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