HENRY J.M. NOUWEN
CAN YOU DRINK THE CUP
AVE MARIA PRESS Notre Dame, Indiana – 1996
In memory of Adam John Arnett
HENRI J.M. NOUWEN is the author of more than thirty books, among them the best-selling Behold the Beauty of the Lard, With Open Hands, and Out of Solitude (all published by Ave Maria Press). He taught at the University of Notre Dame, as well as Yale and Harvard Universities. From 1986 until his death in September, 1996, he was pastor of the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto where he shared his life with people with mental disabilities.
|Prologue - The Chalice and the Cup||Introduction The Question|
|Part 1 HOLDING THE CUP||Part 2 LIFTING THE CUP||Part 3 DRINKING THE CUP|
|Chapter 1 Holding||Chapter 4 Lifting||Chapter 7 Drinking|
|Chapter 2 The Cup of Sorrow||Chapter 5 The Cup of Blessings||Chapter 8 The Cup of Salvation|
|Chapter 3 The Cup of Joy||Chapter 6 To Life||Chapter 9 To the Bottom|
|Conclusion The Answer|
Epilogue - One Cup, One Body
Part 2 LIFTING THE CUP
Chapter 4 LIFTING
Good manners were very important in our family, especially table manners.
In the hall of our home hung a large bell. Ten minutes before dinner, my father rang the bell loudly and announced: "Dinnertime, everybody wash their hands."
There were many "table sins": elbows on the table, heaping up food on your spoon or fork, eating fast, making noises, chewing with your mouth open, not using your fork and knife while eating meat, using your knife to cut spaghetti. Many of our meals were interspersed with my father's little commands: "Elbows off the table," "Wait until everyone is served," and "Don't talk as you eat."
As I became older, I was allowed to have a glass of wine. It was a sign of adulthood. In 1950, when I was eighteen years old, drinking wine was a luxury. In France and Italy, wine at dinner was part of daily life, but in Holland it was a sign of a festive occasion. When we had wine there were special rituals: tasting and approving the wine, saying a few good words about it, pouring it into the glasses-only half full-and, most important of all, lifting it for a toast.
No one in our family would ever drink from his or her glass before everyone had been served and my father had lifted up his glass, looked at each of us, spoken a word of welcome, and emphasized the uniqueness of the occasion. Then, with his glass he touched my mother's glass and the glasses of
his guests and drank a little. It always was a solemn and important moment, a moment with a sacred quality. In later years, when wine was no longer so special, when glasses were filled to the brim, and when people drank without lifting their glasses or offering a toast, I always felt that something was missing, yes, even that something was lost.
Lifting up the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together. As we lift up the cup of life and look each other in the eye, we say: "Let's not be anxious or afraid. Let's hold our cup together and greet each other. Let us not hesitate to acknowledge the reality of our lives and encourage each other to be grateful for the gifts we have received."
We say to each other: in Latin, "Prosit" (be well); in German, "Zum Wohl" (to your well-being); in Dutch, "Op je gezondheid"(to your health); in English, "Cheers"; in French, "A votre santé" (to your health); in Italian, "Alla tua salute" (to your health); in Polish, ''Sto lat" (a hundred years); in Ukrainian, ''Na zdorvia" (to your health); in Hebrew, "L'chaim" (to life).
The best summary of all these wishes is, "to life." We lift the cup to life, to affirm our life together and celebrate it as a gift from God. When each of us can hold firm our own cup, with its many sorrows and joys, claiming it as our unique life, then too, can we lift it up for others to see and encourage them to lift up their lives as well. Thus, as we lift up our cup in a fearless gesture, proclaiming that we will support each other in our common journey, we create community.
Nothing is sweet or easy about community. Community is a fellowship of people who do not hide their joys and sorrows but make them visible to each other in a gesture of hope. In community we say: "Life is full of gains and losses, joys and sorrows, ups and downs-bur we do not have to live it alone. We want to drink our cup together and thus celebrate the truth that the wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care."
