This is my first time reading Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved” and its intimate conversational tone has made it a pleasure to read. Today I’m sharing my thoughts from the chapter titled “Taken”. Previously Nouwen wrote that he uses four words to remind him of the movement of the spirit in the life of the beloved. These four words (taken, blessed, broken, and given) are from the last supper:
- Matthew 26:26–28
- Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”1
I have to admit that the taking part of that story is not the part that usually stands out to me. Blessing, breaking, eating, drinking, body, and blood are all words that I usually dwell on with that passage. If I imagine the scene, as many have, I some how skip over the part where the bread goes from being on the table to being in Jesus’ hand. But there is something to this taking. Perhaps there was other bread on the table that was not chosen or some other food to choose from (“Jesus took a fig, and after blessing it squished it…”).
This is a curious thing though. Jesus didn’t just tell a story about bread and wine in this case. There is an actual piece of bread to be taken; and actual cup to be passed. This interplay between an abstract lesson and the physical and unique instruments of that lesson is what I think Nouwen is circling around in this book.
As a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken, and given. Most importantly, however, [these words] summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking, and the giving are happening. (48–49)
Nouwen is using the self-reference “as a Christian” abstractly and the references “as a human being” and “in every moment of my life” concretely. Perhaps “as a Christian” is the lesson and “in every moment” is the incarnation of that lesson.
In the life of Jesus as told in John there is a story arc that moves from the abstract to the concrete.
- “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1)
- “I am the living bread…” (John 6)
- “I am the true vine…” (John 15)
- “I thirst.” (John 19)
- “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father;” (John 20, to Mary Magdalene)
- “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” (John 20, to Thomas)
John starts with something that is barely story and more description, the abstraction of language itself, the Word. By the end of the book we have moments of a human life, powerful in their intimacy.
I point this out to frame an idea that Nouwen spends some time with: uniqueness. He warns against a perspective on being taken that looks too much at what was left on the last supper table writing “To be chosen does not mean that others are rejected” (54). Later he writes “Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, [being chosen] accepts others in their own uniqueness” (55). I would claim that this uniqueness he speaks of is a defiance of abstraction.
My field (Computer Science) has been called the science of abstraction. What is this abstraction I keep referring too? One of the foremost Computer Scientists Edsger Dijkstra put it this way:
Being abstract is something profoundly different from being vague… The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.
That is to say abstraction creates new meaning that doesn’t quite fit the original inspiration. The original does not carry the new meaning precisely. While a wonderful tool for a computer scientist it is limited in what it can tell us about what inspired the abstraction.
We can see this struggle in computer science when it tries to connect the desired abstractions with the world. If we look too closely things start to fall apart. At the very limits of bending the physical world to simulate abstraction we find uniqueness fighting our efforts. As things get smaller we are no longer dealing with a material as much as individual atoms. And this is how Nouwen says we are chosen, in a way that embraces our uniqueness. We see this in the Psalms:
- Psalm 139:13–16
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
As Nouwen puts it:
Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to use by those who meet us in clock-time–our brief chronological existence–but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity. (58)
Another useful tools that I have as a Computer Scientist is statistics. That is ascribing the behavior of a collection to the individuals in that collection. This works when you use that to make judgements about the collection, but quickly breaks down when you try to make judgements about individuals. I hear statistics in the voice that Nouwen warns us of which says:
“You are Nothing special; you are just another person among millions; your life is just one more mouth to feed; your needs just one more problem to solve.” (56)
This is an abstraction that is directly seeking to negate the effect that uniqueness has. From that perspective being chosen means rejecting in one way or the other. For Nouwen the beloved must look at being chosen a different way. He says:
But I beg you, do not surrender the word “chosen” to the world. Dare to claim it as your own, even when it is constantly misunderstood. (56)
Finally Nouwen expounds on some steps to take to help keep that perspective in mind.
- “Keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and in the long run, destructive.” (59)It is true that there are millions of people that live on a spec of dust in the universe. But it is also true that we are unique and chosen.
- “Keep looking for people and places where your truth is spoken and where you are reminded of your deepest identity as the chosen one.” (59)Community is not something to belong to in the abstract, but instead a place to experience truth.
- “Celebrate your chosenness constantly.” (60)Nouwen urges us that we are a product of divine choice, not accidents.
These three steps resonate with me as steps toward building the church in the world. They are steps that I can imagine listed as steps toward goals such as peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and justice. I seldom, however, have connected these goals with the idea that we are chosen. More often I would think of something like “fairness” as a concept to pull from those related ideas. Being chosen and embracing uniqueness, however, has a quality of “unfairness” that is intriguing. Not an unfairness in favoring one over the other, but path and a journey that is tailored to our uniqueness.
- Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ↩