Life of the Beloved: Where is the Sacred?

We have spent the past 6 weeks exploring themes from Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. And now it is time for me to tell you the hard truth. Henri’s book was deemed a failure by Fred and his friends and he wondered if he should even publish the book. But there is a twist to this story…What is interesting is that Nouwen’s admission of failure was the opening the participants in my doctoral project needed.  At the initial meeting where I gathered everyone interested in participating in my project, I shared the story of Fred and Henri. Fred, a man who identified as a secular Jew commissioned his dear friend Henri a catholic priest to write a book about the spiritual life for his friends who were disconnected from any faith tradition. When Henri finished the book, he sent it to Fred and although Fred had many good things to say about the book, it was clear to Henri that he had not touched the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends. This story intrigued my participants because it leveled the playing field and created a need for dialogue.

When I began my journey with Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved as the sacred text for my doctoral project, I imagined that I would gather yoga students who  were disconnected from any religious tradition. I hoped to recreate Nouwen’s intended audience and provide a safe space to dialogue about the spiritual life. But what I discovered was another group of people that Dr. Duane Bidwell calls Spiritually Fluid. Spiritually fluid people identify with 2 or more different religious traditions because of being raised in a home with more than 1 religious tradition represented or by choice or by experience.

What makes this group unique is that because they do not identify with only one religious tradition, this group is rarely included or invited to share their experience of the Divine. I met with a friend of mine months before the project to talk to her about participating and she replied that she would love to participate because and these are her words “I was attempting to include people that are usually excluded from religious conversation.”

Today, we conclude our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. During this season of Lent, we have followed the words that Nouwen suggested is the journey of the Beloved. And as Disciples of Christ, we are very familiar with these words because hear them every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. Nouwen says that as the Beloved we are Taken, Blessed, Broken & Given. Today, we arrive at The Living Beloved and Nouwen asks us one final question, “If Fred is right in saying that the sacred has disappeared from our world, then where and how can we rediscover the sacred and give it the central place in our lives?” (145-146)

So let us return to our sacred text to see if it can give us any clue about how to rediscover the sacred….

The story goes that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that it was empty so she ran to tell the disciples. I love how it talks about how Peter and an unnamed disciple raced each other to the tomb and the unnamed disciple got there first. This unnamed disciple did not dare go into the tomb first so he waited for Peter who was apparently not as fast a runner! Peter went inside and saw the wrappings that should have been on Jesus’ body were lying there and the towel that would have been on Jesus’ face was rolled up and in a different spot. The unnamed disciple then entered the tomb and the scripture says, “He saw and believed.”

While this is going on Mary Magdalene had made her way back to the tomb and is outside weeping. The sacred text says she saw two angels and has a conversation with them. But the text seems to imply that she didn’t really see them. Then the narrator tells us that Jesus appears and asks Mary why she is weeping. It says that Mary sees Jesus, but she didn’t really see him because she thought he was a gardener. Then Jesus said her name in a way that must have been very familiar, and immediately her eyes were cleansed, the stone on the tomb of her heart was rolled away and she saw Jesus. As any human would do, she clings to Jesus, but he tells her not to hold on to him, but instead to go and tell his brothers. So Mary runs to tell the disciples that she has seen Jesus. 

1) In this story there is a lot of activity that heralds the coming of someone important. You read that Mary and the disciples run to the tomb, Mary goes back to tell the disciples, and back to the tomb to weep. Along with all of this activity, we read that Mary and the Disciples See Things.

What touched the hearts and minds of the participants in my project was that the form of dialogue we employed to discuss Nouwen’s book helped them feel seen and heard. They described be seen as feeling connected to each other as human beings who are both blessed & broken while also celebrating the uniqueness of each person.

Let me explain through this story….My yoga teacher once told me that she wished we could all just appreciate our connectedness as human beings without being concerned about our different religious traditions. In her words, I heard a longing to move away from our natural tendency to divide and exclude. Which is something I really appreciate. At the same time, I felt something lacking in her statement. Upon reflection, I realized that her statement embraced our similarities while discounting our differences. If I am only seen as a human being, then I am not fully seen as Amber. I am fully seen when a person embraces what makes me unique: my physical appearance, my interests, my dislikes, my politics, my health, and even my religious tradition as it influences how I live my life.

