The Duet of the Holy Spirit: When Mourning and Dancing are One

Posted on Apr 17, 2013 in Articles

The Duet of the Holy Spirit: When Mourning and Dancing are One

Author: Henri J.M. Nouwen

Healing is not a skill exclusive to doctors, psychotherapists, counselors, or social workers. Important as these professionals are, they should in no way prevent or inhibit us from the exercise of our own spiritual gift of healing.

It belongs to the heart of our Christian vision that all of us, whether we have degrees or not, are called to be healers. Shortly before his death Jesus said, “It is good for you that I go because, unless I go, I cannot send you the Spirit, the counselor, the consoler…. And when the Spirit comes, he will reveal to you the depth of God’s love and lead you into the fullness of that love….” Jesus speaks here about the Spirit of healing.

Consider the words of the Evangelist John:

“We know that we belong to God, but the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One.” These cool, stark words bring us straight to the place of healing because, as healers, we must face the Evil One while staying safely in the embrace of God. 1ius healing is mourning as well as dancing: mourning over losses that the world, captive to the forces of Evil, inflicts on us, and dancing in the house of God where we belong. We tend, however, to stay away from both mourning and dancing: too afraid to cry and too shy to dance. We say, “It is not as bad as you think, nor as good as you hope.” We prefer to fuss about our own petty problems instead of dealing with the ominous presence of evil, and we prefer to cling to our little self-made moments of happiness instead of entering fully into the joy of God’s Kingdom. Thus we become narrow- minded complainers avoiding not only real human pain, but also true human joy. But true healing calls us to face the harsh realities of our lives and to come to grips with the truth that, while we live in a world subject to the power of the Evil One, we belong to God. That’s what mourning and dancing are all about.

So let’s mourn and let’s dance, and let’s come to the realization that the time to mourn and the time to dance may, in the end, be the same.

It might sound strange but the first task to which we are called by the healing Spirit within us is to mourn our losses — inflicted by the world that lies in the power of the Evil One. After Jesus’ crucifixion — the apparent victory of the Evil One — his friends were in deep grief. Think about the sadness of the two men returning to Emmaus, about the fear of the eleven huddled together behind closed doors, about the confusion of Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and the others who went back fishing, believing everything was over and gone. They all experienced deep grief. We often think that this grief was there because the Spirit had not yet come, but I dare to say that the Spirit of Jesus — the Spirit of love had in a sense already touched them and created their painful interior groaning. Jesus had already given them so much of his Spirit of love that his death wounded their hearts deeply. For a long time they could experience only absence, betrayal, and despair.

This experience of loss is very real for us, part of our daily lives. At times it even seems that life is just one long series of losses. There is the loss of our parents, children, and friends, not just through death but, what is even more painful, through conflict, misunderstanding, anger, and resentment. There is the loss of our jobs, careers, successes, and good names, not only through circumstances beyond our control, but also through our own failures. There is the loss of our hopes and dreams, not only through age, but also through the discovery of corruption and betrayal among people we have trusted. There is, finally, the loss of meaning and purpose in our lives, not only because our minds and hearts become tired, but also because long-cherished ways of thinking — and praying — are suddenly ridiculed or considered old-fashioned. You could say that each of us, in one way or another, loses “the good old days,” which might not have been as good as we think, but which, somehow, are locked into our memories as the foundation stones of our lives.

I am overwhelmed by the losses we have to deal with every day, not only individually, but also as families and communities. Just think about all those who live with AIDS or cancer. Think about the unspeakable pain involved when families break up. Think about the failure among so many in the search for intimacy; think about the way our souls are harmed by the destruction of so much natural and cultural beauty in countryside and city.

How to live all these losses? Our survival instinct tells us to pretend that they are not real, that life goes on as usual and that nothing has really happened. The fearful heart’s response is: “Let’s get on with the business of living.” This is the response that is most rewarded in our society. It makes us heroic defenders of our dearly-gained happiness. It makes us cling to what we have and resist letting go of anything — unless forced to. Be it a person, a possession, or a reputation we hold on to it at all costs and thus live the loss of it as a failure in the great battle of survival. The more we cling to our lives, the more we have to deny the reality of our losses and the more artificial our existence becomes. The great tragedy of all this is that the fearful denial of our losses leads to an increasing desire to control our own and other people’s lives. It is here that most power struggles are rooted, struggles that lead to interpersonal as well as international conflicts. In his penetrating study, The Betrayal of Self, Arno Gruen shows convincingly how “the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our suffering.”

