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Living in the world without being of the world
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved” published in 1992:
Living in the World as the Beloved (pg 103-111)
As those who are chosen, blessed, broken and given, we are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.
But what of the other side of it all? What of our desire to build a career, our hope of success and fame and our dream of making a name for ourselves? Is that to be despised? Are these aspirations in opposition to the spiritual life?
Some people might answer, “Yes” to that question and counsel you to leave the fast pace of the big city and look for a milieu where you can pursue the spiritual life without restraints. But I don’t think that that’s your way. I don’t believe that your place is in a monastery or a community such as L’Arche or the solitude of the countryside. I would say, even, that the city with its challenges is not such a bad place for you and your friends. There is stimulation, excitement, movement and a lot to see, hear, taste and enjoy. The world is only evil when you become its slave. The world has a lot to offer---just as Egypt did for the children of Jacob---as long as you don’t feel bound to obey it. The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations or to despise money, prestige or success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it. It is exciting to win a competition, it is interesting to meet influential people, it is inspiring to listen to a concert at Lincoln Center, to see a movie or to visit a new exhibition at the Metropolitan. And what’s wrong with good friends, good food and good clothes?
I believe deeply that all the good things our world has to offer are yours to enjoy. But you can enjoy them truly only when you can acknowledge them as affirmations of the truth that you are the Beloved of God. That truth will set you free to receive the beauty of nature and culture in gratitude, as a sign of your Belovedness. That truth will allow you to receive the gifts you receive from your society and celebrate life. But that truth will also allow you to let go of what distract you, confuses you and puts in jeopardy the life of the Spirit within you.
Think of yourself as having been sent into the world. . .a way of seeing yourself that is possible if you truly believe that you were loved before the world began. . .a perception of yourself that calls for a true leap of faith! As long as you live in the world, yielding to its enormous pressure to prove to yourself and to others that you are somebody and knowing from the beginning that you will lose in the end, your life can be scarcely more than a long struggle for survival. If, however, you really want to live in the world, you cannot look to the world itself as the source of that life. The world and its struggles may help you to survive for a long time, but they cannot help you live because the world is not the source even of its own life, let alone yours.
Spiritually you do not belong to the world. And this is precisely why you are sent into the world. Your family and your friends, your colleagues and your competitors and all the people you may meet on your journey through life are all searching for more than survival. Your presence among them as the one who is sent will allow them to catch a glimpse of the real life.
Everything changes radically from the moment you know yourself as being sent into this world. Times and spaces, people and events, art and literature, history and science, they all cease to be opaque and become transparent, pointing far beyond themselves to the place from where you come and to where you will return. It is very hard for me to explain to you this radical change because it is a change that cannot be described in ordinary terms; nor can it be taught or practiced as a new discipline of self-knowledge. The change of which I speak is the change from living life as a painful test to prove that you deserve to be loved, to living it as an unceasing “Yes” to the truth of that Belovedness. Put simply, life is a God-given opportunity to become who we are, to affirm our own true spiritual nature, claim our truth, appropriate and integrate the reality of our being, but, most of all, to say “Yes” to the One who calls us the Beloved.
The unfathomable mystery of God is that God is a Lover who wants to be loved. The One who created us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being. God not only says: “You are My Beloved.” God also asks: “Do you love Me?” and offers us countless chances to say “Yes.” That is the spiritual life: the chance to say “Yes” to our inner truth. The spiritual life, thus understood, radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed---yes, living and dying---they all become expressions of that divine question: “Do you love Me?” And at every point of the journey there is the choice to say “Yes” and the choice to say “No.”
