Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

On Advent & Exasperated Elephants

MLewisMadeline Lewis ’17

Theology and English

Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy


My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.

But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.UntitledAllow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.

“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”

“I will not wait anymore!”

“We have waited too long!”

“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”

“We have wasted the whole day.”

Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.

In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.

“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”

Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.

May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.

Follow Madeline on Twitter @madlew4

Practicing Lent: Living as the Beloved

Meredith Holland

Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

The Lenten season invites us to enter into a time of preparation through prayer and ascetic practices that can rid us of our sinful behaviors so that we become more open to God’s presence in our lives. We reform those aspects of our lives that take away from our true humanity so that we may enter into Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum, and Easter Sunday celebration—and the whole of the Christian life—as authentically human creatures, intended for and capable of praising God the Father. Lenten practices are not meant to temper our capacity for joy, but rather to increase it. Through the experience of emptiness and of darkness, we are more able to receive the fullness and light of God’s love. We remind ourselves of our hunger for God.

Yet, it is so easy to let the Lenten season simply pass by; it becomes merely a time to go through the motions of fasting and sacrifice, of prayer, of almsgiving, with a sense of detachment that precludes the authentic repentance and emptying that are not only necessary for the reorientation of our hearts and minds toward God, but also for making possible a participation in the genuine Christian joy that is Easter Sunday.

In his text Life of the Beloved, Henri J.M. Nouwen writes:

Still, I am thoroughly convinced that the origin and goal of our existence have everything to do with the ways we think, talk, and act in our daily lives. When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in the ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work. When the deepest currents of our live no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy. (40)

Lent is an opportunity to reform the ways we think, talk, and act in our daily lives such that that the deepest truths of our beings become more present in those ordinary actions. We abandon social media not to deprive ourselves of communication, but as a reminder that the vocation of the Christian calls all of one’s being to seek and praise God. We fast in order to remind ourselves of our bodily weakness, such that our physical hunger is a tangible sign of our spiritual hunger.

These practices are meant to be truly transformative, not merely temporary. They ought to make possible this visibility and tangibility of our deepest truth of which Nouwen writes.

I have always found the naming of Lenten practices appealing: it offers a tangibility and practicality to the spiritual life that is often difficult to identify and define. Lenten promises invite us to allow our spiritual lives to infuse the totalities of our lives, creating a space for prayer beyond the traditional pose or our standard practice. These offerings become another way for us to access God, at a time when we need this spiritual renewing most.

I have found recently that my traditional still pose of kneeling in silence, eyes closed, palms open, does not always bring a sense of peace and belovedness, but sometimes anxiety and restlessness. And, because that is the image we often have of prayer—quiet, solitude, serenity—this impatience can become a spiritual obstacle that breeds frustration and dissatisfaction, a sense of disappointment with one’s prayer. Often, it seems as though if we cannot find God in the stillness, we cannot find him at all. Lenten practices—the reorientation of the ordinary to reflect the deepest truths of our lives—remind us that this is not the case. When I do not feel at home in the stillness of a pious pose, I must learn to remind myself that we do not become the beloved only from our knees. We become the beloved in the living of our lives, too.

If we simply go through the motions of Lenten practices, not allowing them to penetrate our thoughts and actions, our preparation becomes merely a dulled anticipation. There is no emptying, no depth. We must remember that in seeking this depth, we will struggle, but we cannot assume that this struggle is an indication of a lack of faith. Pain and weakness are not the products of an uncertain faith, but rather offer witness to the conviction of the joy and love that will come. Lent is an opportunity to both satisfy and renew our hunger for God, continually reorienting the entirety of our lives to focus on God the Father who always recognizes us as his beloved.