Top Five Books of the Year… Number Two

For Number Two, we get more change, but now soul: Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Master Catholic Writer and Priest and one of his most notable books, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

This is an explicitly Christian book and no, I’m not recommending the book. I’m including it because of the personal impact the book made on me this year. It’s not for everyone. I lacked the maturity in my own story to have read this book before this year. I will need to re-read it again and again as I age for it to truly take root.

 

Henri Nouwen

I will begin with the end: Nouwen felt that he failed in this book. He wrote it for a secular Jewish friend to describe his own spiritual understanding of the world and to make that accessible to his friend. His friend said that it was a nice book, but it was not as dramatically different from the previous books Nouwen had written and relied too heavily on some assumptive knowledge. The friend said “you are not aware of how truly secular we are.” When asked to clarify, the friend gave examples like “Who is God? Who am I? Why am I here? How can I give my life meaning? How do I get faith? When you do not help us to answer these questions, your beautiful meditations on being and becoming the Beloved remain dreamlike for us.”

 

How about that for transparent constructive criticism of the book you’ve just read? Nouwen includes this dialogue in the concluding chapter, titled in all humility “A Friendship Deepened.”

Nouwen’s purpose backfired. In the failure, he opened doors to a sort of richness that those who are struggling through the answers to the secular friend’s questions (and while maybe not arriving at answers, have put in the time to struggle) reach points of deeper clarification and meaning.

The answers to the friend’s questions do not have clean, black and white answers. They are muddy answers. They are answers that change. They are answers that expand and contract and are threatened and ennobled and mature and age. Who is God? Who am I? These are the questions of the last 3000 years of recorded history.

Yet for those in the process (not the destination), who have chewed on these questions and started to see some of the glimmers, this book lays out the startling concept of becoming the Beloved. In it’s simplest terms, that means the object of God’s Love. As a know-it-all college sophomore I mocked the movement of the Church of the Relational Jesus. It seemed so odd to someone so brilliantly smart and 19 as myself to take relationship (with the unknowable) and blend that with the institutional (and likely corrupt). Philosophically sound, guarded cynically in logic, I maintained this position for years. I’ve been stuck on 19 for almost half my life. Having kids, a marriage, gray hairs, a hernia, some debt, some failure, a career change or three… that’s living in change. In the midst of changing, it’s amazing to see what doesn’t change. It is even more startling to see how appetites change. In my personal experience, when you’re smart and sexy and unstoppable, there is little thirst for identification in the eyes of God as the object of his movement of Love. In the words of Bob Dylan, “I was older than, I’m younger than that now”.

This year has been the culmination of many undercurrents of change that I have been afraid to explore and the indulgence in risks that I previously had not permitted myself to take. Before a seminal weekend retreat (better called an advance) in June, I finished Life of the Beloved. The sequence of these event was perfectly timed. I read a book that opened my heart to change and then was given the lens to see the profound change at work in my own life. Nouwen’s tender words cleaved off a lot of the scar tissue of my heart, but also a lot of the wax from my ears and scales from my eyes.

Nouwen: “To identify the movements of the Spirit in our lives, I have found it helpful to use four words: taken, blessed, broken and given… Most importantly, however, they summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving are happening. I must tell you at this point that these four words have become the most important words of my life. Only gradually has their meaning become known to me, and I feel that I won’t ever know their full profundity.” There is a system to this book: claim that we are taken (a conscious choice of free will, not a demand, thus the dream-like quality to the secular friend since this blows up all the other questions. There is a 180 degree difference between being told you are taken and knowing you are taken. There is no compelling or convincing someone to the point of “taken”. It’s a conscious choice); live in a world that is blessed, from the Latin idea of if, meaning we can “speak good of it” ; converse with and share our broken lives; and  participate by giving of ourselves to others.

I have been sharing with a few friends the lessons of the Thirties Decade Advance (I’m just gonna call it what it was!). It’s hard to share them with men in their 20’s, or men who just turned 30. It’s discouraging news. Turn thirty and the experimentation ends, and things get started, right? The reality is that this decade is a year of hidden wonders, much blessed failure, and my inavailability for much of the trappings of what I thought the decade would be about. I came into this decade driving a fancy car that was bought with two stupid loans and trying to figure out if I could own property in three states and two countries by forty and retire by sixty. Five years on into the real estate meltdown, I’m figuring out new ways to build up my emergency fund to six months reserves and laughing at my retirement accounts because the whole idea of ever retiring seem preposterous. I didn’t ask questions when I was 29. Today, I rarely shut up with the questions.

I’m asking questions like:

  • “Where was I placed in the role of king, too early?”
  • “What did I expect to be that I’m not?”
  • “What did I expect to have that I don’t?”

And I come to realizations like:

  • “If maturity lies in integrity and integrity lies in truthfulness and truthfulness lies in faithfulness… then the house I’ve built is made of cards.”
  • “Let’s try contentedness on for size”
  • “The oaks of righteousness are gnarly, weathered chunks of wood made perfect in their blemishes”
  • “I like dirt on my sandal-tanned toes”

Nouwen’s friendship with the subject of his book came about in a time of his friend’s own uncertainty in his marriage and career and Nouwen’s own depression. Brokenness. My life has been dominated by the first of my questions above, becoming a king too soon. I was the youngest in my class several years in school. I finished CC a semester early. I was asked to a vestry at 23. I was being groomed to be a sales director at 24. I was in self-created debt to my eyeballs by 29 and had no clue. I was thinking about buying a real estate company at 32. All of these arenas succeeded or failed on me. All of these instances were places where I was told I was needed and critical… and I gave those demands their life.

Taken in the context of Nouwen’s circular design, I could never be taken in any of these situations. I could not enjoy blessing. The last thing I should do was admit to being broken, and correspondingly, I could not give.

A word I keep coming back to this year is Catalyst. A catalyst causes reactions, and in chemical applications, the catalyst itself is not consumed by the reaction. A catalyst doesn’t create a reaction with everything it comes into contact with, but only in the right applications. Perhaps last year, and definitely three years ago or more, Life of the Beloved would have left me unmoved. I would have found the meditations pleasant and dreamlike. Because I have changed, and I am different, and I am broken and taken and blessed and understand giving a little better than before, it has made a huge impact in my life.

 

 

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