Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: April 24, 2016

Photo by Clay Spencer
Photo by Clay Spencer

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.

• • •

As we watch the disciples walking to Emmaus, their shoulders slumped, their faces downcast, their voices muted, how can we imagine their condition? Henri Nouwen suggests:

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.

Nouwen comments:

That’s how we generally approach the Eucharist. With a strange mixture of despair and hope.

11 thoughts on “Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: April 24, 2016

  1. I always thought that revulsion of doing good to or for others was a mark of a Christianity that also was able to embrace economic systems that served the wealthy at the expense of the poor. When you can justify failure to help those in need by saying ” that’s works righteousness”, then it frees you up to have contempt for the less fortunate and still talk about ‘the biblical gospel’, (whatever that phrase means) . . .

    I don’t see acts of loving-kindness and acts of mercy towards the marginalized as apart from the Holy Gospels of Our Lord, but I know there are many people who talk of their own assured salvation who do not feel that caring physically for those who hurt is something that is a part of their religion.

    I don’t ‘get it’. I will never ‘get it’. It doesn’t make sense in the light of Who Christ was and the compassion He had for the marginalized when He was here among us. The theology of the Beatitudes and of the Parables and above all, the theology of the Cross tells me that selfless giving out of love for others is what Our Lord expects as a way of living in response to Him and to His teachings. We need to become formed according to His own heart, not according to some theology based on a few verses taken out of context and interpreted without Christ as the lens that brings light to them.


  2. I remember the last communion I shared with my father before his death. He was in hospice. The hospice nurse heard us ‘talking Catholic’ and said that she was a Eucharistic minister and carried the Eucharist with her and asked would we all like to partake of it together . . . and so we shared my father’s last ‘food for the journey’ with him

    There are some events in our life that stand out and are markers of times when what we did mattered ‘more’.
    And what is communion for people? For me and my family and my dying father, it was something that transcended the sadness . . . we were ‘together’ and my father was going where we could not go ‘with’ him physically . . . but in the Eucharist, we recognize the Presence of the One who holds us together within His Body where no death will completely separate us . . . so we took that journey into the Eucharist together that day, and we were not bereft of all hope.


  3. I’m with you Mule, I would have probably liked hanging out with all those guys you list. I consider the works-righteousness extremity one of the prices we have to pay for being set free from Extreme Medieval Theocracy courtesy of Saint Martin, who admittedly would have set up his own theocracy if he could have gotten away with it and gave it his best shot, would have banished James, first bishop of THE Church, if possible. Heresy would seem to be in the eye of the beholder, which of course is a heresy in itself, Charley’s Heresy as I like to think of it. I expect there are a number of very surprised people who have passed on the other side.


  4. Stuart there’s Lutherans and then there’s Lutherans. But you are right to be leery of that whole law/grace perspective as seen by some on the more fundamentalist end of the continuum. I’ve had something like ten years off and on experience with Lutherans and I have never heard that preached except occasionally mentioned in passing. Mind you, these are ELCA Lutherans, salt of the earth folks who in my experience mostly ignore Lutheran dogma and don’t want to be bothered by it, same as me. I’m sure Miguel can find a big hand basket for us all to ride to hell in together.

    Sometime if you’re feeling strong and peaceful enough, find an ELCA church and give it a visit just to experience it. They aren’t cookie cutter churches, much depends on the pastor and the particular culture being served, but I would visit one anywhere expecting a positive experience. The services are liturgical, which means you will likely be participating if you choose out of a book or printed bulletin. Two things you can probably choose to participate in or not are communion and the sharing of God’s Peace, which is done usually clasping hands and speaking a simple blessing, Peace Be With You or some such. Those two are the highlights of the service for me. Sermons are usually endurable, likewise hymns. You can sit in back somewhere out of the way but be sensitive to pew ownership. I think the main Lutheran belief is that services shouldn’t last over an hour. I would be highly interested in a report if you did this.


  5. Memory from middle school, 5th or 6th grade Bible class taught by a former Hyles-Anderson fundy. He’d rant and rave, basically imitate Hyles, in our classes, literal spit coming out of his mouth and hitting us…more preaching then any actual teaching in that class. He was often fond of saying/screaming, with that heightened voice followed by silence with wide glaring eyes and a slightly open mouth, that too many churches today are compromised, are coddling, are comfortable in their sin and won’t teach the full truth of the Bible and the Law and God’s requirements, that our church was one of the few that gave people what they needed each week by preaching God’s Standards to them and driving them to their knees at the altar.

    Even back then, I remember thinking…if all you preach is Law, beat people raw…they will never heal and be better. Even with an altar call and blessed assurance at the end.


  6. You point out one of my half thought through problems with Lutheranism, as evidence mostly be a former frequent commenter on Internet Monk. The weekly “tear yourself down as low as possible with Law, and then be offered grace”. It feels like spiritual self-flagellation just because you like how the ointment feels on your wounds. Beat yourself to a pulp just so you can feel good.

    Perhaps I misunderstand it, not being Lutheran. I wouldn’t call it works righteousness, tho I’m not sure what to call it.

    Preaching Law, and then offering Grace, week after week…it seems exhausting, like a spiritual whiplash, and doesn’t allow growth.


  7. Along with Nestorius, Pelagius, Mani, and Montanus, I’m thinking pore ol’ works-righteousness has gotten a ill-deserved bad rap all these millenia…


  8. We offer it to him because we are driven to; we have nowhere else to take it. He will not despise our offering of brokenness, pathetic and useless as it is, because he knows we need to offer it. There is the love, mercy and grace; it has nothing to do with works righteousness.


  9. Well, that was uplifting…NOT.

    It strikes me that there is a big difference between “a broken and contrite heart He will not despise” and the offering of a broken and contrite heart He will not despise. The first is love, mercy, and grace. The second smacks of works righteousness.

    I’ll be better after I have my morning coffee….


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