This week’s blog is a guest entry. Gabrielle Earnshaw’s recent lecture for the Centre for Christian Engagement at St. Mark’s College is a balm and a boon for worried souls and an illuminating and brave exploration of the grieving process. -Michael W. Higgins
I notice in myself a persistent state of grief. It is anticipatory grief and a re-activation of early trauma and loss.
It flows of course, betwixt and between, the ordinary moments of my life, between the tender moments of kinship, between the nourishment of beauty, and the goodness, but grief is there, flowing in the underground stream of my life.
Today, I am grieving the distressing fragmentation of society, the growing silos of people who are suspicious of others outside their group. My heart weeps at the ugly reality of Canada’s colonial past as we finally acknowledge the unmarked graves of Indigenous children. I mourn the degradation of our beautiful planet - the loss of entire species, the coral reef, old Growth forest and artic ice. I grieve the rampant run of greed that has created suffering in all quarters of the globe.
On a personal level, I grieve the long, protracted death of my friend Lyn to a rare form of cancer. I grieve the aging of my friend Sue who has been like a second mother to me. I grieve the recent diagnosis of breast cancer in my friend Jen.
And deep within, I continue to ache with the loss of my only son Heiko, who died 13 years ago at the age of 4 from acute myeloid leukemia.
When I faced this terrible loss of Heiko, I had been Henri Nouwen’s archivist for eight years. I had read every book this gifted spiritual thinker had written and almost every letter he penned. I had sorted through his manuscripts and his teaching notes and had met many of his family and friends. While I was deeply impacted by his penetrating insights about the spiritual life, I had no idea that it was all preparation – a kind of apprenticeship – for how to live my son’s illness and eventual death. For Nouwen’s terrain of enquiry is suffering. He taught me how to understand, live and even give meaning to this cataclysmic event in my life.
You will have your own litany of loss. Like me, you may be experiencing different kinds of loss simultaneously on both a personal and global level. How will you live these losses? Much pain is beyond our personal control. And yet, as Nouwen understood, we retain the power to choose how we will respond when suffering comes our way.
In his book, Here and Now, Nouwen writes, “ We do have a choice, not so much in regard to the circumstances of our life, but in the way we respond to these circumstances. Two people can be victims of the same accident. For one, it becomes the source of resentment, for the other, the source of gratitude. That does not mean that the life of those who become bitter was harder than the life of those who became joyful. It means that different choices were made, inner choices, choices of the heart. (Here and Now, 32)
In this reflection, I want to share some of the choices I made, under Nouwen’s tutelage, to move from loss to hope. Perhaps some of what I share will resonate with you and help with choices you are making.
Henri Nouwen can be trusted as guide on this topic because he knows the landscape of brokenness - and with a gentle and sensitive heart he invites us through it.
The crux of his struggle was loneliness. Nouwen had hundreds of friends, his classes were filled to capacity, thousands showed up for his talks, letters from readers arrived by the hundreds each year, but somewhere in his core he questioned his lovability. This need for affirmation began in childhood and continued until his death. It was the hungry ghost of longing.
In his classic book The Wounded Healer, Nouwen writes, “The more I think about loneliness, the more that I think that the wound of our loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision at the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding…” (The Wounded Healer, 90)
How stunning this last sentence is. Henri Nouwen experiences loneliness as a deep incision yet his chooses to see its generativity, its beauty and its link to self-understanding. Can we, like Nouwen, look to our pain for its hidden gifts?
Leonard Cohen did. Our famous Canadian bard responded to the darkness and chaos of the world with much the same spirit as Nouwen. In his song ‘Anthem’ he writes,
“The birds sang at the break of day
Start again I seem to hear them say
Do not dwell on what has passed away
Or that which is yet to be.
Now the wars will be fought again.
The Holy Dove will be caught again.
Bought and sold and caught again.
The Dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
(Leonard Cohen, from the album The Future, 1992)
Nouwen’s wound of loneliness persisted all his life, yet he, like Cohen learned to see it as a gift of light. It would become the source of his most profound insights.
