Recently I found myself thinking back to an article in Christianity Today by Philip Yancey in which he profiled the late Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, a prolific and well-known spiritual writer, had taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard before leaving academia to be a priest in residence for a community for the disabled in Toronto called Daybreak. On the surface, Nouwen’s decision might seem impulsive and irrational. After all, he left teaching at some of America’s premier universities to devote his time to people who did not have the ability to appreciate his tremendous intellectual gifts, who in fact could barely understand the most basic aspects of faith. But despite his academic success, Nouwen left those prestigious academic institutions because he felt that the busy schedule and intense competition were suffocating his spiritual life.
Yancey writes about the time he visited Nouwen at Daybreak. Nouwen lived in a small room with the only furniture being a bed, a bookshelf and a few other pieces of furniture. They ate a simple lunch together, and Yancey then watched him prepare his charge, Adam, for the day. Adam was profoundly retarded and unable to speak, walk, or dress himself. Each day Nouwen took almost two hours to finish this task – bathing, shaving, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, helping him eat breakfast, and so on. The thought crossed Yancey’s mind that perhaps there was a better way for the talented and gifted priest to use his time. After all, couldn’t someone else do these simple, manual chores? When he brought this up, Nouwen replied, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”
Nouwen then explained what he meant. Yancey writes, “All day Nouwen kept circling back to my question, bringing up various ways he had benefitted from his relationship with Adam. It had been difficult for him at first, he said. Physical touch, affection, and the messiness of caring for an uncoordinated person did not come easily. But he had learned to love Adam, truly to love him. In the process he had learned what it must be like for God to love us—spiritually uncoordinated, retarded, able to respond with what must seem to God like inarticulate grunts and groans.”
Not many of us can pick up and leave for a community like Daybreak as Nouwen did. We have responsibilities to families, friends and our communities here to which God has called us. Nor is it wrong to pursue academic and other types of “success.” Indeed Nouwen continued to write influential books during his time there. Rather, the lesson lies in what living at Daybreak taught him. Yancey describes how throughout his life, Nouwen felt that two voices competed inside him. One urged him to succeed and achieve. The other “called him simply to rest in the comfort that he was the ‘beloved of God.’” In the last years of his life he learned to listen to that second voice. Perhaps like Nouwen, we also need to heed that “other” voice when we feel ourselves tempted to be consumed by the need or desire to find our identity in our achievements and success rather than who we are in Christ, the “beloved of God.”
(The article was published in the issue from Dec. 9, 1996, p. 80.)