Nouwen’s Letters to Marc about Jesus is a collection of letters from Nouwen to a young acquaintance, who is looking for the meaning of life. Nouwen suggests life is only to be found in Jesus.
In the first letter, Nouwen begins by talking about the notion of “heart” in Christian spirituality. Questions about life “affect the whole person,” writes Nouwen, and “the core of your humanity.” Which is to say, such questions affect the heart. “By heart…I mean the center of our being, that place where we are most ourselves, where we are most human, where we are most real. In that sense the heart is the focus of the spiritual life” (5). These questions are therefore more about finding “a new way of living than…a new way of thinking” (7). That new way of living reveals more and more that Jesus is the center, that it is he who wishes to meet you in your heart.
Letter 2 is about liberation. Nouwen begins by recounting both the serenity he felt during a recent visit to a quiet cathedral and some of the troubling news stories of his day. The troubling events of the day lead into a discussion of another troubling event—the crucifixion—and of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Nouwen points out how Jesus listened to the two men in their sadness (13) and then told them things that set their hearts aflame (14). “At the center of their being, of their humanity, something was generated that could disarm death and rob despair of its power,” writes Nouwen (15). And then they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. And then Jesus is gone. “What matters here,” Nouwen points out, “is that the moment Cleopas and his friend recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, his bodily presence was no longer required as a condition for their new hope.” The two disciples “had become different people. because they had experienced for themselves that the Jesus whom they had mourned for was alive and closer to them than ever, their hearts were born again, and their inner life was made radically new” (16). And so they return to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what has happened. Nouwen calls this “radically new” awakening “a process of fundamental liberation.”
When they first set out, liberation still meant shaking off the Roman yoke [which they had hoped Jesus would achieve]….But then, when Jesus offered them the bread and their eyes were opened, they became conscious of a freedom they had never thought possible. It was a freedom which they could hardly anticipate because they had no conception of it….It was a freedom of the spirit: a freedom from any specific political, economic, or social expectations for the future, a freedom to follow the Lord now, anywhere, even if it should mean suffering (17).
“Freedom,” Nouwen continues, “belongs to the core of the spiritual life.” Not merely physical freedom, “but the freedom also to forgive others, to serve them, and to form a new bond of fellowship with them. In short, the freedom to love and to work for a free world” (18–19).
Nouwen concludes this letter by pointing to the practicing Christian communities that received the story of Emmaus.
It tells us something about the different aspects of communal worship: owning up to our confusion, depression, despair, and guilt; listening with an open heart to the Word of God; gathering around the table to break the bread and so to acknowledge the presence of Jesus; and going out again into the world to make known to others what we have learned and experienced….Thus you can say that each time you celebrate the Eucharist you once again make the journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back. You can say, too, that each time you celebrate the Eucharist you are able to achieve a bit more spiritual freedom. Freedom from the subjecting powers of this world, powers that forever try to entice you to become rich and popular, and freedom to love friend and foe (19).
The third letter is about compassion. He begins with a meditation on Grünewald’s crucifixion panel of the Isenheimer Altarpiece, showing how Grünewald depicted Jesus with the sores of the plague, which Grünewald’s contemporaries were facing.
Nouwen writes that “on this altar they saw their God, with the same suppurating ulcers as their own, and it made them realize with a shock what the Incarnation really meant. They saw solidarity, compassion, forgiveness, and unending love brought together in this one suffering figure. They saw that, in their mortal anguish, they had not been left on their own” (25).
Nouwen continues, “The gospel is, first and foremost, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story constitutes the core of the spiritual life.” Understanding this leads to rebirth, which “is what you are called to—a radical liberation that sets you free from the power of death and empowers you to love fearlessly” (27). So “from the story of Jesus’ suffering and death it will be clear to you now that compassion must be added to freedom. The spiritual life,” Nouwen says, “is a free life that becomes visible in compassion” (31).
Nouwen concludes with another meditation on the Eucharist:
[W]e are able to celebrate the Eucharist day by day. With every celebration, the suffering , death, and resurrection of Jesus are made present. The best way to put it might be like this: every time you celebrate the Eucharist and receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, his suffering and his death become a suffering and death for you. Passion becomes compassion, for you. You are incorporated into Jesus. You become part of his ‘body’ and in that most compassionate way are freed from your deepest solitude. Through the Eucharist you come to belong to Jesus in the most intimate way. Jesus suffered for you, died for you, and is risen for you so that you may suffer, die, and rise with him (35).
Nouwen’s fourth letter is about descent. “Jesus opts for what is small, hidden, and poor, and accordingly declines to wield influence,” observes Nouwen. Jesus lowers himself, empties himself, for us. “When, finally, Jesus is hanging on the cross and cries out with a loud voice: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ only then do we know how far God has gone to show us his love. For it is then that Jesus has not only reached his utmost poverty, but also has shown God’s utmost love.” Through prayer, then, we also learn that “the descending way of Jesus is also the way for us to find God” (45). The descending way of Jesus
is the way of suffering, but also the way to healing. It is the way of humiliation, but also the way to resurrection. It is the way of tears, but of tears that turn into tears of joy. It is the way of hiddenness, but also the way that leads to the light that will shine for all people. It is the way of persecution, oppression, martyrdom, and death, but also the way to the full disclosure of God’s love (46).
