These past two months I have been enlivened by the company of a dead man.
His name is Henri J.M. Nouwen. He was a Dutch Catholic priest and a theologian, who spent much of his life ministering to people with physical and mental disabilities in L’Arche intentional community. He died early in the 90’s, before I was born, but both his deeply compassionate spirit and his godly wisdom live on through his catalog of wonderful books. Lately I have been re-reading my favorite Nouwen text—Life of the Beloved—as a palliative for my darkest feelings: loneliness, anxiety, and depression. These feelings are, for me, relentless and ferocious and frightening. They have been particularly acute this Fall. But Nouwen has helped me to encounter them, and to reckon with them, with a little more peace and a little more trust.
The subtitle of Life of the Beloved is “Spiritual Living in a Secular World.” In essence, the book is Nouwen’s summary of the Good News of Jesus Christ, rendered gently and concisely, and designed for an audience mired in all the chaos and acedia of modern life. It is a masterpiece.
Nouwen believes that the essence of good religion is found in claiming our identity as the Beloved of God. For him, claiming this identity is a process of becoming we who already are. In following the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, we attain to a Belovedness which in fact already belongs to us, which has always belonged to us, which will never be taken away from us.
But how do we become who we already are?
Nouwen suggests that we cultivate an awareness of the following four truths: we are taken/chosen. We are blessed. We are broken. And we are given to others. To be the Beloved of God is simply to be taken, blessed, broken, and given. Perhaps this configuration will be familiar to readers of a more sacramental bent; for to be the Beloved of God is, in other words, to be just like that bread which Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives at the Last Supper. To be the Beloved of God, then, is to embody the bread of the Eucharist. To embody the bread of the Eucharist is to be the Body of Christ. To be the Body of Christ is the essence of redemption. Therefore, the essence of redemption is in discovering that we are Beloved: nothing more, and nothing less.
Here is a powerful and an elegant theology. I will be forever grateful to Henri Nouwen for giving me the words to express it. I learn from him that at the center of my call as a Christian is a call to realize how I am grafted into the Sacramental life of the Church; a call to discover, in the very bread of the altar, the recapitulation of a story which is about me—about us!—and about how we are in Christ, and about how we are loved.
I have not embraced the truth of my own Belovedness. Not yet. Not fully. I expect that my entire life will be dedicated to the process of embracing this truth. I expect that it shall be a non-linear journey: two steps forward, and five steps backward, and six steps sideways, and countless moments bereft of motion, spent instead lying exhausted in bed or weeping on the floor. I expect that I shall grasp the truth on some days and forget it on others. I expect that whatever peace I achieve will be achieved through sheer gift: not through my own work, but through the work of the Spirit which sustains me. I expect that I will never comprehend that Godly work. But, thankfully, I do not need to comprehend the Spirit’s gift in order to begin receiving it. And so, in all my impotence and in all my stubbornness and in all my blindness and in my every pang of despair, I still trust that I am on my way to discovering who I already am. I am in Christ’s Body. I am the bread which is taken, blessed, broken, and given. I am the Beloved.
At this point, some aspects of my Belovedness are much more apparent to me than others. For instance, I seldom have the wisdom and perspective to remember all the ways in which I am blessed. But meanwhile, nearly every minute, I am reminded of all the ways in which I am broken. I cannot help but fixate on my brokenness. It is a constant and a dreary companion, ever hovering over my shoulders and clawing at my heart. Every sin I commit reminds me of my brokenness—even the smallest and the most innocuous transgressions! With every little mishap, I feel the grip of my brokenness tighten around my soul: every moment of impatience; every spiteful or judging glance; every misspoken phrase; every unfair judgment; every act of neglect; every assent to laziness; every refusal to seek the good and the joy of others; every triumph of my sense of entitlement. All these things remind me of my brokenness, all the time. The weight of that reminder is a heavy one indeed. Sometimes, it is just about unbearable.
For years now I have struggled with depression, an illness which, for me, is connected inextricably to my own sense of how broken I am. I do not know whence exactly this sense of my own utter worthlessness and repulsiveness comes. It is not for lack of support that I am prone to believing that there is something deeply, irreversibly wrong with me: I have a large and unconditionally loving family, and an even larger group of unconditionally loving friends. They all hold me just as I am, and refuse to give up on me, even if I feel inclined to give up on myself. They see a beauty in me which I often miss. Yet even these amazing people have not been able to save me from the ravings of my own mind—at least, not completely. And while therapy and Prozac have helped me cope, they have not dispelled my darkness—at least, not yet.
