Strange, Stranger

J.S. Porter

“listen as one listens/to a tale about a stranger.” ’ Marilyn Gear Pilling

About 20 years ago, an Anglican priest asked if I’d be interested in visiting Daybreak in Toronto and if I’d like to meet Henri Nouwen. I said yes. I went along. But I knew nothing about Nouwen. I had read nothing. He was a stranger to me.

I didn’t have the advantage of having read Michael W. Higgins’ and Douglas R. Letson’s words about him in Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads: “Nouwen understood, both as a psychologist and as a spiritual director, that an essentialist spirituality of the manuals, a spirituality disembodied or disincarnate, could no longer speak to people.” Looking back, I think I went because I vaguely knew that Daybreak was something like Jean Vanier’s home (L’Arche) for the mentally handicapped in France.

The first thing that struck me was how free the people living in the house were with their bodies and emotions. As soon as I entered, I was hugged. Words came later. People laughed and smiled. The body as a whole rather than a single part— the tongue— seemed to be their vehicle of communication. After a half-hour or so of hugs and smiles and laughter, a thin man blew in like a gust of wind. He hugged everyone and was hugged by everyone. He quickly blew out again.

There was silence for a few minutes, and then tongues began to wag about Henri this and Henri that. I then realized that I had met Henri Nouwen. Later that day Henri blew in again to say a prayer at the ecumenical worship service, and blew out again.

I didn’t realize it at the time but Nouwen was a gift. Years went by. I never thought about him, never picked up any of his books. I’ve only just begun to read him now. He is quickly becoming as spiritually indispensable to me as Thomas Merton.

Nouwen and Merton met, by the way, and Henri ended up writing a little book on him. What struck Nouwen about Merton was his ordinariness. He didn’t stand out in any way. Nouwen wasn’t even sure at first if the man he was talking to was Merton. I had the same feeling about Nouwen. He seemed very ordinary to me, and very much in a hurry.

Perhaps things and people need an aura of strangeness around them. Strangeness thwarts easy violations of privacy and arrogantly quick understanding. When people become too familiar, we take them for granted. When we think we’ve mastered something, we dispense with it and move on.

The Bible is a strange book, for example, or set of books. For a comparably strange reading experience, you’d have to turn to the complete plays of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare, you have comedies, tragedies, histories and romances. In the Bible, you have prayers, prophecies, revenge tales, love poems, letters, tales of suffering, recognition and reconciliation, genealogical accounts, creation stories, death stories and stories of the end of things.

Perhaps the Bible can only be justly read as if we are a stranger to it, as if it is an utterly strange document to us. By making it familiar, the way the talking heads on television do, we trivialize and neuter it. Its raw power and strangeness, its wildness and radical vision, are domesticated and tamed. It becomes a book of easy answers rather than a book of profound questions.

Of late, I’ve been reading the parables. I’ve been struck dumb by their strangeness. These stories transform me. These stories burn me. Have I ever really read them? Do I really know them? What I thought was familiar ground became stranger and stranger as I read the parables with concentration, as a stranger might read them. These stories felt like fire; they burned me every time I touched them.

I read them in the Good News version. I chose this version because the language there is the language of our everyday lives. It’s a language of nouns and verbs with very few adjectives and adverbs. The stories are told in the most direct and unadorned language I can conceive of. They are masterworks of minimalism.

They move like lightning. They go straight to the wound. They overwhelm and shatter the reader by their strangeness. These stories are a gift of the Stranger; they come from the strangest, most inexplicable presence among us on this earth. As Benedictine Tom Cullinan says in Michael W. Higgins and Douglas R. Letson’s Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads: “We were given a gospel which is a wild stallion and we have domesticated it into a riding school pony.”

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