Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 19

Nouwen on the Porch

Kevin Reimer

It was a quiet moment with deafening implications. I was sitting on the enclosed porch of a one-hundred-year-old home in a farming community near Salinas, California. Outside was a neighborhood park. The only noise was the laughter of children on playground swings and puffs of afternoon breeze off the Pacific. In my lap was Henri Nouwen’s Here and Now.Henri J. M. Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1994. From this devotional classic I was reading short sections bundled under the heading “compassion.” I hadn’t intended to plumb the depths of spiritual life on this Saturday afternoon. My time on the porch was pure opportunism. The girls were at a movie with my wife. All computers and cell phones were off. The buzz of things clamoring for my attention was nearly absent. All that remained was park noises, the breeze, and my thoughts.

It was my first encounter with Nouwen. I was riveted to twin sections entitled “Being the Beloved” and “Downward Mobility.” The first essay considered compassion in the way Jesus lived his life as beloved son. From baptism onward, Jesus knew that his core identity was “beloved.” This knowledge informed his relationships and actions in profoundly compassionate ways.

While I found this interesting, the real news for me was Nouwen’s insistence that Jesus’ identity was transferable. Like a certificate or diploma, belovedness is conferred upon followers of Jesus without formal education, achievement, or evidence of merit. No grades required. No birthright or citizenship papers. No possessions, status, or evidence of potential. No references. As for the Christ I serve, my identity is “beloved of God.” This reality alters every aspect of my conduct and existence.

Nouwen’s second reflection introduced compassion as movement toward the poor, the oppressed, and the ugly. Downward mobility is the compassionate call to become like children, disciples of a different kingdom. It is the complement to belovedness, a celebration of weakness. It is the catalyst for authentic compassion, God’s ongoing work to reconcile and heal the downtrodden. This is not a human prerogative. Compassion begins and ends with God.

For me to be among the downwardly mobile, the only requirement is that I perceive what God is compassionately doing and willingly enter into it. Identification with the poor reveals the symmetry of my fault lines and cracks, exposing my belovedness. Becoming the beloved does not happen through interiority or contemplation. The beloved engages others in transformative relationships.

I finished Nouwen’s second essay in disbelief. The reading was at once liberating and shattering. My attitude toward service went something like this: Compassion is the currency of spiritual commitment, something I spontaneously conjure in response to needs. I initiate compassionate acts. When I do this, I dance with idols as others celebrate my well-intentioned sacrifices.

For Nouwen, however, this compassion is empty foolishness. True compassion arises in the context of lived identity as the beloved of God. Belovedness is unmerited grace, an invitation to membership in a holy family. Full realization of this identity comes with the caveat of identification with the poor. Until I embrace my own brokenness, I am unable to perceive the extent of my belovedness. Downward mobility celebrates the brokenness of others and, consequently, of my own brokenness. With this discovery comes the deeper magic of identity as beloved. Before this moment, I might have pointed to a measured, calculated love in Christ’s penal restitution of the world from sin. I would never have imagined that befriending brokenness was a necessary step toward belovedness.I am not aware of Nouwen’s formal views on the atonement. Based on his writings, I suspect that he would be less inclined to embrace the penal substitution of Anselm in favor of the Christus victor model of the patristics. Christus victor emphasizes a view of Christ’s passion given not to divine retribution but full identification of the Trinity with the suffering of the world. See Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (trans. A. Herber, New York: Wipf, 2003).

I was granted a full hour for Nouwen’s insights to steep. It wasn’t until my family exploded through the front door that I re-engaged my surroundings. I was consumed again by the buzz of movie replays and shopping exploits. Computers and phones were reactivated. I was surrounded by the clamor of daily living. Fortunately, I hadn’t lost the moment. During that precious time, several issues in my life came clearly into focus.

I was figuratively in pieces. Before my encounter with Nouwen, I was working through the ramifications of a major career change. After a brief sojourn into pastoral ministry, I had returned to graduate school with the goal of obtaining a doctorate in psychology. Unlike most of my peers, it was not my goal to become a clinician or counselor. Instead, I was returning to my passion for science and scholarship. Perhaps ironically, my primary area of study was human identity.

For much of my life I was fascinated by questions related to self-understanding and moral behavior. So engaging was the topic that I had spent months designing a new methodology to study moral identity using computational linguistics.This work continues through to the present. See Kevin Reimer and David Wade-Stein, “Moral Identity in Adolescence: Self and Other in Semantic Space,” Identity, 4 (2004): 229–249. Also, Kevin Reimer, “Natural Character: Psychological Realism for the Downwardly Mobile,” Theology & Science, 2 (2004): 35–54. The work was a creative and engaging respite from several years of difficult service in the parish. But this left me with internal conflict. I am an empathic person. I have pastoral tendencies. In leaving the ministry, I seemed to be walking away from meaningful opportunities to grow in belovedness and compassionate downward mobility. How would my new calling serve the poor? What is the meaning of belovedness in matrix algebra, cluster analysis, and social cognition? Nouwen’s spiritual direction raised questions without immediate answers.

