Henri Nouwen: Interruptions

Home » Meditations » Meditations » Henri Nouwen: Interruptions

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. Luke 5:17-19

“While visiting the University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, “You know, my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

Don’t we often look at the many events of our lives as big or small interruptions, interrupting many of our plans, projects, and life schemes? Don’t we feel an inner protest when a student interrupts our reading, bad weather our summer, illness our well-scheduled plans, the death of a dear friend our peaceful state of mind, a cruel war our ideas about the goodness of man, and the many harsh realities of life our good dreams about it? And doesn’t this unending row of interruptions build in our hearts feelings of anger, frustration, and even revenge, so much so that at times we see the real possibilities that growing old can become synonymous with growing bitter?

But what if our interruptions are in fact our opportunities, if they are challenges to an inner response by which growth takes place and through which we come to the fullness of being? What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people?

What if all the unexpected interruptions are in fact the invitations to give up old-fashioned and out-moded styles of living and are opening up new unexplored areas of experience? And finally: What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment?

Then our life would indeed be a different life because then fate becomes opportunity, wounds a warning and paralysis an invitation to search for deeper sources of vitality. Then we can look for hope in the middle of crying cities, burning hospitals, and desperate parents and children. Then we can cast off the temptation of despair and speak about the fertile tree while witnessing the dying of the seed. Then indeed we can break out of the prison of an anonymous series of events and listen to the God of history who speaks to us in the center of our solitude and respond to His ever new call for conversion.”

Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975) 52-53.

What if our ‘being’ related to interruptions precedes any generous ‘doing’ on our part? I think Nouwen and his unnamed professor friend are spot on with their assessment. As I think about Jesus, He was constantly interrupted and then did His best work.

Today’s Scripture is a perfect example. One minute Jesus is teaching, the next He is healing the paralytic man. Consider other examples with me. One minute He was asleep, and the next minute He calmed the storm (Luke 8:22-24). One minute He is walking, the next He heals Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). The list could go on and on.

The point for us today is not to abandon all plans of generous living, giving, serving, and loving. Stay the course. The lesson is to welcome interruptions as formative factors in God’s plan for us and to treat interruptions as unplanned opportunities for doing our best acts of generosity.