I recently finished reading Life of The Beloved by Henri Nouwen. If you don’t know who that is I highly suggest finding out and reading the Life of The Beloved for yourself. It is a small (119 pages) yet profound book.
The book is essentially divided into three parts: being the Beloved, becoming the Beloved and living as the Beloved. Becoming the beloved is then divided up into four subsequent parts: taken, blessed, broken and given. I found this interesting as Nouwen compared the body (read: Church) to the eucharist in that we are taken, blessed, broken and given away. Really great stuff.
There are a number of sound-bite type quotes I could list for your enjoyment but I shall refrain because I would like to talk (type?) specifically about the chapter titled ‘broken’. However, before we get to that I would like to tell you one thing Nouwen said on page 29 that may resonate with you: Beneath all my seemingly strong self-confidence there remained the question: “If all those who shower me with so much attention could see me and know me in my innermost self, would they still love me?” That agonizing question, rooted in my inner shadow, kept persecuting me and made me run away from the very place where that quiet voice calling me the Beloved could be heard (Nouwen 29). Isn’t this what we all truly desire? To be fully known and loved. I know I wrestle with this.
One more quote (before moving on to brokenness) that really struck me was when Nouwen touches on the importance of moving from being the beloved to becoming the beloved. In other words, all are beloved. Every human being, no matter what race or religion or sexuality, every human being bears the image of their Creator. This is an image that cannot be erased. That we are created is enough to make us Beloved by our Creator. It really is that simple. However, despite the fact that we are Beloved we must also move into becoming the Beloved. In other words, the reality of our Belovedness must concretely challenge and change the way we live and think. Another way of looking at this is that Christ’s death and resurrection is sufficient for all yet not all live under the Lordship of King Jesus. At any rate, it is during this thought that Nouwen says, “becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do,” (Nouwen 39). Nouwen argues, and I would agree, that this forces us to let go of any romantic idea of faith and forces us to deal with the utter concreteness of our daily lives and how this is influenced by ones faith.
On to brokenness!
Everyone is broken. You and I are broken. Everyone you know or hear of is broken and this is something that is visible and tangible in our world. Brokenness is important because it reveals something about who we are: “Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. They way I am broken tells you something unique about me,” (71). Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique. This is why when we share our brokenness with one another we enter into an incredibly intimate relationship. Our brokenness is ours and no one else’s and we must claim it as our own. Brokenness in the Western world has much to do with relationships:
In the Western world, the suffering that seems to be the most painful is that of feeling rejected, ignored, despised and left alone. In my own community, with many severely handicapped men and women, the greatest source of suffering is not the handicap itself, but the accompanying feelings of being useless, worthless, unappreciated and unloved. It is much easier to accept the inability to speak, walk or feed oneself than it is to accept the inability to be of special value to another person. We human beings can suffer immense deprivations with great steadfastness, but when we sense that we no longer have anything to offer to anyone, we quickly lose our grip on life. Instinctively we know that the joy of life comes from the ways in which we live together and that the pain of life comes from the many ways we fail to do that well, (72-3; emphasis mine).
In our world this sort of brokenness often manifests itself as sexual brokenness. Our deep longing and desire for communion with others can lead to sexual brokenness. Nouwen points to the current AIDS crisis where, “young people, desperate to find intimacy and communion, risk their very lives for it. It seems that there is a cry reverberating through the large, empty spaces of our society: It is better to die than to live in constant loneliness,” (74).
How ought we act when confronted with the brokenness of ourselves and our world? Should we run from it and avoid it? Hide it? Nouwen suggests two ways we ought to interact with brokenness, 1) befriend it, and 2) put it under the blessing. This is something we must make a daily practice of.
Firstly, we must face our brokenness head on and befriend it. I understand this may seem/feel unnatural because our primary response to pain and suffering is often to avoid it and keep it at a distance: “Suffering…is almost always experienced as an unwelcome intrusion into our lives, something that should not be there,” (75), therefore, it is difficult to see anything positive in suffering. It must be avoided. Ironically, in order to be fully healed we must take a step towards pain as opposed to away from it. “When brokenness is, in fact, just as intimate a part of our being as our chosenness and our blessedness, we have to dare to overcome our fear and become familiar with it. Yes we have to find the courage to embrace our own brokenness…I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain,” (75-6; emphasis mine). This is certainly a challenge, however, not one that we ought to face alone. Facing and living through brokenness is the way to healing, “But I cannot do that on my own. I need someone to keep me standing in it, to assure me that there is peace beyond the anguish, life beyond death and love beyond fear. But I know now, at least, that attempting to avoid, repress or escape the pain is like cutting off a limb that could be healed with proper attention,” (77).
We all seek out joy in life and I suppose one of the reasons we try and avoid pain and suffering is that we see it as an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire. However, this need not be the case. Rather than being an obstacle to peace and joy human suffering can be the means to it.
“The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. It is not hard to say to one another: ‘All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God.’ But it is very hard to say: ‘But didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?’ Nonetheless, real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy,” (77-8).
Our second response to brokenness should be to put it under the blessing, which may be a precursor to befriending it (for more on living as blessed/cursed read the chapter titled Blessed). Brokenness can be so frightening at times because we often live it under the curse: “Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience our pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying, ‘I always suspected that I was useless or worthless, and now I am sure of it because of what is happening to me,’” (78). We’re always searching for an explanation of what takes place in our lives aren’t we? If we have already reached a place where we yield to the temptation to self-rejection, then every form of misfortune that comes along will only serve to deepen our sense of self-rejection. When brokenness and pain strike we often find ourselves asking the question, “Why?” “Why me/now/here?” We so desire an answer to these sorts of questions that “we are easily seduced into connecting the events over which we have no control with our conscious or unconscious evaluation. When we have cursed ourselves or have allowed others to curse us, it is very tempting to explain all the brokenness we experience as an expression or confirmation of this curse,” (78-9).
What then are we to do? Nouwen states that, “the great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing,” (79). This is most often difficult. While everything around us is telling us otherwise we must chose to listen rather attentively to the voice that calls us the Beloved. Only then can it become possible to live our brokenness “not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us,” (79). All sorts of pain are experienced totally differently when they are lived under the blessing rather than the curse. A small burden, lived under the curse and perceived as a sign of our worthlessness, can lead to great depression and anxiety. However, heavy burdens become lighter when they are lived in the light of the blessing. What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion. “And so the great task becomes that of allowing the blessing to touch us in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the Beloved,” (79-80). Suffering helps to lead us to fullness, “just as athletes who experience great pain as they run the race can, at the same time, taste the joy of knowing that they are coming closer to their goal, so also can the Beloved experience suffering as a way to the deeper communion for which they yearn. Here joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved,” (80; emphasis mine).
May we embrace our brokenness and pain and the brokenness of the world around us. May we face this pain head on and make it our own so that we can grow to the fullness of the Beloved.