Living as the Beloved
by Henri Nouwen
I would like to speak to you about the spiritual life as the life of the beloved. As a member of a community of people with mental disabilities, I have learned a lot from people with disabilities about what it means to be the beloved. Let me start by telling you that many of the people that I live with hear voices that tell them that they are no good, that they are a problem, that they are a burden, that they are a failure. They hear a voice that keeps saying, "If you want to be loved, you had better prove that you are worth loving. You must show it."
But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, "You are the beloved and on you my favor rests."
You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.
Jesus heard that voice. He heard that voice when He came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, "You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother's womb. I've written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don't be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are."
I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are. That is where the spiritual life starts -- by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved.
I would like to talk a little about how to live the life of the beloved. There are four words that I want to use, words that come from the gospels, words that are used in the story of the multiplication of bread, words that are used at the Last Supper, words that are used at Emmaus and words that are used constantly when the community of faith comes together. Those words are: He took, He blessed, He broke, and He gave.
To be taken, to be blessed, to be broken and to be given is the summary of the life of Jesus who was taken, who was blessed by God, broken on the cross, and given to the world. It is also the summary of our life because just as Jesus, we are the beloved.
First, we are taken. Perhaps a better word would be chosen. We are chosen by God. That means we are seen by God in our preciousness, in our individuality. We are seen as precious in God's eyes.
In our world, when one is chosen it means for the others, "Too bad for us, we are not chosen." In God's mystery, being chosen doesn't mean excluding anyone. In fact, the more we know we are chosen, that we are seen in our preciousness, the more we will realize that our friends and all people are seen in their preciousness.
The people I live with sometimes have a very hard time believing they are chosen. They suffer, not so much from their mental handicap, but from the feeling of being not wanted, not desired. They have lost touch with the truth that they are chosen. It is hard for them to be in touch with that, precisely because often the people around them have said, "I don't want you around. I don't want you to be here. Why don't you go away?"
The life of the beloved starts by trusting that we are chosen in our uniqueness, that we are unique in God's eyes, precious.
The second aspect of the quality of the life of the beloved is that we are blessed. It is so important that you and I experience that we are blessed. The word benediction means blessing. Literally, bene means good and diction means saying. To bless someone means to say good things about them. "You are good." We need to know that good things are being said of us. We really have to trust that, otherwise we cannot bless other people. So many people don't feel blessed.
I would like to tell you a little story about our community. There is one of my friends there who is quite handicapped but a wonderful, wonderful lady. She said to me, "Henri, can you bless me?" I remember walking up to her and giving her a little cross on her forehead. She said, "Henri, it doesn't work. No, that is not what I mean." I was embarrassed and said, "I gave you a blessing." She said, "No, I want to be blessed." I kept thinking, "What does she mean?"
We had a little service and all these people were sitting there. After the service I said, "Janet wants a blessing." I had an alb on and a long robe with long sleeves. Janet walked up to me and said, "I want to be blessed." She put her head against my chest and I spontaneously put my arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, "Blessed are you, Janet. You know how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are."
She looked at me and said, "Yes, yes, yes, I know. I suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be relieved from the feeling of depression because suddenly she realized again that she was blessed. She went back to her place and immediately other people said, "I want that kind of blessing, too."
The people kept walking up to me and I suddenly found myself embracing people. I remember that after that, one of the people in our community who assists the handicapped, a strong guy, a football player, said, "Henri, can I have a blessing, too?" I remember our standing there in front of each other and I said, "John," and I put my hand on his shoulder, "you are blessed. You are a good person. God loves you. We love you. You are important." Can you claim that and live as the blessed one?
I think it is very important that when we are in touch with our blessedness that we can then bless other people. People need our blessing; people need to know that their father, mother, brothers and sisters bless them.
Then we are broken. We are broken people. You and I know that we are broken. A lot of our brokenness has to do with relationships. If you ask me what it is that makes us suffer, it is always because someone couldn't hold onto us or someone hurt us. I know each of us can point to a brokenness in our relationships with our husband, with our wife, with our father, our mother, with our children, with our friends, with our lovers. Wherever there is love, there is also pain. Wherever there are people who really care for us, there is also the pain of sometimes not being cared for enough. That is enormous.
What do we do with our brokenness? As the beloved of God we have to dare to embrace it, to befriend our own brokenness, not to say, "That should not be in my life. Let's just get away from it. Let's get back on track."
No. We should dare to embrace our brokenness, to befriend it and to really look at it. "Yes, I am hurting. Yes, I am wounded. Yes, it's painful."
I don't have to be afraid. I can look at my pain because in a very mysterious way our wounds are often a window on the reality of our lives. If we dare to embrace them, then we can put them under the blessing. That is the great challenge.
Quite often we want to solve people's problems and tell them to do this or to do that, that we will help them out and let's get over it. The main task we have is to put our brokenness and the brokenness of the people with whom we live under the blessing. If you live your brokenness under the curse, even a little brokenness can destroy your life. It is like an affirmation that you are no good and suddenly you say, "You see what has happened? I lost my job. This friend didn't speak to me. He rejected me." We can hold on to it and see it proven that we are no good. We always thought so.
The great call is to put our brokenness under the blessing, to live it as people of whom good things are being said.
If we live our life as people who are taken, blessed and broken, then we can give ourselves. We are taken, blessed and broken to be given. I want to tell you something that may sound a little strange, but I really believe deeply that our greatest human desire is to give ourselves. Quite often we say that we want to have a lot for ourselves then we will give a little bit. No, I think the greatest fulfillment of our heart is in the giving, to give ourselves. It is letting go. The mystery is that as we let go for others our lives start bearing fruit. That is a great mystery.
Jesus says, "It is good for you that I die because when I die I can give you my spirit and you will bear much fruit in your life." I really believe that is the final call, to give ourselves.
Recently I was with a friend whose name is David. He had cancer. He was holding onto his life and he said, "I don't want to die." Gradually, he was able to let go. On the last day of his life he called his wife and children and embraced each of them and said, "I love you. I love you."
It was clear he was ready to let go. When he died, suddenly there was light for his wife and children because somehow David had given himself to them even as he was leaving them. Today they are still able to say, "Thank you for the life of David." The life of David will be more and more fruitful because he gave himself in life and even in death.
When we are people who are chosen by God -- blessed, broken -- we can give ourselves to others. Our life can bear immense fruit. The people who have lived as the beloved, continue to bear fruit generations after they have died. When we think about certain great people in history, they still give us life. They still give us hope because their lives became fruitful, fruitful in the giving.
That is really what I wanted to talk to you about. Maybe I can just remind you of that story of the multiplication of bread. You remember there was a little boy and everybody said that he was not worth anything. But, he had five loaves and five fishes. This little boy was received by Jesus and He took these five loaves and five fishes. He broke the bread after having blessed it, and He gave it, and in giving it multiplied and it was enough for everyone to eat.
That story says something about our lives. We are little people, but if we believe that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken, to be given, then we can trust that our life will bear fruit. It will multiply. Not only in this life, but beyond it. Many, many people will find strength by knowing that they are being given new life by those who lived as the beloved and they can become the beloved themselves.
Henri Nouwen -
Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World
"May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and gave us, by his grace, encouragement eternal and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word."
(2 Thessalonians 2:16)