(Photo by Alan Cook. Used with permission.)
In some ways, this photograph captures the essence of human fulfillment.
This is an image of Henri Nouwen dancing with Linda Slinger, a woman at L’Arche Daybreak. L’Arche Daybreak is a community for people with and without intellectual disabilities. Linda Slinger passed away in 2011 after having lived a beautiful life on Earth. Henri Nouwen, a great spiritual writer and companion, passed away in 1996 after also having lived a beautiful life on Earth.
For me, the poetry in this image comes alive through knowing a little bit more about Nouwen’s life. Here we have a man who searched for meaning in several important roles. Henri was all-at-once a priest, a monk, a psychologist, and a professor. He was extremely gifted. He taught courses in psychology and spirituality at Notre Dame, Yale, and finally Harvard.
Yet, what moves me the most deeply about Nouwen is what happens next: Henri moved from his prestigious teaching position at Harvard to a community of disabled people near Toronto.
During his initial time at L’Arche Daybreak, he spent his days tending to the physical needs of a man named Adam. Philip Yancey recalled, “Nouwen told me it took him nearly two hours to prepare Adam each day. Bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, guiding his hand as he tried to eat breakfast–these simple, repetitive acts had become for him almost like an hour of meditation”.
So, back to the picture:
I see this picture as an expression of human fulfillment, because in this image I see the story of a man learning to dance to the Rhythm of God. The Rhythm of God is the faint, simple beat in our soul that ceaselessly whispers to us, saying, “You are my beloved child”.
In choosing to leave his place of ambition and security at Harvard, Henri rejected every praise that told him, “Because you can do good things and because you are smart and because you are a somebody, I can give you the love that you desire”. In choosing to smile with this woman, he rejected every voice of self-rejection that uttered, “If you cannot produce good work and if you cannot win medals and if you cannot impress everybody, you are no good”.
Rather, Henri learned to dance to the Rhythm of God. When one dances to the Rhythm of God, they are no longer chained to the praises and rejections of the world. It is in this way that the Rhythm of God is especially revealed to us in the simple people, the poor people, and the weak people. These people teach us how to live in the present moment. They teach us to sing without fear, to speak without self-consciousness, and to give of ourselves without expecting recompense.
Personally, this image affects me deeply. I keep it hanging on my door to remind me of my vocation in life. Quite easily, I slump into self-rejection. I have a lingering doubt that my current position in life is obscure and that I have made a horrible mistake. I see my friends all doing wonderful things at their universities and workplaces, and in some ways I make myself feel that I am a drop-out. For my ministry, I spend quite a bit of my time working as a ‘homeless ambassador’ at a church in Milwaukee. This role is something of a mix between ‘security guard’ and ‘friend’. As I sit quietly in the Cathedral, observing the small and scattered numbers of homeless people, I quickly convince myself that my ministry is worthless. Yet, as I gaze at this picture of this brilliant man and incredible woman in harmony, I am reminded of my vocation: to gently smile and learn from the poor. In this calling, I ultimately must place my trust.
As humans, we try over and over again to perform many complicated dances in order to feel accepted, but it is in this simple dance of love that humans can find fulfillment.
May we all learn to live in the Rhythm of God.
From my email correspondence with Judy Steers, while I was seeking permission to use this photo:
[Alan] took that photo of Henri dancing with one of the core members, Linda Slinger, at the tent party after the L’Arche Daybreak “Walkathon” in June 1995 in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I was playing in the band and we were singing a song called “We Are A Rainbow” by Stuart Dill and Brent Holmes while they (and a whole lot of people out of shot) were dancing. It was pretty apropos as we nicknamed the event the ‘Slopalong’ rather than Walkathon as it POURED rain all day. Didn’t dampen any spirits, and we sang and danced for ages in the tent after some brave souls (including Henri) did a quick 1km in the downpour and got soaked. It was a memorable day.