Volume > Issue > A Picnic on a Tombstone & Other Reflections

A Picnic on a Tombstone & Other Reflections


By Henri J.M. Nouwen | March 1994
The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen is a priest-in-residence at Daybreak in Toronto (a Catholic/ecumenical l'Arche community serving the disabled), a writer and lecturer, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Among his many books are The Wounded Healer and The Return of the Prodigal Son.

In my home country, the Netherlands, you still see many large wagon wheels, not on wagons, but as decorations at the entrances of farms or on the walls of restaurants. I have always been fascinated by these wagon wheels with their wide rims, strong wooden spokes, and big hubs. These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center. When I move along the rim, I can only reach one spoke at a time, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once.

To pray is to move to the center of all life and all love. The closer I come to the hub of life, the closer I come to all that receives its strength and energy from there. My tendency is to get so distracted by the diversity of the many spokes of life that I am busy but not truly life-giving — all over the place but not focused. By directing my attention to the heart of life, I am connected with its rich variety. What does the hub represent? I think of it as my own heart, the heart of God, and the heart of the world. When I pray, I find the heart of God, who speaks to me of love. And I recognize, right there, the place where all of my brothers and sisters are in communion with one another. The great paradox of the spiritual life is that that which is most personal is most universal, that which is most intimate is most communal, and that which is most contemplative is most active.

The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the center of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!


It will always remain very hard for us to embrace our suffering, trusting that it will lead to new life. Nonetheless, than are experiences that demonstrate the truth of the way Jesus shows us. Let us look at just one.

A few years ago Bob, the husband of a friend of mine, died suddenly of a heart attack. My friend decided to keep her two young children away from the funeral. She thought it would be too hard for them to see their father put in the ground. For years after Bob’s death the cemetery remained a fearful and dangerous place for them. Then, one day, my friend asked me to visit the grave with her, and invited the children to come along. The elder one was too afraid to go, but the younger one decided to come with us. When we came to the place where Bob was buried, the three of us sat down on the grass around the stone engraved with the words, “A kind and gentle man.” As we sat, we reminisced about Bob.

I said: “Maybe one day we should have a picnic here. This is not only a place to think about death, but also a place to rejoice in our life. I think Bob will be most honored when we find new strength, here, to live.” At first it seemed a strange idea: having a meal on top of a tombstone. But isn’t that similar to what Jesus told His disciples to do when He asked them to share bread and wine in His memory?

A few days later my friend took her elder child to the grave, the younger one having convinced his sister that there was nothing to fear. Now they often go to the cemetery and tell each other stories about Bob. Having a picnic on Bob’s grave has become something to look forward to — at least when nobody is watching!

Tears of grief and tears of joy shouldn’t be too far apart. As we befriend our pain — or, in the words of Jesus, “take up our cross” — we discover that the Resurrection is, indeed, close at hand.


Reading the conclusion of chapter nine of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I can easily imagine that he has just been watching the Olympic games. He writes:

Do you not realize that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that — to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither. So that is how I run, not without a clear goal; and how I box, not wasting blows on air. I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified.

Watching the Barcelona 1992 Olympics on television, I was deeply impressed, even somewhat overwhelmed, by the single-minded dedication and vigorous discipline with which the athletes trained themselves to win the gold medal. Hundreds of runners, divers, gymnasts, and other athletes had dedicated every part of their life to make it to that little platform of crowning success.

It was with special attention that I watched the Frenchman Gatier and the Swede Waldner in their final table-tennis match. The question that created nearly unbearable tension between the players and among the thousands of onlookers, including King Gustav of Sweden and his wife, was: “Who of these two men will get the gold, and who will have to settle for the silver?”

With incredible virtuosity the two rivals danced around the table returning the little yellow ball from far away and close by, outsmarting each other, and constantly surprising their screaming fans. The power, speed, agility, and accuracy with which Waldner and Gatier made their points kept everyone guessing to the last second who would be the winner.

When, finally, the Swede was able to break the third tie and win the game 25-23, his tense face exploded in a huge smile as he threw himself into the arms of his coach. It was the first gold medal for Sweden in the Barcelona Olympics. The thundering ovation in the sports hall, and the enthusiasm of the Swedes, suggested that something of immense importance had taken place.

When Paul saw games like this, he wondered if we would have as much dedication and discipline to win the eternal glory as athletes have to gain their prize. Maybe it would be helpful to think of the choir of saints, angels, and archangels as the enthusiastic onlookers and to realize that the King Himself is watching us and hopes that He can give us the gold of His eternal love.