Indeed, the great paradox of life is that those who try to avoid having their hearts broken end up in hell. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes:

If you want to make sure of keeping your heart intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken — it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is Hell.

True healing begins at the moment we face the reality of our losses and let go of the illusions of control. Since we are such fearful people, this is our hardest challenge: to go beyond our fears and to trust that our losses liberate us from the bonds that hold us captive. We can’t do this by relying solely on our intellectual and emotional abilities. Everything in us protests against dying — in whatever form it presents itself to us. If our human capacities are our sole resources, then it would seem that the only reasonable response to our losses would be some form of stoicism. But the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of love, is given to us to reach out beyond our fears and embrace the reality of our losses. This is what mourning is all about: having the courage to allow our pain to be felt, and having the freedom to cry in anguish or scream in protest over our losses, and so to risk being led into an inner space that is very unfamiliar to us.

But there is more. Mourning calls us not only to embrace, but also to welcome our losses as ways of following more radically the voice of love. This is difficult to say and even more difficult to understand because it can so easily be perceived as morbid masochism. But masochism is not what I am talking about. I am talking about allowing ourselves to be stripped of family, friends, success, health, and familiar ways of thinking and doing, not simply because we can’t avoid it, and not because we want to be punished, but simply because we trust that our nakedness will be covered by love.

The disciples of Jesus left their nets — the source of their economic security — and their families — the source of their emotional security and followed the One who promised to fulfill the deepest desires of their hearts. Here losses are freely welcomed.

As healers we are called to create safe spaces where we can mourn our own losses. The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, who does not allow any space for grief and mourning, who fills every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. Someone once said to me: “Never show your weakness, you will he used; never be vulnerable, you will get hurt; never depend on others, you will lose your freedom.” This sounds very clever, but it is not the voice of wisdom. It is the spirit of the world that speaks here.

As healers who want to listen to the Spirit, the divine counselor within us, we must dare to face and help others face the secret losses that have paralyzed us and kept us imprisoned in guilt and shame.

So many people live in relationships loaded with secrets — secret sexual abuse, secret infidelity, secret fantasies and desires — all secrets connected with our losses: lost innocence, lost hopes, lost dreams. Often a great dark silence hovers over these secret losses. We simply keep up our quotidian routine and limp on, even though it hurts immensely.

As people who have been given the Spirit, the breath of the divine love, we are called to resist the Evil One who clutches our world in his destructive claws. This is not, however, a struggle of power against power, or weapon against weapon; it is the sacred contest of weakness against power, vulnerability against callousness, forgiveness against revenge, tears against cynicism, and, yes, mourning against the stoic bearing of our fate. The Spirit of God within us says:

Mourn, my people, mourn. Let your pain rise up in your heart and burst forth in you with sobs and cries. Mourn for the silence that exists between you and your spouse. Mourn for the way you were robbed of your innocence. Mourn for the absence of a soft embrace, an intimate friendship, a life-giving sexuality. Mourn for the abuse of your body, your mind, your heart. Mourn for the bitterness of your children, the indifference of your friends, your colleagues’ hardness of heart. Mourn for those whose hunger for love brought them AIDS, whose desire for freedom brought them to refugee camps, whose hunger for justice brought them to prisons. Cry for the millions who die from lack of food, lack of care, lack of love…. Don’t think of this as normal, something to be taken for granted, something to accept…. Think of it as the dark force of Evil that has penetrated every human heart, every family, every community, every nation, and keeps you imprisoned. Cry for freedom, for salvation, for redemption. Cry loudly and deeply, and trust that your tears will make your eyes see that the Kingdom is close at hand, yes, at your fingertips!

Where can we sing this song of mourning? Where is the safe place where our wounds can be exposed and bound up? It is hard to mourn alone. We need the arms, the hands, the eyes of someone who allows us to break out of our fear and become vulnerable and thus open for new life. As long as healing — be it through medical care, psychotherapy counseling, or good friendship — is little more than finding ways to cope with our personal problems and arming ourselves in the ongoing struggle for power, healing becomes a handmaid of the Evil One, thus adding to the arsenal of the worldly spirit.

Healing begins not where our pain is taken away, but where it can be shared and seen as part of a larger pain. The first task of healing, therefore, is to take our many problems and pains out of their isolation and place them at the center of the great battle against the Evil One.

