Vulnerability Brings Charity to Life — Henri Nouwen

As we share about our experiences as celibate LGBT Christians, people ask us frequently if we know about Henri Nouwen. Nouwen has achieved a kind of celebrity status amongst participants in this conversation, especially those who are Catholic. His life, particularly while living at L’Arche, offers arguably one of most vivid portrayals of what celibacy can look like in our current cultural context.

Because Nouwen is so well-known, we have decided to take a different approach to this celibate profile. Instead of giving an introduction to Nouwen (several already exist) we would like to describe some ways that his life and writings map to our four core values of celibacy: vulnerability, hospitality, shared spiritual life, and commitment.

Nouwen’s life offers a counter-cultural embrace of vulnerability. He understands that leadership comes when a leader offers his or her vulnerable self:

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” –from In the Name of Jesus

Nouwen has a way of appreciating that every person can gift others with his or her vulnerability. One reason Nouwen stands out to many people we know is that he voluntarily entered a life of serving people with a range of physical disabilities. Yet, Nouwen attempted to pass on a vision of disability that was rooted in profound respect for the image of God found in each person rather than viewing those he served as problems to be solved. Nouwen wrote a book called Adam, God’s Beloved where he detailed how Adam — who needed around-the-clock care — became his teacher and guide. It is clear that Adam taught Nouwen much about how simply being present with another person can be transformative, inspiring Nouwen to pen things like:

“Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.” –from Out of Silence: Three Meditations on the Christian Life

Being present for a friend or loved one often requires a great deal of commitment. Nouwen frequently described commitment as the kind of compassion that draws near to the vulnerable. In Nouwen’s thinking, vulnerability and compassion are two sides of the same coin and integral to the Christian life.

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” –from Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life

And compassion helps people move from hostility to hospitality:

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” –from Reaching Out

Vulnerability enables us to find common ground even with people most different from us. Responding with compassion brings us to a place of hospitality for others through seeing our common humanity. This incarnational way of living helps us cultivate a shared spiritual life because we start to identify with others’ vices and others’ virtues:

“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death.

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness, we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.” -from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life

Nouwen’s writings are accessible to do many people because his work is vibrant with spiritual wisdom. If you are still looking for Advent reading and waiting in hope for the ability to live out charity and other Christian virtues, we strongly recommend Nouwen’s writings, especially those on compassion. We wouldn’t be surprised if many of our readers are already familiar with Nouwen’s work. Feel free to share your own reflections in the comments.

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