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We are Blessed---Really?
All the passages below are taken from Robert Durback’s book “The Best of Henri Nouwen,” published in 2003 by Pauline Publications.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father. . . .” While he was still far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him..,. The father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out a robe---the best one---and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.. .and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”1
Coming Together in the Spirit
There is yet one more gem to be mined from the wisdom of the concentration camp, as related by Viktor Frankl. He relates the complaints he heard regularly from the crushed spirits of the men in the camp with him and how he dealt with them. More than once he heard the despairing voice that declared with finality: “I have nothing to expect from life anymore.”
Reflecting on these words, Frankl mused:
What sort of answer can one give to that? What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life---daily and hourly... . Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.2
In seeking to reclaim our humanity, we have been led by Henri Nouwen to listen to the voice that calls us Beloved. He tells his readers---in the person of his friend, Fred---that once “we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. . . . Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do.”3
How does one go about living out this Belovedness? Nouwen proposes a discipline derived from four words, suggested to him by his daily celebration of the Eucharist: “taken, blessed, broken and given.” It will be the task of the fourth and fifth days of our retreat to explore with our retreat director the disciplines to which these four words invite us, enabling us to become who we are.
Make me to know your ways, 0 LORD
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Taken and Blessed
Commenting on the first word, “taken,” Nouwen suggests that another warmer, softer word with basically the same meaning should take its place, a word with a rich biblical background: “chosen.” Speaking to his Jewish friend Fred, Nouwen acknowledges that the word has both positive and negative associations: the honour of being God’s “chosen people,” but also a history of being a people singled out for persecution. With that understood, Nouwen goes on to explain why “chosen,” in the sense he intends it, is a key word that sheds light on our relationship to God as Beloved.
In a competitive world, being chosen often means someone gets rejected. For one sports team to win, another has to lose. Nouwen gives the sad example of the mother who says to her child: “I hadn’t really expected you, but once I found out that I was pregnant I decided to have you anyway. . . . You were sort of an accident.” This does not enhance a person’s self-image. He distinguishes this kind of chosenness from what it means to be chosen by God:
Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time---our brief chronological existence---but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.4
Nouwen next poses the question: “How do we get in touch with our chosenness when we are surrounded by rejections?” He offers three guidelines:
First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: “These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”
Secondly, you have to keep looking for people and places where your truth is spoken and where you are reminded of your deepest identity as the chosen one. Yes, we must dare to opt consciously for our chosenness and not allow our emotions, feelings or passions to seduce us into self-rejection.5
Nouwen strongly recommends that we keep in touch with our local churches, synagogues and faith communities and support groups, and with our family and friends who can keep reminding us of the truth of who we are: precious in God’s eyes.
“Thirdly,” he insists, “you have to celebrate your chosenness constantly”:
This means saying “thank you” to God for having chosen you, and “thank you” to all who remind you of your chosenness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an “accident,” but a divine choice.6
Recognizing that none of us is good at being faithful to our best intentions and resolutions, Nouwen goads us on and warns us not to be discouraged by our failures:
Before I know it, I find myself complaining again, brooding again about some rejection and plotting ways to take revenge, but when I keep my disciplines close to my heart, I am able to step over my shadow into the light of my truth.7
Notably, he concludes:
When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone---a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.8
As God’s Beloved and chosen ones we are blessed. Nouwen explains what it means to be blessed:
I am increasingly aware of how much we fearful, anxious, insecure human beings are in need of a blessing. Children need to be blessed by their parents and parents by their children. We all need each other’s blessings---masters and disciples, rabbis and students, bishops and priests, doctors and patients.
Let me first tell you what I mean by the word “blessing.” In Latin, to bless is benedicere. The word “benediction” that is used in many churches means literally: speaking (dictio) well (bene) or saying good things of someone. That speaks to me. I need to hear good things said of me, and I know how much you have the same need. Nowadays, we often say: “We have to affirm each other.” Without affirmation, it is hard to live well. To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer. It is more than a word of praise or appreciation; it is more than pointing out someone’s talents or good deeds; it is more than putting someone in the light. To give a blessing is to affirm, to say “yes” to a person’s Belovedness. And more than that: to give a blessing creates the reality of which it speaks. There is a lot of mutual admiration in this world, just as there is a lot of mutual condemnation. A blessing goes beyond the distinction between admiration or condemnation, between virtues or vices, between good deeds or evil deeds. A blessing touches the original goodness of the other and calls forth his or her Belovedness.
