Beyond the Mirror: Reflections on Life and Death

Beyond the Mirror: Reflections on Life and Death


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With searing honesty Henri J. M. Nouwen describes the events leading up to his near fatal accident and recalls the transformative experience at the portal of death. Beyond the Mirror helps us contact the powerful reality of unconditional love that Nouwen experienced as he touched eternity. His insight inspires us to live our lives freely with confidence and trust that we belong to God.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780824519612
Publisher: Crossroad Publishing Company
Publication date: 09/28/2001
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 359,196
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.30(d)

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Beyond the Mirror

Reflections on Death and Life

By Henri J. M. Nouwen

The Crossroad Publishing Company

Copyright © 1990 Henri J. M. Nouwen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8245-1961-2


The Accident

Two vivid recollections remain in me of that moment on a dark winter morning when the outside rearview mirror of a passing van struck me in the back and flung me to the ground beside the road. I knew at once that I had reached a point of no return. I did not know how seriously I was injured, but I knew that something old had come to an end and that something new, as yet unknown, was about to emerge.

As I lay by the side of the busy road, crying for help, I knew also from the instant I was hit that this was not purely an accident. Later I would be able to see clearly how predictable, providential, and mysteriously planned the whole event was. At the time, my primary concern was that help would arrive, yet I realized that something strangely "good" was happening as I lay on the side of the road.

It had been a very busy week, filled with many little things, none of them terribly important, but still taking up every hour of my time and leaving me quite tired, even somewhat irritated. There never seemed to be the space to come into direct touch with my own inner source. There was, however, one clear exception. I had been asked to help Hsi-Fu, a deeply handicapped fourteen-year-old Chinese boy, to get ready for school in the mornings. Nathan and Todd, who usually help Hsi-Fu, had left to participate in a retreat, and I was very glad to take their place.

In fact, I felt quite privileged to have the opportunity of coming close to Hsi-Fu. Hsi-Fu is blind, unable to speak or walk, and has both physical and intellectual disabilities; but he is so full of life and love that being with him helps me to get in touch with what it is that makes life so truly nurturing. Bathing him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and just guiding his hand as he tries to put some food on his spoon and bring it to his mouth create a safe intimacy, a quiet bond, a moment of true peace — almost like an hour of meditation. I had already spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings going through his routine with him, and I looked forward to being with him again.

Hsi-Fu lives in the so-called Corner House in downtown Richmond Hill, a five-minute drive from the house in which I stay. That Thursday morning I woke up early, and when I looked out of the window, I saw that the ground had become a sheet of shining ice. Obviously, it would be impossible to drive the half mile from the house out to Yonge Street. The dirt road had become more fit for skating than driving, and taking the car would only land me in a ditch.

My friend Sue, who was on her way to prayer when I was ready to leave, said, "Don't take your car out. It's impossible." I said, "No, no, I will walk. It's only six o'clock and I will easily get there by seven." Sue replied, "Henri, don't go. It's too much. Call the Corner House; they'll find a solution for Hsi-Fu." Right then I felt a deep resistance to letting go of what I so much wanted to do. Again Sue said, "Don't go." But I persisted, "I can do it. I promised." So I left the house and began shuffling my way over the icy road out to Yonge Street.

Walking proved difficult, and at one point I slipped and fell flat on my stomach. But I kept saying to myself, "Keep going. You can make it. Don't let a little ice get in your way." It was not pure service that motivated me now but the desire to show myself that I could fulfill a little task, and the even stronger desire to let no one take Hsi-Fu away from me, at least for this week.

When I reached Yonge Street, I saw that it had taken me fifteen minutes to get there. I crossed the road and began walking south to Richmond Hill. As I walked, I began to feel very anxious. Cars were streaming by, and although the road itself seemed free of ice, the shoulders were very dangerous. I kept stumbling and coming close to falling. When I reached the gas station, I realized that it was already half past six and that I would be unable to make it to the Corner House by seven.

