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Can You Drink This Cup – Henri Nouwen

I picked up this book because I liked the premise. In it Nouwen takes three symbolic actions associated with the Cup in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, namely holding, lifting and drinking and asks the question Jesus asked ‘Can you drink the cup?’ (Matt 20:20-23)

Holding it Nouwen argues is a way of looking critically at who we are, accepting our skills and inadequacies and our essential uniqueness. Lifting it, is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together by joining in community and sharing our vulnerabilities, giving others the permission to do likewise and giving thanks. Drinking it is the forsake the entrapments of our addictions, compulsions and sin and to trust fully in God who loves us completely and unconditionally.

Consider this passage,

One thing I learned from it all: drinking wine is more than just drinking. You have to know what you are drinking, and you have to be able to talk about it. Similarly, just living life is not enough. We must know what we are living. A life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living. It belongs to the essence of being human that we contemplate our life, think about it, discuss it, evaluate it, and form opinions about it. Half of living is reflecting on what is being lived. Is it worth it? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it old? Is it new? What is it all about? The greatest joy as well as the greatest pain of living come not only from what we live but even more from how we think and feel about what we are living. Poverty and wealth, success and failure,beauty and ugliness aren’t just the facts of life. They are realities that are lived very differently by different people, depending on the way they are placed in the larger scheme of things. A poor person who has compared his poverty with the wealth of his neighbor and thought about the discrepancy lives his poverty very differently than the person who has no wealthy neighbor and has never been able to make a comparison. Reflection is essential for growth, development, and change. It is the unique power of the human person.Holding the cup of life means looking critically at what we are living. This requires great courage, because when we start looking, we might be terrified by what we see. Questions may arise that we don’t know how to answer. Doubts may come up about things we thought we were sure about. Fear may emerge from unexpected places. We are tempted to say: “Let’s just live life. All this thinking about it only makes things harder.” Still, we intuitively know that without looking at life critically we lose our vision and our direction. When we drink the cup without holding it first, we may simply get drunk and wander around aimlessly.Holding the cup of life is a hard discipline. We are thirsty people who like to start drinking at once.

It is written out of Nouwen’s experience of living in community at L’Arche, and weaves in some of the stories of the men and women he encountered there. At it’s best the book is simply profound, immensely readable and capable of being consumed in a single sitting. At it’s worst I’m afraid it becomes a little too pop-psychological and not as lyrical as I was expecting and doesn’t make full use of the brilliant metaphor at the heart of the book (apologies Nouwen fans). Nevertheless worth a look.

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 all that has happened to me and led me to this moment.” This gratitude which embraces all 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.”

I like the idea of transforming our lives into lives which give life.

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