Tag Archive | Henri Nouwen

Who Am I? And Who Are You?


my sofa nook

          Who am I?  And who are you?  As I sit or lie in my sofa nook with a chronic illness which limits my activities and cuts me off from a busy world, I often ponder what it’s all about.  What is the meaning, the purpose of a life such as mine?  In a busy world that judges us all by what we achieve, that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day, my sense of self-identity can so easily slip away.

          It’s very tempting for those of us with chronic health issues to compare our lives with the healthy lives of those around us.  Unfortunately, when we do this, we all too often come away with the feeling that we are “lessened,” that our stories are curtailed, incomplete, deficient.  With so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are.  

          After his resurrection, Jesus warns his disciple Peter that a time will come when he will no longer be in control of his life. Peter’s response is immediate.  He points to another disciple and asks, “and what about him?”  Jesus tells him rather sharply that that is really none of his business.  Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his, Jesus tells him.  Just “follow me.”  Just live out your own story, and let him live out his.  A challenging directive.  To Peter…to me…and to all of us. 

          Henri Nouwen in his little book Discernment tells of a friend who discovered in his 50’s that he had cancer.  He had been a very active man, and he had always defined himself by all the good things that he was able to accomplish.  Who was he now with his body crippled with cancer and exhausted from all the treatments?  Nouwen and his cancer-ridden friend puzzled together over this. 

          As we might expect from Nouwen, he offered his friend some profound insights.  He suggested that he should see that his vocation as a human was to be fulfilled not in his activities and accomplishments but rather in his ACCEPTANCE of his situation.  In his WAITING to discover what God was about in his life.  In his deep AWARENESS that God, not his activity, was the center of his life, and that God is always the one at work to define our lives and to help us determine just who we are.

          To live out such a vocation is truly a challenge.  I would so much rather define myself by what I accomplish.  I want my activities to be the center and focus of my tiny universe.  I want to control my possibilities.  I want to see who I am in the row of daily trophies sitting on my mind’s shelf.  

          A character in Anthony Doerr’s short story “Mkondo” tells a lost soul who’s searching for his life, “the only way to find something is to lose it first.”  Along with countless others who live with a chronic illness, I have lost many of the trimmings that I once relied upon to define my life.  But I do believe that in my losing I have also been finding.  It’s a slow finding, to be sure, and it’s a finding filled with many questions and many doubts.  But it’s a finding, nonetheless.  The finding of a growing stillness within.  The finding of a deepened attentiveness to the layers of life around me and within me.  The finding more of God’s life burning within my own, even in those moments when I feel so unsure of who I am.

          A challenge, yes.  But when all is said and done, perhaps this is the challenge not just for those of us who live with “chronic.”  Perhaps this is the challenge for the healthy as well as the not-so-healthy.  To let go of old self-definitions.  To learn the way of acceptance, the way of waiting, the way of awareness.

          Who am I?  And who are you?  And what’s it really all about?  We’ll probably never, in this lifetime, know the full answer to all the mysteries of our lives, but perhaps we may come closer to knowing who we really are as we lose more of our “trophy” selves and find ways to live into patterns of a quiet openness to our innermost selves and to the God who lives and breathes through all our doings.  Through all our not-doings as well.


Stretching Our Necks

Parmigianino-Madonna of long neck

Madonna of the Long Neck

Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola

(commonly known as Parmigianino)


          Recently I was introduced to this unusual painting by Parmigianino. A strange painting in the “mannerist” style of the 16th century. A rather awkward painting with those elongated bodies of the Virgin and the Christ child. But, in spite of this awkwardness, or maybe because of it, I find the painting quite haunting. Something about that long, long neck of Mary that calls for pause and reflection. What is Parmigianino suggesting?

          Parmigianino’s work reminds me of another painting that’s been very meaningful to me—a Russian Orthodox icon known as the “Virgin of Vladimir,” painted by an anonymous Greek artist in the 12th century and housed for 200 years in the town of Vladimir, Russia.

Virgin of Vladimir

           Here, too we have long necks—the long neck of the Christ child in Mary’s arms and the long neck of Mary herself. Henri Nouwen tells us that in icons like this an elongated neck represents the Holy Spirit, the divine breath of God. Spirit who gave Mary the intense inner strength and courage needed to fulfill her divine destiny. Spirit who accompanied Jesus to give him amazing determination and strength throughout his life and through his death.

          Parmigianino was clearly not painting an icon, and he was probably not focusing on the Holy Spirit when he painted his Madonna’s long neck. It’s more likely that he was simply highlighting Mary’s strength, a strength emphasized in the strong, tall pillar just behind her. But surely the strength that Parmigianino saw in Mary, the strength he accentuated in his painting, the strength that gave her courage to open herself to the newness of God’s dramatic activity in her life, surely that strength came from the Spirit of God, even as the angel Gabriel had promised: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

          Long necks. Strong necks. Spirit-filled necks. Down through the centuries, so many saints have made our world a better place because they have let their necks be stretched by Spirit of God. Have let their lives be conduits for all the goodness that God longs to spill over our world. Some were giants of faith who influenced the history of the world. Many more were little people who quietly and faithfully made the lives of those around them brighter, caring for their needs and bringing God a little closer for them.

          Now it’s our turn. So here’s to longer necks for all of us. Here’s to Pentecostal Spirit breathing strength and courage into each of our lives. Strength and courage for our own inner healing. Strength and courage to help us move our world a little closer to the dream God dreamed when the world was freshly formed and Spirit’s Wind creatively and hopefully swept across its waters.