Just then, a small truck with two men inside pulled into the station. I decided to ask their help. I knocked on the truck window, and when the man sitting beside the driver rolled it down, I said, "Good morning. Is there any chance that you could take me downtown? I have to be there at seven o'clock, and with all the ice on the shoulder of the road, I'm never going to make it. It's only a three-minute drive." The driver leaned over toward me and said, "No, we can't help you. We're just arriving to open the station. We have no time."

I decided to try again. "Listen, it's only a few minutes, and I really feel nervous walking along the road with all this ice. Please, can you help me? It won't take you very long." But the answer was the same: "I'm sorry, we have no time." I started to feel anger rising in me and a strange desire to force these men into helping me. So I said, "But I really have to be over there" — I pointed with my hand — "where you can see the church tower, and I won't make it if you don't help me. There's nobody here who needs you right now." The driver started to back his truck further into the parking area, saying, "I'm sorry, we have no time. We have to open the shop." Meanwhile, his passenger closed the window and left me alone.

Suddenly I felt very angry. These two complete strangers had become my enemies. I felt indignation, yes, even rage erupting from a deep, dark place within me. I had been misunderstood, pushed aside, rejected, and left alone. A feeling like that of an abandoned child swept through me. Turning toward the street, along the shoulder, I knew I had to be careful, but I wasn't. I trudged where cars with glaring headlights were speeding by one after the other. Now I was determined to be on time. I would show that pair that I could do without them, that I didn't really need them, that other people would show more compassion than they, and that, after all, I was right and they were wrong.

As I approached the moving traffic, I turned to the oncoming headlights and raised my right hand, pointing toward downtown Richmond Hill. Car after car emerged from the morning mist and passed me by. I thought about all those men and women driving comfortably to work alone in their cars and, peevishly, began wondering why no one seemed to notice me or show any inclination to stop and take me the little distance I needed to go. The two enemies had become many.

A strange ambiguity had me in its grip. My mind understood clearly that in these conditions it was completely unrealistic to expect a passing driver to see me, realize that I needed help, and stop and take me downtown. I certainly would never be able to do all of that were I driving to work at half past six in the morning of an icy day. Despite this, there was, at the same time, this rage, this increasing feeling of rejection, this inner shriek: "Why do you all pass me by, ignore my pleas, and leave me standing alone on the side of the road?" My insight into the absurdity of my expectations kept intersecting with my strange anger.

Finally I decided that the only way to make it to the Corner House was to walk. Meanwhile, though, time had passed and provided no chance for me to reach Hsi-Fu by seven. And so, angry, confused, nervous, and feeling very, very foolish, I started to run down Yonge Street. I heard Sue's voice saying, "Henri, it's too much...."

Then it happened: something striking me, a strange dark sound going through my body, a sharp pain in my back, stumbling, falling on the pavement, attempts to cry out. I found myself thinking: "Did the driver who hit me notice, or is he driving on as if nothing happened?" But another thought emerged, much deeper and stronger: "Everything has changed. None of my plans matter anymore. It is awful, painful ... but maybe very good." Sue's words were there: "It's too much, far too much." Then there was nothing. Just me ... lying helpless on the side of the road. That feeling of powerlessness, of being completely out of control, did not frighten me. I felt as if some strong hand had stopped me and forced me into some kind of necessary surrender.

As I lay there, I tried to get the attention of the two gas station attendants. But they were too far off either to see or to hear me. Then, to my surprise, a young man came running toward me. He bent over me and said, "Let me help you, you've been hurt." His voice was very gentle and friendly. He seemed like a protecting angel. "A passing car must have hit me," I said. "I don't even know if the driver noticed." "It was me," he replied. "I hit you with my right mirror, and I stopped to help you. ... Can you stand up?" "Yes, I guess I can," I said, and with his help, I got on my feet. "Be careful," he cautioned, "be very careful." Together we walked toward the gas station.

