Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World with the intention to inspire secular people to not forsake their spiritual lives. My work as a hospital chaplain often entails offering pastoral care to people in crises who do not associate with any religious denomination. Some of the unifying spiritual themes which are present within the secular worldview include: love of one’s neighbor, hope in a benevolent Higher Power, and freedom from addictions. Both Henri Nouwen and the medieval writer Julian of Norwich envisioned a world where they were the beloved children of God. Both Henri Nouwen and Julian of Norwich experienced the real presence of a benevolent Higher Power in the passion of Jesus Christ. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian Norwich describes her visions of the passion of Christ experienced at a time when she was so ill that she almost died. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World are reflections offered by Fr. Henri Nouwen on the lessons he learned after a deep depression.
My own personal prayer life and worldview resonates most closely with those of Fr. Henri Nouwen and Julian of Norwich. It is from this theological foundation that I minister to those who are suffering deeply. This essay will focus on the theme of “brokenness in the beloved” by tying together various passages from sacred scripture with an inspired writing from both Julian of Norwich and Henri Nouwen. As Catholic Christians we seek to envision the world by experiencing hope in eternal life even in the midst of death, despair, and darkness. It is by embracing the darkness that the light becomes most apparent. No one can see the flickering light of a firefly in the midst of the bright city lights. It is only in the quiet stillness of a dark forest where the firefly’s luminescence can be seen shining brightly.
Every person regardless of their religious association or lack thereof is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The Catholic Christian worldview honors the dignity of all human life. Every human person’s mind, body, and soul has value to God as a part of His divine creation. Many people simply do not know that they are the beloved children of a Higher Power who has brought them into being. “Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation” (Nouwen 45).
The Catholic worldview envisions the human person undergoing various life experiences which lead to being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is what Henri Nouwen refers to as the long painful process of incarnation. The real presence of Jesus Christ comes to reside in the human person so that everything that person does is perfectly aligned with the will of God the Father just as Jesus Christ obeyed his Father’s will. Julian of Norwich also described the incarnation.
And these words are full lovely to the soul, and full near touch they the will of God and His Goodness. For His Goodness comprehendeth all His creatures and all His blessed works, and overpasseth without end. For He is the endlessness, and He hath made us only to Himself, and restored us by His blessed Passion, and keepeth us in His blessed love; and all this of His Goodness. (Julian of Norwich 183-186)
The Old Testament book of Psalms affirms that this worldview of a benevolent creator was shared by the Old Testament sages. “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his…For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:3,5). Human nature is intended by God to reflect His goodness. Jesus Christ teaches us in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew to be a light to the world.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
From the ancient sages of the Old Testament, to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, through the centuries to Julian of Norwich, and into today’s world of Henri Nouwen, the benevolent loving creator of life makes Himself a part of the spiritual worldview. The Beloved is the Light. Our belovedness is our connection to this light. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
In my ministry to hospital patients and the dying, it is important for me to be able to help people envision a loving, merciful God. Many of those in the secular world have fled religious connections. The fear of damnation and a fiery hell for eternity is often the only image that some people have of the spiritual life. As these individuals anxiously lay dying, anticipating judgment and a shameful eternity; they request a chaplain.
Helping one to realize their belovedness is one of the most rewarding aspects of chaplaincy. Most every person can recall a memory of a small child of about two or three years old who they dearly loved. Often, it may be a child who they abandoned. Yet, they desired only good things for this little child. Helping these people realize that God the Father, whom they are about to meet, loves them like they still love that little child. This is a useful way for people to envision the message of belovedness. No one who is actively dying can imagine rejecting an innocent child who is seeking to be embraced. This is the message of the Beloved.
Unfortunately, this light of belovedness can become hidden to ourselves and others. By rejecting either our own beloved nature or the belovedness in others, one rejects God. Henri Nouwen writes of both self-rejection and the rejection of others. “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (Nouwen 33). Julian of Norwich also experienced the presence of divinity alive and hurting within humanity. “Here saw I a great oneing betwixt Christ and us, to mine understanding: for when He was in pain, we were in pain” (Julian of Norwich 494-495).