It was during a time of great emotional pain that I first came to L’Arche. When I saw the enormous suffering of the handicapped people living here, I gradually came to see that my painful problems were part of a much larger suffering, and I found in myself new energy. Healing begins with taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that what we suffer we suffer in communion with all of humanity, yes, all of creation, and that, in so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. The Diabolic One is the divider: separating our own personal pain from the great pain of the world. The Spirit, the Consoler, unifies and calls us to make our groaning part of all creation’s enormous groaning for freedom.

As we create the space to mourn — whether through one-to-one relationships, small support groups, or communal celebrations — we free ourselves little by little from the grip of the Evil One and come to discover in the midst of our grief that the same Spirit who calls us to mourn stirs us to make the first movement in our dance with God.

The mystery of the dance is that its movements are discovered in the mourning. The dance does not simply follow the grief; it finds its origin in the grieving itself. Look at the flowers painted by Vincent van Gogh. What grief, what sadness, what melancholy! Yet what joy, what beauty, what ecstasy! Looking at them, who can say where the mourning ends and the dance begins? They are never separated. Mourning calls for dancing, dancing for mourning, and in this mysterious duel that has become a duet, Vincent celebrates life.

The Spirit of Jesus says: “Your glory is hidden in your pain.” To heal is to let the Spirit call us to dance. I once saw a stonecutter remove great pieces of stone from a huge rock on which he was working. I thought, “That rock must be hurting terribly. Why does this man wound the rock so much?” But, as I kept looking, I saw the figure of a graceful dancer emerge gradually from the stone, looking at me and saying, “Foolish man, didn’t you know that I had to suffer and thus enter into my glory?”

To heal is to teach people to dance in the awareness that their many losses, when mourned deeply, are the bases for the choreography of their dance. Mourning makes us poor, creates inner emptiness, brings us to our nothingness. But it is precisely there that the dancer rises up and takes the first steps. “Blessed are those who mourn.” Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who console the mourner.” No, he says, “You are blessed in your mourning.” There is the place where the Spirit brings you new life. There is the creche where the Child is horn in you. There is the broken soil of your soul where the seed of grace can grow in you.

Can you feel the freedom that rises up in you when you have been stripped naked and have nothing to inhibit your movements anymore? You can dance as David danced in front of the Ark. Can you notice in your innermost being the joy of living that comes, from having nothing left to lose? Can you see the soft, beautiful smile that appears in the tearful eyes of your mourning friend? Jesus enters into our sadness, takes us by the hand, pulls us gently up to where we can stand, and invites us to dance. And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it into unknown, spacious territory until we finally know that all the world is our dance floor. Yes! Leave — leave your father, mother, brother, sister, friend; leave your nets — and you will have many fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends — all the world will be yours and you will catch people wherever you dance.

All this was made beautifully apparent in a story a friend told me recently. He had decided to spend the week following Christmas with his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. When he met his father, he found him very anxious and agitated. My friend took his father for a drive for more than an hour through the countryside. Very few words were spoken, but my friend noticed how his father’s anxiety diminished and he became more relaxed. After not speaking for nearly an hour, the father turned, looked directly at his son, and said: “Well, we haven’t had such a good visit in a long time.” The son laughed and realized his father was right. Anguish had become peace; sadness had become gladness; loss had become gain; mourning had become dancing.

Let me describe two of the movements of the dance. Let me be your dance master for a while! The first movement is forgiveness. It’s a very difficult movement. But, then, all beginnings are difficult, and there is so much forgiving to do. We have to forgive our parents for not being able to give us unconditional love, our brothers and sisters for not giving us the support we dreamt about, our friends for not being there for us when we expected them. We have to forgive our church and civil leaders for their ambitions and manipulations. Beyond all that, we have to forgive all those who torture, kill, rape, destroy — who make this world such a dark place. And we, ourselves, also have to beg forgiveness. The older we become, the more clearly we see that we, too, have wounded others deeply, and are part of a society of violence and destruction. It is very difficult to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. But, without this, we remain fettered to our past — unable to dance.

When, a few years ago, I was facing death after a serious accident, I realized that the greatest difficulty in letting go of this life was the awareness that I had not yet forgiven those who had wounded me and had not yet asked forgiveness of all those whom I had wounded. These many wounds kept me locked in anger and resentment and prevented me from letting a true rebirth take place. Only after a deep experience of forgiveness could I let my possible death become a leap of trust into the arms of God.

