In September 1995, Henri Nouwen embarked on a spiritual adventure.
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The Diary of his Final Year
By Henri J.M. Nouwen
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 1998 The Estate of Henri J. M. Nouwen
All rights reserved.
Oakville, Ontario, Saturday, September 2, 1995
This is the first day of my sabbatical. I am excited and anxious, hopeful and fearful, tired, and full of desire to do a thousand things. The coming year stretches out in front of me as a long, open field full of flowers and full of weeds. How will I cross that field? What will I have learned when I finally reach the other end?
During this weekend nine years ago, I arrived at Daybreak. I had just finished the journal in which I wrote down the many thoughts, emotions, passions, and feelings that led me to leave Harvard Divinity School and join "the Ark." It had taken me a year to make that transition. It was in fact my first sabbatical, during which my heart was gradually opened to a new life, a life with people with mental handicaps. The Road to Daybreak was the record of that sabbatical.
Now, exactly nine years later, I am sitting in my little apartment in the house of Hans and Margaret in Oakville, near Toronto. Hans and Margaret invited me to spend the first two weeks of my "empty year" with them, "just to relax." Hans said, "Just sleep, eat, and do what you want to do."
I feel strange! Very happy and very scared at the same time. I have always dreamt about a whole year without appointments, meetings, lectures, travels, letters, and phone calls, a year completely open to let something radically new happen. But can I do it? Can I let go of all the things that make me feel useful and significant? I realize that I am quite addicted to being busy and experience a bit of withdrawal anxiety. I have to nail myself to my chair and control these wild impulses to get up again and become busy with whatever draws my attention.
But underneath all these anxieties, there is an immense joy. Free at last! Free to think critically, to feel deeply, and to pray as never before. Free to write about the many experiences that I have stored up in my heart and mind during the last nine years. Free to deepen friendships and explore new ways of loving. Free most of all to fight with the Angel of God and ask for a new blessing. The past three months seemed like a steeplechase full of complex hurdles. I often thought, "How will I ever make it to September?" But now I am here. I have made it, and I rejoice.
One thing that helps me immensely is that the Daybreak community has sent me on this sabbatical. It is a mission! I am not allowed to feel guilty for taking a whole year off. To the contrary, I am supported to feel guilty when I am getting busy again. Although many of my Daybreak friends said, "We will miss you," they also said, "It is good for you and for us that you go." They affirm my vocation to be alone, read, write, and pray, and thus to live something new that can bear fruit not only in my own life but also in the life of our community. It is such a support for me that I can live my time away not only as a way of doing my will but also as a way of doing the will of the community. I can even think of it as an act of obedience!
Last night, Hans and his daughter Maja came to Daybreak to participate in the Friday night Eucharist and to pick me up. As we drove to Oakville, Hans said, "I came to be sure that you had no excuse to stay another day."
Right now I have no excuses for anything but to embark on a new journey and to trust that all will be well. It is clear to me that I have to keep a journal again, just as I did during the year before coming to Daybreak. I have promised myself not to let a day pass without writing down, as honestly and directly as possible, what is happening within and around me. It won't be easy, since I don't know the field I am entering. But I am ready to take a few risks.
I am starting this year with the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, the prayer I say every day with much trepidation:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
I offer it to you with all the love that is in my heart.
For I love you, Lord, and so want to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.
Sunday, September 3
My unconscious certainly has not gone on sabbatical yet! Last night was full of the wildest and most chaotic dreams. Dreams about not making it on time for a meeting, not being able to keep up with all my obligations, and not finishing anything that I was supposed to finish. My dreams were full of people who were angry with me for not doing what they asked me to do, and full of letters and faxes that urgently needed responses. Every time I woke up between my dreams and found myself in the quiet, peaceful, guest room of my friends, without any plans for today, I laughed. The only thing I could say was that simple prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."
Prayer is the bridge between my unconscious and conscious life. Prayer connects my mind with my heart, my will with my passions, my brain with my belly. Prayer is the way to let the life -giving Spirit of God penetrate all the corners of my being. Prayer is the divine instrument of my wholeness, unity, and inner peace.
