In 1985, Henri Nouwen left his position at Harvard Divinity School to serve at L’Arche in Trosly, France, a ministry to the mentally handicapped. He was in a journey of giving up prestige for a vocation that was more “forgotten and passed over,” as he put it.
Sting of Rejection
Within the first several months of his new life, a close friend traveling to Paris had promised to spend time with him in Trosly. But his friend returned to Boston without even a note or call that he wasn’t coming to visit. The pain of rejection stung Nouwen.
“I now wonder what to do with this experience,” he wrote in his journal. Whenever the pain of rejection would sneak up again, he’d tell himself:
If you really want to be less visible, less known, try to use this event to become more forgotten, more passed over; be grateful for the occasion. Trust that hiddenness will give you new eyes to see yourself, your world, and your God. People cannot give you new eyes; only the one who loves you without limits.
Sometimes this would work and other times it wouldn’t. So Nouwen would pray for help not to be bitter and angry. As he reflected, he realized it would take some time to understand and fully forgive. “Meanwhile,” he wrote, “I am trying to keep a sense of humor and write a few notes to people who are always close to thinking that I am rejecting them.”
Time and Space
In Nouwen’s brief journal entry we find a narrative of how he responded to the feelings of rejection. First, he reflected on what to do with it. He was confused and hurt, but nevertheless honest about his emotions. He didn’t stuff them down. Second, he brought his emotions and pain to God, asking for help in what he knew he should do—forgive and not be bitter. He worked to remind himself of what he knew to be true about his standing in this world. Third, he recognized, as time wore on, his weakness in coming to terms with and overcoming the pain with forgiveness, and he again asked God for help. Finally, the occasion helped him become aware of ways he’d caused others to feel rejected, and so he was more earnest to show his love through letters.
Something Nouwen didn’t mention, but was obvious to me, was the time and space he gave for reflection, lament, and self-correction. The circumstance provoked painful feelings of rejection. Nouwen didn’t squash the feelings, nor did he swiftly deem them illegitimate. Instead, he brought his emotions to the Lord and worked them out with him. But he didn’t do this quickly. He gave space for the Lord to heal and to correct.
Difficult and Costly
In the margin of this journal entry I noted, “Where do I make the time for this kind of reflection?” Too often I move on quickly when others cause pain. I’m not honest about the inner stew of bitterness and anger cooking. I leave pain where it is and put a pillow over top so that no one sees and so that I can forget about it, since I don’t have time for it, nor, I assume, is it worthy of my time.
Or maybe, when you read this summary, you thought the time Nouwen gave to his pain was a bit indulgent.
But what human experience and the Psalms show over and over again is that forgiveness and healing are difficult and costly. We know we should forgive, but our hearts don’t run as fast as our intellect, since they carry heavier baggage. And so it takes more time and patience, more care and reflection. The Psalms teach us we have little control over our emotions. What matters most is where we take them.
What Nouwen becomes in the process is not a more self-indulgent sulker, but one who has the ability to consider how others might feel wounded by him and makes some corrections in his life. This, in a nutshell, is soul care. And soul care takes time.
The difficult thing about soul care is that it’s not very practical. It doesn’t produce immediate fruit. The transformation is slow. And because of the slowness, it’s hard to justify. But when we ignore it, hardness grows and our inner life begins to shrivel.
Need for Time
Months later in his journal, Nouwen wrote:
It is hard for me to forgive someone who has really offended me, especially when it happens more than once. I begin to doubt the sincerity of the one who asks forgiveness for a second, third, or fourth time. But God does not keep count. God just waits for our return, without resentment or desire for revenge. God wants us home. . . . Maybe the reason it seems hard for me to forgive others is that I do not fully believe that I am a forgiven person. If I could fully accept the truth that I am forgiven and do not have to live in guilt or shame, I would really be free. My freedom would allow me to forgive others seventy times seven times.
Now perhaps you think, “Well, I can get that kind of gospel truth by reading a Tim Keller book. I don’t need all that time.” Maybe. But what a quick read will do for you intellectually won’t do for you soul-fully. What our pain and rejection need is time—time to lament, time to plead for help, time to repent. We need time to heal.