Let me tell you a little about Henri Nouwen, our guide for moving from loss to hope:
Henri Nouwen was born in 1932 in Holland. Considered one of the most important Catholic spiritual writers of the 20th century, Nouwen attended a Jesuit seminary and was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1957. After seminary, he obtained advanced degrees in psychology and theology. In the 1960s, Nouwen left Holland for the United States to study religion and psychiatry at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He became an academic, teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard University.
An inveterate seeker of God’s will for his life, Nouwen periodically explored a monastic vocation in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. For a period, he lived in Peru to work in solidarity with the poor. In 1985, when he was 53 years old, Nouwen left academia to become a pastor for L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with mental and physical disabilities just north of Toronto. He died in 1996 at the age of 64 of a heart attack.
Nouwen’s main focus was the Christian spiritual life. He published his first book in 1969. It was called Intimacy and it articulated the central question of his life: “How can I find a creative and fulfilling intimacy in my relationship with God and my fellow human beings?” (Intimacy, 1)
He went on to write 38 more books and to date seven million copies of his books have been sold in 34 languages including such classics as The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery and his bestseller The Return of the Prodigal Son a reflection on Rembrandt’s painting of the biblical parable.
Henri Nouwen’s signature gift was naming what ails us – he wrote, “I am trying to give words to what often remains hidden under the threshold of consciousness.” (Love Henri, 72) Nouwen could also articulate his own inner experience with precision and then share his insights in highly readable prose. “This book was written just for me,” is an oft spoken word of praise from his legions of devoted readers. What stands out about Nouwen is his ability to reach across the political and religious spectrum. His readers run from Catholics to Evangelical Protestants and everything in between.
Henri Nouwen appeals to people because his writing is personal, confessional. For many of his readers he is like a best friend, someone who listens to their pain and isn’t scandalized by it. He relieves our own suffering by being so brutally honest with his own. Readers relate to him because he wrote about the many difficulties we all face at one time or another: loss, sickness, injustice, finding and losing love, discerning a career or vocation, handling conflict, managing our emotions, and coping with self-doubt. He believed in the value of bringing our pain into the light, writing, “I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain.” (Life of the Beloved, 93)
How would Henri Nouwen help us face our pain today? What would Henri Nouwen say to us about living our losses?
First, I think he would gently invite us to name them. Sometimes we minimize what has happened to us, sometimes we pretend our losses aren’t real. Sometimes we keep them hidden from our friends and colleagues, and even from ourselves. Sometimes we convince ourselves that our losses are little in comparison to our gains. Sometimes we blame others for what we have suffered and lost instead of feeling what we feel.
But for Nouwen, there is another option – the possibility of mourning. He wrote, “You cannot talk or act your losses away, but you can shed tears over them and allow yourself to grieve deeply….The world says, ‘Just ignore it, be strong, don’t cry, get over it, move on.’ But if you don’t mourn you can become bitter. All your grief can go right into your deepest self and sit there for the rest of your life.”
“It is better to mourn your losses than to deny them…” he concludes.
(Henri Nouwen on the theme of mourning, as compiled and edited by Michael Christiansen and Rebecca Laird in Spiritual Formation, 42)
After inviting us to name and mourn our losses, he would join us in our pain. He would not leave us alone. There is nothing as healing as a person standing with us in our pain, not aiming to fix or cure us, but just being with us in our vulnerable state. Nouwen liked to illustrate this idea with the biblical story of Jesus’ reaction to the grief of a widow who had just lost her only son: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not’.” (Lk 7:13). Another way of translating the words “he had compassion” Nouwen would remind us, is to say Jesus felt the widow’s pain in his “guts”. This is compassion. Compassion is to let the pain of others connect with our own. Nouwen taught that the word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Many people can’t do this. It is too frightening. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable. But Henri Nouwen modelled this kind of compassion and solidarity with people who suffered. I can’t count the number of times he dropped whatever he was doing to get to the bedside of a sick friend. He would hold their hand, be with them and feel their pain in “his guts.”