We know this intuitively; Nouwen uses the example of crosses and crucifixes worn as necklaces. “Imagine,” Nouwen writes, “someone setting up a gallows in his living room and getting a feeling of joy from it. You would judge such a person to be sick. Yet for us the cross, a means of execution, has become a sign of liberation. God himself has made the descending way the way to glory. Only when you are prepared to experience this in your own life of prayer and service will you get an inkling of the mystery of God’s love” (47).
And so again, the Eucharist shows this also to be true. “Whenever we eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood, we participate in his descending way and so become a community in which competitiveness and rivalry have made way for the love of God” (49).
Letter 5 is about love. “If anyone should ask you what are the most radical words in the gospel, you need not hesitate to reply: ‘Love your enemies.’…In these words we have the clearest expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Love for one’s enemies is the touchstone of being a Christian” (55). (Nouwen reflects on a nonviolent transition of power in the Philippines as an example of enemy love working itself out in the wider world.) God loves preemptively, and so calls us to do the same. “The most important thing you can say about God’s love,” asserts Nouwen, “is that God loves us not because of anything we’ve done to earn that love, but because God, in total freedom, has decided to love us.”
At first sight, this doesn’t seem to be very inspiring; but if you reflect on it more deeply this though can affect and influence your life greatly. We assume that people will be nice to us if we are nice to them; that they will help us if we help them; that they will invite us if we invite them; that they will love us if we love them. And so the conviction is deeply rooted in us that being loved is something you have to earn. In our pragmatic and utilitarian times this conviction has become even stronger (55).
Love becomes “commercialized,” and “the result,” Nouwen suggests, “is a state of mind that makes us live as though our worth as human beings depends on the way others react to us. We allow other people to determine who we are. We think we’re good if other people find us to be so” (56).
God offers an alternative: “noncoercive, nonviolent love” (57). “If we had a firm faith in God’s unconditional love for us, it would no longer be necessary to be always on the lookout for ways and means of being admired by people; and we would need, even less, to obtain from people by force what God desires to give us freely and so abundantly.” Indeed, “when Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved, so that you can abandon every false way of obtaining love” (58). The heart of the matter, for Nouwen, is this:
as long as love is a matter of quid pro quo, we can’t love our enemies. Our enemies are those who withhold love from us and make life difficult for us. We are inclined spontaneously to hate them and to love only those who love us.
Jesus, however, will have no part in such bartering. “If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect?…” Jesus shows us that true love, the love that comes from God, makes no distinction between friends and foes, between people who are for us and people who are against us, people who do us a favor and people who do us ill (59).
Nouwen sums up: “If our love, like God’s, embraces friend as well as foe, we have come children of God and are no longer children of suspicion, jealousy, violence, war, and death….[T]he love of God is an unconditional love, and only that love can empower us to live together without violence” (60). And, for Nouwen, it all begins with small but sometimes difficult step of praying for one’s enemies (62).
The Eucharist, again, proves foundational. “Whenever you receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist,” concludes Nouwen, “his love is given to you—the same love that he showed on the cross. It is the love of God for all people of all times and places, all religions and creeds, all races and classes, all tribes and nations, all sinners and saints….That’s why it’s so important to make the Eucharist the heart and center of your life. It’s there that you receive the love which empowers you to take the way that Jesus has taken before you: a narrow way, a painful way, but the way that gives you true joy and peace and enables you to make the nonviolent love of God visible in this world” (63).
The sixth letter is about hiddenness. Nouwen points out that Jesus’ life was hidden, and, even when public, was “invisible as far as most people were concerned.” Nouwen says that we “must have the nerve to let that mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into [our] consciousness because, otherwise, [we’re] continually looking in the wrong direction. In God’s sight things that really matter seldom take place in public” (68). This holds true for the Incarnation too.
Jesus is the hidden God. He became a human being among a small, oppressed people, under very difficult circumstances. He was held in contempt by the rulers of that country and was eventually put to an ignominious death between two criminals.
There was nothing spectacular about Jesus’ life—far from it! (71)
For Nouwen, “[W]herever the gospel of Jesus bears fruit, we come across this hiddenness. The great Christians throughout history have always been lowly people who sought to be hidden” (72). God acts in hidden places, and so Nouwen directs our attention to the heart again.
The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make his love known to us there, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us. In the privacy of our heart, therefore, we can learn not only to know Jesus, but through Jesus to know ourselves as well (74).
Nouwen claims that “the Eucharist is preeminently the sacrament of God’s hiddenness.” Moreover, “Jesus’ hiddenness in the Eucharist is bound up with his hiddenness in all people” (76). Nouwen adds, “I still remember Mother Teresa once saying to me that you can’t see Jesus in the poor unless you can see him in the Eucharist.” Nouwen reflects on this quote and his experience at L’Arche and says, “When your heart is touched by the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, then you will receive new eyes capable of recognizing that same presence in the hearts of others” (77).
The final letter is about listening. Nouwen, then, concludes with “three forms of listening that…have proven to be the most productive” for him:
- Listening to the church
- Listening to Scripture and lives of saints
- Listening to the heart
Nouwen writes that listening to these three voices “will guide you to an ever-deepening spiritual life. they will help you to get to know Jesus in a very intimate way, make you aware of the unique manner in which he is calling you, and give you the courage to follow him even to places where you would rather not go” (84).