Henry J. M. Nouwen first met his friend Fred Bratman when Bratman was interviewing Nouwen for the New York Times. Sensing the Bratman wasn’t especially happy in his work, Nouwen encouraged him to pursue his dream of writing a book. The two men became good friends, despite their many differences in outlook and lifestyle. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who wrote extensively about Christianity and the spiritual life. Bratman was a secular Jew living in New York City. Bratman was interested in Nouwen’s work but didn’t feel a connection to the content, so one day he suggested that Nouwen write a book for him and people like him. This little book is the result.
The central idea that Nouwen shares in this book is that we, all of us, are the beloved. He writes,
The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?
Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It is certainly not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody—unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”
These voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection.
In the remaining chapters, Nouwen writes about the kind of mental and spiritual habits and ways of life that can bring the knowledge of being the Beloved into daily life—“to close the gap between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life.” He sums up this kind of life in four words: “taken” (or chosen); “blessed”; “broken”; and “given.” Then, he tells stories and offers reflections on what each of these words mean.
This is precisely the kind of book I often find it difficult to like. There are a lot of wise sayings and the occasional lovely-sounding expression whose meaning isn’t clear. It’s not particularly intellectual, and some of his remarks are more platitudinous than substantive. But there’s a sense of authenticity in Nouwen’s voice that makes his writing much more palatable that so much inspirational self-help writing. He writes of some of his own struggles with depression and his feelings of inferiority, and he tells stories of residents of the L’Arche community in Toronto where he served as pastor.
I think, too, that one of the things that makes this book work for me is that I recognize how powerful that idea of positive self-talk, as opposed to self-rejection, can be. Everything around us seems to be geared toward telling us how we need fixing (and that’s especially true in this season of New Year’s resolutions). It’s easy to forget that we are Beloved just as we are, that we do not need fixing to be of worth in the world. And Nouwen’s perspective on this is not about believing false things about ourselves to make ourselves feel good. Instead, we are to embrace the ways we are broken as parts of who we are, recognizing that “everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity.”
Also helpful is that fact that this is a short book, only 149 pages with no much type on each page. I read it in the space of a single afternoon. If it had been longer, I think I would have gotten tired of it.
Nouwen concludes be sharing that when he presented this book to his friend Bratman he learned that it didn’t connect with him any more than Nouwen’s previous books had. Their perspectives were just too different. Given how much Nouwen emphasized being Beloved (by God) as well as being Taken and Blessed (also by God), I didn’t find his friend’s reaction to be much of a surprise. Much of what Nouwen says presumes some sort of awareness of a higher power or spiritual plane. Much of it would be useful to those who are skeptical about God, but the main argument rests on a belief in God’s presence, and it’s hard to get away from that, as Nouwen himself acknowledges. But for those who do believe, this book offers valuable wisdom on remembering who we all are. We are the Beloved.