Henri Nouwen: Guided

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Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. John 21:18

“We have both seen how some of our friends could not accept unforeseen changes in their lives and were unable to deal with an unknown future. When things went differently than they had expected or took a drastic turn, they did not know how to adjust to the new situation. Sometimes they became bitter and sour. Often they clung to familiar patterns of living that were no longer adequate and kept repeating what once made sense but no longer could speak to the real circumstances of the moment.

Death has often affected people in this way, as we know too well. The death of husband, wife, child, or friend can cause people to stop living toward the unknown future and make them withdraw into the familiar past. They keep holding on to a few precious memories and customs and see their lives as having come to a standstill. They start to live as if they were thinking, “For me it is all over. There is nothing more to expect from life.” As you can see, here the opposite of detachment is taking place; here is a reattachment that makes life stale and takes all vitality out of existence. It is a life in which hope no longer exists.

If mother’s death were to lead us onto that road, her death would have no real meaning for us. Her death would be or become for us a death that closes the future and makes us live the rest of our lives in the enclosure of our own past. Then, our experience of powerlessness would not give us the freedom to detach ourselves from the past, but would imprison us in our own memories and immobilize us. Thus we would also lose the autonomy you have always held so dear.

I think there is a much more human option. It is the option to re-evaluate the past as a continuing challenge to surrender ourselves to an unknown future. It is the option to understand our experience of powerlessness as an experience of being guided, even when we do not know exactly where. Remember what Jesus said to Peter when he appeared to him after his resurrection: “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.”

Jesus said this immediately after he had told Peter three times to look after his sheep. Here we can see that a growing surrender to the unknown is a sign of spiritual maturity and does not take away autonomy. Mother’s death is indeed an invitation to surrender ourselves more freely to the future, in the conviction that one of the most important parts of our lives may still be ahead of us and that mother’s life and death were meant to make this possible. Do not forget that only after Jesus’ death could his disciples fulfill their vocation.”

Henri Nouwen in A Letter of Consolation (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 49. Let me know if you want this PDF. It’s a must-read for those who mourn or are struggling with difficult circumstances in life. It’s also a must-share for anyone you sense needing consolation.

If you wonder why this exploration of consolation, then let me report that these posts have touched me and many others deeply.

They have helped us revisit losses to see how God might use them for gain. It has taught us not to allow death to immobilize us but move us.

And the idea of being “guided” is so powerful. God will take us places (often out of our comfort zone) for our good and His glory.

So, in hard times like the ones we find ourselves, let us be people whose generosity reminds people that through surrender we find new life.