Friday, June 29, 2012

Henri Nouwen and downward mobility

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record - that's what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. 
The way of Jesus is radically different.  It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.  It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place!  Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?  Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.
--Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, June 28

Henri Nouwen's got me thinking, again. He gets me thinking every morning when I check my email and find one of his little thoughts in my inbox. But yesterday's stopped me in my tracks. Downward mobility! Brilliant thought!

In a world where the divide between rich and poor continues to widen and our environment is fighting a losing battle, it would help if the idea of downward mobility took hold. The push to keep profits rising and growth increasing has made for more trouble than the EU Summit knows how to handle, and has created huge debts at every level -- from the international to our own back yards. It has wreaked havoc on our planet's limited resources, and on our happiness as human beings. The pressure to be always upwardly mobile has created stresses that mean even children are having panic attacks these days, and families don't have time for each other. It makes me sigh.

It's silly, all of it. Who came up with this idea that there always has to be more, bigger, faster, snazzier ways to live? It's just not good for us, body, mind or soul to be always scrabbling to get to the top of the heap! Most of us could do with a little of Nouwen's downward mobility, also known as humility, because when we try to exalt ourselves above others, the opportunities for joy and belonging evaporate like the water in a birdbath on a hot summer day. And the planet is desecrated, and relationships fail, and the push for materialism to fill spiritual gaps means the cycle just perpetuates itself.

But Jesus and all wise spiritual leaders chose a different way. Jesus' disciples were waiting for him to be a king, but he was busy showing them that what was really important wasn't money and fame -- it was love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Pretty simple, and not a peep about upward mobility!

After years of living in the limelight as a sought-after spiritual writer and speaker, Henri Nouwen chose the path of downward mobility, living his last years with L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Ontario. He discovered the joy of being with people who loved him not for his accomplishments, but for being Henri, their friend and companion. His thoughts about that time make up some of his most moving writings, and underline the beauty and value of relationship with people with disabilities. They love us as we are, and that's a beautiful thing!

What really strikes me about Nouwen's words today is the everlasting life part. I look around our planet and see way too much everlasting death coming from upward mobility. However, if I can stick to Jesus' basic message about love, and love everyone and everything around me, destruction and death aren't a part of the equation at all, except in the natural cycle of life. Why can't the everlasting life of our beautiful planet for generations to come be something for which to strive? And rather than use the word Kingdom, why not substitute the word joy, as in the joy of belonging to and caring for one another? That kind of joy can be here and now if we so choose.

The happiest moments of my life have been those when I have had the opportunity to embrace or be embraced by nature, beauty, and people who love me. Those are moments of everlasting life, little bits of heaven, of the kingdom, if you prefer, of joy because I replay them over and over in my mind with a smile on my face, or tell stories about them, or look for moments like them every day. Ten p.m. rainbows included!

Life's joy comes not from being upwardly mobile, but from living in harmony and love with God's creation, and belonging to each other as God's human family. Really, that's what we all seek in our lives, believers or not. And, as Henri Nouwen says, some downward mobility would probably help!

3 comments:

  1. Michael Crosby, OFMCap, taught me to pray the Lord's Prayer differently... rather than "thy kingdom come" we might say "thy kin-dom come" as we are all family in God and I pray for the day that we all realize it! I've said it with kin-dom ever since.

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  2. I like his concept so much, and need to practice it so much better, that I'm going to write a blog exploring the subject - not because I know so much about it, but because I hope, that in thinking about it and forcing myself to write about it, I'll be forced to soak in it and learn better to do it. I think it's at the heart of everything needed in the Christian life. Thanks for what you wrote.

    Bill (soon to be at downwardmobility.net)

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