Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen
On the Eucharistic Life
On the remaining Sundays in Eastertide, we are contemplating some words from Henri Nouwen on the eucharistic life. Our main source will be his book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life.
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All had come to nothing. They had lost him. Not just him, but, with him, themselves. The energy that had filled their days and nights had left them completely. They had become two lost human beings, walking home without having a home, returning to what had become a dark memory.
One way to look at life is to see it as a series of losses. Birth itself is a kind of death by which we must lose our comfortable home within the womb in order to gain a new way of living. With every step forward in life, we pass through doors that lead us into new places, but in doing so we also must leave behind what was in the room we just occupied.
Many of these losses we accept as the normal course of life, but even the most benign losses can lead to pain, guilt, regret, and sadness. There are others that seem to turn our worlds upside down, our souls inside out. Nouwen mentions a few:
The losses that settle themselves deeply in our hearts and minds are the loss of intimacy through separations, the loss of safety through violence, the loss of innocence through abuse, the loss of friends through betrayal, the loss of love through abandonment, the loss of home through war, the loss of well being through hunger, heat, and cold, the loss of children through illness or accidents, the loss of country through political upheaval, and the loss of life through earthquakes, floods, plane crashes, bombings, and diseases.
These are the dark losses, the agonizing bereavements by which we lose our dreams, our hopes, our vitality, our sense of self, perhaps even our will to go on living. We may lose faith and fear that our life has utterly lost its meaning. Or we may be beset with a low grade fever of “quiet desperation” that keeps us unsettled day after day. Many of us may be disciplined and strong enough to keep going through the daily routine, perhaps even with a smile on our faces, giving no hint that our hearts have been ransacked and our confidence obliterated. Still, we hurt. We grieve. We struggle.
Nouwen asks the big question we must face at this point:
What to do with our losses? That’s the first question that faces us. Are we hiding them? Are we going to live as if they weren’t real? Are we going to keep them away from our fellow travelers? Are we going to convince ourselves or others that our losses are little compared to our gains? Are we going to blame someone? We do all of these things most of the time, but there is another possibility: the possibility of mourning. Yes, we must mourn our losses. We cannot talk or act them away, but we can shed tears over them and allow ourselves to grieve deeply. To grieve is to allow our losses to tear apart feelings of security and safety and lead us to the painful truth of our brokenness. Our grief makes us experience the abyss of our own life in which nothing is settled, clear, or obvious, but everything constantly shifting and changing.
Luther used the German word afechtung to describe this sense of utter abandonment, this realization at the core of our being that we are lost and perhaps forsaken and without hope. It is at this moment that we cry out, “Kyrie eleison!” and come to the Table offering God the sacrifices of broken and contrite hearts. This is where the service of the Eucharist begins.
However, I appreciate an insight Nouwen shares alongside this emphasis. He observes that when the disciples told the Stranger about their great loss of Jesus, they also told him about other news breaking — strange reports of an empty tomb and visions of angels! They didn’t know what to make of it at that point, but it was enough to get their attention, to lift their heads, if only in curiosity.
That’s how we generally approach the Eucharist. With a strange mixture of despair and hope.