When my son Heiko died, I had a powerful experience of compassion. On the day after we left his lifeless body in the hospital morgue, we had a knock on our door. My husband and I opened it to find our neighbours Stan and Hiroko and their teenage daughter Miyuki standing there. Their faces were mirrors of our sorrow. The visit was less than a minute and very few words were spoken, but they stood with us in the pain and it was very healing.
Our neighbours showed us human solidarity. But there is more. Nouwen would remind us that we can connect our pain to a larger pain. “Nothing we are experiencing”, he would say, “is alien to God. All has been suffered already by Jesus. Loss, humiliation, torture, powerlessness, abandonment, death. Jesus lifts up our suffering to himself and joins our suffering to his all-compassionate heart.” This is divine solidarity.
I was shown how to join my pain to the larger pain by Sister Sue Mosteller, one of Nouwen’s dear friends. Sue walked with me closely during the first few years after Heiko’s death. One day she suggested that I connect my sorrow about Heiko with Mary, Jesus’s mother who had also lost her only son. It was hard at first - I was so seared into isolation by my own experience that I resisted - but eventually, using my imagination, I would sit with Mary and then, all the other women around the world grieving their lost children. I was comforted by our mutual longing and grief.
A natural question after experiencing loss is why me? We try to find explanations and root causes to know if we could have changed the outcome. By joining with Mary and other mothers who had lost children, I was able to begin the process of letting go of the whys and ifs and find comfort in my sameness with others. The finding of community, even if just in my imagination, opened up the possibility that Heiko’s death was not an aberration. It was part of the human experience.
This was healing because, as hard as it is to admit now, for months after Heiko’s death I was heavy with a burden that my life was cursed. Heiko’s death was not the first major loss in my life. My father died when I was 2 years old and my best friend Nicky died of cystic fibrosis in our final year of high school. Other deaths followed, and when death came for my beautiful son, I had chilling thoughts that everything I loved was taken away from me.
I tried to make sense of death’s regular visitations, and in the deepest chambers of my heart, I struggled with the distressing idea that I was doomed by God to a life of loss because I was not worthy of love. Thinking of my life as cursed had two corrosive effects: it made me blame and evaluate myself as unworthy of lasting relationships and perhaps worse, it made me question the reality of a loving God.
Nouwen understands this very human reaction to loss. He writes: “When we lose a family member or friend through death, when we become jobless, when we fail an examination, when we live through a separation or a divorce, when a war breaks out, when an earthquake destroys our home or touches us, the question “Why?” spontaneously emerges. “Why me?” “Why now?” “Why here?”
“It is so arduous to live without an answer to this “why?” that we are easily seduced into connecting the events over which we have no control with our conscious or unconscious evaluation.”
“When we have cursed ourselves it is very tempting to explain all the brokenness we experience as an expression or confirmation of this curse. Before we fully realize it, we have already said to ourselves, “You see, I always thought I was no good. . . . Now I know for sure. The facts of life prove it.” (Life of the Beloved, 78-79)
What a relief it was when I read this all those years ago. It seems to have been written just for me! Nouwen names, with such accuracy, the roots of my suffering: self-blame and an evaluation of myself as unworthy of love. His antidote is counter-intuitive at first. He says, we must place our loss under a blessing. “The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God” he writes, “is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.” “This is not as easy as it sounds,” he continues, “The power of the darkness around us is strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us. Physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the blessing is experienced in ways radically different from physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the curse.” (Life of the Beloved, 78-79)
Nouwen was asking me to put Heiko’s death under the light of the blessing. I can share with you that this is indeed easier said than done, but I do believe that when I chose to live my life under the blessing, and took it on as real discipline – meaning I practised it with intentionally - I began to experience a lifting of the guilt and shame that shrouded me and kept me locked in darkness.
The key was learning to accept that suffering is not evidence of an uncaring, unloving God but instead is an opportunity to experience God’s love right in the midst of it. When I began to shift my focus from what I had lost to the reality of love coming to me through so many various ways –through the love of my friends, family and community, strangers, doctors, nurses, flowers, trees, gifts, meals, toys for Heiko, quilts and cards, I was overwhelmed by the reality that God indeed never left me alone.
