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  • Carol J Sherman

Henri Nouwen on the necessity of "leaving family"

I’ve been reading Henry Nouwen’s Here and Now — Living in the Spirit and what I read this morning struck me as particularly profound and relevant for so many of the people with whom I work. He is reflecting on what Jesus says about leaving mother, father, sister, brother to follow him. Nouwen shares that for most of his life, he had interpreted this as a literal “leave-taking” but had come to recognize there is also an “inner leaving” called for in the lives of many. I’m going to take the liberty of putting some long passages from his book so thain this blog post so that my clients (and others) may benefit from them. I don’t think Nowen would mind my doing this, but please don’t “share” the blog post elsewhere. And his book is available for purchase in bookstores or online.

One: Leaving Father and Mother

For most of my life I have given a quite literal interpretation to Jesus’ words: “Leave your father, mother, brothers, and sisters for the sake of my name.” I thought about these words as a call to move away from one’s family, get married, enter a monastery or convent, or go to a faraway country to do missionary work. Although I still feel encouraged and inspired by those who make such a move for the sake of Jesus’ name, I am discovering, as I grow older, that there is a deeper meaning to this ‘leaving.’

Lately I have become aware of how much our emotional life is influenced by our relationship with our parents, brothers, and sisters. Quite often this influence is so strong that, even as adults who left our parents long ago, we remain emotionally bound to them. Only recently, I realized that I still wanted to change my father, hoping that he would give me the kind of attention I desired. Recently, also, I have seen how the inner lives of so many of my friends are still dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, or disillusionment arising from their family relations. Even when they have not seen their parents for a long time, yes, even when their parents have already died, they still have not truly left home.

All this is very real for those who are becoming aware that they are victims of child abuse. This discovery can suddenly bring the home situation back to mind and heart in an excruciatingly painful way.

In this context, Jesus’ call to leave father and mother, brothers, and sisters, receives a whole new meaning. Are we able and willing to unhook ourselves from the restraining emotional bonds that prevent us from following our deepest vocation? This is a question with profound implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being.

Two: Free to Follow Jesus

Leaving father, mother, brothers and sisters for Jesus’ sake is a lifelong task. It is only gradually what we realize how we go on clinging to the negative as well as to the positive experiences of our youth and how hard it is to leave it all and be on our own. To leave “home,” whether it was a good home or a bad home, is one of the greatest spiritual challenges of our life.

I had already left my family and my country for more than twenty years when I became fully aware that I was still trying to live up to the expectations of my father and mother. In fact, I was shocked when I found out that many of my work habits, career decisions, and life choices were still deeply motivated by my desire to please my family. I still wanted to be the son or the brother they could be proud of. When I saw this in myself, I also started to see it in the lives of many of my friends. One of them, who already had grown-up children, still suffered from the rejection they experienced from their parents. Others who carved out impressive careers and won many rewards and prizes still had deep hopes that, one day, their father or mother would acknowledge their gifts. Others again, who suffered many disappointments in their personal relations or work, still blamed their parents for their misfortunes.

The older we grow, the more we come to see the deep roots of our ties with those who were our main guides during the formative years of our lives.

Jesus wants to set us free, free from everything that prevents us from fully following our vocation, free also from everyone who prevents us from fully knowing God’s unconditional love. To come to that freedom we have to keep leaving our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and dare to follow him…..even there where we rather would not go.

Three: Forgiveness ad Gratitude

Two of the most important ways of leaving father, mother, brother, and sister are forgiveness and gratitude. Can we forgive our family for not having loved us as well as we wanted to be loved? Can we forgive our fathers for being demanding, authoritarian, indifferent, unaffectionate, absent, or simply more interested in other people or things than in us? Can we forgive our mothers for being possessive, controlling, preoccupied, addicted to food, alcohol, or drugs, overly busy, or simply more concerned with a career than with us? Can we forgive our brothers and sisters for not playing with us, for not sharing their friends with us, for talking down to us, or for making us feel stupid or useless?

There is a lot to forgive, not just because our family was not as caring as other families, but because all the love we received was imperfect and very limited. Our parents also are children of parents who didn’t love them in a perfect way, and even our grandparents had parents who were not ideal!

There is so much to forgive. But if we are willing to see our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents as people like ourselves with a desire to love but also with many unfulfilled needs, we might be able to step over our anger, our resentments, or even our hatred, and discover that their limited love is still real love, a love for which to be grateful.

Once we are able to forgive, we can be grateful for what we have received. And we have received so much. We can walk, talk, smile, move, laugh, cry, eat, drink, dance, play, work, sing, give life, give joy, give hope, give love. We are alive! Our fathers and mothers gave us life, and our brothers and sisters helped us to live it. Once we are no longer blinded by their so-obvious weaknesses, we can see clearly how much there is to be grateful for.

Four: Many Mothers and Fathers

In the Broadway play Conversations with My Father, a famous author lives his life with the hope that, one day, his father, who runs a little bar in New York City, will read his work and praise him for it. But it doesn’t happen. Instead the father says to his son: “I am only Ed, I don’t read books, just let me be Ed.” The son finally realizes that he is the one that has to change and love his father as he is. Thus they can become brothers.

One of the most beautiful things that can happen in a human life is that parents become brothers and sisters for their children, that children become fathers and mothers for their parents, that brothers and sisters become friends and that fatherhood, motherhood, brotherhood, and sisterhood are deeply shared by all the members of the family at different times and on different occasions.

But this cannot happen without leaving. Only to the degree that we have broken the ties that keep us captives of an imperfect love can we be free to love those we have left as father, mother, brother, or sister and receive their love in the same way. This is what Jesus means when he says” “In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land—and persecutions too—now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10: 29-30)

The great mystery of leaving father and mother is, indeed, that their limited love will multiply and manifest itself wherever we go, because only insofar as we leave, can the love we clung to reveal its true source.

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