Once one is awakened to the real presence of Christ crucified in each human person, there is no way to turn back and choose to live in spiritual blindness again. There is a profound difference between seeing and knowing the presence of Christ; versus simply understanding the logical teachings of the person of Christ. To understand how each person is related to one another is a logical process of the mind. One can easily turn one’s mind to think upon something else and reject the divine life alive in oneself and others. But to see the crucified Christ in oneself, and to feel his presence as Henri Nouwen and Julian of Norwich experienced his passion, is something that cannot be ignored or forgotten. This presence of Christ’s passion becomes so intimately tied to one’s own heart and emotions that it is easily awakened and observed in every human life.
The passion of Christ best communicates our unity through brokenness. Henri Nouwen writes about how brokenness brings people together.
When people come together they easily focus on their brokenness. The most-celebrated musical composition, the most-noted painting and sculpture, and the most-read books are often direct expressions of the human awareness of brokenness. This awareness is never far beneath the surface of our existence because we all know that none of us will escape death—the most radical manifestation of brokenness. The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. And we, the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either. (Nouwen 86-87)
The prophets of the Old Testament lived broken lives just as we live broken lives. Death, sin, suffering, and brokenness cannot be avoided in this experience of life on earth. Many people would like to avoid acknowledging brokenness while numbing all pain and suffering. However, Jesus Christ set a different example by squarely embracing suffering. The passion of Jesus Christ teaches us more about how to live than about how to die. Julian of Norwich knew that accepting suffering was the path towards living life more abundantly.
Also I deserved not to have this blessed feeling. But freely our Lord giveth when He will; and suffereth us [to be] in woe sometime. And both is one love. For it is God’s will that we hold us in comfort with all our might: for bliss is lasting without end, and pain is passing and shall be brought to nought for them that shall be saved. And therefore it is not God’s will that we follow the feelings of pain in sorrow and mourning for them, but that we suddenly pass over, and hold us in endless enjoyment. (Julian of Norwich 437-440)
Henri Nouwen interprets this same message for us today in a more modern language. However, the meaning is still the same centuries later because absolute truth never changes.
The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, 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. (Nouwen 95-96)
People often struggle to establish deep emotional bonds through mutual experiences of success. However, mutual suffering creates lifelong bonds. Oftentimes, only fellow Vietnam veterans can bring healing to each other due to shared experiences of suffering. Cancer patients who have bonded over chemotherapy treatments create lasting ties. A marriage challenged by the stresses of life grows stronger and creates deeper emotional bonds if both partners are mutually willing to embrace suffering together.
The virtues of faith, hope and charity flourish in the intimacy of mutual suffering. Henri Nouwen writes, “The voice that calls us the Beloved will give us words to bless others and reveal to them that they are no less blessed than we” (Nouwen 84). This same voice calls us to go into the brokenness of humanity and bring His message of blessing. The Old Testament passage from Isaiah is repeated in the Gospel of Matthew. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy” (Isaiah 9:2-3). This joy is found shining brightly amongst people who faithfully depend on a benevolent creator to empower them to live interdependently in support of each other while sharing the darkest moments of life.
There is a benevolent creator of the universe who cares intimately for all of His creation. With this confidence Julian of Norwich writes, “I saw truly that nothing is done by hap nor by adventure, but all things by the foreseeing wisdom of God: if it be hap or adventure in the sight of man, our blindness and our unforesight is the cause” (Julian of Norwich 338-339). It is here that the brokenness of the beloved is united forever in the passion of Jesus Christ. Henri Nouwen echoes this union, “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” (Nouwen 99).
Jesus Christ, Julian of Norwich, Henri Nouwen, and the sages across the centuries teach us that the journey of life contains suffering as well as bliss. The emotional experiences of joy, sorrow, anger, and fear are the four core emotions experienced by all of humanity. Without emotions, one is not alive in Christ. Jesus Christ experienced all of the human emotions to their fullest. Jesus Christ shared deeply in the intimate lives of others. He loved freely without fear. In Christ, we too can be free to live without fear. In Christ, there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by the light of love. Henri Nouwen says it best, “The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself” (Nouwen 30). One must fully claim both one’s belovedness and brokenness in order to be the light of Christ to the world. It is not in preaching about Christ that this blessed light comes into the world; it is in being the light of Christ that this light comes to shine in the midst of darkness.
Coogan, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. New York, NY: Magisterium Press. 2015. Kindle Edition.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York, NY:The Crossroad Publishing Company. 2002. Kindle Edition.
Perdue, Leo G. Wisdom and Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1994.