"My name is Henri," I said. "I'm Jon," he answered. "Let me try to get you an ambulance." We entered the gas station, and Jon put me in a chair and grabbed the phone. The two attendants looked on from a distance but said nothing. After a minute, Jon grew impatient. "I can't get through to the ambulance service. I had better take you to York Central Hospital myself." While he went out to get his van, I called Sue to tell her what had happened. A minute later we were on our way.

Looking out of the right door window, I saw the twisted mirror and realized how hard I had been hit. Jon was obviously shaken. He asked, "Why were you standing along the road?" I didn't want to explain too much but said, "I am a priest living in a community with mentally handicapped people, and I was on my way to work in one of our houses." With noticeable consternation in his voice, he said, "O my God, I hit a priest. O my God." I liked Jon and tried to console him somewhat. "I am really grateful to you for taking me to the hospital, and when I am better, you must come to visit our community." "Yes, I'd like to," he said, but his thoughts were elsewhere.


The Hospital

As soon as we reached the emergency room of the hospital, we were surrounded by nurses, doctors, a policewoman, questions and answers, admission forms, and X rays. People were extremely friendly, efficient, competent, and straightforward. The doctor who looked at the X rays said, "You've broken five ribs. We'll keep you here for a day and then let you go home." Then, unexpectedly, a very familiar face appeared. It was my G.P., Dr. Prasad. I was surprised at how quickly she had come. Seeing her gave me a deep sense of being in good hands. But at that very moment I started to feel terribly sick. I became quite dizzy and wanted to vomit but couldn't. I noticed some consternation around me, and within a few minutes it became clear that I was a lot worse off than I had thought. "There is some internal bleeding going on," said Dr. Prasad. "We must keep a close watch on you."

After many tests, tubes, and talks, I was taken to the intensive care unit. Jon had left. Sue, who had been unable to leave the house because of the ice, had called Robin, one of the members of our community, to go see me. He came, and then left to let people know what was going on. Now I was able to let the truth sink in. I was very sick and even in danger of losing my life. Faced with the possibility of dying, I realized that the mirror of the passing van had forced me to look at myself in a radically new way.

Except for brief, insignificant illnesses, I had never been in a hospital bed. But now, suddenly, I had become a real patient, totally dependent on the people around me. I could do nothing without help. The tubes going into my body at different places for intravenous injections, blood transfusions, and heart monitoring were evidence that I had become truly "passive." Knowing my very impatient disposition and aware of my need to stay in control, I expected this new situation to be extremely frustrating. But the opposite occurred. I felt quite safe in my hospital bed with its railings on both sides. Notwithstanding the severe pain, I had a completely unexpected sense of security.

The doctors and nurses explained every move they made, gave me the name of each medicine they injected, warned me beforehand of upcoming pain, and expressed their confidence as well as their doubts about the effects of their actions. During the ultrasound scan, the nurse showed me how my spleen appeared on the screen and pointed out where it was injured and most likely bleeding. The nurse who gave me Demerol to lessen the pain and help me sleep said, "It will work for two hours, then there will be some pain again, and you will have to wait for an hour before I can give you another shot."

This directness, openness, friendliness, and levelheadedness removed my anxiety and also strengthened my ability to cope with the situation. Yes, I knew I was in danger of losing my life, but I was in the best possible place. The combination of compassion and competence took away all my fear. Most of all, the simple fact that I was treated with so much dignity and respect by people whom I didn't know and by whom I was not known made me feel very safe. I was totally dependent but was treated by everyone as an intelligent adult from whom no secrets were withheld. I was permitted to know everything I wanted to know, and in that way I kept complete ownership of my own body. Never did I sense that judgments or decisions were made concerning me without my somehow being made part of them. This gave me a deep feeling of belonging, yes, even of at-homeness. I do not have many conscious memories of being so completely cared for and, at the same time, of being taken so seriously. Perhaps it was this that filled me with such a profound sense of security.

Sue came to see me soon and during the following days became my main link with the outside world. She connected me with the Daybreak community, told me of the concern of my friends, assured me of their prayers, and kept me informed about the many small daily events at home. Her frequent visits were very comforting. We spoke a little, prayed much, and were silent for long periods.