Once you are able to catch a glimpse of this spiritual vision, you can see how the many distinctions that are so central in our daily living lose their meaning. When joy and pain are both opportunities to say “Yes” to our divine childhood, then they are more alike than they are different. When the experience of being awarded a prize and the experience of being found lacking in excellence both offer us a chance to claim our true identity as the “Beloved” of God, these experiences are more similar than they are different. When feeling lonely and feeling at home both hold a call to discover more fully who the God is whose children we are, these feelings are more united than they are distinct. When, finally, both living and dying bring us closer to the full realisation of our spiritual selfhood, they are not the great opposites the world would have us believe; they are, instead, two sides of the same mystery of God’s love. Living the spiritual life means living life as one unifies reality. The forces of darkness are the forces that split, divide and set in opposition. The forces of light unite. Literally, the word “diabolic” means dividing. The demon divides; the Spirit unites.
The spiritual life counteracts the countless divisions that pervade our daily life and cause destruction and violence. These divisions are interior and exterior: the divisions among our most intimate emotions and the divisions among the most widespread social groupings. The division between gladness and sadness within me or the division between the races, religions and cultures around me all find their source in the diabolic forces of darkness. The Spirit of God, the Spirit that calls us the Beloved, is the Spirit that unites and makes whole. There is no clearer way to discern the presence of God’s Spirit than to identify the moments of unification, healing, restoration and reconciliation. Wherever the Spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself.
What I most want to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived “from above,” that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death. Thus, both joy and suffering become part of the way to our spiritual fulfilment. I found this vision movingly expressed by the novelist Julien Green in a letter to his friend, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. He writes: “. . .when you think of the mystical experience of many saints, you may ask yourself whether joy and suffering aren’t aspects of the same phenomenon on a very high level. An analogy, crazy for sure, comes to my mind: extreme cold burns. It seems nearly certain, no, it is certain, that we can only go to God through suffering and that this suffering becomes joy because it finally is the same thing.” (Une grand amitie: Correspondance 1926-1972, Julien Green—Jacques Maritain, Paris: Gallimard, 1982, p. 282)
Where does all this lead us? I think that it leads us back to the “place” we come from, the “place” of God. We are sent into this world for a short time to say---through the joys and pains of our clock time—-the great “Yes” to the love that has been given to us and in so doing return to the One who sent us with that “Yes” engraved on our hearts. Our death thus becomes the moment of return. But our death can be this only if our whole life has been a journey back to the One from whom we come and who calls us the Beloved. There is such confusion about the idea of a life “hereafter,” or “the eternal life.” Personally, I do believe deeply in the eternal life, but not simply as a life after our physical death. It is only when we have claimed for ourselves the life of God’s Spirit during the many moments of our “chronology” that we expect death to be the door to the fullness of life. Eternal life is not some great surprise that comes unannounced at the end of our existence in time; it is, rather, the full revelation of what we have been and have lived all along. The evangelist John expresses this succinctly when he says: ”My dear people, what we are to be in the future has not yet been recorded: all we know is that, when it is recorded, we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He really is.”
With this vision, death is no longer the ultimate defeat. To the contrary, it becomes the final “Yes” and the great return to where we can most fully become children of God. I don’t think that many people look at death this way. Instead of seeing it as a moment of fulfilment, they fear it as the great failure to be kept at bay for as long as possible. All that our society has to say suggests that death is the great enemy who will finally get the better of us against our will and desire. But thus perceived, life is little more than a losing battle, a hopeless struggle, a journey of despair. My own vision and yours too, I hope, is radically different. Even though I often give in to the many fears and warnings of my world, I still believe deeply that our few years on this earth are part of a much larger event that stretches out far beyond the boundaries of our birth and death. I think of it as a mission into time, a mission that is very exhilarating and even exciting, mostly because the One who sent me on the mission is waiting for me to come home and tell the story of what I have learned.
Am I afraid to die? I am every time I let myself be seduced by the noisy voices of my world telling me that my “little life” is all I have and advising me to cling to it with all my might. But when I let these voices move to the background of my life and listen to that small soft voice calling me the Beloved, I know that there is nothing to fear and that dying is the greatest act of love, the act that leads me into the eternal embrace of my God whose love is everlasting.
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