Forgiveness is the great spiritual weapon against the Evil One. As long as we remain victims of anger and resentment, the power of darkness can continue to divide us and tempt us with endless power games. But when we forgive those who threaten our lives, they lose their power over us. I vividly remember the story of a Lutheran bishop who was tortured during World War II, in an effort to get information out of him. When he refused to speak, his torturer went into a frenzy and screamed: “But don’t you know I could kill you?” The bishop answered: “You do not have that power because I have already forgiven you.” The torturer immediately gave up. Forgiveness enables us to take the first step of the dance.

The second movement of the dance is celebration. To celebrate is to exalt life. But this can only happen if it is life matured and purified through mourning its many losses, life that bears fruit in a constant dying. I have learned this at L’Arche, where I live. Nowhere can I better see the many losses of life than among handicapped people who have suffered not only the loss of their mental and often physical agility, but also the loss of family support, educational opportunities, and often the privilege of marriage and an independent life. And still, nowhere have I celebrated so much or so richly as among these men and women who have mourned over so many losses. When we celebrate together, we do not celebrate degrees, promotions, or awards, but the gift of life that has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses. The cards, candles, decorations, wrapped gifts the hugs, smiles, and kisses — are all expressions of life. But seldom, if ever, is there a celebration without an agonizing cry, without pain over the absence of parent or friend, and without tears caused by emotional or physical pain. When I am part of these celebrations, be they small ones around the dinner table or the larger ones in the chapel or our meeting hail, I marvel in the dance to which the Spirit invites us.

Our call to be healers is a call to claim the new life that takes us far beyond the boundaries of our mortality. This is the true secret of celebration: The life we celebrate is not imprisoned within the boundaries of birth and death; it is not caught in the fatalism of our chronology; it is not based on the little bits of happiness with which our world tempts us, such as success, popularity, or power. No, the life we celebrate is the everlasting life that is completely one with the everlasting love of God. The Spirit is God’s breath, source of all life. The Spirit is also God’s heartbeat, source of all love. Celebration is so healing precisely because it lifts up the truth that we do not belong to the restricting, limiting, and destructive power of our world, but to God whose name is life and love, and who holds us safe even when the powers of sickness and death seem to take everything away from us.

To celebrate is to move freely in this world and sing as follows:

I am grateful for music and paintings, sculptures and banners, revolving restaurants in high towers and little subterranean pubs. I am grateful for trees and flowers, deer and horses, yes, even for the little mouse that sneaks away behind my kitchen stove. I am grateful for moments of laughter and moments of tears. I am grateful for my father, mother, brother, sister, church, and society. They all give me glimpses of that life and love that were there for me before they loved and wounded me, and will continue to be there for me. I belong to the One from whom all fatherhood and motherhood, all brotherhood and sisterhood, and all leadership in church and society come, and who is the source of all the beauty of culture and nature around me. When I claim that belonging, I can celebrate the fullness of life.

This is the song of gratitude, the song, too, of joy. This song makes all our times times of dancing. Once we catch on to the melody and have found the freedom to let our whole being move freely, it no longer matters what we do or where we are — all becomes part of the dance: our work, our eating and drinking, our encounters with people, our resting and sleeping. And everything -_- not just music, flowers, and art, but also the hungry children, the homeless, those who live with AIDS, and those who suffer all over the’ world—becomes an invitation to dance. Because the place of the dance is God’s place, God’s sacred tent. In that place we are anointed, and from that place we are sent to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden. That is why Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier consider joy the main characteristic of those who walk among the dying and the disabled. Their joy comes from that deep- rooted knowledge that, while the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One, we truly belong to the God whose name is love and who showed us that love is the total vulnerability of Jesus.

If we really want to be good dancers, we need discipline. Discipleship without discipline is like wanting to follow the great Dancer without ever being willing to do push-ups. Discipleship is very hard work. We know how our addictions and compulsions keep us victims of the Evil One, but we also know that the Spirit has been given to us to free us from our captivity. Each of us must identify his or her own unique pain, and each of us must discover his or her own unique dance, and find the disciplines appropriate to free the Spirit to move. No two tears are the same, no two dances are alike. Therefore, we have to find our own disciplines (which, however, are not mutually exclusive): For some, 12-step programs offer the ideal disciplines for getting out of our entrapment. For some, the practice of the presence of God through meditation and the study of God’s word can be truly liberating. For some, the age-old disciplines of fasting and prayer will be the way to cast out the Evil One and set us free to dance.

