Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 29, 2007
Nouwen encouraged us to see death as a friend to embrace
By WAYNE HOLST
"The real question before our death, then, is not 'How much can I still accomplish?' or 'How much influence can I still exert?' but, 'How can I live so that I can continue to be fruitful when I am no longer here among my family and friends?'. . .
"The great paradox of our lives is that we are often concerned about what we do or still can do, but we are most likely to be remembered for who we are."
Henri Nouwen writes in a way that can profoundly affect a reader. No matter which of his books you select, he seems to have the uncanny ability to speak to your current situation. It is possible to read him on seemingly diverse subjects like forgiveness, dying and caring at any stage of life and still find his message appropriate and meaningful.
The book from which the above quote comes arrived in my mailbox in March 1994. It came several weeks after Henri Nouwen addressed a large gathering I attended in Edmonton.
Inside the front cover was the author's autograph and a note containing these words: "It means a lot to me that you could identify with the different stages in the process of forgiveness I discussed in my talk. I am pleased you think that what I described might be a way to move through the anger you are feeling."
His words hit home. Even though I was deeply affected by things that had happened in my life, his comments opened new vistas of possibility for me and created portals through which I subsequently was able to walk. I wrote to say thanks and received a memorable reply.
Nouwen greatly influenced my life. Here are some notes and quotes I scribbled on the book's margins. Perhaps they will be helpful to you also.
His focus on "dying and caring" didn't register with me at first because I was too consumed by my own immediate hurts. Gradually however, patterns begin to emerge for me.
The book arrived about two years before Nouwen's own death. Now, more than a decade later, I am re-visiting it as I enter my 66th year. I am at a different life stage than when I first read it, but I have been given a new set of lenses with which to approach it. What he did then to help with the challenge of forgiveness he offers now as I enter the final stage of life.
"Dying is the most general human event," he writes in his prologue. "It is something we all have to do. But do we do it well?"
"Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy?"
Our greatest human challenge is not only to live well, but also to die well. Preparing now for a good death will allow me a better life during the time still remaining.
We are God's beloved people and we can best experience that love with others in communities of family and faith. My death need not be a lonely, solitary journey and something to fear. Rather, death can connect me with the communion of saints I already value, but in a new and fuller way.
Jesus' life, death and resurrection offer us the best model. We need not approach our demise as an enemy to be fought but as a friend to be embraced.
"We are parents in our dying." To those who come after us - whether family or friends - our death completes some things. But it can also be the harbinger of something even more important. My death can confer upon my gift of fruitfulness - an ongoing grace that may only become real to my survivors after I am gone.
"To the degree that we befriend our own death, we can become truly caring people." This was an important lesson Nouwen learned during his last decade while living at Daybreak, a L'Arche community located in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Community provides us with the blessed assurance that we do not live alone; nor do we die alone. Community helps us to let go of self-concern and other deep fears.
Fruitfulness can be my gift to others resulting from a passionate engagement with both my life and death.
Seven years after he died, my wife Marlene and I visited Nouwen's grave in a small cemetery near Daybreak.
A simple, hand-made cross marked the spot. A rustic bench was strategically located 10 metres from the cross.
Marlene and I sat on that bench for a long time.
He was a fruitful person, we thought. He lived well. He died well.
We want to do the same.
(Wayne Holst served as a member of the board and as board president of L'Arche Calgary during the 1990s. He continues to support the community in various ways.)
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.