by Ryan Thurman
This is the second in a series of writings aimed at honoring God and those who have impacted my life. The first writing was about George Miley and you can read it here
In 1998 I left a secure and very well-paying job, as a UPS driver and entered into vocational ministry with Young Life. This was a huge decision on many levels, not least, that I would be decreasing my salary by 75%. I would also have to trust God to provide this reduced salary through the gifts of God’s people. This was a crucial season for me. I knew this path would lead to a life of wonder and adventure with God but I also knew it would be challenging and require a deep work of healing and maturing in my heart.
I was just beginning to explore spiritual practices such as solitude, silence, and fasting and I was intimidated and excited all at the same time. This led me to Merciful Heart Hermitage in Black Canyon City. I was alone in the middle of nowhere, wondering how I was going to make it through a 24 hour silent retreat. I was hoping that my 'sacrificial' fasting would usher in a mystical experience with God but instead I was just hungry and irritable. Fortunately I had as my guide a catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. He wasn’t actually with me, that would have been amazing, but I had one of his books, the Way of the Heart.
His writings helped guide me in my journey of knowing God in a personal way. Henri’s honesty and simplicity was so revolutionary for me. His passion to experience the love of God and allow that love to define and direct every aspect of his life was compelling. Henri helped me learn to pray, by sharing his own struggles with prayer and I began to see this active wrestling with God was itself the most authentic form of prayer. Henri wrote:
"Why, O Lord, is it so hard for me to keep my heart directed toward you? Why do the many little things I want to do, and the many people I know, keep crowding into my mind, even during the hours that I am totally free to be with you and you alone? Why does my mind wander off in so many directions, and why does my heart desire the things that lead me astray? Are you not enough for me? Do I keep doubting your love and care, your mercy and grace? Do I keep wondering, in the center of my being, whether you will give me all I need if I just keep my eyes on you? Please accept my distractions, my fatigue, my irritations, and my faithless wanderings. You know me more deeply and fully than I know myself. You love me with a greater love than I know myself. You even offer me more than I can desire. Amen”
Henri left a very successful career at Harvard Divinity School to move to the L’arche community, first in Trosly, France and then to Daybreak in Canada. There he served as a priest to six disabled people and their assistants. He was among people who had never read his books, nor cared how well he could lecture or preach but instead only cared if he loved them, simply by being with them. Philip Yancey who got to know Henri over the years wrote this about him:
For me, a single image captures him best: the energetic priest, hair in disarray, using his restless hands as if to fashion a homily out of thin air, celebrating an eloquent birthday Eucharist for an unresponsive child-man so damaged that many parents would have had him aborted. A better symbol of the incarnation, I can hardly imagine
Henri Nouwen not only helped me go deep with God but also began the process of leading me to repent of my sinful attitudes I had about Catholics. Before receiving the gift of Henri's insights into the spiritual life, I had a belief system that Catholics were not 'real' christians and needed to be converted and become Protestants like me. I was so wrong! Henri helped open the door to me to receive the spiritual gifts of the Historic Church, like the writings of the Church Fathers, Monastic Spirituality and the beauty of liturgy.
This has not only changed my spiritual life but has formed in me a passion and calling to see the Body of Christ, that is now so divided, take seriously the prayer of Jesus, "that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
The time is now dear friends to cross over the lines that have been drawn and to break down walls that separate us as Christians and stand united together in support of our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted and together dispense the grace and living water of Jesus to a desperate world. It begins with little steps by learning to make friends, pray and serve with others outside of your own church and tradition and learn to experience an ‘exchange of gifts.’ This exchange happens when we learn to emphasize the best of the different traditions, and share what we have received from God, and also receive the gifts that God has placed in others.
Thank you Henri for your life and example! You not only helped teach me to pray and plunge deeper into the abyss of God's great love, but you also help changed my view of who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed the trajectory of my life has forever been altered for the better.
If you would like to go deeper with Henri Nouwen. I recommend his books, Return of the Prodigal Son and In The Name of Jesus. You can also read some of my favorite quotes of his by clicking here