Henri Nouwen, in his writings, frequently asked this question: “How can we live inside a world marked by fear, hatred, and violence and not be destroyed by it?”
At a certain point in life that becomes the real task of spirituality: How do we stop ourselves from being sucked into the house of fear so as to live in the house of love? What’s meant by this?
We live in a world of division, hatred, and violence. One only has to watch the news to see this. Daily we see fear and hatred translated into violence and death all over the world. What’s true at this level is true too, in a less pronounced way, in our ordinary lives. Inside our families, churches, and communities we see the problems of the world played out on the small-screen of our daily lives. Bitterness, suspicion, the sense of injustice, anger, jealousy, hatred, division, and subtle forms of violence eventually penetrate even our most intimate relationships. We often don’t recognize these for what they are and consider them simply part of the normal give and take of everyday life, but gossip, slander, cynicism, cutting remarks, coldness, and resentment are really the public events of the evening news manifest in our private lives. What we see on the big-screen of the evening news, fear and its consequences, is pretty much too what we have lived during our day.
What this does is keep us, almost always, inside the house of fear. Because we live inside of families, churches, and communities where there is suspicion, gossip, cynicism, jealousy, and bitterness, it’s natural that our first instinct so often is to protect ourselves, to be suspicious, to be hard, to be cynical, to be angry. We live, as Nouwen puts it, inside the house of fear rather than inside the house of love.
How do we save ourselves from getting lost there? How do we remain tender when so much around us is hard? How do we remain free of fear when we there is so much anger around? How do we continue to share what is deep and intimate inside us when we live inside of circles rife with gossip, cynicism, and jealousy? Indeed, how do we continue to even strive to deal with this when, so often, we are just a guilty as everyone else?
There are no easy answers. Moreover this is not, as Nouwen himself points out, something that we can ever accomplish once and for all. The world is not divided up between those who have conquered fear and those who haven’t. Rather our own days and hours are divided up between those times when we live more in fear and those times when we live more in love. There are times when our fears take over and we act out of them, just as there are other times when grace opens us beyond fear and we can act in graciousness and love.
The task of coming to spiritual adulthood is very much linked with moving from fear to love. This is partly what Jesus meant when he urged us to save ourselves from this world and when, in his priestly prayer, he prayed that we might be where he is, in love, free of fear.
To be free of fear, suspicion, and the need to protect ourselves is a major spiritual task. One of the great ironies is that, both in spirituality and human life in general, this is often easier for us when we are young and immature than when we are older and supposedly wiser. Why? Because when we are young, totally independent of maturity, we are still naturally more idealistic, more wary of cynicism, more trusting, less jaded, and less in touch with our wounds. Deep neuroses, as Freud pointed out, hit us with a vengeance in mid-life and beyond. It’s then that it becomes harder to live inside of the house of love, free from bitterness and distrust. It’s there too that the air that we breathe can be so bitter and jaded.
The spiritual task of mid-life and beyond is to resist hardness, cynicism, bitterness, and fear and to become childlike and trusting again. But this isn’t easy, as any therapist or spiritual director will tell you. Alice Miller, the great Swiss analyst, suggests that the spiritual task of mid-life and beyond is that of grieving, grieving until the very foundations of our lives shake. Grieving, she suggests, is the only thing that can save us from bitterness – not a bad phrasing really for a key element within paschal transformation.
The full answer of course lies in prayer, sustained daily prayer. God is always inviting us into the house of love, but, given the hardness we so often experience in our everyday circles, it is only in intimate prayer that we can hear a voice gentle and trusting enough to entice us to let go of fear and move beyond the need to protect ourselves.