An Unlikely Teacher

The late Henri Nouwen is one of the most celebrated spiritual writers of the modern era. He taught at Yale and Harvard and wrote over 40 books, but for the last ten years of his life he lived with physically and mentally challenged people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada. In their little community, there were six people with disabilities and three other assistants besides Nouwen. None of the assistants were particularly trained to work with people who were mentally and physically challenged, but they received much help from doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and behavioral management people in their city.

Writing of that community Nouwen says, “We all have our gifts, our struggles, our strengths and weaknesses. We eat together, play together, pray together, go out together. We all have our own preferences with regard to work, food, and movies, and we all have problems in getting along with someone in the house, whether handicapped or not. We laugh a lot. We cry a lot too. Sometimes both at the same time” (Finding My Way Home, 57)

For part of the time that Nouwen lived in that community he cared for Adam, the weakest member in the house. At the time, Adam was twenty-five years old, could not speak, could not dress or undress himself, could not walk alone or eat without much help. Adam suffered from severe epilepsy and, not withstanding heavy medication. There were few days without a “grand mal” seizure that would last for about an hour and a half. Though Nouwen was Adam’s caregiver, Adam became Nouwen’s teacher.

Nouwen writes, “As I sit beside the slow and heavily breathing Adam, I start seeing how violent my journey has been. This upward passage has been filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsions and obsessions, and so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge. What I believed I was doing was called ‘ministry.’ It was named ‘ministry of justice and peace,’ ‘ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation,’ ‘ministry of healing and wholeness,’ but there was disparity for me between the words and the experience” (65–66).

Nouwen says that his experience with Adam in the Daybreak community caused him to ask himself, “When I work for peace and am as interested in success, popularity, and power as those who want war, what then is the real difference between us?” (66)

Nouwen says that he learned from Adam that our identity is not tied to our doing, but our being, and that the core of the spiritual life can be found in our capacity to love. Adam taught Nouwen that real community, true peace is not constructed by tough competition, hard thinking, and individual stardom, but in simply being present to one another and working together, allowing the love of God to hold the community in a fellowship of the weak.


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