A year passed without clear resolution. Over coffee, a friend invited me to join her in creating a new graduate course. This friend was a seminary professor of Christian discipleship. Our coffee talk was about the spirituality of children, an issue we had discussed often and with fervor.

At the time, I was involved in a psychological research project to study children’s spirituality, leading my friend to wonder if a course offering would provide an application of study findings for Christian workers and ministers. Children are often forgotten in the church. They are commonly regarded as faith receptacles without a significant personal spirituality. Curricular interventions emphasize rote memory and abstract truths, sometimes far beyond the developmental capacities of young learners. Few scholars seemed to have any interest in the spiritual experiences of this group. Fewer still were approaching ministry to children in a manner that made space for their unique experiences of God. We decided to offer the course as an elective to master’s degree level students, many of whom planned a career in ministry with children and families.

We outlined a schedule for regular meetings to prep the course. When I arrived in my friend’s office for the first session, I found her holding a VHS cassette. Her eyes were shining. She informed me that she had obtained a copy of Henri Nouwen’s last recorded sermon before his passing. The tape was a three-part homily given over successive Sundays at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. It was entitled “Being the Beloved.”

My friend could hardly contain her excitement. This, she believed, was the spiritual framework from which our new course should be constructed. She inserted the tape into a viewing machine and quickly doused the overhead lights. As we watched, I was swept back to the enclosed porch by the park some months earlier.

The tape began to thunderous applause. Thousands of people could be seen in a packed cathedral sanctuary. As he slowly ascended the dais, Nouwen was welcomed by the white-haired Reverend Schuller. I could finally hear the voice behind the devotional words, strong but slightly filmy, and embellished with a thick Dutch accent. Nouwen wore his Catholic vestments, seemingly unfazed by the thousands of parishioners. He made his way to the pulpit, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He made repeated small bows, adjusting glasses with terribly dated plastic frames on his long nose. As the applause died down, he arrived at the pulpit and began to speak.

The homily was straightforward and clear, much like his writing. Nouwen’s way was intimate and casual in the pulpit, as if he had known the audience for many years and was glad to reignite old friendships. His theme was simple, repeated often and with varying cadence: You and I are the beloved daughters and sons of God. Unlike his published reflections, the homily gave Nouwen space and time to illustrate his theme. It was quickly clear that his main purpose was to deal with the practical reality of his printed work. Realizing life as the beloved is not easy. Downward mobility is difficult. Many distractions and obstacles stand in the way of our full embrace of these simple truths. I wondered if people had written to Nouwen, telling him that his devotional reflections needed more, a kind of daily road map for the beloved who must still navigate financial insecurity, hurtful relationships, and chronic physical pain.

Nouwen employed a clever foil to this end. Three deceptions are obstacles to the realization of our identity as the beloved. Scrawling on his dry-erase board, Nouwen wrote the first: “We are what we do.” Here was the great deception with which I had wrestled my entire life. Achievement at all costs. An existence imbued with a haunting sense of partial completion, as if the world were perpetually waiting for me to make good on some undefined and unfulfilled promise.

The second deception was even more stinging: “We are what other people say about us.” I knew too well the tremendous weight of congregational expectations upon the pastor. The pull of external approval mixed with unrealistic personal standards to create toxic waste in my first pastorate. At twenty-eight, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and medically encouraged to find a different job.

The final deception was subtle: “We are what we have.” Although I tried to live a simple life, I wanted badly to be financially stable with rock-solid job prospects. Material assets are not the only objects of covetousness.

My friend and I were silent together. I am certain that Nouwen’s reflection affected her deeply, although the details remain obscure. We agreed to use the homilies as a way to structure our course, which really was about downward mobility. We realized that we were holding a crucial truth of the Christian gospel for our students. Perhaps more valuable than Greek or Christian education or homiletics was acknowledgement of identity as the beloved. The importance of their call to ministry was dwarfed by the significance of this spiritual invitation.

As it turned out, the course was a great success. Students appreciated our focus on children as spiritual agents with unique and varied experiences of God. They devoured assigned textbooks, wrote thoughtful essays, and were extraordinarily gracious with my stumbling efforts as a novice graduate school instructor. For some reason, the course evaluation forms for that first semester were mysteriously lost by the registrar’s office. Some months later, they were found and returned to us. The course ratings were very good. What caught my eye, however, was a student’s comment at the end of the form. “Great course,” she wrote. “I found out that my work with children is irrelevant without a remarkable truth about our human nature and purpose. What matters is that I am broken. What matters is that I am healed. What matters is that I am a beloved daughter of God.”

Four years passed. God was answering my porch questions.

Nouwen’s words on the porch were illustrated with color and depth. A colleague invited me to write a grant proposal to study altruistic love and compassionate care in L’Arche communities for the developmentally disabled. Founded by Jean Vanier and a Roman Catholic priest in the early 1960s, L’Arche communities are found in nearly thirty countries. L’Arche (the Ark) is best known through Vanier’s writings and the work of Nouwen, who spent the last fifteen years of his life as a residential priest and spiritual director for a L’Arche community in Toronto, Canada.

