Monday, May 11, 2009

Time for Another Book Review

A Voice from the Past

Speaks Truth for Today

In the early 1980s I was devouring popular but serious books concerning the search for God. Spiritually I was in a state of arrested development, stalled at the point of Catholic high school graduation and suffering from the lack of adult re-education at the parish level after Vatican II. An experience of the At Home Retreat Movement in 1980 brought me to a new place, a place that included meditation on scripture, contemplative prayer, and a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

One of the books I read at the time was Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, his journal of a six-month sabbatical spent at the Trappist Abbey of of the Genesee in New York State in 1974. I loved it then and remembered loving it throughout the intervening years. If asked why I held it in fond memory I probably would have had trouble saying exactly why, after almost 30 years. Surely the monastic milieu fascinated, but I couldn't put my finger on why I still remembered it as speaking to my heart.

Recently a hardcover copy that no one wanted found its way into my hands and I thought, "Why not re-read it. It might touch your heart again." Today, I believe that finding this book in my hands was no accident. It was, if not a divine intervention, at least a divine synchronicity. In simple terms, it was the answer to prayer.

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch diocesan priest, was taking a break from teaching at Yale University. He was already well known for a number of books including The Wounded Healer and Out of Solitude. His complex and very human personality was evident in his writing and may have been one source of his popularity. He often wrote about constantly struggling to love God and others in spite of his wounded humanity. In other words, he was very much one of us.

The journal is not unlike many other personal accounts of time spent in the monastic environment and community. Nouwen's is made unique by its detailed accounts of numerous conversations with his spiritual director during the months at Genesee. His guide was the abbot of the community, Fr. John Eudes Bamberger. John Eudes was not only a wise and experienced monk but a physician/psychiatrist and former Navy man. The import these conversation had for me was underscored by another odd fact of my second encounter with this book. Shortly after I picked it up again the journal Human Development, in its spring issue (2009), featured an article concerning just these interactions between Nouwen and Bamberger at the Abbey of Genesee!

Suffice it to say that I feel a great personal kinship with Nouwen's 'issues', the struggles he confided to John Eudes and his process of dealing with them. The next reader may not feel that particular kinship but I do think that the substance of these conversations will touch many. In the following quotation the word "monastic" can easily be dropped anso that we understand that this is the state of angst to which we are all prone.

"When the monastic life does not hold anything new any more, when people do not pay any special attention to you any more, when nothing 'interesting' is distracting you any more, then the monastic life becomes difficult. Then the room opens up for prayer and ascesis." (p.43)

On another day John Eudes advises, "Take this as your koan: 'I am the glory of God." Make that thought the center of your meditation so that it slowly becomes not only a thought but a living reality. You are the place where God chose to dwell, you are the topos tou theou (God's Place) and the spiritual life is nothing more or less that to allow that space to exist where God can dwell, to create the space where his glory can manifest itself. In your meditation you can ask yourself, 'Where is the glory of God? If the glory of God is not where I am, where else can it be?' ....."You want God to appear to you in the way your passions desire, but these passions make you blind to his presence now. Focus on the nonpassionate part of yourself and realize God's presence there. Let that part grow in you and make your decisions from there. You will be surprised to see how powers that seem invincible shrivel away." (p.53-54)

Nouwen's journal entries about his talks with Bamberger are the subtext of the journal. They weave their way through and inter-relate with Nouwen's experiences of the routine of daily life in a monastery and his interior reactions to it. But I found John Eudes Bamberger, spiritual director/ psychological counselor, speaking directly to me in their power and wisdom. Perhaps you will too.

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