IN NOVEMBER I had the honor of delivering the first annual Henri Nouwen lecture at the University of Toronto. I was invited by the Henri Nouwen Society to speak about the connection between spirituality and social justice and to offer reflections about a remarkable man and the Sojourners community’s relationship with him.
Henri Nouwen was a deeply spiritual and deeply human man whose life and work has inspired many of us in the extended Sojourners community for the last four decades. Our relationship with Nouwen goes back to the 1970s, when he often came to visit our budding community in Washington, D.C. As young firebrands with a passion for social justice, we learned much from Nouwen, who helped teach us the importance of a deep, authentic, contemplative spirituality, which we knew we needed to undergird the hard battles for social justice. Nouwen often shared with us that Sojourners, in turn, helped push him to not lose sight of the urgent struggles for justice and peace in the midst of his efforts to help people unlock a deeper spirituality.
What drew Nouwen to Sojourners, and us to him, was our common conviction that contemplative spirituality, which was his passion and vocation, had to be deeply connected to putting faith into action for justice in the world, which was ours. We spoke together about the dangers of people pursuing spirituality in a consumer culture, where resources aimed at the inner life could become just another commodity.
photo © 2004 Phil Whitehouse | more info (via: Wylio)Even I can't help admitting that there is a bunch of stuff in the Bible that's hard to relate to. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 to 4,000 years, and I have no form of reference for shepherds and agrarian life, and I don't know what it's like to have a king or a Caesar, and I don't know a single fisherman, much less a centurion, and I guess I can't speak for all of you but personally I've never felt I might need to sacrifice a goat for my sins. That's the thing about our sacred text being so dang old -- it can sometimes be difficult to relate to. Things have changed a bit over the millennia.
But one thing has not changed even a little bit is the human condition. Parts of the Bible can feel hard to relate to until you get to a thing like this reading from Romans 7, in which Paul says, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
Finally. Something I can relate to. This I know about. I too do not understand my own actions. I too can't manage to consistently do what I know is right. Paul's simple description of the human condition is perhaps a most elegantly put definition of what we now call addiction.
It's no secret that I am a recovering alcoholic. By the grace of God I have been clean and sober for more than 19 years. But, boy, do I remember that feeling of powerlessness that comes from not being able to control your drinking. I'd wake up each morning and have a little talk with myself: "OK Nadia, get it together. Today is going to be different. You just need a little will power." Then, inevitably, later that day I'd say, "Well, just one drink would be OK," or, "I'll only drink wine and not vodka," or, "I'll drink a glass of water between drinks so that I won't get drunk." And sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn't. In the end, my will was just never "strong enough" Like Paul, I did the thing I hated. But that's addiction for you. It's ugly. Yet on some level I feel like we recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have it easy. I mean, our addictions are so obvious. The emotional, spiritual, and physical wreckage caused by alcoholism and drug addiction has a certain conspicuousness to it.