I recently read a short little book by Henri Nouwen, titled "Letters to Marc about Jesus". Nouwen wrote seven letters to his nephew Marc, with the aim of providing some spiritual direction to this young man who was making his way in a world that is increasingly lacking in spiritual opportunities.
The letters are composed at a time when Nouwen himself was discerning his own spiritual call; he was working with Canadian Jean Vanier in one of the L'Arche communities in France. Eventually, he came to Canada to work at L'Arche Daybreak in the Richmond Hill area. But, enough of the book review and history.
One piece of spiritual advice that Nouwen offers his nephew is to follow Jesus' path on the descending Way. He goes to some length to explain what he means by "descending", focusing on the theme of Jesus' demonstrated relationship to others: a relationship of humility, servant-hood, shared suffering, shared joy. It was a new way of being in community, a community built on compassion.
Nouwen expresses his understanding that Jesus demonstrated and taught his disciples that God's love would take them downwards into grief, pain and sorrow, a descending journey where they would encounter those who were hurt, damaged and crushed. It was in this place, with these people, that God's love would be found, and where God's work would be done. Those that followed Jesus would do that work, God being their helper. In that work, the ascending Way would be shown.
Nouwen's letter about the descending Way frames a challenge that I'm not certain I can handle. Frankly, I don't know if my faith is strong enough to do what he suggests; I don't think I have the heart for it and I'm fearful of failure. Nouwen declares that it is not enough to stand on the high ground I've chosen and extend a hand to those below. It's not enough to offer money when it's my hand, my heart and my soul that's needed.
Nouwen says that the descending Way cannot be travelled by proxy and God's love cannot be experienced at arm's length. Nouwen recognized in himself, the brokenness, the damaged and hurtful parts that were keeping him from God's love; he was convinced that it was the descending Way of love that would allow him to return to living fully.
I have heard this message, or a similar message, from other spiritual leaders. If you want to find Jesus, go to where the hurt is. Intuitively, I get the rightness of it; but, it's a major step away from the comfortable place that I have chosen. I have a sense that in taking the descending Way, I will leave one community behind while encountering another. One thing that I'm afraid of is that I cannot have a foot in both communities - that I will have to make a choice. The other fear that lurks in my mind is what I will find out about myself on that journey...at the very least, an imperfect version of myself. Who will accompany me on the Way, and who will I meet when I get there?
I suppose the other challenge (it's actually another fear) is that I do not know...I'm not allowed to know, how the journey will unfold. I'm not even certain if it will end. Can I take it slowly, one step at a time ? Or, will it be like sitting down on a playground slide and letting go - no stopping until you get to the bottom? For someone who prides himself on map reading and navigation skills, this would truly be a journey into the unknown. All it takes is one, deliberate first step.