In his “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992, 156 pp., $17.95), Henri J.M. Nouwen offers insights into how we can make awareness of God’s amazing love for us the center of our attempts to grow closer to God.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, I experienced Nouwen’s insights as almost jumping off the page at me. I have had that experience with other books that I have read, but still the experience with Nouwen seems special to me. It was the right book for me to read at this time in my life. I am hoping that my reflections on Nouwen’s book do not give the impression that Nouwen is suggesting a self-centered, even selfish way of living.
The opposite is true. Awareness of God’s love for us should help us to appreciate God’s love for others. The power of God’s love can be like a call to us to recognize others being transformed by God’s love. We become a community of those Beloved of God. We cannot even imagine a community that would be superior. It would seem to be a foreshadowing of heaven. Nouwen contrasts the way that a secular society presents the “chosen ones” with what he is proposing as the radical truth about ourselves, the most important truth about ourselves, God’s choosing us as Beloved.
Nouwen points out that in our society to be chosen means to be set apart in contrast to others. Whole magazines are devoted to people who are “heroes” of sport, music, film, and other ways of excelling. Many people, whether they are viewers, listeners, or readers extract some vicarious pleasure as devotees of those identified as heroes.
In our secular society, what makes someone a hero is what separates that person from others. Excelling separates the hero from the rest of us. Nouwen writes the following:
“To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about ‘chosen people,’ ‘chosen talents,’ or ‘chosen friends,’ we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger, or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence, and war” (pp. 55-56).
I agree with Nouwen that our minds have difficulty comprehending such a reality, but I have to try. I will use Nouwen’s insights into gratitude to help me. I think the experience of gratitude may be the key to some understanding of growing in awareness that others beside myself are God’s chosen ones.
Not just some others. All others. In relation to God, gratitude helps us to appreciate both our finitude and our importance. Everything we have is ultimately due to God sharing His goodness with us. Recognizing our limitations should lead us to be grateful.
Being grateful can open us to become aware of the goodness of others. One reason it can help us to perceive others in a new way is that being grateful can simultaneously call our attention to both our neediness and the goodness of others.
Gratitude can help us to escape and transcend what may have become our narrow world. Nouwen writes the following:
“You have to celebrate your chosenness constantly. This means saying ‘thank you’ to God for having chosen you, and ‘thank you’ to all who remind you of your chosenness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an ‘accident,’ but a divine choice. It is important to realize how often we have had chances to be grateful and have not used them. When someone is kind to us, when an event turns out well, when a problem is solved, a relationship restored, a wound healed, there are very concrete reasons to offer thanks: be it with words, with flowers, with a letter, a card, a phone call, or just a gesture of affection” (pp. 60-61).
Re-reading and reflecting on Nouwen’s insights has been a wonderful experience for me. In trying to communicate something of Nouwen’s profound spirituality to readers of this column, I believe that I have profited greatly.
I am reminded of the saying that if you become a teacher by your students, you will be taught. If my attempts at commenting on Nouwen’s thoughts have helped readers or perhaps even encouraged readers to read Nouwen’s book, I would consider my efforts greatly rewarded.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.