One thing is certain: The dance, beautiful as it may look to the outsider, is always the fruit of long training, and much sweat and many tears. There will be many moments of great spiritual fatigue, even despair, with our hair unkempt, our bodies bowed down to the floor, and no movement at all. Jesus lived such moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out: “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass by me.” Only now can we say that even that moment was part of the dance. When we live it, however, it seems that all is lost. We will always need someone — a Christian therapist, a counselor, a friend, a spouse – who can encourage us to remain faithful to our self-chosen disciplines and to remind us over and over again that what we experience as complete failure and regression is, in fact, part of the spiritual choreography of our lives. This encouragement and this reminding are an; essential element of all healing in the Spirit.

And notice: You are not dancing alone. There are many dancers on the floor. Remain aware of their presence. We are all together on the stage of life, and God, with a tear and a smile, looks with favor on His children.

What kind of generation are we? In many ways we may be different from others, but when it comes to mourning and dancing, we may be criticized for the same lack of response for which Jesus criticized his contemporaries. Jesus cried out in bewilderment, “What comparison can I find for this generation? It is like children shouting to each other as they sit in the marketplace: ‘We sang dirges and you wouldn’t be mourners. We played the pipes for you and you wouldn’t dance.”

Is there any better way to express our resistance to life in the Spirit? There are so many songs in our society that speak of loss, but who will truly mourn? There is so much music that expresses joy, but who will truly dance? When we refuse to mourn and dance we become complainers who consider crying and dancing stupid, and prefer to spend our time bickering over the many things that keep us distracted. Jesus had little patience with people whose endless complaints prevented them from hearing the voice of love. He realized that however the voice of love came to them, they would have an excuse for not responding. In desperation he said, “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard…’”

Jesus knew quite well that such complaints stifle the Spirit and disable us in claiming our true belonging. When you read the newspaper or watch television and observe how most of us spend our time and energy, it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that there is not much real mourning or dancing going on in our world. It simply is not what we are supposed to do. It is for immature children who can’t control their emotions and haven’t yet learned the ways of the world. But Jesus says: “If you do not become little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” In other words: If you don’t learn to mourn and to dance as children, you will never know to whom you truly belong, and your life will end in complaints.. ‘As the German mystic Jakob Boehme once said: “Who dies not before he dies is ruined when he dies,” which is to say that if we hold our tears back and refrain from any spontaneous expression of joy, we will grow rigid and dry — passive instruments of the power games of our world — and our death will be nothing but the end.

Healing counteracts this process of becoming rigid and dry. Healing opens us to the Spirit of life and love, the Spirit of the Child, the Spirit of God who dwelt among us as piper of the dance.

As the children of God, we are all to be healers. If we don’t claim our call to heal, the so-called healing professions will end up playing the same old games as any other profession interested in power and control. Then therapy, instead of leading us beyond the symptoms of our suffering to the joy of living, will put our symptoms in the service of a very exploitative world. Then our depression is little more than introverted aggression that needs to be redirected, our fear little more than a lack of self-esteem that needs to be reinforced. Then AIDS is primarily an epidemic that needs to be controlled, street violence a monster that needs more police. But, reasonable as all this may sound, it isn’t healing in the Spirit of Jesus. It is fighting darkness with darkness.

Christian healing is the call to let our depression and fear become ways to reclaim our true identity as the beloved children of God, and to let AIDS and street violence reveal the urgent human desire to live together as a community of authentic love. It is to call on fellow human beings, in the Name of Jesus, to live their pain as a call to mourn what was lost and a call to dance for joy over the grace found in the center of our grief.

As I come to the end of this dance lesson, I would like to call upon you to claim the Spirit of healing within you and to trust that, through that Spirit, you can bring new life wherever you go, to whomever you meet.

Jesus came to sing a dirge and says: “Cry with me.” Jesus came to play a pipe and says: “Dance with me.” Our marketplace is as wide as the world. It is up to us to make it the stage upon which the immense beauty of God’s love can be shown.

From the New Oxford Review

The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen is a writer and lecturer, a priest-in-residence at Daybreak in Toronto (a Catholic/ecumenical L’Arche community serving disabled persons), and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Born in Nijkerk, Holland, he has taught at Yale, Harvard, and the North American College in Rome. Among his many books are The Wounded Healer and Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. Another version of this article will be published as a small illustrated book by Ave Maria Press in the spring of 1993.