“Downward Mobility at Home”

In his fifties Henri Nouwen moved into a community of physically and mentally disabled men and women in Toronto, Canada. At “Daybreak” he wanted to learn “what seminary and theology didn’t teach me; how to love God and how to discover the presence of God in my own heart.” The irony of this is that Nouwen had taught at Yale and Harvard Divinity schools, worked among the poor in Peru, and knew people all over the world who considered him their spiritual guide. In the end, Nouwen (who was a Dutch Catholic priest) served as a pastor in residence at Daybreak for ten years.

After lots of theological study and years of ministry, I also desire to know how to love God and discover his presence in my life. I also feel the need to learn what “seminary and theology” didn’t teach me. The question is, “How can this happen?”

For Nouwen, it happened when Daybreak assigned him to care for one person in particular, a young man named Adam. Adam was Daybreak’s most physically needy resident. He could neither speak, dress or undress himself, walk alone, or eat without help. (The full story is too long to tell here, but you can read an excellent account in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor.)

In his years at Daybreak, by caring for Adam day after day, Nouwen followed Jesus in living a life for the marginalized, the overlooked, the excluded, and the unwanted. In the process, he found joy, peace and meaning that had previously eluded him. Later, Nouwen coined the phrase “downward mobility” to refer to what he was learning, which at its heart was a repudiation of life as we often live it – striving for power, prestige, pleasure and popularity (“We all wanna be big, big stars …“) – … and the embracing of a “downward way” like Jesus taught when he said that a person must lose his life to save it, or that the first would be last, or that a leader must be the servant of all.

When I read his story, I’m tempted to think if only I could change my life like Nouwen did, if only I could find a place to serve in obscurity, a challenging place where others don’t want to go – that then I could more seriously experience the presence of God in my life. This morning I realized that I’m already in such a place – and it’s also a family. It’s my family. I realized that people in my family have unique and sometimes profound needs (like I do) and sometimes really need me to be their servant, just like Henri was to Adam. I realized God has already placed me in the school of downward mobility.

The thing is, to be completely honest, this version of the “school” doesn’t appeal to me in the same way. It doesn’t sound impressive, exhilarating or noble like what Nouwen did. It doesn’t sound like a path to recognition or acclaim (which he didn’t seek but found.) It just sounds like a lot of hard work, and something that could be unpleasant and exhausting, or frustrating and unappreciated. And I could do it for years, and it’s possible that no one would ever notice! Some might even conclude that it was the least that I could do.

I want to resist my natural instincts though, and embrace my assignment as an attempt at  “down not up.”  I suspect it will almost certainly help me to discover the presence of God in a new way, to love him better, and to be his presence to others who need it – and not just at home.

And so I thought that writing about non-intuitive living would help me think about it more clearly, more deeply, and more often, and that it would help me do it better. In Nouwen’s case, he wrote as a “reminder to himself of how he ought to be.”  I need reminders too. Lots of reminders.

I think downward mobility is at the heart of true spirituality, and I was thinking that maybe if I’m writing persuasively and cleverly about something so important, my blog would be widely read and admired, my reputation would grow, and maybe some group somewhere would want me to come and speak on it, and ….  😉

_______Postscript 11/2013

“… living in community is the only asceticism you need.” (attributed to St. Benedict by Kathleen Norris)

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11 thoughts on ““Downward Mobility at Home”

  1. Ray says:

    Great post. I’ve always found Henri Nouwen inspirational. Perhaps this concept of “downward mobility” explains why I feel so close to God when I’m ministering to kids in Honduras. You apparently appreciate the irony that if we seek downward mobility to be recognized for it, then we have missed it. It’s similar to the idea that if we think we’ve achieved humility, then we haven’t.

    • Bill Britton says:

      Thanks Ray. I’m new to Nouwen really, but I find his life story (as much as I know of it at this point) fascinating, inspirational, and amazing. I’m anxious to read more about him and more of what he wrote. Obviously, the idea of downward mobility comes from Jesus, and is throughout the Scriptures.

  2. SJ Munson says:

    Thank you, Bill. You’ve spoken well about the key to ‘success’ as a Christian– what the world calls foolishness and failure. While it is certainly no secret, it is seldom spoken of among American evangelicals (not surprisingly). ‘Counter-intuitive’ might even be an understatement; most times it seems more of an assault on our human aspirations, a death to self (especially to our American self-promotion, prosperity and success-orientation). Love the ending, by the way. I can relate. I think the greatest inspiration and challenge for me in this area is St. Francis of Assisi. A great bio is “God’s Fool” by Julien Green, very well written.

  3. Love this post. Over the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time in places like the Dominican Republic and, more recently, Costa Rica. Something divine occurs when we strip away the comforts that are familiar and ongoing and step out of ourselves, our culture, and our preferences and allow ourselves to see things as God sees them. It’s scary because it’s unfamiliar and we can’t control it – it’s right in those moments that God’s path intersect with our path and inevitably, something change: US. Let me take it a step further – this can also happen quite profoundly not too far from home – in our own families or close friendship circles. That too is scary because their appears to be much more “risk.” One thing is certain, without great risk, there is no real great reward worth speaking of. How that manifests itself is up to how much we allow ourselves to see the things that God sees and allow our hearts to break for what breaks His.

    • Bill Britton says:

      Thanks Dan. The difficulty of seeing things as God does goes back to the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 3), and to the book of Job, probably the first book written in the Hebrew Scriptures – and it just never gets any easier. And poor Henri Nouwen. He can teach us about it so powerfully only because his life was immersed in trying to make sense of his desires and God’s desire. I can admire him, but I wouldn’t have wanted to trade places with him.

  4. jglowatz.-@hotmail.com says:

    Great subject and extremely well written Bill. For me, it is the constant struggle of the Kingdom of God and earthly ways. All too often, I think God’s ways are backwards from earthly ones, and His are always exactly correct. In every case, it is us (the people of this world) who need our vision adjusted so we can see Truth

  5. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Nouwen’s book “With Open Hands” was inspiring to me when I was younger.

  6. […] For More:  The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson, and my Downward Mobility at Home […]

  7. […] For More:  The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson, and my Downward Mobility at Home […]

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