I’ve been rereading Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry for a contemplative retreat I will be co-leading this spring. It’s amazing how much one can get out of what seems a simple little book each time it is read. This time I realized why Henri became popular among evangelical Christians. He emphasizes a very personal relationship with Jesus, so personal that “Christ…lives in us, that he is our true self.”
In the margin beside that assertion I countered, “? not a false self?” In other words, both Nouwen and Merton warned of living the inauthentic or false self. In Merton’s words from Contemplative Prayer, even or especially “the ‘approved way’ may in fact be encouraging us in falsity and illusion.” And, in Way of the Heart, Nouwen warns against “the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness.”
I take this to heart because I frequently wonder if this blog is “one restless effort to convince [myself or perhaps readers of my] virtuousness”!
I grew up in a Christian milieu that defined JOY as J.O.Y.—Jesus, Others, You, in that order. “The wisdom of the desert,” Henri writes, “is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.” I put a question mark beside this assertion, too.
I guess that surrender was the idea behind sitting with Henri very early one morning in his first improvised chapel at Daybreak (the L’Arche community of Toronto) silently contemplating the Host for an hour. Henri fidgeted continually, undoubtedly wrestling with what he called his “banana tree of monkeys.”
I sat, for the most part, still, but found little meaning in the exercise. Have me contemplate a scriptural phrase or story, or a work of art or icon, even a window with a view of nature, and the silence would have been more spiritually fulfilling. Simple adoration of a transubstantiated wafer within the glass heart of a cross was not in my Protestant bag of tricks!
But giving myself to Jesus Christ was. That’s what I thought I was doing at the tender of age of six or seven when I went forward at an altar call. But that meant following Jesus, not losing myself in Jesus. I do believe Christ “lives in us”—for me, the meaning of the Resurrection—but Chris, not Christ, is my true self.
When I served on my seminary’s worship committee more than forty years ago, I disagreed with those members from “higher” church traditions who believed a worship leader should serve only as a kind of “invisible window” to God or Jesus or the Kingdom. This concept might have suited me well: I am grateful that my parents intentionally gave me the name Christopher, because it means “Christ-bearer,” and that my last name, Glaser, comes from a German ancestor who must’ve been a glassmaker.
But at the time, I pointed out to the committee members that Yahweh was the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and his sister Miriam, Jesus and his mother Mary, and that their particular personalities gave very personal faces to the Almighty and God’s Commonwealth.
No doubt my view was influenced by my Baptist upbringing, with much emphasis on personal testimonies, including those of our occasional evangelists or the even rarer visits to one of the late Billy Graham’s “Crusades” in my hometown of Los Angeles.
Twice on this blog I’ve quoted the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya, “In the life to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
In his book, Reaching Out, Nouwen suggests, “The great saints of the past don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”
I feel much the same way about Jesus. What Jesus wants, I believe, is for each of us to manifest God’s glory in our own unique way. We can be members of the Body of Christ, his spiritual community, and still be and become ourselves.
In the life to come, they will not ask me, “Why were you not Christ?” They will ask me, “Why were you not Chris?”
A post for St. Patrick’s Day: Easter Rising
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