“Brothers and sisters: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels...” It's the feast of St. James and today’s first reading is getting real. We may be children of God, but our lives are fragile things. It’s been a surreal couple of months for us at Eden Invitation, sharing some of the most vulnerable pieces of our lives and hearing hidden things from strangers we didn’t know before.
That said, there’s a tension we live in, you and I. For most of us, even our parents’ generation was raised in a climate of silence about topics of sexuality. Maybe it was a reaction to the sexual revolution, but many people of good will have thought the best approach is to batten the hatches all the tighter. As with most approaches to complicated things, there’s a truth here. There’s a good worth preserving. But when silence promotes shame, particularly shame over a tendency which is not inherently sinful in itself, all is not well.
The word “vulnerable” has it’s root in the Latin word meaning “wound.” How do we preserve what is sacred, avoid the cathartic over-share, but still speak truth and expose lies to light? How do we bear our wounds and come out of hiding in a way that is healthy and holy?
In today’s Gospel, the mother of James and John begs for them seats of honor in Jesus’ Kingdom. It goes a little something like this:
The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons
and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.
He said to her,
"What do you wish?"
She answered him,
"Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom."
Jesus said in reply,
"You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?"
They said to him, "We can."
Henri Nouwen expanded on this question in his book Can You Drink This Cup? Nouwen was a prolific spiritual writer and member of the L’Arche movement. He spent the last ten years of his life as a priest living alongside men and women with severe mental handicaps. Henri himself is a complex figure with his own layers of brokenness. Can You Drink This Cup? was one of his last major works, published in the final year of his life. In other words, hard-won fruits of a man who deeply understood human vulnerability.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took the Passover cup, held it in his hands, lifted it for the blessing, and drank deeply. In Gethsemane, he struggled with the cup of suffering headed his way. And then there’s the wine and vinegar on the cross. Nouwen’s book describes how we’ve all received the cup of life into our hands. But how can we connect this question and concept to vulnerability?
Holding the Cup | Prayerful Vulnerability before the Father
“Holding the cup of life means looking critically at what we are living,”* Nouwen writes. So often when I claim to “look at my life,” my eyes are actually darting elsewhere. Did I make the right decision about my job? Should I have started grad school sooner? She was in my graduating class, what has she achieved? Will I ever have time for an epic thru-hike? And then I spend two hours on the internet researching and comparing and watching clips from Stephen Colbert.
Nouwen goes on to say, “we have to hold our own cup. We have to dare to say: ‘This is my life, the life that is given to me, and it is this life I have to live, as well as I can … it is hard to say this to ourselves, because doing so confronts us with our radical aloneness.” When I examine my life, I need to examine my life, as it is. The gift of the Christian life is that, despite the reality of my solitude, I don’t examine my life in isolation. The place I hold the cup of my life is in prayer. The first step to wholeness, to a truly resurrected life in the midst of our wounds, is vulnerable surrender to the Father who loves us. Nouwen elaborates, “Jesus didn’t throw the cup away in despair. No, he kept it in his hands … this was not a show of willpower, staunch determination, or great heroism. This was a deep spiritual yes to Abba, the lover of his wounded heart.”
Entering into the longing, entering into the wounds in prayer is the first tier of vulnerability. This means actually acknowledging the unmet desires, the dashed hopes, the broken relationships. It’s going before God with our dreams and our anxieties, our anticipations and our anger. Personally, there are plenty of places I’m afraid to go because they’re a little too still, a little too dim, and far more unpredictable than I’d prefer. But there’s a beauty to this space. “For anyone who has the courage to enter our human sorrows deeply, there is a revelation of joy … precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness.” Why? Because my heart is better prepared to receive God’s grace with certainty. Insofar as I’m aware that it’s Him, not me, who does the work of healing and transformation, I can be free in the love of God.
Lifting the Cup | Vulnerability with Christ-like Community
Back in Eden, solitude was our original state. Even so, we know that it is not good for the human person to be alone, that we find ourselves through a sincere offering of ourselves to others. When it comes to vulnerability in that space, Nouwen gets real:
“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 that we have.”
The second tier of vulnerability is community. This is the level of mutually accountable friendship: “a community in which confession and celebration are always present together,” where we are “proclaiming that we will support each other in our common journey.” Ideally this is a multi-faceted, intergenerational, and intervocational space: friends, family, mentors, confessors, counselors, and spiritual guides. To live well in our wounds, we need a space of mutual vulnerability, a community of disciples following Christ together. This is more than a formally structured faith group, though that can be great starting point.
This second tier of vulnerability only really works when everyone in the community is actively delving into the first tier. When we’re all raw in prayer, as we are, before God the Father, then we have something to offer community. I notice this in my life all the time – when I’ve allowed myself to be received by God, I’m that much more able to peacefully receive my sister or brother. It also means that I’m not looking for the community to fulfill my need for intimacy in the way that only God can. Personal prayer lives steeped in solitude frees us to joyfully give and receive in community.
Drinking the Cup | A Life of Vulnerable Offering in the Spirit
“Drinking the cup of life makes our own everything we are living. It is saying, ‘This is my life,’ but also, ‘I want this to be my life.’” I hope you can say this. I hope I can say this! Most days I can, but usually only if prayer and community are real and healthy in my life
Nouwen points out that when we truly embrace the life before us, “there is a mission emerging…a mission that makes us move far beyond our human limitations.” As we embrace our own life in all it’s uniqueness, we can discern where and how God invites us to offer ourselves, where and how and to whom He invites us to be vulnerable. This isn’t an easy process, and it’s why public action and apostolate comes third, after the other two tiers, though they continue to move through one another continuously.
Public vulnerability requires careful discernment, and it’s going to look differently for different people. For me, it means Eden Invitation. For you, it might mean sharing your experience of suffering when you encounter other people with similar stories. It might mean sharing something with your family you never thought you would. It might mean vibrant intercessory prayer. It might mean volunteering with an organization whose mission speaks to the depths of you.
The Holy Spirit lives and breathes and moves in us by virtue of our baptism. Discerning where we can offer the gift of our life best is where our vulnerability reaches its full flower.
Personally, I find this sort of life, this sort of vulnerability, to be the greatest adventure I’ve ever known. There are things that remain beautifully hidden in the heart of my Father, there are a great many things celebrated or held in check by my sisters and brothers in Christ, and a portion of these are then further poured out as (I hope) the Holy Spirit prompts.
This kind of living isn’t managed. It can’t be tightly controlled. There’s no guarantee of constant consolation or of things turning out exactly the way we imagine them. However, we can have hope that we are not alone! As Henri Nouwen concludes, echoing the rest of today’s first reading:
“Together when we drink that cup as Jesus drank it we are transformed into the one body of the living Christ, always dying and always rising for the salvation of the world.”
*All quotes are taken from this version of Can You Drink This Cup? published by Ave Maria Press in 1996. The page numbers for the quoted text are listed in order as follows: 27, 28, 46, 51, 59, 60, 57, 81, 88, 111.