Lifesigns : intimacy, fecundity, and ecstasy in Christian perspective /
Henri J.M. Nouwen.
Image Books ed.
New York ; Toronto : Image Books / Doubleday, 2003.
viii, 114 p. ; 21 cm.
038523628X (pbk.)
More Details
New York ; Toronto : Image Books / Doubleday, 2003.
038523628X (pbk.)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Fear is the great enemy of intimacy. Fear makes us run away from each other or cling to each other but does not create true intimacy. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples were overcome by fear and they all "deserted him and ran away" (Matthew 26:56). And after Jesus was crucified they huddled together in a closed room "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). Fear makes us move away from each other to a "safe" distance, or move toward each other to a "safe" closeness, but fear does not create the space where true intimacy can exist. Fear does not create a home. It forces us to live alone or in a protective shelter but does not allow us to build an intimate home. Fear conjures either too much distance or too much closeness. Both prevent intimacy from developing.

My own experience with people whom I fear offers plenty of examples. Often I avoid them: I leave the house, move to a corner where I can remain unnoticed, or express myself in flat, noncommittal sentences. Sometimes I create a false closeness with them. I talk too long with them, laugh too loudly at their jokes, or agree too soon with their opinions. Whether I create too much distance or too much closeness, I always sense a lack of inner freedom and a resentment toward the power they have over me.

Fearful distance and fearful closeness are even more noticeable in the larger context of our lives. Prisons, mental hospitals, and refugee camps are often built far away from the places where "normal" people live, to keep the fear-evoking strangers at a safe distance. Other types of safe distance abound: safe topics to discuss, safe issues to get involved in, safe subjects to write about, safe people to invite, and so on. On the other hand, one can find the safe closeness of the clique, the sect, or the club, places where people huddle together in mutual admiration or common suspicion of the outsider. In a time like ours, when fear takes on an apocalyptic dimension, it is extremely tempting to join a small group that calls non-members useless, dangerous, or evil and offers a unique sense of belonging to those who follow the rules.

But whether through distance or closeness, fear prevents us from forming an intimate community in which we can grow together, everyone in his or her own way. When fear separates or joins us, we can no longer confess to each other our sins, our brokenness, and our wounds. How, then, can we forgive each other and come to reconciliation? Distance allows us to ignore the other as having no significance in our lives, and closeness offers us an excuse for never expressing or confessing our feelings of being hurt.

Jean Vanier, who has lived for more than twenty years with mentally and physically handicapped people, has become a keen observer of this dynamic of fear. He saw that these severely handicapped people seem like strangers living in another world, like prisoners caught behind the bars of their own deformation, like sick people who cannot help themselves, like poor and helpless beggars who make no contribution to society. He saw how they evoke fear in the hearts of those who regard themselves as normal: the "regulars," the free, the healthy, the rich, and the successful. He saw how they remind us of another reality to be avoided at all cost.

Jean Vanier realized that as long as these handicapped men and women remain "the others," they become the victims of cold institutions or of suffocating overprotection. He noticed how they are rejected as aliens or clung to as personal property. He understood that either way no true home exists for them. Their otherness robs them of the free space where they can grow according to their own pace, their own rhythm, and their own, often hidden gifts.

In 1964 Jean Vanier decided to offer a home to two handicapped people, Rapha'l and Philippe. It was a decision that took a long time to mature. After ten years in the British and Canadian navies, he had studied philosophy at the Catholic Institute in Paris and had become a professor at St. Michael's College in Toronto. But he was still unclear about his true vocation. One summer he went to Trosly-Breuil, a little French village one hour north of Paris. Under the guidance of his spiritual director Piare Thomas Philippe, who lived there as chaplain to a house for handicapped men, he decided to leave his teaching position and invite Rapha'l and Philippe, who for many years had lived in a mental institution and had no family or friends, to form a small foyer (home) with him. It was an irreversible decision. He knew he could never send these two men back to where they had come from.