Community is like a large mosaic. Each little piece seems so insignificant. One piece is bright red, another cold blue or dull green, another warm purple, another sharp yellow, another shining gold. Some look precious, others ordinary. Some look valuable, others worthless. Some look gaudy, others delicate. As individual stones, we can do little with them except compare them and judge their beauty and value. When, however, all these little stones are brought together in one big mosaic portraying the face of Christ, who would ever question the importance of any one of them? If one of them, even the least spectacular one, is missing, the face is incomplete. Together in the one mosaic, each little stone is indispensable and makes a unique contribution to the glory of God. That's community, a fellowship of little people who together make God visible in the world.
So often we are inclined to keep our lives hidden. Shame and guilt prevent us from letting others know what we are living. We think: "If my family and friends knew the dark cravings of my heart and my strange mental wanderings, they would push me away and exclude me from their company." But the opposite is true. When we dare to lift our cup and let our friends know what is in it, they will be encouraged to lift their cups and share with us their own anxiously hidden secrets. The greatest healing often takes place when we no longer feel isolated by our shame and guilt and discover that others often feel what we feel and think what we think and have the fears, apprehensions, and preoccupations we have.
Lifting our lives to others happens every time we speak or act in ways that make our lives lives for others. When we are fully able to embrace our own lives, we discover that what we claim we also want to proclaim. A life well held is indeed a life for others. We stop wondering whether our life is better or worse than others and start seeing clearly that when we live our life for others we not only claim our individuality but also proclaim our unique place in the mosaic of the human family.
Lifting our cup means sharing our life so we can celebrate it. When we truly believe we are called to lay down our lives for our friends, we must dare to take the risk to let others know what we are living. The important question is, "Do we have a circle of trustworthy friends where we feel safe enough to be intimately known and called to an always greater maturity?" Just as we lift up our glasses to people we trust and love, so we lift up the cup of our life to those from whom we do not want to have secrets and with whom we want to form community.
When we do want to drink our cup and drink it to the bottom, we need others who are willing to drink their cups with us. We need community, a community in which confession and celebration are always present together. We have to be willing to let others know us if we want them to celebrate life with us. When we lift our cups and say "to life," we should be talking about real lives, not only hard, painful, sorrowful lives, but also lives so full of joy that celebration becomes a spontaneous response.
Chapter 5 THE CUP OF BLESSINGS
Lifting the cup is offering a blessing. The cup of sorrow and joy, when lifted for others "to life," becomes the cup of blessings.
I have a very lively memory connected with the cup of sorrow and joy becoming the cup of blessings. A few years ago, one of the handicapped members of the Daybreak community had to spend a few months in a mental hospital near Toronto for psychological evaluation. His name is Trevor. Trevor and I had become dose friends over the years. He loved me and I loved him. Whenever he saw me coming, he ran up to me with a great radiant smile. Often he went into the fields and collected wildflowers for me. He always wanted to assist me in the celebrations of the Eucharist and had a fine sense for ceremony and ritual.
During the time Trevor was away from Daybreak, I decided to go see him. I called the hospital chaplain and asked him if I could visit my friend. He said I was welcome to come and wondered if it would be all right if he invited some of the ministers and priests in the area and some members of the hospital staff to have lunch with me. Without thinking much about the implications of this request, I said immediately, "Sure, that will be fine."
When I arrived at 11:00 A.M., a large group of clergy and hospital personnel was waiting for me, and they welcomed me warmly. I looked around for Trevor, but he wasn't there. So I said: "I carne here to visit Trevor. Can you tell me where I can find him?" The hospital chaplain said: "You can be with him after lunch." I was stunned and said, "But didn't you invite him for lunch?" "No, no," he said, "that's impossible. Staff and patients cannot have lunch together. Moreover, we have reserved the Golden Room for this occasion, and no patient has ever been allowed in that room. It is for staff only." "Well," I said, "I will only have lunch with you all when Trevor can be there too. Trevor and I are dose friends. It is for him that I carne, and I am sure he would love to join us for lunch." I noticed some mixed reactions to my words, but after some whispering I was told that I could bring Trevor with me to the Golden Room.
I found Trevor on the hospital grounds, as always, looking for flowers. When he saw me his face lit up, and he ran up to me as if we had never been apart and said: "Henri, here are some flowers for you." Together we went to the Golden Room. The table was beautifully set, and about twenty-five people had gathered around it. Trevor and I were the last to sit down.
After the opening prayer, Trevor walked to the side table where there were different drinks: wine, soft drinks, and juices. He said: "Henri, I want a Coke." I poured him a Coke, took a glass of wine for myself, and returned to the table.
