In my ongoing discussion I’ve begun here on the topic of mercy, I’ll be sharing a bit from the masters, including Henri Nouwen, a Netherlands-born priest who had a profound grasp on so much of the spiritual life’s joys and struggles.
Nouwen, in a talk he gave in Quebec in 1991, said that when we are in community — and we all are in some sense, whether family or otherwise — we tend to “collect other people’s struggles.” And that can be a challenge, as we all know.
So in the collection of others’ struggles, he said, we have to be alerted to our vulnerabilities. “How do you receive them without them getting stuck in you?” he asked. “It’s a profound spiritual question.”
Indeed. I’ve been challenged by the same often in my life. But like Nouwen, on my best days, I have come to understand what he’s conveying here, and how important it is to not allow others’ resentments to get stuck in us. Doing so only detracts from the higher work we’ve been called to do.
Or, as St. Cyril of Alexandria, who died in 444, once said: “When…any thing which concerns God’s glory has to be done, let no impediment stand in the way; let your earnestness be without pretext; your zealous exertions ardent and irrepressible.”
In order to be used by God best, we need to figure this out, to understand how to free ourselves to be a worthy vessel.
To receive people’s anger, confusion or pain “while you remain standing in it,” he said, “you need to let it move through you…and that’s only possible when you are primarily a grateful person.”
Without gratitude already firmly in place, he hinted, “the resentments of them connect to your resentments…and it becomes very painful, and it’s not good for others either.”
It makes sense, doesn’t it? I’m sure we’ve all experienced this at some point — perhaps successfully at times, and not so successfully at other times. Like Nouwen mentions, this can be challenging. But it’s worth pondering, and praying about.
He further mused that people who come to us with their resentments need to know their complaints are “safe” with us. “If it’s safe with us it won’t destroy us,” he said. “People can only safely bring their pain to you when the pain they bring does not destroy you, does not harm you.”
Likewise, when we are struggling, we, too, need to seek out those kinds of people who can “receive it and let it be embraced by God’s love.” Nouwen here offered words to use: “I receive it, I lift it up in your name (God), to be forgiven and healed.”
See what’s happening? You are giving the pain that they’ve presented and handing it over to God. You are not taking it into yourself. You are allowing it to move through you, and into God’s capable hands.
For when you hold onto it, you’re not free, and either are they.
The struggle, he said, is for us to hear others’ pain and to ask, “Is this a good time to receive it? Am I ready to let it go through me without clinging to it?”
It’s a spiritual discipline, he suggests, to ask this question, and listen for the answer.
If the answer is no, that it’s not the right time to hear others’ pain and resentment, he suggests: then “let’s be silent together, and acknowledge a larger space in which we both dwell, and be in touch with (that) something larger.”
He concluded that it’s only when we’ve been well-received that we can receive others well.
A real-life example might be the following. Earlier this week, I received notification of a Tweet that had referenced my post from two weeks back. The sender seemed resentful:
It would have been tempting to allow her words to get stuck in me, and to lash out in turn. But I saw the trap. Instead, summoning the grateful heart within, I realized how any energy directed toward this comment would have been wasted energy. So I simply set it free, letting it pass through me and into God’s capable hands.
I realize this is a little different than when someone seeks us out, hoping for a listening ear, and yet I still sense that somewhere deep within the person who sent out the Tweet, that desire is there.
Nouwen’s suggestion that this is a spiritual discipline also resonates; this deciding when to take something into ourselves, or when to hand it off to God instead. In handing it off in this instance, I was freed to focus on other matters that begged for attention.
This wisdom of Nouwen’s seems applicable to so many situations in life in which we are called to be God’s vessel, and even challenged to do so in difficult circumstances.
Are we ready? Is this the right time? If someone is sincerely reaching out for help, can we offer that to them? Or do we need to pause? How can we get to a point of gratitude so we can show sincere mercy?
The takeaway, to me, is that we need to be filled up first, loved first, emptied out first of our own resentments before we can receive others’. We need to clean out our own cobwebs, so that we can let the hurts of others pass through us, and into the hands of God — the only One who can take that brokenness and heal it.
Only when we’ve been healed will it be possible for us to feel true gratitude, and extend mercy to others.
Q4U: Have you ever been in the position to receive someone’s hurts and allow them to move through you to God?