The Trusting Heart & the Primacy of the Mystical Life
HOLY ENOUGH TO WALK ON WATER
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 second installment in a series of articles reflecting on that year. The series is adapted from his diary for the year.
Thursday, October 17, 1985
At 9 a.m. I went to Père Thomas for spiritual direction. I asked him about my need for affection. I told him that getting older had not lessened that need, and that I feared it might prevent rather than help the development of my spiritual life. It took me about five minutes to express my problem. Père Thomas responded with a two-hour long answer! After half an hour I was so tired from trying to grasp fully the meaning of his words, as well as his difficult French, that I interrupted him by saying, “Thank you so much, that gives me enough to think about for a long time.”
But the good Père gave me another hour and a half of profound ideas and insights that will keep me going forever! At first I felt overwhelmed by this long theological reflection, but now I realize that Père Thomas wanted to give me a new context within which to raise the questions that have been dominating my emotional life. It seemed as if Père Thomas wanted to help me think differently before helping me feel differently.
He started by saying that for many of us in this highly psychologized culture, affection has become the central concern. We have come to judge ourselves in terms of the affection that is given or refused us. The media — television, magazines, and advertisements — have strongly reinforced the idea that human affection is what we really need. Being loved, liked, appreciated, praised, recognized, etc. — these are the most desired “prizes” of life. The withholding of these forms of affection can throw us into an abyss of loneliness, depression, even suicide. We have developed great sophistication in analyzing the many nuances of our affections, and developed a rich language which allows us to express how we feel about ourselves and others at different times and in different situations. We have become highly developed psychological beings, and the range of our emotions and feelings has become increasingly wide.
I very much agree with Père Thomas. During my recent years at Harvard I saw much attention given to love in its many expressions as well as to the withholding of love through anger, resentment, and indignation. Even at the Divinity School, psychological language often made spiritual and theological language sound irrelevant, superficial, and even offensive.
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