Athletes whose clear goal is attaining the Olympic gold are willing to let everything else become secondary. Without a clear goal, we will always be distracted and spend our energy on secondary things. “Keep your eye on the prize,” Martin Luther King said to his people. What is our prize? It is eternal life, the life with and in God. Jesus proclaimed to us that goal, that heavenly prize. To Nicodemus He said: “this is how God loved the world: he gave his Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

It is not easy to keep our eyes fixed on eternal life, especially in a world that keeps telling us that there are more urgent things on which to focus. There is scarcely a day that does not pull our attention away from our goal and make it look vague and cloudy. But without a clear goal, our lives are fragmented into many tasks and obligations that drain us and leave us, finally, with a feeling of exhaustion and uselessness. How then do we keep our goal clear, how do we fix our eyes on the prize? By the discipline of prayer, which helps us to bring God back again and again to the center of our life. We will always be distracted, busy with many urgent demands, but when there is a time and place set apart to return to our God who offers us eternal life, we can gradually come to realize that the many things we have to do no longer distract us but are instead leading us closer to our goal. But our goal must remain clear. Prayer keeps our goal clear, and when our goal has become vague, prayer makes it clear again.


The simple statement, “God is love,” has far-reaching implications the minute we begin living our lives based on that statement. God, who created me, is love, and therefore I am loved before any human being loved me.

When I was a small child I kept asking my father and mother, “Do you love me?” I asked that question so often and so persistently that it became a source of irritation to them. Even though they assured me hundreds of times that they loved me, I never seemed fully satisfied with their answers and kept on asking the same question. Now, many years later, I realize that I wanted a response they couldn’t give. I wanted them to love me with an everlasting love. I know this because my question, “Do you love me?” was always accompanied by the question, “Do I have to die?” Somehow, I must have known that if my parents would love me with a total, unlimited, unconditional love, I would never die. And so, I kept pestering them with the strange hope that I would be an exception to the general rule that all people are going to die.

Much of our energy goes into the question: “Do you love me?” As we grow older, we develop many more subtle and sophisticated ways of asking that question. We say: “Do you trust me? Do you care for me? Do you appreciate me? Are you faithful to me? Will you support me? Will you speak well of me?”

The great spiritual challenge is to discover, over time, that the limited, conditional, and temporal love we receive from parents, husbands, wives, children, teachers, colleagues, and friends are reflections of the unlimited, unconditional, and everlasting love of God. When we make that huge leap of faith, we will know that death is no longer the end but the gateway to the fullness of the Divine Love.


We are always tempted with fatalism. When we say, “Well, I have always been impatient; I guess I have to live with it,” we are being fatalistic. When we say, “That man never had a loving father or mother, you shouldn’t be surprised that he ended up in prison,” we speak as fatalists. When we say, “She was terribly abused as a child, how do you expect her to ever have a healthy relationship with a man,” we allow fatalism to overshadow us. When we say, “The wars between nations and the starvation of millions of people prove that there is little reason for hope,” we have become victims of fatalism.

Fatalism is the attitude that makes us live as passive victims of exterior circumstances beyond our control.

The opposite of fatalism is faith. Faith is the deep trust that God’s love is stronger than all the anonymous powers of the world and can transform us from victims of darkness into servants of light.

After Jesus drove out the demon from a lunatic boy, His disciples asked Him: “Why were we unable to cast it out?” Jesus answered: “Because you have little faith. I tell you solemnly, if your faith were the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, move from here to there and it would move; nothing would be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:19-20).

It is important to identify the many ways in which we think, speak, or act with fatalism and, step by step, to convert them into moments of faith. This movement from fatalism to faith is the movement that will remove the cold darkness from our hearts and transform us into people whose trust in God and the power of love can, indeed, make mountains move.


Once, quite a few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I was struggling with many things at the time, and decided to use the occasion to ask her for advice. As soon as we sat down, I started explaining all my problems and difficulties — trying to convince her of how complicated it all was. When, after 10 minutes of elaborate explanation, I finally fell silent, Mother Teresa looked at me quietly and said: “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring our Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong…you will be fine!”

When she said this, I realized, suddenly, that she had punctured my big balloon of complex complaints and pointed me far beyond myself to the place of real healing. In fact, I was so stunned by her answer that I didn’t feel any need to continue the conversation. The many people waiting outside the room to see her could probably use her time better than I. So I thanked her and left. Her few words became engraved on my heart and mind, and remain to this day. I had not expected her words, but in their directness and simplicity they cut through to the center of my being. I knew that she had spoken the truth and that I had the rest of my life to live it.

Reflecting on this decisive encounter, I realize that I had raised a question from below and that she had given an answer from above. At first, her answer didn’t seem to fit my question, but then I saw that her answer came from God’s place and not from the place of my complaints. Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answers from below. The result is often more confusion.