Suffering comes with the territory of being human, but what a difference it makes to think of suffering as an opportunity to experience God’s presence. The words of the Psalmist began to take on renewed power for me:
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil: for thy art with me; they rod and thy staff comfort me.’ (Psalm 23:4)
I would recite Psalm 23 to remind myself of my decision to live under the blessing and to feel God’s presence in my loss. And when I did this, something beautiful happened: I was able to let myself feel Heiko’s love for me again and love him back! When I was focussed on the tragedy of his death, I wasn’t able to let in the love of my son, it was too painful. It pressed in on the sore places where he was absent. Yet, when I shifted my perspective from curse to blessing, a new portal of creative energy opened between us.
This idea that one person’s love for another can be a portal to something new and generative, is cogently expressed in a poem that became important to me in the months after Heiko’s death. It is called ‘Motherroot’ by Marilou Awiakta, a Cherokee, Scots-Irish and Appalanchian poet from Tennessee. Awiakta wrote the poem to acknowledge the role of her mother and husband in her life, but I read it as a love-song between Heiko and me. It is about the root that holds me steady.
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
one to sustain
in time of drought
and hold fast
against winds of pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory of its hour
affirms a heart
(from Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet, 2006)
This beautiful poem is about the people who are in the nurturing position and those in the blooming position. I had to metamorphize my role of mother and let Heiko be the root, the nurturer, but when I did I transmuted his death to life, by becoming alive again myself. My blooming is only possible when I connect to his nurturing love.
My ability to reclaim my relationship with my son didn’t happen overnight or even over years. It is a long, arduous journey, that continues to this day. But it points to something important: Part of any journey from loss to hope is to claim our past. Nouwen says, “what is forgotten is unavailable and what is unavailable cannot be healed.” (The Living Reminder, 22). It is tempting to shut down after loss. For years I couldn’t look at photographs of my life with Heiko, and even to this day, I can’t see his face without both a pang of longing along with the surge of joy.
Nouwen understands. In his book Here and Now, he writes, “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 with a past thus divided, we cannot move freely into the future. With many things to forget we can only limp toward the future.” (Here and Now, 108)
His remedy for this condition is one of the great spiritual challenges: Even after loss, especially after loss, we must choose to be grateful for all that we have lived. He says, “True spiritual gratitude embraces all of our past, the good as well as the bad events, the joyful as well as the sorrowful moments…Everything that took place brought us to this moment, 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,” he reminds us, “but it does mean that even the bad didn’t happen outside the loving presence of God…” (Here and Now, 109)
Another equally important truth is connected to this idea of claiming the good and the bad of our past. It is this: We must accept that we live in a world surrounded by the powers and principalities of evil, death and destruction. Why is this healing? Because by accepting the reality of the human condition we are better able to live our suffering not as something to rebel against but as an opportunity to change our hearts. In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen writes, “Every time in history that men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” (Reaching Out, p.42)
We heal from loss not by rebelling against the situation but by keeping our hearts open for love. By no longer supressing reality we can live in a spirit of gratitude.
What I have been suggesting as ways to live loss are not easy. They are challenging, particularly spiritually challenging, and you, like me, will need help. Nouwen was convinced that nothing was as important than regular time each day for dwelling with God. A daily practice of prayer is a statement to yourself that God’s love is a reality and that with God’s love you are able to live your losses in a way that brings life. Prayer is a necessary component of any journey from loss to hope. It is the place where living with gratitude begins, it is the place where our capacity to be free for others has its roots, it is the place where we hear God’s voice that calls us the Beloved, and it is the place we can bring our broken hearts to rest.
How do we pray?
