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From the beginning of my life, two voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you, and another voice saying, Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don't do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God.
I'm sure we all hear these voices to some degree-one that says, Make something of your life; find a good career, and one that says, Be sure you never lose touch with your vocation. There's a struggle, a tension, there.
At first, I tried to resolve this by becoming a sort of hyphenated priest-a priest-psychologist. People would say, "We don't really like having priests around," and I could reply, "Oh well, I'm a psychologist. I'm clearly in touch with things, so don't laugh at me." I tried hard to keep those two voices together-the voice calling me upward and the voice calling me downward.
Early in life I pleased my father and mother immensely by studying, then teaching, and then becoming somewhat well-known, going to Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. I pleased a lot of people doing so and also pleased myself.
But somewhere on the way up, I wondered if I was still in touch with my vocation. I began noticing this when I found myself speaking to thousands of people about humility and at the same time wondering what they were thinking of me.
I didn't feel peaceful. Actually, I felt lonely. I didn't know where I belonged. I was pretty good on the platform but not always that good in my own heart. I began to wonder if, perhaps, my career hadn't gotten in the way of my vocation.
So, I began to pray: "Lord Jesus, let me know where you want me to go, and I will follow you. But please be clear about it. No ambiguous messages!" I prayed this over and over.
At that time, I was living at Yale. One morning at 9:00, someone pushed the bell of my little apartment. I opened the door and found a young woman standing there.
"Are you Henri Nouwen?"
"Yes, I am."
"I've come to bring you the greetings of Jean Vanier," she continued.
Jean Vanier was all but unknown to me at the time. I'd heard he was the founder of the L'Arche Communities (L'Arche means Noah's Ark) and that he worked with mentally handicapped people, but that was all I knew.
I said, "Oh, that's nice. Thank you. What can I do for you?"
"No, no, no," she answered. "I've come to bring you the greetings of Jean Vanier."
Again I said, "Thank you, that's nice. Do you want me to talk somewhere or write something or give a lecture?"
"No, no," she insisted. "I just wanted you to know that Jean Vanier sends his greetings."
When she had gone, I sat in my chair and thought, This is something special. Somehow God is answering my prayer, bringing a message and calling me to something new. I wasn't asked to take a new job or do another project. I wasn't asked to be useful to anybody. I simply was invited to come to know another human being who had heard of me.
It took about three years before I met Jean. We met silently at a retreat during which no words were spoken. At the end, Jean said, "Henri, maybe we-our community of handicapped people-can offer you a home, a place where you are really safe, where you can meet God in a whole new way."
He didn't ask me to be useful; he didn't ask me to work for handicapped people; he didn't say he needed another priest. He simply said, "Maybe we can offer you a home."
Gradually I realized I had to take that call seriously. I left the university and went to the L'Arche community at Trosly-Breuil in France. After spending a year with this community of mentally handicapped people and their assistants who try to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes, I responded to the call to become a priest at Daybreak, which is a L'Arche community near Toronto, a community of about one hundred: fifty handicapped people and fifty assistants.
The first thing asked of me was to work with Adam. (Of all names, Adam! It sounded like working with humanity itself.) Adam, a 24-year-old, couldn't speak. He couldn't walk. He couldn't dress or undress himself. You never really knew if he recognized you or not. His body was deformed, his back distorted, and he suffered from frequent epileptic seizures.
At first with Adam I was afraid. "Don't worry," they assured me.
I was a university professor; I'd never touched anyone very closely. And here was Adam-hold him!
At 7:00 in the morning, I went to his room. I took off his clothes, held him up, and carefully walked with him to the bathroom. I was frightened because I thought he might have a seizure. I struggled to lift him into the bathtub, as he was as heavy as I am. I started to pour water over him, wash him, shampoo his hair, and take him out again to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and return him to his bed. Then I dressed him in what clothes I could find and took him to the kitchen.
I sat him at the table and started to give him his breakfast. The only thing he could do was lift the spoon to his mouth. I sat there and watched him. It took about an hour. I never had been with anyone for a whole hour, just watching to see if he could eat.
Then something transpired: after two weeks, I was a little less frightened. After three or four weeks, it dawned on me that I was thinking a lot about Adam and looking forward to being with him. I realized something was happening between us-something intimate and beautiful that was of God. I don't even know how to say it very well.
This broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a new way. Little by little, I discovered affection in myself and came to believe that Adam and I belonged together. To put it simply, Adam taught me about God's love in a concrete way.
First, he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with him and not do all sorts of things to prove I'm valuable. My life had been doing, doing, doing. I'm a driven person, wanting to do thousands and thousands of things so that I can show-somehow, finally-that I'm worthwhile.
People had said, "Henri, you're okay." But now, here with Adam, I heard, "I don't care what you do, as long as you will be with me." It wasn't easy just to be with Adam. It isn't easy simply to be with a person and not do much.
Adam taught me something else: the heart is more important than the mind. When you've come from a university, that's hard to learn. Minds thinking, having arguments, discussing, writing, doing-that's what a human being is. Didn't Thomas Aquinas say that human beings are thinking animals?
Well, Adam didn't think, but Adam had a heart, a real human heart.
All at once I saw that what makes a human being human is the heart with which he can give and receive love. Adam was giving me an enormous amount of God's love, and I was giving Adam of my love. There was an intimacy that went far beyond words or acts.
I also realized Adam wasn't just a disabled person, less human than myself or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that he was chosen by God to become the instrument of his love. Adam was so vulnerable, so weak, and so empty that he became just heart-the heart in which God wanted to dwell, in which he wanted to speak to those who came close to his vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human. I discovered that.
And I understood, too, what I had heard in Latin America about God's preferential option for the poor. Indeed, God loves the poor, and he loves Adam very specially. He wanted to dwell in Adam's broken person so that he could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength and call people to become vulnerable.
Finally, Adam taught me something that should have been obvious: Doing things together is more important than doing things alone. I came from a world concerned with doing things on one's own, but here was Adam, so weak and vulnerable. I couldn't help Adam alone. We needed all sorts of people. We had people from Brazil, the United States, Canada, and Holland-young, old, living together in one house around Adam and other handicapped people.
I came to understand that Adam, the weakest among us, created community. He it was who brought us together; his needs and his vulnerability made us into a true community. With all our differences, we could not have survived as a community if Adam hadn't been there. His weakness became our strength. His weakness made us into a loving community. His weakness invited us to forgive one another, to calm our arguments, to be with him.
That's what I'm learning. I've been at Daybreak only three years, and it's not easy. In many ways, Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard were easier. But it is a vocation for me. I want to stay and be faithful.
Richmond Hill, Ontario
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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