1e Henri Nouwen Lezing

Last modified: 01 January 1970 02:00:00



First Henri Nouwen Lecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands
27 November 1999


Long ago in a Far Eastern Buddhist monastery there was a treasured, very large, clay statue of the Buddha. Its origin was unknown but it was valuable because of its raw beauty, and its size.

The nearby Town Council made a decision to allow a new highway to cut through the property of the monastery causing displacement of the monks to a newly constructed monastery. When they were to move it was the rainy season. With the help of a hired crane their treasured Buddha was being moved but the statue was too fragile and suddenly a large crack began to open in its side. The abbot ordered the crane operator to stop and lower the Buddha onto the open land even though night was falling and with the night, the rain. The monks covered the statue from top to bottom with large tarpaulins to protect it from the wind and the rains.

The abbot could not sleep. He worried that the heavy rain would do further damage to their wonderful statue so he got up and with a flashlight he carefully worked his way between the tarpaulins until he was ‘inside’ and able to examine the Buddha. The statue was dry but shining the light into the statue’s crack the abbot was blinded by bright rays of reflected light. Something in the crack was gleaming and that caused him shock and fear.

Early in the morning he sent several of the monks to the ‘inside’ of the shelter to confirm what he had seen. They emerged with amazement in their eyes. What could it be? Something was hidden under the clay.

Carefully they unwrapped the statue and, standing before the Buddha, they prayed for guidance. They together decided to crack the clay from the Buddha to reveal the mystery beneath.

As the clay fell away to the sound of their hammers, a very large, very beautiful, solid gold statue of the Buddha emerged. The monks could hardly believe the unfolding truth before their eyes.

"This is so beautiful," they said to one another. "But how did it get here?" "Whoever gave us such a wonderful treasure?" "Just think! It has been here for hundreds of years and no one knew about it." "Imagine! Some monks lived and died and never knew about the ‘Golden Buddha’!" That day the ‘Golden Buddha’ was moved to its permanent home in the new monastery.

Why was the statue covered with clay in the first place? The monks concluded that a very long time ago their monastery may have been threatened by an invasion. Knowing the value of the Golden Buddha the monks of old decided to cover its beauty and make it look more unattractive. Perhaps all those monks were annihilated and when others came to reestablish the monastery the clay Buddha was there in their midst but its hidden beauty was covered with clay.

A move, a crack, and a courageous choice led to the dis-cover-y of the true and Golden Buddha.


I like the image of life as a journey mainly because movement forward removes the image of life as static. I also believe that the short but important journey of the Golden Buddha is a good image for some of my reflections. The move of the Buddha from the old monastery to the new one was not as simple as the monks thought it would be. It was, for the Buddha, a move from one identity to a more true identity. The real journey of our lives is also a movement towards claiming for ourselves a truer and truer sense of who we really are and of the meaning of our lives.


The clay Buddha was very large and very beautiful. It was the treasure of the monestary but there was more to the clay statue than met the eye. Before its move it was not totally known for what it really was. A richer identity was yet to be known.


Henri Nouwen’s story is another good example of life’s outward journey because his life was quite public. He first claimed who he was by choosing to be a priest and a psychologist and as he claimed this identity he took on a greater sense of himself because he also became a teacher, a lecturer, and an author. He and others saw 'who he was' in ‘what he did', and that was good. As a successful priest and author he gained experience in many different settings and cultures, acquired many friends and contacts, received a good income, and broadened his education. He and those around him also saw 'who he was' in 'what he had', and that was good too. Finally in his journey outward he obtained a good reputation as someone who was articulate, intelligent, good, and spiritual. He recognized his identity in 'how others thought about him'. The journey outward to establish himself in his life was a journey that separated him from others and spoke to him of how he was 'different' from everyone else. Establishing for himself and others his uniqueness was important and it was good. But this identity was not the whole truth.

Perhaps you and I make a similar outward journey. Growing up we work to claim ourselves as 'special' and 'different' especially from our parents but also from others. We tell ourselves that we will not raise our children the way we were raised! We will do a better job of it. Or, we believe that we will be special in our professional life - a better computer expert, business person, or dentist, than others. Our identity is in ‘what we do’. We also work to have security by gaining wealth, a good home, perhaps a summer home and a boat, special skills that others do not have. Here we are recognized for ‘what we have’. And we hope that others will see us as smart, funny, an excellent cook, a good neighbor, or a successful parent. We are ‘what others see in us’. This outward journey towards our uniqueness from others is important for our sense of self but it is not our true identity.


