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Saturday, 6 June 2015

Our poverties touching each other

A peculiar title for this post. The phrase is coined from Henri Nouwen's book "Adam: God's beloved" which tells the story of Nouwen's time at the L'Arche community, Daybreak, caring for a young man called Adam Arnett. Nouwen's tale is one of what it means to love, and be loved by, someone with a disability, someone who might be labelled by society as burdensome and useless. It is a beautiful, and painful, read; a challenge to us in our determination to be independent and self-sufficient, to ignore our own weaknesses, and to busy ourselves with doing so that we need not focus on what it means to be.

Nouwen writes with brutal honesty about his own transformation as he lived with and loved Adam, and about how, being confronted with Adam's total vulnerability forced him to face up to his own weakness, his own need to be loved, to be accepted for being himself rather than for anything he could do or offer or give.

As I read this morning, I was reminded of an encounter that took place many years ago with a young woman called Judith, Annie to her friends. The evening we first met Annie was one of those hot lazy summer evenings that follow long sunny Cambridge days. Students were still lounging on the grass of Jesus Green and the smell of just bought bargain barbeques drifted across to where we were sitting on the pavilion. As had become our routine, we were feasting on cheese and ham sandwiches and slurping hot (very sugary) tea with some of the homeless people we had got to know. Annie was a new addition.

Annie was incredibly funny, quick to laugh. Her sense of humour dangerously dry. She seemed to immediately erase that awkwardness of talking to someone who isn’t quite the same as you. She was wearing those strange Nike trainers that look like camel’s hooves and we had a long conversation about how cool it was that they were pink before discussing at length potential outfits for a fancy dress party she was going to. After debating the pros and cons of bumble bee stripes we settled on a rabbit: Annie Rabbit.

As we chatted, our friend Ben came bounding across the grass and flopped down beside us. He had just been to fetch a packet of strepsils for Annie, and some sun cream for her somewhat burnt companions. Annie, continuing the animal theme of the evening, instantly re-dubbed him as “The Gazelle”. Many months later it was with these words, stuttered out in confusion, that she greeted Hamish and I as we visited her in hospital. 

We were tentative. Unsure of what to say. Stumbling over words that we couldn't quite find to explain why we had come and how we had found out she was in hospital. As ever, it was Annie who dispelled the awkwardness. Despite her obvious pain, a pain that was etched into her worn out face, Annie remained beautifully alive. Her body was a mess: she could hardly walk on swollen legs; her stomach was distended, yet she looked so small and so thin; the dye was nearly gone from her limp hair but it remained defiantly tied back in a ponytail with a sparkling butterfly clasp. That clasp was a reminder of the woman we had met, but it was not the only one:  she knew all the names of the staff, and all the patients on the ward and, in the same way that she had with us on that first day, had overcome their barriers with laughter. She was even plotting an elaborate Halloween ward round delivering midnight goodies to the children’s beds and scaring them with a makeshift costume of a green wig made from hospital pyjamas! She was quite remarkable.

Nouwen writes that Adam, by his life, his need, his presence, invited him to "receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given [to Nouwen] for his transformation." Adam's life was a gift to Nouwen through which he would be changed, through which the roles of carer and cared for would be reversed and Adam would become his guide, his teacher, his friend. Annie's life was a gift to me in the same way. 

As I sat by Annie's bed, God started to teach me that same lesson: the lesson of learning to trust the still, small voice of the Father which whispers, "You, yes you, are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased." As Adam was God's gift to Nouwen to teach him that beautiful truth, so Annie was a precious gift to me. She, perhaps more than anyone else in my life, taught me that God loves me when I'm not doing anything, that God is not impressed by the standards of the world, by our aspirations and plans, our riches and our fame. He is our Father. 
I visited her in hospital on her own one day. Without Hamish, I was fearful. Worried of not knowing what to say, stopping in the corridor to gather my thoughts. I was afraid of getting it wrong. I was also scared because I knew that Annie was sick. Really sick. I knew that her body was broken and fragile, her face darkly discoloured by bruises and jaundice. I knew that she might not live much longer. Feeling awkward and foolish, I sat beside her bed. Annie's liver was failing. Her jeans were soaked with a liquidy pus that wept from her legs and the material clung painfully to her legs. She asked me to help her change and I did, not knowing where to look, and frightened by the brokenness of her young body. That day, Annie was tired. Worm out by her sickness and, I think, by life. I brushed her hair for her and she curled up on the hospital bed. Within minutes, she was sound asleep. She was tiny, drowned by sterilised sheets. I sat still for a long time and watched her. 

In that moment I knew, irrevocably, that I loved her. I was surprised by the depth and suddenness of the emotion as it came. I did not love Annie because of anything she could do for me - in that moment she could do nothing - I loved her for herself, for her presence, for the gift of her company, for the fact that she had allowed me into her life and her story. I loved her because she was Annie. And in that moment, God spoke to me. That is how I love you, he said. I love you like you love Annie. Not because you can do anything for me, not because you need to give anything to me, or prove yourself, or earn my love but because I am God and you are Nic and you are my beloved.

Beside that hospital bed, my poverty, my brokenness, my need to be loved, met Annie's. We were the same, equally loved by our creator, equally poor in ourselves, equally rich in the bestowal of his abundant grace. Nouwen writes that being friends with Adam changed him; it forced him to encounter his own poorness of spirit, his own frailty: "It was as if the planks that had covered my emotional abyss had been taken away and I was left looking into a canyon full of wild animals waiting to devour me. I found myself overwhelmed by intense feelings of abandonment, rejection, neediness, dependence, despair...I was going into the deep human struggle to believe in my belovedness even when I had nothing to be proud of." 

Annie died a few months later. 

We knocked on the door of the flat she shared with her partner, Paul, to be told that we had better come up. We went to her funeral and sat with our friends to grieve together. My life and Annie's only intersected for a couple of years; we met perhaps a dozen times but that moment beside her bed changed me. She did not know it, but in being my friend, in sharing her story, in letting me see her at her most vulnerable, in laughing together, in crying together, Annie gave me an incredible gift: she gave the gift of herself and it was, like Adam's gift to Henri, a gift of transformation. 

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