People were making small talk. Many of the guests were strangers trying to get to know each other. The general atmosphere was quiet, somewhat solemn. I got quickly involved in a conversation with my right-hand neighbor and didn't pay much attention to Trevor. But suddenly Trevor stood up, took his glass of Coke, lifted it, and said with a loud voice and a big smile: "Ladies and gentlemen . . . a toast!" Everyone dropped their conversation and turned to Trevor with puzzled and somewhat anxious faces. I could read their thoughts: "What in the heck is this patient going to do? Better be careful."
But Trevor had no worries. He looked at everybody and said: "Lift up your glasses." Everyone obeyed. And then, as if it were the most obvious thing to do, he started to sing: "When you're happy and you know it. . .lift your glass. When you're happy and you know it… lift your glass. When you're happy and you know it, when you're happy and you know it, when you're happy and you know it… lift your glass." As he sang, people's faces relaxed and started to smile. Soon a few joined Trevor in his song, and not long after everyone was standing, singing loudly under Trevor's direction.
Trevor's toast radically changed the mood in the Golden Room. He had brought these strangers together and made them feel at home. His beautiful smile and his fearless joy had broken down the barriers between staff and patients and created a happy family of caring people. With his unique blessing, Trevor had set the tone for a joyful and fruitful meeting. The cup of sorrow and joy had become the cup of blessings.
Many people feel cursed-cursed by God with illnesses, losses, handicaps, and misfortunes. They believe their cup doesn't carry any blessings. It is the cup of God's wrath, the cup Jeremiah speaks of when he says:
For Yahweh, the God of Israel said this to me, "Take this cup of the wine of wrath and make alI the nations to whom l send you drink it; they will drink and reel and lose their wits, because of the sword l am sending among them. . . . You will say to them, 'Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Israel, says this: Drink! Get drunk! Vomit! Fall, never to rise again, before the sword that l am sending among you!' lf they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink, you will say to them, 'Yahweh Sabaoth says this: You must drink! Look, for a start, l am bringing disaster on the city that bears my name, so are you likely to go unpunished? You certainly will not go unpunished, for next l shall summon a sword against all the inhabitants of the land, Yahweh declares' " (Jeremiah 25:15-16,27-29).
This is not a cup to lift "to life." It only brings misery. It is not surprising that no one wants to get close to the vengeful god that Jeremiah depicts. No blessing is found there. But when Jesus takes the cup on the evening before his death, it is not the cup of wrath but the cup of blessings. It is the cup of
a new and everlasting covenant, the cup that unites us with God and with one another in a community of love. Paul writes to the people of Corinth: "l am talking to you as sensible people; weigh up for yourselves what l have to say. The blessing cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?" (1 Corinthians l0: 15-16).
The immense suffering of humanity can easily be understood as a sign of God's wrath, as a punishment. It often was understood that way, and it often still is. The Psalmist says: "Yahweh is holding a cup filled with a heady blend of wine; he will pour it, they will drink it to the dregs, all the wicked on earth will drink it" (Psalm 75:8). And we, looking at the horrors that plague our world, are saying, "How can there be a loving God when all this is happening? It must be a cruel, spiteful God who allows human beings to suffer so much!"
Jesus, however, took upon himself all this suffering and lifted it up on the cross, not as a curse but as a blessing. Jesus made the cup of God's wrath into a cup of blessings. That's the mystery of the Eucharist. Jesus died for us so that we may live. He poured out his blood for us so that we may find new life. He gave himself away for us, so that we can live in community. He became for us food and drink so that we can be fed for everlasting life. That is what Jesus meant when he took the cup and said: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you" (Luke 22:20). The Eucharist is that sacred mystery through which what we lived as a curse, we now live as a blessing. Our suffering can no longer be a divine punishment. Jesus transformed it as the way to new life. His blood, and ours too, now can become martyr's blood - blood that witnesses to a new covenant, a new communion, a new community.
When we lift the cup of our life and share with one another our sufferings and joys in mutual vulnerability, the new covenant can become visible among us. The surprise of it all is that it is often the least among us who reveal to us that our cup is a cup of blessings.
Trevor did what nobody else could have done. He transformed a group of strangers into a community of love by his simple, unself-conscious blessing. He, a meek man, became the living Christ among us. The cup of blessings is the cup the meek have to offer to us.
