Reflecting on the contrast

Henri Nouwen spent a lot of time reflecting on the sharp contrast between the life of success and the Christian life.

Henri Nouwen – maybe you’ve heard of him? He was a Catholic priest with scholarship interests at the intersection of psychology and spirituality. His CV includes impressive lines like teaching at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School and serving as scholar-in-residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. His writing gained a broad readership with now-classic books like The Wounded Healer. Oh, and in the midst of all that he participated in the Civil Rights Movement, including taking to the streets during the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In short, Henri Nouwen achieved the kind of success that many of us in academia or spiritual life only dream of. Everyone was saying Henri was great. His friends and colleagues were telling him “you’re doing really well!” 

But in the midst of prestigious appointments, book sales, and real impact on people’s lives, Henri felt like something was wrong. He wrote:

After twenty five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very preoccupied with burning issues…something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.1

And so, in 1985, Nouwen resigned from Harvard Divinity, hopped off the success train, and went to live with the L’Arche community in France. At L’Arche, people with and without intellectual disabilities intentionally live and work together in mutual service for mutual benefit. A friend of Henri’s later wrote that “Henri had always wondered what a Euchartiscally centered community would be like, and now he had found one at L’Arche.” 2

What would you imagine a “Eucharistically centered” life to be like? The image of Holy Communion often draws us to the idea of sacrifice – Christ’s sacrifice for us, the sacrificial lives we live in response. But today let’s make sure to draw in the meaning of the Greek word eucharisto. It’s a word you’ll still hear all the time in modern Greece – efcharisto – because it simply means “thank you.” That’s right – one of our fanciest words for this holy sacrament literally means “thanksgiving.”

Think for a moment about what it means to be thankful in a meaningful way. Not like when someone gets to the door before you, holds it open, and you mutter “thanks” – but like when you’re on crutches and struggling to shift around multiple bags so you can manage the door and it’s 3 degrees out and you’re running late…and someone comes running up from behind and says, “Here, let me get that.” Or when you’re wondering how you’re going to get yourself home after a procedure, and a friend offers to drive you. Or like when you kneel at the Communion rail, hold out your hands, and freely receive the bread and wine that are Christ’s lifegiving presence for you.

In its purest form, being thankful means that we are in a position of vulnerability – we are receiving something we need or desire from another person. We are not in control; we are admitting our need for others. 

Could that be the core of a Eucharistically centered life? It certainly seems to be the sharp contrast that Henri discovered in his move from the world of academic success to the humble L’Arche community.

When he first joined L’Arche, Henri was paired up with a young man named Adam, who could neither walk nor speak. While he spent time with Adam, Henri noticed that this man, living a life many of us would think of as a curse, delighted in his own life and self in a way that could only be rooted in God’s love. In Adam, Henri saw what he had been missing in his life of fame and success. Henri’s last book was called Adam: God’s Beloved – Henri’s capstone thesis on the Gospel.

Henri spent a lot of time reflecting on the sharp contrast between the life of success and the Christian life. He wrote:

We are taught to conceive of development in terms of an ongoing increase in human potential. Growing up means becoming healthier, stronger, more intelligent, more mature, and more productive. Consequently we hide those who do not affirm this myth of progress, such as the elderly, prisoners, and those with mental disabilities. In our society, we consider the upward move the obvious one while treating the poor cases who cannot keep up as sad misfits, people who have deviated from the normal line of progress. 

[…] The story of our salvation stands radically over and against the philosophy of upward mobility. The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility, The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a slave. The divine way is indeed the downward way.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot of relief as I meditate on Henri’s words. How would life be different without that constant pressure to produce and improve? What if instead our prime directives were shaped by things like presence and relationship and mutual service and even (gulp) embracing our vulnerability, our inability to do and be everything? What could change for us?

I’m reminded of two of the original Jesus-followers: Martha, running around the house, doing chores, building up resentment – while her sister, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and just listens. Jesus says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Prayer: O Lord, I am not proud. I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me. O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth forevermore. (Psalm 131)

1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (London:: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), 9. Quoted in Katelyn Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022 ), 131.

2 Robert A. Jonas, ed., Henri Nouwen: Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998), 51.

Pr. Kate

Feb. 1, 2023

Pastor Kate and Pastor Jim take turns writing weekly devotions for the Chapel of the Resurrection. Contact them here: