoid leaping toward total credulity on the opposite end of the spectrum), then perhaps there are some very universal principles encoded inside of many religious ideas. And as far as any of this being divinely inspired, if these ideas didn’t make sense in the real world and led to awful things, instead of good things, what chance would there be of any kind of divine source?

Nouwen has long been a favorite of mine. Inherent to much of Christian theology (and some other religions) is the idea of poverty and humility. I’ve found that both terms can be very upsetting to the modern man, perhaps left or right. It is an American ideal to make the most of oneself and not to meekly accept injustices or poor conditions. And we are the better for this ethos.

And yet that alone is not a foundation for a life or a culture. Without the balance of at least the awareness of poverty (or whatever word one wishes to use in its place) and humility, you can easily create a mindset where nothing is ever enough and the good is passed over, ignored, or under-appreciated. Bold, decisive, risk-taking Americanism is a good thing. But unless balanced with the inherent knowledge that we can’t be everything, do everything, and solve everything, we run the risk of wreaking havoc, both in our own lives and in society at large.

These are often tricky concepts. Acceptance of inherent flaws and faults can be good, but that ethic can easily be turned on its head where, instead of trying to improve things, we call it virtuous merely to suffer for suffering’s sake. And humility and moderation can be good, but sometimes what is required is a good swift kick in the ass of injustice rather than a never-ending stream of milquetoast words.

It’s rather amazing that I got this far without being political, many of you are surely thinking. If there is such things as false piety — and there is — then there is also such things as naive exuberance. We call that “Progressivism,” a political/social ideology that has, embedded in its core, the idea that any flaw need not be suffered; that mankind is capable of righting any wrong and thus not to do so is to be against reason, compassion, and all the Nice Things®. And it’s government, of course, not personal action, that is ever and always the corrective force for “Progressives.” Humility and acceptance of the inherent flaws of life don’t tend to be “Progressive” ideals.

And if I were to take a shot at the right just for the sake of being fair, I would say that Dennis Prager has a valid point. We should be able to see the value of these ideas apart from their supposed divine accreditation. And I would say that if we make of these ideas nothing but incantations, perhaps we miss the meaning in them.

Is it truly possible for a person to find something good in the faults that they have by accepting them instead of running to the shrink, the cosmetic surgeon, charismatic politicians, addictions, or yet another self-help book in order to try to wipe them out? Nouwen says that there is.

Let me share one final quote of his:

“At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? God or to the world?” Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.

As long as I keep running about asking: “Do you love me? Do you really love me?” I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with “ifs.” The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” hidden in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world-trying, failing,and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”


Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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