He called his first foyer "l'Arche," thus indicating that he wanted his home to be like Noah's ark, a refuge for fearful people. Jean did not think about starting a movement or a large organization. He simply began caring for two people who could not manage without permanent help. But soon, people arrived from different countries to offer him help and to start new foyers. Now there are many such homes all over the world--in Canada, Australia, the United States, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, England, Ireland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and India. These homes are created to offer an intimate place to people whose handicap is different from ours.

When Jean Vanier speaks about that intimate place, he often stretches out his arm and cups his hand as if it holds a small, wounded bird. He asks: "What will happen if I open my hand fully?" We say: "The bird will try to flutter its wings, and it will fall and die." Then he asks again: "But what will happen if I close my hand?" We say: "The bird will be crushed and die." Then he smiles and says: "An intimate place is like my cupped hand, neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place."

It is difficult to offer such a place, precisely because we are fearful and find it hard to let the stranger enter our place and reveal to us our own fears. But when we are willing to confess both to ourselves and the other that we too are broken, that we too have a handicap, and that we too need a place to grow, we can build a home together and offer each other an intimate place.


If fear is the great enemy of intimacy, love is its true friend. Yet the words love and intimacy are used so casually in our heavily psychologized milieu that it requires special care to reclaim their spiritual meaning. We might be tempted to place intimate love on the same level as fear and suggest that it occupies the middle ground between "too distant" and "too close." Intimate love would thus avoid the fearful extremes of a cold distance and a suffocating closeness and offer a happy medium.

Many contemporary reflections on interpersonal relationships betray this way of thinking. They seem to say: "We need each other, but we should not lose our independence; we have a need for closeness, but we should not give up our individuality; we have a need for mutual support, but we also need enough space for ourselves." Although this is true, the suggestion is that good interpersonal relationships are the result of negotiation between partners, in which they define each other's rights as well as needs. Thus the place of intimate love is constantly threatened by fear, whether it comes from the right side or from the left.

But intimacy is not found on the level where fear resides. Intimacy is not a happy medium. It is a way of being in which the tension between distance and closeness is dissolved and a new horizon appears. Intimacy is beyond fear. Those who have experienced the intimacy to which Jesus invites us know that they no longer need to worry about getting too close or becoming too distant. When Jesus says: "Do not be afraid; it is I," he reveals a new space in which we can move freely without fear. This intimate space is not a fine line between distance and closeness, but a wide field of movement in which the question of whether we are close or distant is no longer the guiding question.

When St. John says that fear is driven out by perfect love, he points to a love that comes from God, a divine love. He does not speak about human affection, psychological compatibility, mutual attraction, or deep interpersonal feelings. All of that has its value and beauty, but the perfect love about which St. John speaks embraces and transcends all feelings, emotions, and passions. The perfect love that drives out all fear is the divine love in which we are invited to participate. The home, the intimate place, the place of true belonging, is therefore not a place made by human hands. It is fashioned for us by God, who came to pitch his tent among us, invite us to his place, and prepare a room for us in his own house.

Words for "home" are often used in the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms are filled with a yearning to dwell in the house of God, to take refuge under God's wings, and to find protection in God's holy temple; they praise God's holy place, God's wonderful tent, God's firm refuge. We might even say that "to dwell in God's house" summarizes all the aspirations expressed in these imspired prayers. It is therefore highly significant that St. John describes Jesus as the Word of God pitching his tent among us (John 1:14). He not only tells us that Jesus invites him and his brother Andrew to stay in his home (John 1:38-39), but he also shows how Jesus gradually reveals that he himself is the new temple (John 2:19) and the new refuge (Matthew 11:28). This is most fully expressed in the farewell address, where Jesus reveals himself as the new home: "Make your home in me, as I make mine in you" (John 15:4).

Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home. By making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him. By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God. By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place. This is the mystery of the incarnation. It is beautifully expressed during the Eucharist when the priest pours a little water into the wine, saying: "By the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity." God's immeasurable love for us is expressed in this holy interchange. God so much desired to fulfill our deepest yearning for a home that God decided to build a home in us. Thus we can remain fully human and still have our home in God. In this new home the distinction between distance and closeness no longer exists. God, who is furthest away, came closest, by taking on our mortal humanity. Thus God overcomes all distinctions between "distant" and "close" and offers us an intimacy in which we can be most ourselves when most like God.

To those who are tortured by inner or outer fear, and who desperately look for the house of love where they can find the intimacy their hearts desire, Jesus says: "You have a home . . . I am your home . . . claim me as your home . . . you will find it to be the intimate place where I have found my home . . . it is right where you are . . . in your innermost being . . . in your heart." The more attentive we are to such words the more we realize that we do not have to go far to find what we are searching for. The tragedy is that we are so possessed by fear that we do not trust our innermost self as an intimate place but anxiously wander around hoping to find it where we are not. We try to find that intimate place in knowledge, competence, notoriety, success, friends, sensations, pleasure, dreams, or artificially induced states of consciousness. Thus we become strangers to ourselves, people who have an address but are never home and hence can never be addressed by the true voice of love.

Here we come to see what discipline in the spiritual life means. It means a gradual process of coming home to where we belong and listening there to the voice which desires our attention. It is the voice of the "first love." St. John writes: "We are to love . . . because God loved us first" (1 John 4:19). It is this first love which offers us the intimate place where we can dwell in safety. The first love says: "You are loved long before other people can love you or you can love others. You are accepted long before you can accept others or receive their acceptance. You are safe long before you can offer or receive safety." Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us. It requires discipline to come home and listen, especially when our fears are so noisy that they keep driving us outside of ourselves. But when we grasp the truth that we already have a home, we may at last have the strength to unmask the illusions created by our fears and continue to return again and again and again.

Conversion, then, means coming home, and prayer is seeking our home where the Lord has built a home--in the intimacy of our own hearts. Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.

This is beautifully described and faithfully practiced in the hesychastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Greek word "hesychia" means rest, and hesychastic prayer leads us to rest in God. It is described as a descending with the mind into the heart, in order to stand there in the presence of God. Therefore it is also called the prayer of the heart. The most commonly used words are those of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner," but sometimes shorter sentences are used, or just the name "Jesus." Centering prayer, as introduced by Basil Pennington, and the Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus) prayer, described by John Main, are variations of this form of prayer. I mention the hesychastic tradition here because it offers a unique discipline to help us seek our home where Jesus has built his, in our own hearts. Those who have made the prayer of the heart a daily practice come to experience it as a simple, yet beautiful way to their true home. It gradually leads us away from the house of fear and moves us closer to the house of love, God's house.
Review Quotes
You cannot read Lifesigns and not be moved . . . This book will undoubtedly find its place among the classics of twentieth-century literature." Grand Rapids Press
You cannot readLifesignsand not be moved . . . This book will undoubtedly find its place among the classics of twentieth-century literature." Grand Rapids Press
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Main Description
Best-selling author Henri Nouwen shows how three of the most vital elements of human life offer Christians the essential key to a life filled with hope and love.
Main Description
"You cannot read Lifesigns and not be moved... This book will undoubtedly find its place among the classics of twentieth-century literature." --Grand Rapids Press The inspirational writings of Henri Nouwen have touched millions of readers all over the world. Much beloved as a lecturer, spiritual guide, and especially as an author, he communicated a profound message of hope that finds great resonance in today's world. In his now classic work Lifesigns , he explores what he saw as three of the most vital aspects of his ministry. The first of these is the Gospel invitation to intimacy, which Nouwen describes as communion with God and relationship with others. The second is the call to fecundity, exhorting us to be open to a fruitful life of change and growth. And the third, the experience of ecstasy, extends the Gospel promise "that your joy may be full." Inspired by L'Arche, the worldwide network of communities where handicapped people and their assistants try to live together in the spirit of the Scriptures, Nouwen shows how these three elements offer the essential key to a life free from the domination of fear and filled instead with hope and love.
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