Not long ago, in my own community, I had a very personal experience of the power of a real blessing. Shortly before I started a prayer service in one of our houses, Janet, a handicapped member of our community, said to me: “Henri, can you give me a blessing?” I responded in a somewhat automatic way by tracing with my thumb the sign of the cross on her forehead. Instead of being grateful, however, she protested vehemently, “No, that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!” I suddenly became aware of the ritualistic quality of my response to her request and said, “Oh, I am sorry let me give you a real blessing when we are all together for the prayer service.” She nodded with a smile, and I realized that something special was required of me. After the service, when about thirty people were sitting in a circle on the floor, I said, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing. She feels that she needs that now.” As I was saying this, I didn’t know what Janet really wanted. But Janet didn’t leave me in doubt for very long. As soon as I had said, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing,” she stood up and walked toward me. I was wearing a long white robe with ample sleeves covering my hands as well as my arms. Spontaneously, Janet put her arms around me and put her head against my chest. Without thinking, I covered her with my sleeves so that she almost vanished in the folds of my robe. As we held each other, I said, ‘Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”
As I said these words, Janet raised her head and looked at me; and her broad smile showed that she had really heard and received the blessing. When she returned to her place, Jane, another handicapped woman, raised her hand and said, “I want a blessing too.” She stood up and, before I knew it, had put her face against my chest. After I had spoken words of blessing to her, many more of the handicapped people followed, expressing the same desire to be blessed. The most touching moment, however, came when one of the assistants, a twenty- four-year-old student, raised his hand and said, ‘And what about me?” “Sure,” I said, “Come.” He came, and, as we stood before each other, I put my arms around him and said, “John, it is so good that you are here. You are God’s Beloved Son. Your presence is a joy for all of us. When things are hard and life is burdensome, always remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.” As I spoke these words, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and then he said, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
That evening I recognized the importance of blessing and being blessed and reclaimed it as a true sign of the Beloved. The blessings that we give to each other are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity. It is the deepest affirmation of our true self. It is not enough to be chosen. We also need an ongoing blessing that allows us to hear in an ever-new way that we belong to a loving God who will never leave us alone, but will remind us always that we are guided by love on every step of our lives.9
Claiming our blessedness does not come easily in the midst of daily struggles with our relationships, our work and the many pressures that can come to bear on our lives. Nouwen suggests two disciplines for claiming our blessedness: the discipline of prayer and the cultivation of presence:
For me personally, prayer becomes more and more a way to listen to the blessing. I have read and written much about prayer, but when I go to a quiet place to pray, I realize that, although I have a tendency to say many things to God, the real “work” of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me. This might sound self-indulgent, but, in practice, it is a hard discipline. I am so afraid of being cursed, of hearing that I am no good or not good enough, that I quickly give in to the temptation to start talking and to keep talking in order to control my fears. To gently push aside and silence the many voices that question my goodness and to trust that I will hear a voice of blessing.. .that demands real effort.
Have you ever tried to spend a whole hour doing nothing but listening to the voice that dwells deep in your heart? When there is no radio to listen to, no TV to watch, no book to read, no person to talk to, no project to finish, no phone call to make, how does that make you feel? Often it does no more than make us so aware of how much there is still to do that we haven’t yet done that we decide to leave the fearful silence and go back to work! It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: “You are my Beloved Child, on you my favour rests.” Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice. I do not want to suggest to you that one day you will hear that voice with your bodily ears. I am not speaking about a hallucinatory voice, but about a voice that can be heard by the ear of faith, the ear of the inner heart.10
The faithful discipline of prayer reveals to you that you are the blessed one and gives you the power to bless others.11
By presence I mean attentiveness to the blessings that come to you day after day, year after year. The problem of modern living is that we are too busy---looking for affirmation in the wrong places?---to notice that we are being blessed.. . . It has become extremely difficult for us to stop, listen, pay attention and receive gracefully what is offered to us.12
This attentive presence can allow us to see how many blessings there are for us to receive: the blessings of the poor who stop us on the road, the blessings of the blossoming trees and fresh flowers that tell us about new life, the blessings of music, painting, sculpture and architecture---all of that---but most of all the blessings that come to us through words of gratitude, encouragement, affection and love. These many blessings do not have to be invented. They are there, surrounding us on all sides. But we have to be present to them and receive them. They don’t force themselves on us. They are gentle reminders of that beautiful, strong, but hidden, voice of the one who calls us by name and speaks good things about us.13
Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing. It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness. The blessed one always blesses. And people want to be blessed!. . . No one is brought to life through curses, gossip, accusations or blaming. There is so much of that taking place around us all the time. And it calls forth only darkness, destruction and death. As the “blessed ones,” we can walk through this world and offer blessings. It doesn’t require much effort. It flows naturally from our hearts. When we hear within ourselves the voice calling us by name and blessing us, the darkness no longer distracts us. The voice that calls us the Beloved will give us words to bless others and reveal to them that they are no less blessed than we.14
• Nouwen offers three guidelines to help us get in touch with our unique status as “chosen.” The first is to “keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry. . . destructive.” Read or watch the daily news and see how much unmasking you can do.
• In the same vein Nouwen says, “The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this.” What lies has the world told you about who you are? How have you responded?
• Reflect with gratitude on the people in your life who have told you the truth about yourself especially those who have encouraged you and influenced your long-term life decisions. You might want to send one of them a thank-you note.
• Nouwen suggests that we bless one another. If you are parents, make it a regular family practice to bless each of your children by a laying on of hands, or perhaps better like Nouwen, with a big hug, holding them close to your heart, saying good things about them and lifting them up to God.
• Never lose an opportunity to bless others by saying good things about them and invoking God’s blessing on them. Blessings are powerful words.
Page through the Book of Psalms and find your own closing prayer, looking for verses that speak of blessing(s). Spend time with those that appeal to you in a special way. Be sure to probe more than one version of the Psalms. For starters, you might want to begin with Psalms 103 and 104. Find a blessing that is particularly meaningful to you personally. (75-87)
1. Luke 15:14-17, 22-24 (NRSV)
2. Frankl, pp. 76-77.
3. Life of the Beloved, pp. 37-39.
4. Life of the Beloved, pp. 48-49.
5. Life of the Beloved, pp. 49-50.
6. Life of the Beloved, p. 50.
7. Life of the Beloved, p. 52.
8. Life of the Beloved, pp. 52-53.
9. Life of the Beloved, pp. 56-59.
10. Life of the Beloved, pp. 62-63.
11. Life of the Beloved, p. 63.
12. Life of the Beloved, pp. 64-65.
13. Life of the Beloved, p. 66.
14. Life of the Beloved, p. 67.
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