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Giving Up the Desire To Be Different

The introspection bares his deep fears and shallow desires. Nouwen writes of self-pity and sour moods, of his anger, his jealousy, his hunger for the attention and adoration of others. And it’s not pretty. Indeed, the experience of reading Nouwen’s journal entries is embarrassing and humbling: I feel for him as he shares the uncomfortable truths of his life, and I cringe at how familiar this life is.

What do we expect from such contemplation? A soaring spirituality? The mastering of a discipline that makes us heroes who fly beyond the ugliness of our lives? The experience of living in a monastic community is for Nouwen not a trophy for his spirituality but the ground upon which he meets himself, warts and all, and comes to know himself as God’s beloved.

Like most human beings, Nouwen desires to distinguish himself. He feels the compulsion of leadership and spiritual striving: he thinks he can demonstrate his worth by being special.

I keep catching myself with the desire to do something special, to make a contribution, to add something new, and have to remind myself constantly that the less I am noticed, the less special attention I require, the less I am different, the more I am living the monastic life.

There’s irony here, of course: Nouwen goes to such lengths to confess his ambitions and give up the quest to be different, yet his contemplation becomes a book from a major publisher. (And I, drawn to his life because it shows the humility by which I would live — letting go of the heroics of leadership and spirituality — feel compelled to write about it in this public blog. Oh well. As a therapist once told me, life is consistently a mixture of motivations!)

Plus, there’s paradox: the monastic community that lays bare Nouwen’s compulsion to be special grounds him in who he is especially created to be. By following the sameness of the Order — the rituals, the patterns, the tradition — “we discover our uniqueness,” Nouwen says. Letting go of what he would achieve, he finds the gift of who he is.

When we have given up the desire to be different and experienced ourselves as sinners without any right to special attention, only then is there space to encounter our God who calls us by our own name and invites us into his intimacy.

Friends and admirers of Nouwen will observe the 10th anniversary of his death in 2006. The University of Toronto will hold a special conference May 18-20, 2006 — “Turning the Wheel: Henri Nouwen and Our Search for God.” Nouwen’s bio and a list of his writings are online at the Henri Nouwen Society web site.