Following is my column that appears in this weekend’s edition of The Catholic Post. I invite your feedback.
Just between you and me, several years back I was apprehensive about confession with a visiting priest at our parish. The reason? The last time I went to a visiting priest for confession, my penance was — an entire Rosary.
I can laugh now, but in my shock, I asked if that’s what he really meant. An entire Rosary was unnerving to someone used to a penance of up to five Hail Marys, with perhaps a Lord’s Prayer thrown in.
But this time, the priest, in his lilting African accent, told me while giving a (non-Rosary) penance, “dear daughter of the King,” and my eyes welled up. Of course I am a daughter of the King–we are all children of the King. His grace and love are for each one of us.
But hearing that in the healing Sacrament intensely spoke to me about how beloved, how truly loved, we are as children of our Heavenly Father.
Even though it’s been years since my “entire Rosary” confession, and my “dear daughter of the King” confession, they were in my mind as I begin to reflect on “what to do” this Lent.
Then this thought occurred: what about trying to understand how much we are dear sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father?
That’s where Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World offers food for Lenten thought. It’s not a new book—it was first published in 1992, but reprinted in a handsome new version in 2013. And it has the feel of a spiritual classic, especially for our post-Christian time. My husband Joseph has been encouraging/pestering me to read this book for some time, and I am so glad he persisted.
In “Life of the Beloved,” Fr. Nouwen explores—for a longtime Jewish friend who asks him—what the Christian life entails. His friend wants to hear about a life of faith in a way that he and his secular friends can understand. Nouwen sums it up in this book-long exposition of the concept of knowing that we are beloved by God (cf 1John 4:10).
Here’s why I’m surprised to find this book so compelling. Normally, I tend to gravitate towards spiritual writing that is “practical”—that may not make sense, but if you’re a “do-er” you will know what I mean. I want action items, prayers to say, saints to know.
But Life of the Beloved sweeps away all of those “to-dos” that I—and surely others—are so fond of, whether in the physical or spiritual life, and invites us to rest in God’s unconditional pure love.
Because Nouwen was writing for a secular audience about the spiritual life, there aren’t a lot of quotes from the saints or even Scripture, though Scripture is implicit in every page. But this simplicity creates a deceptively easy read that is compelling and enduring.
Nouwen struggled with depression much of his adult life, so how he writes this book is very personal and very authentic, in how he relates the importance of being beloved by being, like the Eucharist, taken, blessed, broken and given.
The book has so many great quotes that speak to the whys of being “beloved.” As I read through it, I’ve been sharing them regularly with friends because they have such resonance for the Christian life:
*“I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others.”
*“The movement of God’s Spirit is very gentle, very soft—and hidden. It does not seek attention. But that movement is also very persistent, strong and deep. It changes our hearts radically. The faithful discipline of prayer reveals to you that you are the blessed one and gives you the power to bless others.”
Despite all my talk here, I must admit that as a do-er, I will be giving up chocolate, and “doing things” for Lent (and reading several books—see below). But I’ll also be pondering the message of Life of the Beloved through it all, and seeking to believe that I am a dear daughter of the King.
So what else will I be reading?
l’ll be taking off the shelf the Lent & Easter Volume of In Conversation with God by Fr. Francis Fernandez. Many years ago, I received the entire set as a gift from my husband, and read it over that year and a few others. Recently, when a friend mentioned it again as great spiritual reading, I resolved to read these short, so-relevant daily reflections.
I will also be implementing some of the ideas in Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly by Susan V. Vogt.
The cover design of Blessed by Less is bare bookshelves—a thing I can’t imagine for a moment at our house—but I wasn’t daunted from reading it, and I’m glad I did. While many books about reducing clutter can be helpful, Vogt offers a fresh, spiritual approach to living with less, whether in possessions, thoughts or unhealthy patterns.
This is six out of seven posts for 7 posts in 7 days.
Also, don’t forget about the Lent Book Series.
This Lent, I and other local-ish writers will be sharing books that are helpful during a Lent journey. Consider joining in with us and learning about new or classic books all Lent long.