Mother Teresa’s answer was like a flash of lightning in my darkness. I suddenly knew the truth about myself.


How can we live a truly grateful life? When we look back at all that has happened to us, we easily divide our lives into good things to be grateful for and bad things to forget. But true spiritual gratitude embraces all of our past, the good as well as the bad events, the joyful as well as the sorrowful moments. From the place where we stand, everything that took place brought us to this place, and we want to remember all of it as part of God’s guidance. That does not mean that all that happened in the past was good, but it does mean that even the bad didn’t happen outside the loving presence of God.

Jesus’ own suffering was brought upon Him by the forces of darkness. Still, He speaks about His suffering and death as His way to glory.

It is very hard to keep bringing all of our past under the light of gratitude. There are so many things about which we feel guilt and shame, so many things we simply wish had never happened. But each time we have the courage to look at “the all of it” and to look at it as God looks at it, our guilt becomes a happy guilt and our shame a happy shame because they have brought us to a deeper recognition of God’s mercy, a stronger conviction of God’s guidance, and a more radical commitment to a life in God’s service.

Once all of our past is remembered in gratitude, we are free to be sent into the world to proclaim the Good News to others. Just as Peter’s denials didn’t paralyze him but, once forgiven, became a new source of his faithfulness, so can all our failures and betrayals be transformed into gratitude and enable us to become messengers of hope.


Traveling is seldom good for the spiritual life, especially traveling alone. Airplanes, airports, buses, bus terminals, trains, and railroad stations filled with people moving here and there, cluttered with magazines and useless objects — it’s all too much, too sensual and distracting to keep our hearts and minds focused on God. When I travel alone I eat too much, drink too much, and look around too much. I let my mind wander to unhealthy, imaginary places and allow my heart to drift along with confusing emotions and feelings.

Jesus doesn’t want us to travel alone. He sends us out two by two, saying, “Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, so be cunning as snakes and yet innocent as doves.”

Since I live in the Daybreak community, I seldom travel alone. The community sends me out with Bill, Francis, David, Peter, Patsy, Jane, and many other handicapped members, not just because they love to travel but also because I need their support. And what a difference that makes!

Traveling together radically shifted the significance of my trips. Instead of lecture trips, they became missions; instead of situations full of temptations, they became spiritual adventures; instead of times for loneliness, they became opportunities for community.

The words of Jesus, “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am in their midst,” became very real for me. Together we were well-protected against the seductive powers surrounding us.


There are situations in which we become acutely aware of how little sense of community there is among people. When you sit in a plane for six hours without even getting to know your neighbor, when you take a subway train and see how everyone is hiding behind the newspaper, when you are in an elevator with 10 other people going up or down in total silence — in situations like these it can suddenly hit you that we are very far from living as brothers and sisters in the same human family.

When I travel with Bill — as I often do — I never stay long in my fearful isolation. Bill has very few inhibitions. He talks to anyone, anywhere! Some people may call him “handicapped,” but when it comes to creating community on the spot, I am a lot more handicapped than he is.

Bill can create a sense of togetherness among people while they move up or down in the elevator of a hotel. Once, he looked at his neighbor’s feet and said, “Well, you could certainly use a shoe shine,” then, bursting out in a big laugh, he added, “I could too!” Everyone in the elevator smiled, and soon they were talking to each other and saying good-bye when they reached their floor.

I can give lectures, Bill cannot. But Bill can bring together people who never before spoke to each other. Why? Because he has nothing to defend and nothing to hide. He is as innocent as a dove and leaves being cunning as a snake up to me.

What a gift it is to be free enough to create community wherever you are. This gift is given to the “little” ones who barely count in our competitive world.


Our greatest pain often comes from our inability to help others — especially those we love so much. A close friend of mine, who was recently widowed, had been looking forward to sending her daughter to college after her graduation from high school. She had helped her look at different colleges and was eagerly awaiting her choice.

But when the graduation had come and gone, the daughter came home with a “fuzzy-looking,” long-haired guy in an old red convertible and told her mother that she was going to travel west with her new friend, following the Grateful Dead, sleeping by the roadside, and looking for work whenever they ran out of money.

My friend could imagine only drugs, sex, and craziness, and feared for the very life of her daughter. Rightly so. But all her pleading and warnings only strengthened her daughter’s resolve to escape her “bourgeois” milieu and explore the “real world.”

It was a very scary situation, and my friend’s fears were far from imaginary. Still, the final question was not, “How to help this unruly teenager?” but “How to prevent the mother from being destroyed by her daughter?” I kept saying to her: “Whatever happens to your daughter, you cannot allow her to take away your sleep, your appetite, and all your joy….” It wasn’t easy for me to say this, because I shared my friend’s worries. But painful as her daughter’s leaving was, she had to let her leave, not just physically, but emotionally. In this way, if the daughter returned, she would find a healthy mother at home.