Nouwen says to us that we must see ourselves as God sees us which is to understand that God calls us The beloved as a general term of endearment given to all living beings and as a particular love language unique to the individual. When we let the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed everything we think, say and do then our eyes will be open to see that the risen Christ is with us.

And so we read in our sacred text today that the stranger who appeared to Mary turned out to be the Christ who the Gospel of John said was here at the beginning of Creation. Out of a Christ-soaked world, Jesus came, put on flesh, and dwelled among us. Jesus suffered and died on the cross and was raised to new life that he might reveal himself again in a Christ-soaked world.

Let us return to Nouwen’s question “If Fred is right that the Sacred has disappeared from our world Where and how can we rediscover the sacred?” It is the journey of becoming the Beloved and of daily saying yes to the one who first loved us…reveals that the sacred has not disappeared but is everywhere if you have eyes to see.

Richard Rohr Writes, “People of the Light will quite simply reveal a high level of seeing, both in depth and in breadth, which allows them to include more and more and exclude less and less.” (Universal Christ, 178)

2) In our sacred text, Mary hears a familiar voice and turns to see that it isn’t a gardener, but it is Jesus who is beside her. So she clings to Jesus, but he tells her that she must not. Instead he redirects her to go and tell the disciples what she has seen.

A very human Mary Magdalene clings to the shape and form of Jesus, but Jesus gently reminds her that she can’t cling to him being here on this earth like a scarce and rare commodity, but that now as the risen Christ there is an abundance of Christ to go around.

During a time of inner turmoil, Nouwen had the pleasure of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In a conversation with her, he began pouring out all his problems and difficulties. When he had finished Mother Teresa looked at him and said, “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong…you will be fine!” He said that her words were like a flash of lightening in his darkness. He realized that he had been clinging to the Jesus of his youth which had to die, so that a new awareness of God’s covenant that includes everyone could live!. It was only Then that he was able to see the greatness of God everywhere. (Spiritual Direction, pg 5, 20, 48) A friend of mine said the same thing that he had to leave the Jesus of religion/church in order to find the risen Jesus.

And don’t we see the resurrection story playing over and over again. I see it in my relationship with my spouse and our children. I know for me, Chad and my first 2 years of marriage was terrible. Looking back, I can see that pieces of me had to die so that something new…the oneness we now experience could live!  I can look back and see this story playing out when I was a new mom.  There were days that I wept in the middle of the kitchen floor while holding 2 crying babies because I felt totally lost, exhausted, and utterly useless…but I wiped my tears, looked into my children’s eyes and saw that as controlling/perfectionist parts of me were dying, I was a part of new life taking shape and form right in front of me!

See the resurrection narrative in Nouwen’s writing. Nouwen’s failure at touching the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends gave new life to the people in my project. Resurrection is suffering transformed.

The season of Lent asks us to take a hard look at the ways we are taken, blessed, broken, and given, but lent is not what defines a Christian community. For We are an Easter people. We can see the suffering of Mother Earth and the agony of human suffering and know that when something dies, it means something is being reborn. It doesn’t justify us doing nothing to prevent unjust suffering or aid in the healing of our planet…. For we are called to do that daily!

Living as the Beloved is to see God at work in our mess.  It is to have new ears to hear the Good news being spoken here and there and everywhere that the wind blows. It is for our minds to dwell on beauty and goodness and all the many expressions of love. It is to be crying like Mary and to still have a Alleluhia on our tongues.

Nouwen asked, “Where is the sacred?” My spiritually fluid friend said it best, “It is when I smell the coffee brewing in the morning and it is when I play with my dog.” The sacred isn’t gone…It has risen to new life and can be found everywhere if our eyes are cleansed and the stone on the tomb of our heart is rolled away.

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