In a remarkable example of divine faithfulness, we won the grant. (The acceptance rate for the competition was less than five percent.) Now I found myself driving long miles across the United States, living in L’Arche communities and experiencing belovedness and downward mobility firsthand amid a broken and fragmented humanity.

I was seated at a long table with David.A pseudonym. We were in the dining room of his home in the Pacific Northwest. The day was very hot, and the room warm. David was doing a puzzle. It was a ghastly affair with thousands of microscopic pieces all roughly the same color. I hate puzzles, a fractured snapshot of beautiful images. But this was a kind of nirvana for David. He would murmur to himself, making unintelligible noises and grunts of approval. He meticulously shifted similar pieces into the center of the table. Unlike other puzzle masters, he made no attempt to outline the work with the edge pieces first. He did not consult the picture on the cardboard cover of the puzzle box. I asked him how things were going. He looked up and smiled a twisted leer that might have frightened a small child but was devoid of malice. He rocked back and forth in his seat, holding himself with short wheezing noises that were pure happiness. I looked up and found that the “paintings” on the dining room walls were actually completed puzzles of remarkably intricate design. David, who is developmentally disabled, was a puzzle prodigy.

Later that afternoon, I was seated with one of David’s caregivers, conducting a research interview. Like most L’Arche caregivers, my interviewee lived in David’s home, sharing her life in Christian community. She and other “assistants” received less than $400 per month for their services. This particular assistant resided in the same home for nearly five years. She had known David when he arrived from the state mental institution, where he had been a resident nearly from birth.

As was typical with her colleagues, the assistant recounted a turning point in her realization of personal identity as beloved. The turning point was as unconventional as the broken path of downward mobility. The woman’s story was miles from mountain retreat, prayer epiphany, or labyrinth. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke:

There was a day when I was running around like crazy…And I think, like I told you before, David would stop to make me sit down to give me a gift or give me a blessing or whatever. But this was when I was new to L’Arche, so I hadn’t really experienced this before. And he sat me down, and I think that I was pretty emotional and just flustered…He gave me this blessing, which I have had so many [times] since then, but this was the first…His favorite song was “How Great Thou Art.” So he sings this, but it was a medley of “How Great Thou Art” mixed with his own songs, and then he would come back to the finish of “How Great Thou Art.” So he sings this song and he was [saying], “Thank you God,” for this, “Thank you, God,” for that, “Thank you, God, for Sherry, that she’s back.” I was floored by the whole thing. I could feel God in the room. And then at the end of it, he put the sign of the cross on my forehead. And that was really . . . I remember, I was…[feeling], Ahhh, because that was something my dad always would do before we went to bed at night growing up. But it was just like, “Wow, how did you know what that would do for me?…I am home, even though I am not; I belong here. I am home. I am beloved.”I am grateful to the assistants and core members of L’Arche U.S.A., who warmly welcomed me into their homes. The work was an unprecedented opportunity to study human altruism, generously funded by the John Fetzer Institute. To protect confidentiality, all identifying information was altered or removed from this quotation.

Time and tissue passed between us. We talked about the implications of this and other significant moments. The interview ended with a request from the assistant. Could we meet again for spiritual direction?

Of course, this wasn’t possible, given the ethical limitations of research. But the deeper meaning of her question drove me back to the Salinas porch. In this interview I had encountered the sacred, watching God write belovedness and downward mobility on the life of another human being. It was my privilege to be directed by this witness and eventually to share it in research symposia, lectures, and a book. A young L’Arche assistant not much past her bachelor’s degree showed me the meaning of compassion and downward mobility as she tenderly sat next to David following our interview, conversing with him in a muted whisper. Their easy love and familiarity were the elements of an unexpected communion. In the economy of the moment, they were my directors. At the puzzle table there are no requirements for vocational achievement. The opinions of others do not matter. Our possessions are irrelevant. The sacrament is a free gift of belovedness manifest in broken fragments miraculously reconstituted through the strange intuition and generosity of the poor.

What does this mean? It means that I am the poor. I am the broken. I share the same sacrament conferred by the same God of downward grace. In the research project I discovered that I was not an expert investigator but a spiritual novice, tutored by the disabled instructors and their caregiver assistants. Nouwen’s words on the porch were fully animated in their lives. Like the puzzle pieces of David’s masterwork, I am slowly being reconstituted into something new and whole. This is hardly novel. It is the witness of Nouwen’s legacy in L’Arche, a movement that continues to grow with its own strange inertia, drawing others into fuller life as the beloved.


Kevin Reimer is associate professor of psychology in the Department of Graduate Psychology at Azusa Pacific University and was recently a Templeton/CCCU fellow in science and religion at the University of Oxford. Reimer completed a postdoctoral fellowship in moral psychology at the University of British Columbia with Lawrence J. Walker. Reimer is published in the areas of cognitive, developmental, and personality psychology. His book projects include The Reciprocating Self (2005) and A Peaceable Therapeutic: Beyond Objectivity and Imposition in Psychology (forthcoming). Reimer has received research grants from the John Fetzer Institute, Metanexus Institute, and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. He is an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).