I am left, then, with a vast support network, a stubborn (if tired) faith in Christ, and a depression whose quality undulates: on my best days, I forget my depression exists. On my normal days, my depression is a subtle veneer of melancholy which makes life a bit sleepier, a bit grayer. On my bad days, my depression leads me to a place of deep self-hatred. On my worst days, my depression leads me to consider killing myself.
Depression, for me, is like a voice screaming in my head, saying: you are broken. You are trash. You are neither loved nor worthy of love. On some days, I am able to ignore that voice. But on other days, that voice is just about the only thing I can hear. On days like those, it seems that the only thing which truly exists in all the wide cosmos is my own brokenness, and that is a terrifying sensation.
In the right context, of course, and in moderation, it is healthy to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which we fall short, of those parts of ourselves that are broken and flawed. Such honest self-reflection is valuable because it teaches us humility and helps us to be compassionate toward other people whenever they fall short. But if the only thing we do is cultivate an awareness of our brokenness, then our brokenness will eat us up. The imbalance of our self-reflection will consume us. I think such imbalance is the root of my own problem: I have become very aware of my own brokenness. But, a lot of the time, that brokenness is the only thing of which I am aware.
Yet, as Henri Nouwen teaches, the truth is that brokenness is only part of the picture. Yes, I am broken bread. But that is not all that I am. I am broken Eucharistic bread. This means that I am not only broken, but also taken and chosen. It means that I am blessed just as I am broken. And it means that I am all these things so that I can be given in love to others, just as Christ in love has given Herself to me.
My brokenness may be a central part of who I am, but it is neither the fullness of my identity nor the end of my story. Both my identity and my end are held in the truth of my Belovedness. This is a truth which includes my brokenness, but also transcends it. I am broken bread. But I am also taken, blessed, and given. I am the Body of Christ. I am the Beloved. My prayer for myself is that I come to see not only my brokenness, but also my chosenness, my blessedness, and my-givenness. In that wide sight is my hope. In that wide sight is my salvation.
This is the truth. For me, as well as for all of us. I know it.
But unfortunately, as I have already indicated, even I know something is true intellectually, that is not the same thing as knowing with the fulness of my own being. It is not the same thing as embracing the truth. Embracing the truth is a different and more challenging matter than simply knowing it. To illustrate this, I turn to the example of my own life.
Recently I have the challenging and painful experience of separation and distance from a friend whom I love unconditionally. The separation and distance are not without affection, even if right now they lack communication. There is no enmity that I know of. This person whom I care for also cares for me, and deeply! They simply need some space for themself in order to take care of themself. The situation is far from hopeless. It is not even bad. There is no catastrophic cataclysm in it.
But unfortunately, my depressive mind would like to make one.
As I have lived into this period of separation and distance, my brain has used the space as an excuse to speculate endlessly about the ways in which my brokenness has surely ruined everything. They have stopped talking to you because they have stopped caring for you, that spiteful voice growls in my head. This distance is a sign of that which you already know to be true: you’re rubbish. And people are happier without you around. Your current solitude is a sign of your hideousness.
Perhaps these sentiments seem dramatic, but they are real thoughts with which I contend on a regular basis. Obviously, such thoughts as these are false. My friend loves me, even now. I know they do. The attentiveness of others to their own emotional needs is not a sign of my own repulsiveness or ugliness or unworthiness—and it is selfish for me to think that way. But even if I know all of this, it is not the same thing as embracing it. The hateful words I murmur to myself are lies, but they still hurt, even though I know they are not based in reality. The Devil may indeed be a liar—but that doesn’t mean he isn’t powerful. And certainly his lies have quite an effect on me. When I cannot shake that fear that my brokenness is intractable; that my darkness is the be-all, end-all; that my faults are always the direct source of my pain; then it is very easy for me to despair.
How can I transcend the impulse to give up hope? How can I learn to contextualize the truth of my brokenness within the truth of my Belovedness, rather than simply absolutizing it? How can I see that even if I am always a bit broken, I am also always chosen, blessed, and given? How can I truly know myself as I actually am?
