Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
I’ve been reading Sabbatical Journey by Henri Nouwen, his journal from the last year of his life. Of course Henri doesn’t know it is his last year of life as he is writing, and many of his thoughts are for his future plans. He was only sixty-five, my parents’ age. It’s hard sometimes to read his thoughts about the future, his plans for ministry and writing. The journal goes through August, 1996, and he died of a heart attack in September that same year.
Eight years before he wrote this journal Nouwen suffered a period of intense depression and spiritual struggle which he wrote about in another book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. Mark gave me this book about eight years ago when I was going through my own period of depression and struggle, and reading about Nouwen’s experience, and the wisdom he gleaned, helped carry me through my own anguished journey. It feels significant to me to be reading Sabbatical Journey (also given to me by Mark) eight years after The Inner Voice of Love, just as Nouwen wrote it eight years later.
Last night I came to this paragraph in the journal, about a visit from Nouwen’s dear friend Nathan. It was written in July, 1996, two months before Nouwen’s death:
In the early evening Nathan and I had a nice dinner. At one point we talked about the anxiety that had been plaguing me during the last few months. I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to put my inner burden on my best friend, but, in the end, I am glad I did. Nathan told me that he found it hard, not so much to listen to my pain, but to realize that I had walked with it so long without sharing it. I explained that it had not been possible for me to talk about such things on the telephone, and he understood. That was a comfort for me. I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.
I read this, curled up on my quiet couch on a winter evening, hands wrapped around a hot cup of tea. Nouwen’s time of depression eight years prior to writing that lasted for about six months. My own, eight years ago, lasted longer — two years, perhaps, with another three or four before I was well out of it, and another year or two before I left the community that had been such a mix of security and trauma, comfort and conflict.
Nouwen wrote his journal with the intention of publishing it. He was going to do the editing himself, but after he died his friend Susan took on the task. After I read that paragraph last night, I set down the book and picked up my own journal. I feel I share so much with Nouwen — the inner struggle, a long-time experience living in community, good friends to walk through my life with me, and the desire and calling to write down my experience to give to others. Nouwen wrote around forty books in his life, books full of such wisdom and healing, such intimacy with God and striving to live a life of love and service. His writing helped me and so many others move through anguish to freedom. Yet even at the end, two months before his death, he wrote that stark, honest sentence: “I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.”
I imagine him, curled up on his own couch, journal in hand. He had so much insight, so much wisdom to give to us. But in the end, his greatest gift was his honesty and vulnerability. We all desire healing and strength, but when the apostle Paul begged God for his own thorn in the flesh to be taken away, God did not heal him, but said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Here, let us be willing to be weak in front of each other. Let us teach each other out of what we do not know as well as what we do. Let us learn to value each others’ weakness as well as strength. Let us say to each other that we find it hard, not to listen to each others’ pain, but to realize that we had walked with it so long without sharing it.
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