Monday, April 2, 2012

"Life of the Beloved" (Henri J. M. Nouwen)

TITLE: Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World
AUTHOR: Henri J. M. Nouwen
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, (122 pages).

Henri Nouwen is well known for his short books but deep reflections on spirituality. In this book, Nouwen touches on one of his favourite topics: Becoming loved as the beloved in Christ. Based on a friendship that Nouwen has with a young journalist called Fred, Nouwen sees the common refrain in living in this secular world.

"I believe that people can make choices and make them according to their own best aspirations. I also believe that people seldom make these choices. Instead, they blame the world, the society and others for their 'fate' and waste much of their life complaining." (13)

What Nouwen is trying to point to is that while we cannot tell the world how to behave, at least we can live in a manner that does not let the world tell us how to behave. Our desire for friendship, for greater intimacy with people should not be based on the agendas that secular living offers us, but on our recognition that God is in control, and we are God's beloved. The book is then divided into three categories; 1) Being the Beloved; 2) Becoming the Beloved; 3) Living as the Beloved.

Part One - Being the Beloved
Being the Beloved means recognizing God's gift of love to us. The world's default is basically rejection of us until we are found worthy of its standards and values. God's default for us is acceptance of us in Christ, regardless of how well we perform in the world's stage. This is the essence of being the beloved. By depending on the world means slavery to the world. By depending on God means freedom from the world.

Part Two - Becoming the Beloved
Nouwen then moves to describe what it means to become the beloved.  It is not just a lofty idea or plan, but an exhortation toward living it out all of our lives.

"Becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do." (39)

One of the ways that Nouwen emphasizes is the need to respond to the Spirit's Work in our lives through four ways: 'taken, blessed, broken, and taken.' All of this happens within the remembrance of the Lord's Supper, the highlight of our spiritual practice. The first step in becoming the beloved is to be TAKEN, chosen by God. All of us need to hear the assurance that God has chosen us for who we are, and not what we do. The world tends to be destructive in its treatment of us. What are some of the ways that the world tries to take us away from God? I paraphrase Nouwen's three guidelines in the 3Ds below.

  1. Destructive Control: The world manipulates, controls, and makes us hungry for power which eventually destroys our true selves.
  2. Distracts Our Identity: The world tries to label us otherwise, seducing us to reject our real selves in favour of something artificial.
  3. Delusions about Entitlement: The world deludes us into thinking that we are entitled to worldly stuff. Instead, we ought to learn to oppose such secular delusions by being grateful.

The second aspect of becoming the beloved is BLESSED. The world tries to motivate us through fear, anxiety, and some sense of insecurity. Instead, living spiritually in a secular world is to remember we are already blessed in God. Like children being blessed by parents, we can in turn bless others as blessed people ourselves. Nouwen offers two further suggestions on how to bless and be blessed.

  1. Prayer Constantly. Whenever we feel the world pressuring us to conform, pray. Wait for the Spirit to move in our hearts, and instead of becoming victims of the tyranny of the urgent, and worldly expectations, we become victors when we become agents of blessings.
  2. 'Cultivation of Presence:' Being attentive to one another is increasingly difficult in a busy and distracting world. Do we pay attention to those who are needy? Do we recognize the need to be patient? Have we taken the time to just relax and enjoy God's creation, instead of the daily hustle of rush and hush?
The third aspect of becoming the beloved is BROKEN. Each of us are unique and no one brokenness can be compared with another. Nouwen writes:

"Our sufferings and pain are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something unique about me." (71)

The world is a broken world, and tries to drag us into a spiral of destructive brokenness. Nouwen makes two suggestions to tackle this.

  1. Befriend our brokenness: It is part of our identity. Do not deny ourselves the time to 'befriend it.' For Nouwen, when we embrace our brokenness as a part of ourselves, we know ourselves better, and we appreciate our uniqueness more. The world tries to tell us a good life is a happy life. No! A good life is a life that embraces the essence of our joys and our sorrows, our pleasures and our pains, our ups and our downs.
  2. Put Our Brokenness Under a Blessing: It is not a curse. In fact, this second suggestion underlines the first. Learn to make plans to address our pain in a meaningful way, rather than outright rejection of it. Like every failure is an opportunity to learn what not to do in future.
Fourthly, just as Christ gave of himself, we the Beloved ought to be GIVEN.  The greatest fulfillment for each of us is to give our ourselves. Nouwen suggests two ways to give.
  1. Giving in Life: Here we learn to use our gifts and talents for the benefit of our community.
  2. Giving in Death: Strange though it may seem, this suggestion basically means that all of our life is actually to prepare ourselves for a good dying. Like Jesus whose purpose on earth is to die that the world may live, we too are to adopt an attitude of keeping the end in mind. This is what makes the spiritual life so much more powerful and meaningful than the world of secular living.
Part Three - Living as the Beloved

This part essentially summarizes the whole book, that we ought to live as the beloved in both life and in death. We do not belong to this world, so why live according to the values of this world? We are blessed from above, so let us live as blessed from above. We are sent out into the world, and we ought not to live worldly.

"What I want most to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived 'from above,' that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death." (108)

I highly recommend this book. It is a simple but powerful way to resist the ways of the world but to live as Beloved sons and daughters of God in this world.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


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