Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest in the Catholic church as well as professor. His writings have been transformative in my own life as well as countless others. What was most charming about Nouwen—who has since passed on into glory—was his ability to find beauty and goodness in virtually any situation. Whether it was during times of hard labor, when picking out smooth stones from a riverbed for the new sanctuary walls of Genesee Abbey, or his work at L’Arche with Jean Vanier when assisting and serving many with severe mental disabilities, he always discovered meaning and beauty. Nouwen would often write that God’s presence could be felt in these purposeful encounters.
This uncanny ability Nouwen possessed is what catapulted him into becoming one of the most widely read authors in the Christian community. But why is that? How could a Dutch Catholic priest be so popular when much of his writing is simple, reflective, and often dry? I believe it is because his writings unearthed something deep within the hearts and minds of many: an appreciation and realization of God’s all-encompassing presence.
For many of the faithful today, an awareness of God’s presence is confined to a church building or a quiet time of prayer. God’s presence seems to manifest to the spiritually elite who are clean, neat, and possess no moral flaws. These assumptions and more have pigeonholed God’s children into some harmful outlooks of life which are stripping us of experiencing the simple beauty of God’s presence.
First, we have traded a wide-open perception of God at work in our lives for a narrow and self-centered vision focused primarily on our preconceived ideas of what it means to see God at work. The damage this is causing is catastrophic. We need a remedy. We need another tour guide like Nouwen who will open our eyes and hearts to see, feel, and touch God all around us.
Look no further than our own Bibles. If there was ever a title given for the “Best Tour Guide” for God’s presence it would be the poor and humble peasant shepherd named David. In Psalms 19 David bursts at the seams pointing out the very presence of God in the most unsuspecting place. Pay close attention to what David says:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands!” A little further on he exclaims, “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech; they use no words; no sound is heard from them.”
Did you catch that? What declares the glory of God? Who exactly is “they” that he is speaking of? The heavens. The voiceless and faceless heavens are what speak and reveal knowledge even though there is no sound or word emanating from them. They beckon the attention of those who are wise enough to look and reflect.
Now, let us not forget what “heavens” referred to in the ancient Hebrew language. The heavens are more than what Hollywood tells us. The rich Judaic heritage of “heaven” paints a different picture for us. The heavens were of course the unseen realm but also the seen. What our eyes see, our hands touch, our noses smell, and our tongues taste, are part of the seen heavens in the ancient Jewish mind.
If we understand this and allow this portion from the book of Psalms to impact our own lives; then our enjoyment of God’s presence will make a wonderful and beautiful transformation. No longer will the experience of finding joy in God’s presence be confined to a church building or quiet hour of prayer. All we need to do is step outside and notice what is before us. The heavens are all around us proclaiming the wonder working power of God’s intricate creativity.
It’s picking a squash or a stalk of rhubarb. It’s digging up Yukon gold potatoes and long stem carrots. It’s shucking corn and preparing it for the finest corn-on-the-cob your family has ever had. It’s tilling the soil, planting rye, and preparing it for next season. It’s watering the dry garden while glancing up at the August and September sky inhaling and exhaling the wonderful glory of God. This is the kind of awareness David lived each day with.
Perhaps it’s time for us to breathe deep, step outside, and do the same. The arid and dry deserts of our frantic and busy schedules void of divine reflection will transform into a lush garden full of reasons to celebrate the Living God who is at work all around us—even in our spaghetti squash (my personal favorite).
Henri Nouwen is noted for saying, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.” David was consumed with living a life of gratitude and thankfulness because of what he observed in God’s creation. This simple action could be the missing link for the age-old question, “Where are you God?”
I encourage you this week to take a few minutes or more to reflect, observe, and take in God’s beautiful creation all around us.