Nouwen would say set aside at least ten minutes a day to “waste time” with God. “Waste time?” you might say, “I don’t have enough time as it is!” And I understand. I struggle with the same issue, but our concern with time belies what we sometimes do with our prayer lives. We try to make them productive. But Nouwen is calling us to a different kind of prayer. Nouwen is inviting us to create space in our lives for nothing but listening to God. This might involve carving out a sacred space in your home. It could be a room or just a corner or shelf. But in some way we need a place set apart from the hurly-burly of our busy lives. Light a candle. Put out meaningful images that draw your closer to the Divine. Nouwen himself prayed every day in the morning, even when he felt apathetic or spiritually arid (which was more often than you’d think.) He would read a scriptural passage or some other word of wisdom and sit with the words in silence, allowing any images to emerge in his mind. He would try to enter into the words as deeply as possible so they, in his words, “found a home” in him. I particularly like his habit of then hanging these images on the walls of his inner room, so that throughout the day when he met with people they were nurtured by them too. In his book Here and Now, he wrote “Whenever I meet people during the day, I receive them in my inner room, trusting that the pictures on my walls will guide our meeting.” (Here and Now, 129)
By praying in this way, we deepen our connection to the reality of God’s love in our lives and God’s deep compassion for our pain. Now let’s turn our attention to hope. How do move from loss to hope? To help answer this question I want to read a letter Nouwen wrote to a man called George. He wrote it in 1981.
Henri Nouwen received over 16 000 letters in his lifetime and all of them are preserved in the Nouwen Archives at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. I had the great privilege of compiling some of Nouwen’s letters of response in a book called Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. In the letter I am going to read, George has written to Nouwen asking him if humanity would survive the century. At that time - in 1981- the world was on high alert not by a pandemic like us, but by the threat of nuclear war. Nouwen writes,
I really don’t know if our civilization will survive the century. Considering the growing threat of a nuclear holocaust, there certainly is reason to wonder. But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can because our Lord has given us His promise that He will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living; He has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surround us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict.
Please be sure of my prayers for you in these tempting times.
Peace, Henri Nouwen
(Love, Henri, 45)
It is tempting to fall into despair at the persistent number of losses we each face both personally and collectively. But Nouwen asks us to move from despair to hope. Hope is very different from optimism. As Nouwen explains, “Optimism is the expectation that things will get better… Hope is the trust that God will fulfil God's promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.” (Bread for the Journey, January 16)
I could not be an optimist about Heiko’s death. Nothing was going to bring him back. But I could be hopeful that his death and my reaction to it could lead to true freedom. I couldn’t change what happened but I could trust that all that happened was part of a larger story of God’s love. When I let go of Heiko’s death as an aberration, when I let go of seeing myself as cursed, when I named my loss and mourned it, when I connected my pain to the greater pain and let my suffering be an experience of God’s love, I was able to slowly move from bitterness to gratitude, from a hardened heart to a soft one. And by some mysterious alchemy Heiko’s death was redeemed. If my grief had kept me locked in despair I would never have tasted the sweet fruit of love.
Awiakta, Marilou. Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet. Dublin, VA: Pocahontas Press, 2006.
Cohen, Leonard. “Anthem.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. Transcript of lyrics.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York: HarperOne, 1997.
Nouwen, Henri. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1994.
Nouwen, Henri. Intimacy: Pastoral Psychological Essays. Notre Dame: Fides, 1969.
Nouwen, Henri. The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York: Crossroad, 1992.
Nouwen, Henri. The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. New York: Seabury/Crossroad, 1977.
Nouwen, Henri. Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. New York: Convergent/Penguin Random House, 2016.
Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: Three Movement of the Spiritual Life. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Nouwen, Henri with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image/Doubleday, 1972.
ABOUT GABRIELLE EARNSHAW
Gabrielle Earnshaw is an editor, writer, speaker and independent scholar specializing in the life and work of Henri Nouwen.
She is the founding archivist of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection at the University of St. Michael's College, a position she held from 2000 to 2016. She holds a BA (Hons.) in History from Queen's University and a Master's of Archival Studies from the University of British Columbia. Earnshaw has been the adviser to the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust for twenty years and is consulted throughout the world on Nouwen and his literary legacy. She is the coeditor of Turning the Wheel: Henri Nouwen and Our Search for God and editor of Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living and Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxietyby Henri Nouwen. Her first monograph was published in May 2020,Henri Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son: The Making of a Spiritual Classic by Paraclete Press. In June 2021, Earnshaw was named the official biographer for Henri Nouwen by the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Earnshaw lives in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at gabrielleearnshaw.com