The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey
Henri Nouwen (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
One always thinks that a book by Nouwen will be worth reading and that expectation was certainly fulfilled. But one expectation not fulfilled was that of hearing a story of L’Arche and day-to-day life in that community of handicapped people and their assistants. Although that community is the setting and background for most of the book and some details are given, the focus is on Nouwen himself.
As with several of his other works, this one is written in diary style from his personal journal so the reader is given a glimpse of the author’s inner life. The original 700 pages of manuscript were edited considerably to shape the book and give it direction. Even so, we are presented with a painfully honest picture of the author during a time of transition in his life when he felt that following Jesus required a change in his life but he wasn’t sure what change or if he wanted it.
Because of the diary style the thoughts and ideas in the individual entries can often stand alone and do not necessarily flow in a logical progression. The thread running through the book, which ties it together, is Nowen’s desire to be shown his place of mission. He attempts to answer the question, “How does one follow Jesus unreservedly?” The journal entries are always interesting, thought provoking and even moving. Nowen’s struggles with relationships, friendships, rejection, fear and hurts are very human and any reader will be able to relate to them.
The material about the call to a new vocation or lifestyle is more difficult to follow. True to life there is no clear trail, no large signposts. Nouwen tells us his thoughts and feelings, but their development and the emerging conviction that this new way was God’s leading remain somewhat obscure. This certainly is not a “how to” book for finding one’s mission or discovering the Lord’s will for one’s life. More authentically it is a description of one man’s search and the answer he discovered.
There is an aspect of Nouwen’s thought that is very difficult and painful. He perceives his being led away from those areas where he has great abilities, where he has been successful, where he is inclined to feel pride of accomplishment. So much must be left behind. The Lord appears to be separating him from the two areas on which Nouwen seemed to build his sense of self: the accomplishments and the acclaim of teaching, lecturing, etc.; and the nurture and support of close relationships and friendships.
The Epilogue of the book, in which he looks back over his first year at Daybreak, is one of the saddest writings I have read. “Sometimes it felt as though the spiritual house I had built up over the years was now proving to be made of cardboard and ready to go up in flames.” He experienced a radical confrontation in his new environment and struggled with the question “’Is Jesus truly enough for you, or do you keep looking for others to give you your sense of worth?’” He feels his life at Daybreak is an invitation to loneliness. “It is a loneliness that asks of me to throw myself completely into the arms of God whose presence can no longer be felt and to risk every part of my being to nothingness.”
This is not what he expected after having struggled for a year (as recorded in this journal) deciding to enter Daybreak House. Most of us expect that if we discern the Lord’s will and follow it life will somehow become smoother and more pleasant. Nouwen writes, “It is a dark agony. It is following Jesus to a completely unknown place. It is being emptied out on the cross and having to wait for new life in naked faith.”
As a reader I ask, “Does God really require and ask that much of us?” I weep when I read the answer Nouwen discovered for it rings true with what others who also followed unreservedly have written. Nouwen concludes with some hope, “I am just starting to see the light of a new day and I still do not know if I will have the courage to walk the long road ahead of me.” But he strongly affirms that Jesus has led and sustained him on this long and arduous journey and is guiding him toward the day.
Mary Jo Bezanson, reviewer