So, what about my life of prayer? Do I like to pray? Do I want to pray? Do I spend time praying? Frankly, the answer is no to all three questions. After sixty-three years of life and thirty-eight years of priesthood, my prayer seems as dead as a rock. I remember fondly my teenage years, when I could hardly stay away from the church. For hours I would stay on my knees filled with a deep sense of Jesus' presence. I couldn't believe that not everyone wanted to pray. Prayer was so intimate and so satisfying. It was during these prayer-filled years that my vocation to the priesthood was shaped. During the years that followed I have paid much attention to prayer, reading about it, writing about it, visiting monasteries and houses of prayer, and guiding many people on their spiritual journeys. By now I should be full of spiritual fire, consumed by prayer. Many people think I am and speak to me as if prayer is my greatest gift and deepest desire.
The truth is that I do not feel much, if anything, when I pray. There are no warm emotions, bodily sensations, or mental visions. None of my five senses is being touched — no special smells, no special sounds, no special sights, no special tastes, and no special movements. Whereas for a long time the Spirit acted so clearly through my flesh, now I feel nothing. I have lived with the expectation that prayer would become easier as I grow older and closer to death. But the opposite seems to be happening. The words darkness and dryness seem to best describe my prayer today.
Maybe part of this darkness and dryness is the result of my overactivity. As I grow older I become busier and spend less and less time in prayer. But I probably should not blame myself in that way. The real questions are, "What are the darkness and the dryness about? What do they call me to?" Responding to these questions might well be the main task of my sabbatical. I know that Jesus, at the end of his life, felt abandoned by God. "My God, my God," he cried out on the cross, "why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46). His body had been destroyed by his torturers, his mind was no longer able to grasp the meaning of his existence, and his soul was void of any consolation. Still, it was from his broken heart that water and blood, signs of new life, came out.
Are the darkness and dryness of my prayer signs of God's absence, or are they signs of a presence deeper and wider than my senses can contain? Is the death of my prayer the end of my intimacy with God or the beginning of a new communion, beyond words, emotions, and bodily sensations?
As I sit down for half an hour to be in the presence of God and to pray, not much is happening to talk about to my friends. Still, maybe this time is a way of dying with Jesus.
The year ahead of me must be a year of prayer, even though I say that my prayer is as dead as a rock. My prayer surely is, but not necessarily the Spirit's prayer in me. Maybe the time has come to let go of my prayer, my effort to be close to God, my way of being in communion with the Divine, and to allow the Spirit of God to blow freely in me. Paul writes, "What you received was not the spirit of slavery to bring you back into fear; you received the spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, 'Abba, Father!' The living Spirit joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God" (Rom 8:14–16).
My wild, unruly dreams will probably keep reminding me of the great spiritual work ahead of me. But I trust that it is not just I who have to do the work. The Spirit of God joins my spirit and will guide me as I move into this blessed time.
Monday, September 4
Last night I drove to downtown Toronto to have dinner with Nathan and Sue. Nathan is the director of Daybreak, and Sue its pastor, replacing me during my sabbatical. We came together just to affirm the friendship between us that has grown during the past nine years. Nathan and I came to Daybreak on the same day, and Sue, who has lived at Daybreak during most of its twenty-five years of existence, was one of the main voices calling me to Canada to become member and pastor of the community. The three of us not only live in the same community and work together in many ways but also have become close friends. Last night was a night to celebrate that friendship.
As I reflect on the year ahead, I realize that friendship will be as important a concern as prayer. Maybe even more important. My need for friendship is great, greater than seems "normal." When I think about the pains and joys of my life, they have little to do with success, money, career, country, or church, but everything to do with friendships. My friendship with Nathan and Sue proves that clearly. The moments of ecstasy and agony connected with both of them mark my nine years at Daybreak.
I have felt rejected as well as supported, abandoned as well as embraced, hated as well as loved. All through it I have come to discover that friendship is a real discipline. Nothing can be taken for granted, nothing happens automatically, nothing comes without concentrated effort. Friendship requires trust, patience, attentiveness, courage, repentance, forgiveness, celebration, and most of all faithfulness. It is amazing for me to realize how often I thought that it was all over, that both Nathan and Sue had betrayed me or dropped me, and how easily feelings of jealousy, resentment, anger, and depression came over me. It is even more amazing to see that we are still friends, yes, the best of friends. But it certainly has been hard work for all three of us.
