On Wednesday March 11, 2020, St Barnabas’ Episcopal Church was invited to lead worship and provide lunch at St Philip’s Lutheran Church. This was the second in a planned series of lunches to be offered throughout Lent, with different churches providing worship and hospitality each week. The following day – March 12 – Bishop Brown suspended all public worship services, in response to the state of emergency declared by Governor Carney. This was the sermon preached at St Philip’s…
The Restoration of Peace
St Philip’s Lutheran Church
Wednesday March 11, 2020
The late Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was one of the leading spiritual writers of the past 50 years. At the height of his career, in the 1980s, he lived and taught at Harvard University, where he had built up an enviable reputation as a teacher and spiritual guide. Then, unexpectedly, he made the decision to leave Harvard and move to a community near Toronto called “Daybreak”, – a “family” comprising ten people, six of whom were mentally disabled. The community made it their mission to live by the beatitudes of Jesus.
At Harvard, Nouwen had asked himself the question, “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?” He was a hard working and highly respected member of the faculty. His books sold around the world and people sought him out. He knew that to leave all of that behind was to take a risk. In “Daybreak” he found employment of a radically different kind: he was given the task of caring for one of the disabled persons there, a man named Adam.
Nouwen described his friend: “Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.
“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him to his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of his day with therapeutic exercises.”
This demanding daily routine with a severely disabled man was a severe test for the former academic. Most people would have given up. For Nouwen, however, the experience was a revelation. He writes, “as my fears gradually lessened, a love emerged in me so full of tender affection that most of my other tasks seemed boring and superficial compared with the hours spent with Adam. Out of his broken body and broken mind emerged a most beautiful human being, offering me a greater gift that I would ever offer him.” What Adam gave Nouwen was the gift of peace.
Before he met Adam, Nouwen had been consumed by his prestigious career – one he described as being “marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsion and obsession, so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment and revenge.” But with caring for Adam he discovered another, more fulfilling life.
He says, “Adam’s peace, while rooted more in being than in doing, and more in the heart than in the mind, is a peace that calls forth community…Adam in his total vulnerability calls us together as a family.”
At Harvard, Nouwen had experienced prestige, fortune and fame, but also the shallow rivalry and corrosive pettiness of academic life. It drove him to seek a new and better kind of life. In fact, what Nouwen had been longing for was peace: a genuine experience of God’s peace which he eventually found in relationship with another human being.
By peace, I mean not simply the absence of war. President Herbert Hoover said that “Peace is not made at the council tables, or by treaties, but in the hearts of men.” When Christians speak of “Peace”, they speak of Christ, who shared his peace with his friends, not once but twice, following his resurrection. The peace of Christ is God’s gift to us, which we receive in the depths of our heart. It is like a profound reassurance where God tells us, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Reflecting on Nouwen’s experience, it occurs to me that the great gifts of God – peace, freedom, friendship – are all part of a whole. Nouwen discovered peace and freedom through his friendship with Adam.
If we are to enjoy the peace of God, we must do two things. First, we must receive it, on the terms that God gave it. That means to see peace not as a possession to be kept to oneself but as a gift to be shared in community i.e. the Church. The second thing is that we must be actively finding places outside the Church to share this peace. Our sharing should be informed by a sense of service, of wishing to do some useful service for another.
Nouwen said, “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.” He concluded that it was Adam who taught him that “what makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.”
With peace, love and blessings