Monday, January 28, 2008

If I die, just tell everyone I'm enormously grateful...

Those are the last public words of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born priest who wrote over 40 books, after he had his heart attack. He is featured in the documentary Journey of the Heart: Henri Nouwen, which I saw last night on Netflix. (It was aired last April on PBS, according to this article about the documentary.)

Nouwen spent years teaching at both Yale and Harvard and gave up his tenure at Yale to spend a year in a Trappist monastery. While there, he worked alongside the other monks and struggled with loneliness while being out of the limelight. Later he was to move into L'Arche, a community where people with disabilities formed the "core group", living alongside others based upon the Beatitudes. Nouwen wrote about his experiences there. He was a complex man, who was admired for his genius, yet surprised people with his ability to engage in a child-like spontaneity. One author wrote that Nouwen dealt with the spirituality of imperfection.

In The Genesee Diary, Nouwen kept a journal of his experiences at the monastery, both external and internal. He was seeking a total commitment to God, away from the academic life of Yale. I am struck by his experience of silence, written about on page 133 of the diary, where he says that he finds "with words, ambiguous feelings enter into my life. It almost seems as if it is impossible to speak and not sin...In some strange way, speaking makes me less alert, less open and more self-centered." He then talks about St. Benedict, who wrote about the importance of silence. Nouwen wrote "Many people ask me to speak, but no one yet has invited me to silence."

I think of my Quaker friends, with whom I've spent hours in silent community. The silence is broken only by an occasional sharing or remark. There is a comfort in the crackling of the fire in the 200 plus year old fireplace, the warmth of my friend's guide dog's face in my lap, the ever present hum of electricity, added to the stone meeting hall. One time all I was able to do in that silence was imagine the schematics to put electricity in the old meeting hall. So unused to silence am I that I couldn't reach any other place, and afterward I recommitted myself to my prayer life.

Sometimes I yearn for the company of others who dare to be silent. I cherish the friends with whom I can sit and not have to perform, to speak, those with whom I can just be. Perhaps, in a way, one of the gifts I've received over the last decade since I acquired my disability, is that many of those who demanded things from me have gone on their way. Those who are left are indeed friends.

Sometimes all that there is left to say to others is that one is enormously grateful.