My question as I leave Daybreak for a year is, "How can I live my friendships during this time?" Am I going to feel that out of sight means out of mind and give in to despair? Or can I move to a new inner place where I can trust that both presence and absence can deepen the bond of friendship? Most likely I will experience both ends of the spectrum of human relationship. I had better be prepared for it. But whatever I will "feel," it is important that I keep making inner choices of faithfulness.
In this respect, my struggle with prayer is not so different from my struggle with friendship. Both prayer and friendship need purification. They need to become less dependent on fleeting emotions and more rooted in lasting commitments. As I write this, it sounds very wise! But I know already that my body and soul might need an immense amount of discipline to catch up with this wisdom.
After our dinner together, Sue, Nathan, and I saw the movie Apollo 13, about an aborted moon flight and the successful attempt to bring the three astronauts safely back to earth. Underneath all the spectacular technology there is the story of human relationships and the discipline required to make them lifesaving. As the three of us watched it, I realized that somehow we too are astronauts in a spaceship trying to make it home safely. I guess that is true of all people who take the risk of friendship.
Wednesday, September 6
From the bay windows of Hans and Margaret's house I have a splendid view of Lake Ontario. My eyes are continually drawn to the mysterious line where water and sky touch each other. It is blue touching gray, or gray touching blue, or blue touching blue, or gray touching gray. Endless shades of blue and endless shades of gray. It is like an abstract painting in which everything is reduced to one line, but a line that connects heaven and earth, soul and body, life and death.
Just focusing on that line is meditating. It quiets my heart and mind and brings me a sense of belonging that transcends the limitations of my daily existence. Most often the water and sky are empty, but once in a while a sailboat or a plane passes by in the distance, neither of them ever crossing the line. Crossing the line means death.
Last Sunday during the Canadian National Exhibition Air Show, a Royal Air Force Nimrod with seven airmen onboard plunged into Lake Ontario. None of the crew survived. The blue sky became a treacherous vault, and the peaceful, glistening water a devouring monster. And that line became a tightrope from which you cannot fall without losing everything.
I must keep looking at that line. It forces me to face life and death, goodness and evil, gentleness and force, and cracks open my heart to experience the depth of being.
Now the darkness gradually covers it all. The line vanishes from sight, and everything falls silent.
Thursday, September 7
Last night I called Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, to ask him about his health. He said, "Henri, I'm so glad to hear from you. Yesterday I went back to work, half days. I am doing really well." His voice was strong and energetic. I said, "Ever since I visited you in July I've been thinking of you a lot and praying for you, and I'm so glad that you feel so well and are ready to go to work again." Then he said, "I can't tell you, Henri, how much it meant to me that you came to see me, prayed with me, and gave me some of your books. Thanks again. This truly is a time of special graces for me."
I vividly remember my visit to the cardinal in July. At that time I was at the National Catholic HIV/AIDS Ministries Conference in Chicago. The newspapers had widely reported that Cardinal Bernardin was suffering from pancreatic cancer and had undergone intensive surgery and follow-up radiation treatments. Soon after I arrived in Chicago my priest friend Bob called to say that the cardinal would like me to visit him.
I spent half an hour talking and praying with him. I was deeply moved by our conversation. He told me about Steven, who had falsely accused him of sexual abuse and had later withdrawn his accusation. It had been major news and had caused great suffering for the cardinal. After it was all over he decided to visit Steven in Philadelphia and offer him his forgiveness, pray with him, and celebrate the Eucharist. Steven, who lives with AIDS and had very hostile feelings toward the church, was deeply touched by this gesture of reconciliation. For Joseph Bernardin as well as for Steven this had been a most important moment of life, a moment of true healing.
"Now both Steven and I are severely ill, Steven with AIDS and I with cancer," the cardinal said. "We both have to prepare ourselves for death. Steven calls me nearly once a month to ask me how I am doing. That means a lot to me. We are now able to support each other."
As the cardinal was telling me this, I started to feel very close to him. He really is a brother to me, a fellow human being, struggling as I do. I found myself calling him Joseph and dropping the words "Cardinal" and "Your Eminence."
"This is a very graced time," Joseph said. "As I go to the hospital for treatment I do not want to go through the side door directly to the doctor's office. No, I want to visit the other patients who have cancer and are afraid to die and I want to be with them as a brother and friend who can offer some consolation and comfort. I have a whole new ministry since I became ill, and I am deeply grateful for that."
Excerpted from Sabbatical Journey by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Copyright © 1998 The Estate of Henri J. M. Nouwen. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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