Henri Nouwen and Lent

This morning I was reflecting on Lent, remembering how I began wondering what it was all about and unsure how to even approach it. Well, after a month I still feel the same ambivalence towards the whole practice of Lent. I’m just not getting it. My life has been as busy as ever and to be honest it is a lot easier to let busyness replace the reflective observance of Lent. Feeling somewhat frustrated and questioning why I even bothered attempting this religious observance, I decided to google Henri Nouwen and Lent. Now, for anyone who has read any Nouwen, he’s probably one of the most quotable Christian writers in recent history, so I didn’t have much trouble finding some inspiration. Here’s a quote I found helpful, and, well, a little daunting as well…

How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.... I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.

This quote describes the tension I have when I consider my Lenten observance. I can identify with the frustration of having “missed the spiritual fruits of the season” due to my own lack of intentional devotion. The second part of the quote illustrates why myself, and perhaps others as well, struggle to participate in Lent. This is the fact that Christian spirituality, illustrated in the observance of Lent, is about self-sacrifice. And to be quite honest, I don’t really want to sacrifice control over my life. In a world where forms of pop-spirituality promise “spiritual fruits” at no expense to oneself, this Christian participation of ‘dying to self’ is incredibly unpopular. However, what I am most struck by is Nouwen’s clarity for why this is so important to Christian spirituality; namely, dying to self is the only way to truly live in participation with God, which means being able to “rejoice fully in your (Christ’s) Resurrection.” Christian self-denial is not an empty practice of ascetic spirituality. Instead, Christian spirituality dies to the self in order to truly live. It isn’t life denying, it is life affirming.

In light of this sobering quote, I realize why Lent has been a difficult time for me; Christian spirituality is hard work! And while I would like to jump to a celebration of the blessings we experience in light of the Resurrection, I think Nouwen is right to emphasize the need to walk through this pain in order to fully embrace the joy!

Thank Henri!


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