Monday, February 23, 2009

Duty at Daybreak

Our Lent study this year isn’t a study. Instead of reading a book and discussing it, we'll be practicing prayer methods together. For me, it is way more challenging to just do it than talk about it, think about it, procrastinate about it, do all my other to-do tasks than just spend time in the presence of GOD.

What better way to prepare than to retreat to the last home of Henri Nouwen? His books have been feeding my soul for years. I followed his career from a professor at Yale, to the barrios of Lima Peru in “Gracias’. He travelled the “Road to Daybreak” a little farm in Richmond Hill where a community has gathered around Jean Vanier’s vision of a full life for Mentally Handicapped adults. From a small house at the edge of this community he served as their pastor and wrote such classics as “Here and Now” and “The Way of the Heart” – the name of our Lent study.

He died in September 1996, a week after our son David was born. Carol tells me she cried when she heard the news. She thought “David will never get to meet him.”

But I got to meet him. Last Wednesday on my first night staying in his old home now called the Cedars. The Cedars is now used as a retreat house for members of the community who want a time away to rest and pray in solitude. And it is generously offered to ‘friends” of the community as well.

I was exhausted from the demands of pastoral ministry, and the routines of home - not to mention a head full of the February blahs and a runny nose. So, I called up and booked a few nights at the Cedars.

I ate a simple meal in the kitchen and sat in the very comfy living room and reveled in how good it felt to be in Henri Nouwen’s space. A library lined two of the living room’s walls. The other walls held a fireplace and a row of windows looking out on – you guessed it – cedars. I went to bed around ten very aware of the holiness of the place. I asked Jesus to give me some good dreams - please.

I awoke within the hour amazed that I had been in the presence of Henri Nouwen. He was sitting in the big armchair in the living room and I was on the couch beside him. WOW! It felt very real and I was comfortable and happy just to be in his presence sitting with him. Awake now, I thought “you fool - why didn’t you ask him a question?”. So, I fell back asleep hoping to meet up again.

And I did. My memory of it was very convoluted but I came away with a word. It was very clear that Henri had given me the word “duty”.

My first reaction was disappointment. Duty fell at my feet with a dull thud. I would have liked to have heard Passion, or Purpose, or Play or some other P word. Duty is something I often react against in the church.

I preach that we need to respond to GOD out of our passions and compassions rather than simply duty. Duty in my mind is associated with the maintenance tasks of keeping institutional structures in place instead of the ministry tasks of prayer and care, poetry and prophecy. Duty is the flip side of a guilt trip that says “You Should, You Must, You Owe it…or else…

But as i spent time with the word - like it or not - I realized that i spend a good part of every day with Duty. I pick him up on my way to work. He’s the one I don’t want to leave standing waiting for me at the curb. He’s the one who is waiting at my desk with the to-do list. He’s the one who I work with when there’s no one else to keep me on task. And he’s the one I’m always trying to ditch mid-afternoon when my eyelids droop and my brain gets foggy and my body suddenly feels like it weighs what it does.

But why do you ask Henri?

Obviously Duty is a good friend and workmate. A trusted partner who gets things done. Is there a problem?

Am I pursuing this relationship with L’Arche out of duty? Is it my duty to provide a life for David that has me here exploring and discovering? Is it necessity instead of passion that barks at my heels?

L’Arche seems like such a good fit for David. Being a part of a community that seeks to support differently-abled folks to develop their skills and talents and express their gifts is what every parent wants for their child. The real kicker is that David is a worshipper, so very attuned to spiritual matters.. And worship is central to L’Arche.

(an example: Recently I was discussing someone who is near death with a mutual friend while David waited. When I turned my attention to David he said “Jesus”.)

Or, is it duty that keeps me from opening my heart fully to the possibilities that L’Arche offers? Duty is married to Necessity. The Necessity of paying my bills and maintaining a household fills up so much of my day every day that there is little room or energy left for friends let alone GOD. To share a household with friends is a calling that Carol and I have heard for years and yet the path has eluded us.

The combination of things that bring people to L’Arche; serving the different ones, being served by them, the honouring of creativity, intellect and solitude, residing in GOD’s presence, expressing love through art and work and play and worship, are all chords that resonate deep within me. When I think of this place, the rhythm I hear beats at the same tempo as my heart. Sitting here writing this at the Cedars, I feel very much at home.

My Nature is contemplative, creative, communal. My Work is social, institutional, caretaking. My friend Duty and his wife Necessity really only want what’s best for me and mine. Duty is not the boss. The Boss wants me to fulfill my nature’s calling. Yes, just like that nature’s call to eliminate fluids and feces, my sponge is getting squeezed by the Hands of the Almighty - the Boss is getting me out of bed to respond. Duty is there waiting curbside to help me fulfill my calling.

So, Henri, Duty calls yes. But only in response to the call of my Maker.
The question is, am I being called to a new place where contemplation is a duty; where creativity is a necessity, where community is more sacred than the taskmasters of time, money, and success? Or, am I being called to be a catalyst; a part of it making it happen where I am now?

Good questions to carry into Lent.


corrie said...


What a wonderful experience and so much more thinking also, isn't God's way of telling us things a very enlightening experience? I am glad you went and had that time for yourself, I am sure it was much needed. Thank you for sharing!

Kath said...

Hi Allan,
Thanks for sharing your experience. This past summer, while at Iona, we had a week-long visit from a L'Arche group - from Inverness, as well as a L'Arche Director from New Zealand, who also writes music for the L'Arche communities. What an amazing time it was!
The 'residents' and their 'carers' form a most amazing community - we met carers who had come for a few weeks and stayed over 15 years.
The music chap, John Coleman, held a special concert/worship in the Abbey - and we had the most joyful time as the L'Arche folk sang along - body and soul - with the uplifting call and response songs which were the core of their enthusiastic expression of praise.
A most beautiful example of love and inclusion ... mind you... they did have a thing about hoarding teacups!
I have heard much about L'Arche and read Vanier and Nouwen, but they really do 'walk the talk' Thanks for bringing back my brief L'Arche experience ...such a community might well be a safe and loving home for David one day.