The clay Buddha had to be moved. Taking all the necessary precautions the monks expected that it would take a short time and then all would be normal again. The monks were not careless. The crack was unexpected, unplanned, and it was no one’s fault. When it happened it caused shock and pain because the crack was irreversible. Things with the Buddha would never be the same again. The monks did not have any education, skill, or experience to help them make good decisions about their treasure because all their possible choices were full of risk. To continue with the move meant further damage. To leave the statue on the ground meant destruction by the rains. And to break the old clay away meant risking the total loss of their treasure. All that had gone before was as nothing now as the monks had to act, but how?

Henri Nouwen in his mid fifties was unhappy in the academic setting and decided to let go of his career to find his home in community with people with disabilities and their caregivers. It seemed the right move to make at that time. Among many other things, Henri was invited to help take care of Adam, a very handicapped man who was unable to speak, walk, or dress himself. This was something entirely new for Henri and when he began to learn Adam’s routines he never dreamed that Adam would become his friend, his teacher and his guide. Henri describes their unfolding relationship in his book entitled, Adam, God’s Beloved. But finding a safe home with people like Adam who loved him not for ‘what he did or had’, but for ‘who he was’ also gave him a certain safety to let down his defences. Fourteen months after his move Henri suffered a nervous breakdown. He simply could no longer function either as a priest, a writer, or a teacher. He was in total anguish and unable to work or to relate well with others. He said that the breakdown was the result of the interruption of a relationship that was important to him and perhaps that was true but it was also more than that. With the interruption of the friendship something inside of him 'cracked' and at that moment everything changed. He could no longer perform as usual nor could he stop in such a sea of pain. All that he had gained for himself on his outward journey was of no help to him in this moment and yet something had to be done. But what?

I suggest that many of us, at one time or anther, gradually or suddenly, experience such a moment in out lives. It may come in the form of the irreversible loss of something that has been important for us. It could be the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child, or a cherished relationship, a job, our reputation, or we could lose our health by an accident or surprise diagnosis, or it could be the loss of a dream that had given hope to our lives. At this moment everything changes for us. This loss is the cause of deep anguish which we may or may not be able to share with others. To some extent we find we have lost control and are unable either to keep going or to go back and regain what is gone forever. We experience deep disillusionment and we gradually realize that everything that went before in our lives is of no significance to us now; not our education, experience, wealth, or relationships. All seems impossible and we find we are unable to deny or pretend any longer. It is a moment of truth that is extremely painful. Somehow choices must be made, but we feel inadequate, unprepared, and alone. We must go forward, but how?


The monks chose to risk all, crack away the clay, and find out if there was more under the surface. Theirs was a good risk because under the clay was the pure gold Buddha. Without the crack, they may never have known about it.

At the time of his breakdown Henri was spending time each morning with Adam, waking him, dressing him, helping him with breakfast and getting him off to work. It was an unusual relationship but Adam was gradually revealing to Henri that being helpless was not all of who he was. Helplessness had somehow formed and shaped Adam into a man of deep peace and radiance. So, when the crack came for Henri it was his unlikely friend, Adam, from whom he drew the courage to ‘crack’ further the inner crust, and to journey down to deeper truth. With fear and trembling Henri chose to take some time in solitude with the help of two ‘wise guides’, who listened to him and held onto him during his crisis. In quiet prayer, in suffering and loneliness, and with the help of his guides, he chipped away some of the illusions of his life about himself and others. He had no need here to pretend or deny the pain of his losses and in this time he began to uncover below his feelings, some deeper truths of his identity and humanity. His creation was in and from God. God was a personal God and Henri was, like Jesus, a beloved child, a son of God. The Scriptures revealed how God loved him with an unconditional and everlasting love. Henri, shedding his illusions, recognized that others would never completely satisfy his need for love but that God "held him in the palm of God’s hand". Henri’s inward journey is described in more detail in his book, The Inner Voice of Love. What is significant for us is that Henri may never have known this deeper self if he had not experienced the irreversible ‘crack’ that sent him on the journey inwards to the truth of his life.