Obviously, I have not yet discovered perfect answers to these questions. I am, as I said, only on the journey toward embracing the truth. Yet even if I do not see myself as I actually am, there is one who sees me more clearly than I could ever hope to. Even if I do not know the full truth of my own being, there is one who knows me, and who always has, and who loves me anyway. If I cannot yet embrace the truth of my own Belovedness, then I can at least stubbornly try to embrace the truth of Her infinite love. And if I cannot yet embrace even that truth, then I will keep proclaiming it until I do, until grace swallows me up, and Christ teaches me my own birthright. This proclamation will be my prayer. It may be the only real prayer of my entire life. It may be the only real prayer that any human can utter authentically. So be it—it may also be the only prayer anyone really needs.
Holy One. You have searched me out. You have known and you know me. You know my sitting down. You know my rising up. You discern my mess of thoughts, in all their chaos and in all their neurotic self-absorption. You trace my every journey. You shelter my every resting place. You know all my ways. You follow me down every path, whether I am wandering in the wilderness of my own head or strolling aimlessly through the streets of Cambridge. Yes, Holy One. Even before there is a word on my lips, or in my head, or at the tips of my typing fingers, you know it altogether. Your abundant presence surrounds and enfolds me. It is before me and behind me. It is above me and below me. It is within me and without me. It is incomparably vast and yet incomparably intimate to me. It knows me exactly as I am. And ever is your hand laid upon me in love.
Such knowledge as you have in your undefeatable presence to all things and all places—this knowledge is far too marvelous for me! It is so high and so wide and so good that I can never hope to attain to it! Where can I go, then, from your Holy and Healing Breath? Where can I flee, then, from your presence? If I climb up to the heavens, you are there. If I delve into the ground and make my bed out of a tomb, you are there also. If I soar on the rosy wings of the dawn and dwell in the deepest and darkest and coldest depths of the sea: even there your hands will lead me. Even there your hands will hold me in their embrace, and your heart of love will know me.
Whenever I am terrified that the night will swallow me up, that the light around me will be devoured by darkness, I remember that darkness is not dark to you. Yes, Holy One. For you, even the night is as bright as the day. Dark and light to you are both alike. Day or night; depth or height; to you, these things make no difference. You are equally present to all of it. Your presence is the continual gift of your love.
So too is my own existence a gift of your love. You created my deepest self, which even I cannot glimpse. You know me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am made with unspeakable wonder. Indeed, all your works are wonderful, and though I know this well, I can scarcely believe that I am one of them.
My body was not hidden from you, even while I was being molded in secret, woven from dust and from water and from Spirit. Your eyes beheld my limbs yet unfinished in the womb. All of them were written in your book. You fashioned them carefully, and lovingly, though they never needed to exist. What a marvel, then, is my own being and my own birth! And what an incomprehensible gift—that you made me, O God, just because you wanted to.
How deep I find your thoughts, Maker mine, and how vast is their sum! If I tried to count them all, I would find them to be more in number than all the grains of sand. They would surpass in number all the atoms of the cosmos. To count that vast array of divine thoughts, my lifespan would need to be like yours: eternal, timeless.
How vast and how ineffable is that highest mind, the Imagination of the God of Love. And how Sacred! And how Holy! Yet even I am one of your thoughts, mess that I am. And even I am one of your makings. I exist simply because you love me. And now that I exist, you will not abandon me, but will follow me wherever I go, and enfold me, and teach me—and even die for me. What kind of Infinity are you, Holy One, who loves so recklessly and relentlessly? And what sort of creature am I to be loved by you? How could you deign to bless me even as I am broken, to gather my crumbs into yourself even as I crumble? Am I not too stale to be given and consumed? Am I not too drab to be feasted upon? Am I not too simple to be wondrous? Am I not too bland to be delightful? And yet still you give yourself to me. You let your presence enfold my own being, so that someday I may see myself as I already am: bread which is taken, blessed, broken, and given.
So be it, even if I do not see it yet. So be it, even if I am afraid it is not so. So be it, even if I keep crumbling with every moment and every heartbreak and every sleepless night spent tossing in tears or in terror. So be it, Lord. I am broken bread. Hallelujah.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a senior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.