I have to say all of this in order to explain why it was that death did not frighten me. I knew that my spleen was still bleeding and that I was still in critical condition, but no panic, anguish, fear, or worry overwhelmed me. I was surprised by my reaction. At so many moments in the past, I had experienced immense interior anguish and turmoil. I had lived through agonizing feelings of rejection and abandonment and had known paralyzing fear and panic — often triggered by small matters. I had been afraid of people and unknown forces. I knew myself as a very tense, nervous, and anxious person. Yet now, in the face of death, I felt only peace, joy, and an all-pervading sense of security.


The Surgery

By seven o'clock that evening, after many more tests, Dr. Barnes, the surgeon, said, "Your spleen is still bleeding. We have to take it out." "When?" I asked, and he said, "As soon as the operating room is free." A little later Dr. Prasad came to see me. Again I felt the threat of death. So I said to her, "If I am close to death, please let me know. I really want to prepare for my death. I am not afraid to die, but I worry about leaving life unaware." She replied, "As far as I know, there is no real danger that you will die. But we have to stop your bleeding, and so we have to remove your spleen. You will be fine within a few months, and you will be able to live well without your spleen."

Dr. Prasad was very honest and direct. She told me all she knew. I, myself, however, kept feeling that dying was quite possible and that I had to prepare myself and my friends for it. Somewhere, deep in me, I sensed that my life was in real danger. And so I let myself enter into a place I had never been before: the portal of death. I wanted to know that place, to "walk around" it, and make myself ready for a life beyond life. It was the first time in my life that I consciously walked into this seemingly fearful place, the first time I looked forward to what might be a new way of being. I tried to let go of my familiar world, my history, my friends, my plans. I tried to look not back, but ahead. I kept looking at that door that might open to me and show me something beyond anything I had ever seen.

What I experienced then was something I had never experienced before: pure and unconditional love. Better still, what I experienced was an intensely personal presence, a presence that pushed all my fears aside and said, "Come, don't be afraid. I love you." A very gentle, nonjudgmental presence, a presence that simply asked me to trust and trust completely. I hesitate to speak simply about Jesus, because of my concern that the Name of Jesus might not evoke the full divine presence that I experienced. It was not a warm light, a rainbow, or an open door that I saw but a human yet divine presence that I felt, inviting me to come closer and to let go of all fears.

My whole life had been an arduous attempt to follow Jesus as I had come to know him through my parents, friends, and teachers. I had spent countless hours studying the Scriptures, listening to lectures and sermons, and reading spiritual books. Jesus had been very close to me, but also very distant; a friend, but also a stranger; a source of hope, but also of fear, guilt, and shame. But now, when I walked around the portal of death, all ambiguity and all uncertainty were gone. He was there, the Lord of my life, saying, "Come to me, come."

I knew very concretely that he was there for me, but also that he was embracing the universe. I knew that, indeed, he was the Jesus I had prayed to and spoken about, but also that now he did not ask for prayers or words. All was well. The words that summarize it all are Life and Love. But these words were incarnate in a real presence. Death lost its power and shrank away in the Life and Love that surrounded me in such an intimate way, as if I were walking through a sea whose waves were rolled away. I was being held safe while moving toward the other shore. All jealousies, resentments, and angers were being gently moved away, and I was being shown that Love and Life are greater, deeper, and stronger than any of the forces I had been worrying about.

One emotion was very strong — that of homecoming. Jesus opened his home to me and seemed to say, "Here is where you belong." The words he spoke to his disciples, "In my Father's house there are many places to live in. ... I am going now to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2), became very real. The risen Jesus, who now dwells with his Father, was welcoming me home after a long journey.


Excerpted from Beyond the Mirror by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Copyright © 1990 Henri J. M. Nouwen. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Robert Durback,
The Accident,
The Hospital,
The Surgery,
Preparing for Death,
About the Author,
About the Publisher,

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