The Scandal of Particularity



“Quick, Chris! Take a picture!” Henri said gleefully.

Former and present seminarians will recognize the phrase “scandal of particularity.” In Christianity, it has to do with the question of incarnation: why was a transcendent God manifest in the first century Palestinian Jewish male named Jesus?

But the phrase came to me as I read again Henri Nouwen’s description of Adam, the core member to whom he was assigned as assistant when he joined L’Arche, an international and ecumenical community for people with disabilities (core members) and their assistants who create a kind of family for one another, enabling all to live up to their potential.

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe, and indeed, the heart of God.” Henri wrote this in his posthumously published book, Adam: God’s Beloved. Like Jesus, Adam manifested God, indeed “the heart of the universe” to Henri.

I was reminded of this while reading Michael Ford’s Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen in preparation for a weekend spiritual formation course I will be teaching in September. I had read the British edition when the book was first published a few years after Henri’s death in 1996, but am now reading the U.S. edition. I didn’t read it earlier because I assumed it was primarily the same book, but after nearly two decades, it reads fresh and even more insightfully than the first time around.

Henri continued, “After my many years of studying, reflecting, and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.”

Any of us who have fallen in love, given birth to a child, cared for a loved one or even simply taken care of a pet or a garden might similarly testify. Roman Catholic training for the priesthood had denied Henri what is called “a particular friendship,” so, in a way, Adam could be said to be Henri’s first permissible “particular friendship.”

Anyone who met Henri knew, though, that when he was attending to you, you were the only person in the room, just as we would expect of the warmest pastors, politicians, and “client-centred” therapists.

His challenge was seeing himself also reflecting the heart of the universe, the heart of God.

As early as his 1966 book, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, Henri’s spiritual director John Eudes Bamberger had advised him to take as his koan, “I am the glory of God,” telling him that if the glory of God were not manifest in him, were then?

Henri was still struggling with that concept in The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, a journal released thirty years later on the day he died, September 21, 1996. In that journal kept eight years earlier, he had adjured himself, “Claim the God in you.”

Henri wrote of an experience common to many of us. It is hard to bear the responsibility of being a child of God, a child of the universe. Many of us treat it as “above our pay grade.”

A recent New York Times science article sought to correct the misimpression that “the universe started someplace,” saying that “The universe didn’t start at a place, it started at a time, namely 13.8 billion years ago. … When we look out, we look into the past… At the centre is the present. … So where is the centre of the universe? Right here. Yes, you are the centre of the universe.”

Lest this sound like the teaching of EST (for those who remember it) or some other New Age* narcissistic notion, the article goes on to say essentially that we each have our own take on the universe, and that only together can we piece together our knowledge of reality.

The early Christians “got” this when they came to see one another as the Body of Christ. Working together, we can be Christ in the world, claiming the God in us, manifesting the heart of God. God is no longer simply to be found in a first-century Palestinian Jewish male, but in everybody, every time, every place, every culture, every religion, every race, every nation, every condition.

Try this mantra on for size: “I am the glory of God.” That should humble us, expand our consciousness, and enlarge our compassion.

Give God the opportunity to be particular in you.

*I don’t mean to imply all New Age spiritualities are narcissistic. Many are just the opposite!

Consider joining me for a spiritual formation course on Henri Nouwen on the twentieth anniversary of his passing: Be Still! Be Loved! Be Grateful! Three Imperatives of the Spiritual Life, September 22-25, 2016.

The Henri Nouwen Society is hosting an international conference on Nouwen in Toronto June 9-11, 2016. Click here for more information.

Donate $100 to this blog or set up regular monthly giving of $10 and receive a signed gift copy of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy. Limited supply.

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       Chris R. Glaser

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