A New Life among the Handicapped
FAREWELL TO HARVARD
Ed. Note: During the 1985-1986 academic year, Henri J.M. Nouwen was a priest-in-residence at the l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France (a Catholic/ecumenical community serving disabled persons). This article is the first installment in a series of articles reflecting on that year. The series is adapted from his diary.
Tuesday, August 13, 1985
This is the first day of my new life! Though it sounds melodramatic, I cannot avoid feeling that something significant is starting today. The decision to resign my teaching post at Harvard Divinity School and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his community for handicapped people took many tears and many sleepless nights. It came after a period of many hesitations and inner debates. But when I drove away from Harvard, I felt as if I were moving toward a new freedom.
When Madame Vanier, Jean’s 87-year-old mother, threw her arms around me as I stepped into her house this morning, it felt like coming home. It is so good to be back. Nine months ago I finished a 30-day retreat here. Then I had no idea that I would be back so soon, but now I know that the retreat had prepared me to say good-bye to the academic world and to start looking for a community of people that could lead me closer to the heart of God.
This afternoon I heard something like an inner voice telling me to start keeping a journal again. Ever since my trip to Latin America four years ago, I had given up daily writing. But it suddenly dawned on me that this year is going to be a year of prayer, reading, and writing while listening carefully to the inner movements of the Spirit. How better to keep in touch with God’s work in me than by recording what is happening to me day after day? If this is really going to be a year of discernment, an honest journal might help me as much now as it has in the past.
The enormous contrast between my busy, noisy, and nerve-racking last days in Cambridge and this utterly quiet day in Trosly moves me deeply. I walked the narrow streets of this little French town this afternoon without seeing a person or hearing a car. I wondered if I were on the same planet. The six-and-a-half hour flight from Logan International Airport in Boston to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris seemed like such a short time, a large part of it taken up by the gripping movie Witness. But Cambridge and Trosly are much farther apart than a night’s flight. They represent two very different worlds: Cambridge, a world of academic intensity, institutional rivalry, intellectual competition, and ever mounting excitement; Trosly, a world of quiet village-living, community celebration, sharing of human vulnerabilities, and an always new invitation to let Jesus be the center of everything.
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