You and I also have choices to make after the experience of irreversible losses that cause us so much suffering and pain. Time is to be respected. As we realize the irreversibility of our loss we need time to weep, to question, to search for someone to blame, and to feel deep hurt and resentment. Eventually we come to the place where blame does nothing to touch us and where there is no more energy for pretending or denying. The inner pain no longer allows us to push onward, stay busy, and forget. We may experience confusion, fear, and depression because our choices seem very limited and painful. To go on is not possible, to stop is unthinkable, and to ask for help is confusing and frightening. We fear being known as weak and vulnerable and we don’t see who can help us in this place of radical need. There is no way back and no way forward. And deep within there is raw anguish. It is at this point that choices are important. Either there is more to our existence or there isn’t. Either we choose despair or we take a step forward into the darkness of faith. And it is often some unlikely friend like Adam who points the way and helps us to find the courage to plunge into the dark but living waters of our humanity where wonderful truths are hidden. We do not usually do this alone and our first thought is to seek psychological help. This is important to support us to ‘read our history’ and get some feedback. But the psychiatrist or psychologist does not often lead us into the realms of mystery or the mystical. This is where unlikely friends who have integrated their losses and wise people who have suffered and who are still smiling often support us in our passage to a deeper sense of ourselves.


There was more to the clay Buddha. Under the clay was gold.

Adam never read any of Henri’s books or appreciated any of his lectures, but Adam gave himself to Henri in all his vulnerability and weakness and became a brother to him on his journey. Adam was an unlikely friend, a quiet and steady support, and a true brother. With Adam quietly beside him, Henri, in his vulnerability, gradually recognized that his own life was more than ‘what he did’, ‘what he had’, or ‘what others thought about him’. There was inner light, revealing to him, inner truth about strength and weakness, life and death. He, Henri, was created a child of the living and personal God whose name was Love. Henri could more profoundly accept that his life was wonderful and fragile, full of acheivements and gifts, and also with deep vulnerability. And he knew with conviction that in the eyes of God he was a beloved son of God, chosen and loved since before he was born. Further, Henri realized that he had wonderful capacities to truly love others with love that went beyond his feelings and reactions. He was touching into new depths of mystery and truth. Who he was was enough. He was acceptable the way he was, and loved with conditional and unconditional love, with all his beauty and all his weakness, and with his capacity to give love to others. With this sense of his deeper and truer identity Henri gradually chose to live again, to embrace the pain of his life, and to welcome more honestly the pain and the darkness around him.

If you and I find courage to make the inward journey, we, too will experience deeper and precious truth. Beneath the clay there is an inner, (golden), privileged place where Love lives. God is ‘God-with-us’. Scripture instructs us, "...my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them." (John 14: 23). "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.... Because you are precious in my eyes and honoured and I love you......Do not fear, for I am always with you. (Isaiah 43: 1-5).

Yes, we are truly precious children of a living and loving God, chosen and loved as we are. We are loved with God’s unconditional love and we have great capacity to love others. When we really know and accept that we are Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, we find courage and energy to love even when it is difficult.


We share a desire and a great helplessness as people of the richer nations to relieve the burdensome debts that disempowers our brothers and sisters in the poorer nations. It is important for us to know that there is an area of debt relief that rests within our hands and it has to do with forgiveness. The inward journey in exposing our inner, deeply painful wounds, reveals too our hardness of heart towards those who wounded us; ourselves, our parents, our spouse, our friend, our child. We have blamed and judged others and have broken the unity between us and our families, and our churches. Perhaps it is a time for us to struggle with the inner resistence and risk to choose to let ourselves or others go free. Perhaps the greatest debt relief is within our reach. Convinced of our identity as beloved children of God perhaps it is you and I who will choose to step through our pain and to let our love flow even to those who have wounded us. Can we forgive ourselves and others? Not easily. But the God who makes a home in our hearts will give us the force to liberate those we hold captive by our anger, hatred, and resentment. And amazingly, this journey outward to liberate others of their debt to us will also be our freedom from the hardness of heart that holds us captive. When they go free, so do we. Each of us has power to lift the enormous burden of hatred, resentment, anger and fear.

Life is a journey, inward to a deeper, truer, identity and outward to reconciliation, unity, and true love.

The words of the late Marina San Giorgi, a Dutch poet who died in 1994 encourage us to make the inward journey to a deeper and truer identity.

If you feel that it is true
If you really feel that your life makes wonderful sense
If you sense that it is true
That everything here below has meaning
Then you will not feel sad
for the leaf that has fallen.

( from : Een glimlach kwam voorbij, page 18, Lannoo, Tielt ISBN 90 209 2374 9)