There’s a lot that no one ever tells you. No one ever told me how despair can get physical, muscle in and sprawl heavy across the chest.
I settle on the couch beside my 31-year-old friend who has Stage 4 breast cancer, the cells multiplying and insulting her body as we flip through her favorite reality TV shows. But no reality show smacks as real as what’s happening on this couch, at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, as I shove three-bean salad into my mouth and we discuss work, the sniping naked-and-afraid couple up on screen—anything but the cancer.
I feel smothered by this shroud I’ve woven from sorrow and fear. Morning after morning, prayer clumps in my mouth like ash.
Poet Marie Howe says: “Everything shared is better.” I’m trying to nest inside the good sense of these four words.
In this sluggish moment, only words that deliver themselves raw and trembling have a prayer of tearing the shroud and sweeping the ash. So I’ve returned to the white-knuckled prose of Henri Nouwen’s self-described “secret journal,” The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, which covers a bleak six-month span, from 1987 into 1988. I bend over these pages in the weak light of dawn, reading tiny chunks of text, as Nouwen intended, gnawing on his reflections like scraps of daily bread.
Nouwen dug this nourishment bare-handed from the muck of what he called his “exile,” as he attempted to emerge from the devastation of an unrequited fascination with another man.
“Just when I had found a home, I felt absolutely homeless,” writes Nouwen, a Catholic priest, writer, and teacher who’d recently settled in the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto. “Just when I was being praised for my spiritual insights I felt devoid of faith. Just when people were thanking me for bringing them closer to God, I felt that God had abandoned me. It was as if the house I had finally found had no floors… Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”
Not the cheeriest of sentences, but cheering nonetheless: A spiritual titan reckoned with his own days of shroud and ash. The man who wrote, “We can choose joy,” often didn’t.
Initially, Nouwen was loath to publish this collection; too close to the breaking bone, I suspect. But I’m grateful that he, too, believed “everything shared is better,” because Nouwen’s admissions grant me admission to a tender place, to the house that has no floors. These reflections seem whispered. How decent he is trying to be—not self-indulgent, but kind.
Nouwen remains clear-eyed about the demons kicking around his own house (the Rev. James Martin quotes a friend of Nouwen’s who called him “probably the neediest human being I’ve ever met.”), but he doesn’t cast them out.
“Where you are most human, most yourself, weakest, there Jesus lives”; “When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness”: Nouwen does not refuse unresolved darkness.
But Nouwen doesn’t draw us a warm bath: His words smart, because they lay bare the very frailties I labor to keep hidden. I’d rather hang out over in Mini Cat Town on Instagram than hold my cup of darkness, thank you very much, because sometimes the truth does hurt: “You must believe in the yes that comes back when you ask, ‘Do you love me?’ ” he writes, poking at my nearly lifelong craving for reassurance. “You must choose this yes even when you do not experience it.”
Nouwen claims this period replenished his creativity and hope. In the meantime, I hold fast to the belief that he’s whispering, to my friend’s cancer-wracked body, in its groundlessness, and to my despairing body, one town away: “Whatever you bring inside this house, it can hold.
“Indeed, this house has no floors,” I imagine him saying. “But whatever happens here, we can stand.”