The Wisdom of Henri Nouwen: How Vulnerability Comes to Life During Lent

The Wisdom of Henri Nouwen: How Vulnerability Comes to Life During Lent February 19, 2013

For Lent this year I’m fasting from all foods after 9pm. The reason I’m doing this is not very interesting. It’s just that I typically use up all of my will power about 8:30 and by the time I hit the sack two hours later, I’ve usually eaten around a thousand calories of junk. I’m a gluttony-machine after 9pm. It’s one of my many unhealthy emotional crutches, so I’m giving it up.

What I’m giving up for Lent is boring. The reason why I’m giving it up is way more interesting.

Last week I spoke about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (you can listen here). In Henri Nouwen’s great book In the Name of Jesus he reflects on this story. Nouwen says that the three temptations Jesus faced were the temptations to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular.

About the temptation to be RELEVANT, Nouwen has this to say:

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”

I think you can remove the words “leader of the future” and it makes just as much sense. The Christian is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but one’s own vulnerability. We have no idea how difficult this is, or how counter-cultural it is.

That’s why we give something up for Lent – it teaches us to be vulnerable.

The temptation to be POWERFUL is related. Nouwen says,

“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible… is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

Holy cow. Power/Control is the favorite culture substitute for the hard task of love. That stings.

There’s no better example of this than parenting. How will you lead your kids when you no longer hold all the power? Parents who only lead through size & position struggle like crazy when their kids become teenagers, because the parents never learned how to lead through their own vulnerability. Vulnerability is essential for love to exist. No vulnerability – no love. Leading through love is the way of Jesus. Leading through power is the way of the tempter.

That’s why we give something up for Lent. It trains us in powerlessness.

The third temptation is the temptation to be SPECTACULAR, which is huge in our culture. I think a key question of our time is: In a world where the spectacular is king, who will dare to do a small thing faithfully? Who will risk being faithful in obscurity? Who will dare to follow Jesus while nobody is watching?

That’s why we give up something for Lent. It teaches us to do a small thing faithfully.

During Lent we choose to give up a thing or two – what we give up is not that important; why we do is everything. Lent dares us to undergo life without one or two of our favorite pacifiers. Eating after 9pm is my pacifier. It doesn’t really nourish my soul; it just keeps my soul quiet. In Lent we go without these things, and the soul starts to cry out, bearing witness to our need to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular.

Nothing is too small to give up because anything we give up will eventually point out to us the ways in which our soul so often turns to something other than God to get us through the day.

It’s not too late. Pick one thing. Give it up until Easter. Allow it to show you the ways in which you are yielding to the temptations Jesus faced – to be relevant, to be powerful, to be spectacular. Allow it to teach you about the vulnerability that leads to love.

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  • Hi Tim,
    I am with the Las Vegas Catholic Worker. I came across your site when I googled to find some Dorothy Day quotes. If you are ever in the area let me know. We can visit and I could perhaps organize a gathering and round table reflection.