One of the least helpful ways to stop worrying is to try hard not to think about the things we are worrying about. We cannot push away our worries with our minds. When I lie in my bed worrying about an upcoming meeting, I can’t stop my worries by saying to myself: “Don’t think about these things; just fall asleep. Things will work out fine tomorrow.” My mind simply replies: “How do you know?” and is back worrying again.

Jesus’ advice to set our hearts on God’s Kingdom is somewhat paradoxical. You might give it the following interpretation: “If you want to worry, worry about that which is worth the effort. Worry about the things of God!”

As soon as we set our hearts on these things, our minds stop spinning because we enter into communion with the One who is present to us here and now, ready to give us what we most need. And so, worrying becomes prayer, and our feelings of powerlessness are transformed into a consciousness of being empowered by God’s Spirit.

Does that put an end to our routine worries? Probably not. But when we keep returning with our hearts and minds to God’s embracing love, we will be able to keep smiling at our own worrisome selves and keep our eyes and ears open for the sights and sounds of the Kingdom.


How do we concretely go about setting our hearts on God’s Kingdom? When I lie in bed, not able to fall asleep because of my many worries, when I do my work preoccupied about all the things that can go wrong, what am I supposed to do? Set my heart on the Kingdom? Fine, but how does one do this?

There are many answers. One simple answer is to learn a prayer by heart and say it slowly with as much attentiveness as possible. This may sound like offering a crutch to someone who asks you to heal his broken leg. The truth, however, is that a prayer, prayed from the heart, heals. When you know the Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Glory to the Father by heart, you have something to start with. You might want to memorize the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) or Paul’s words about love to the Corinthians or St. Francis’s prayer (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”). As you lie in bed, drive your car, or wait for the bus, you can slowly let the words of one of these prayers go through your mind, simply trying to listen with your whole being to what they are saying. You will be distracted by your worries, but if you keep going back to the words of the prayer, you will gradually discover that your worries become less obsessive — and that you really start to enjoy praying. And as the prayer descends from your mind into the center of your being, you will discover its healing power.


We cannot live a spiritual life alone. The life of the Spirit is like a seed that needs fertile ground to grow. This fertile ground includes not only a good inner disposition, but also a supportive milieu.

It is very hard to live a life of prayer in a milieu where no one prays or speaks lovingly about prayer. It is nearly impossible to deepen our communion with God when those with whom we live and work reject or even ridicule the idea that there is a loving God. It is a superhuman task to keep setting our hearts on the Kingdom when the people we know and talk with are setting their hearts on everything but the Kingdom.

It is not surprising that people who live in a secular milieu — where God’s name is never mentioned, prayer unknown, the Bible never read, and conversation about life in the Spirit completely absent — cannot sustain their communion with God for very long. I have discovered how sensitive I am to the milieu in which I live. In my community, words about God’s presence in our lives come spontaneously. However, when I join in a business meeting in downtown Toronto, or keep company with those who work with AIDS patients, a conversation about God often creates embarrassment or even anger and generally ends up in a debate about the pros and cons of religion that leaves everybody somewhat unhappy.

If we are serious about living a spiritual life, we must be attentive to our milieu. Although we might not be able to create the ideal context for a life in the Spirit, we have many more options than we often claim for ourselves. We can choose friends, books, churches, art, music, places to visit, and people to be with that, taken together, offer a milieu that allows the mustard seed God has sown in us to grow and mature.


An important discipline in the life of the Spirit is the exercise of some control over what enters into our minds. Each day our society bombards us with a myriad of images and sounds. Driving down Yonge Street in downtown Toronto is like driving through a dictionary, each word demanding our attention in all sorts of sizes and colors and with all sorts of gestures. The words scream at us: “Eat me, drink me, buy me, hire me, look at me, sleep with me!”

But do we really want our mind to become the garbage can of the world? Do we want our mind to be filled with things that confuse us? Do we want to let others decide what enters into our mind and determine our thoughts and feelings?

Clearly we do not, but it requires real discipline to let God and not the world be the Lord of our mind. One very helpful discipline is spiritual reading. Are we presently reading a book that nurtures our mind and brings us closer to God? Our thoughts and feelings would be deeply affected if we were always to carry with us a book that turns our mind again and again in the direction we want to go. There are so many good books about the lives of holy men and women, about remarkable examples of peace-making, about communities that bring life to the poor and the oppressed, and about the spiritual life itself. Even if we were to read such a book for only 15 minutes a day, we would soon find our mind becoming less of a garbage can and more of a vase filled with good thoughts.

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