Chapter 6 TO LIFE
We lift the cups of our lives to bring life to each other.
In the Daybreak community, celebration is an essential part of our life together. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, we celebrate those who arrive and those who depart, we celebrate birth and death, we celebrate commitments made and commitments renewed.
In our community there are many parties. Parties are usually happy events, during which we eat and drink, sing and dance, give speeches, talk and laugh a lot. Bur a celebration is something more than just than a party. A celebration is an occasion to lift up each other's lives-whether in a joyful or a sorrowful moment-and deepen our bonds with each other.
To celebrate life is to raise up life, make it visible to each other, affirm it in its concreteness, and be grateful for it.
One very moving celebration I remember was that of Bill's Life Story Book. A Life Story Book is a collection of photographs, stories, and letters put together as a sort of biography. When Bill carne to Daybreak as a sixteen-year-old, he brought few memories with him. He had had a very troublesome childhood and hardly any consistent experiences of love and friendship. His past was so broken, so painful, and so lonely that he had chosen to forget it. He was a man without a history.
But during twenty-five years at Daybreak, he gradually has become a different person. He has made friends. He has developed a close relationship with a family he can visit on weekends or holidays, joined a bowling club, learned woodworking, and travelled with me to places far and wide. Over the years he has created a life worth remembering. He even found the freedom and the courage to recall some of his painful childhood experiences and to reclaim his deceased parents as people who had given him life and love notwithstanding their limitations.
Now there was enough material for a Life Story Book because now there was a beautiful although painful story to tell. Many friends wrote letters to Bill telling him what they remembered about him. Others sent photographs or newspaper clippings about events he had been part of, and others just made drawings that expressed their love for him. After six months of work, the book was finally ready, and it was time to celebrate, not just the new book but Bill's life, which it symbolized.
Many carne together for the occasion in the Dayspring Chapel. Bill held the book and lifted it up for all to see. It was a beautifully colored ring binder with many artistically decorated pages. Although it was Bill's book, it was the work of many people.
Then we blessed the book and Bill, who held it. I prayed that this book might help Bill let many people know what a beautiful man he is and what a good life he was living. I also prayed that Bill would remember all the moments of his life his joys as well as his sorrows-with a grateful heart.
While I prayed tears started to flow from Bill's eyes. When I finished he threw his arms around me and cried loudly. His tears fell on my shoulder while everyone in the circle looked at us with a deep understanding of what was happening. Bill's life had been lifted up for all to see, and he had been able to say it was a life to be grateful for.
Now Bill takes his Life Story Book with him on his trips. He shows it to people as a man who believes his life is not something to be ashamed of. To the contrary, it is a gift for others.
The cup of sorrow and joy, when lifted for others to see and celebrate, becomes a cup to life. lt is so easy for us to live truncated lives because of hard things that have happened in our past, which we prefer not to remember. Often the burdens of our past seem too heavy for us to carry alone. Shame and guilt make us hide part of ourselves and thus make us live half lives.
We truly need each other to claim all of our lives and to live them to the fullest. We need each other to move beyond our guilt and shame and to become grateful, not just for our successes and accomplishments but also for our failures and shortcomings. We need to be able to let our tears flow freely, tears of sorrow as well as tears of joy, tears that are as rain on dry ground. As we thus lift our lives for each other, we can truly say: "To life," because all we have lived now becomes the fertile soil for the future.
But lifting our cup to life is much more than saying good things about each other. It is much more than offering good wishes. It means that we take all we have ever lived and bring it to the present moment as a gift for others, a gift to celebrate.
Mostly we are willing to look back at our lives and say: "I am grateful for the good things that brought me to this place." But when we lift our cup to life, we must dare to say: "I am grateful for alI that has happened to me and led me to this moment." This gratitude which embraces alI of our past is what makes our life a true gift for others, because this gratitude erases bitterness, resentments, regret, and revenge as well as all jealousies and rivalries. It transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future, and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.
The enormous individualism of our society, in which so much emphasis is on "doing it yourself," prevents us from lifting our lives for each other. But each time we dare to step beyond our fear, to be vulnerable and lift our cup, our own and other people's lives will blossom in unexpected ways.
Then we too will find the strength to drink our cup and drink it to the bottom.