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Nouwen on the Communal Life

September 28th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Cate MacDonald

My new favorite book is Can You Drink the Cup by Henri Nouwen. Well, actually, that's probably not true but it's really, really good. Nouwen uses the communion cup as a metaphor for the Christian life. The call is to hold, lift, and drink one's cup of life, whatever it may contain, trusting that God knows what your life has been and will be and He is loving you through your circumstances.

Nouwen particularly emphasizes the role of community in the life well held, suggesting that life lived alone is no life at all. Just as one should be reluctant to drink a good wine alone, so too is life meant to be shared. He uses the ritual of toasting as an analogy of presenting one's life to community.

“Lifting up the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together. As we lift up the cup of life and look each other in the eye, we say: ‘Let’s not be anxious or afraid. Let’s hold our cup together and greet each other. Let us not hesitate to acknowledge the reality of our lives and encourage each other to be grateful for the gifts we have received.’”

Nouwen then goes on to describe toasts from various countries in many languages, ending with the Hebrew toast, “L’chiam.” To life.

“The best summary of all these wishes is, “to life.” We lift the cup to life, to affirm our life together and celebrate it as a gift from God. When each of us can hold firm our own cup, with its many sorrows and joys, claiming it as our unique life, then too, can we lift it up for others to see and encourage them to lift up their lives as well. Thus, as we lift up our cup in a fearless gesture, proclaiming that we will support each other in our common journey, we create community.”

“Nothing is sweet of easy about community. Community is a fellowship of people who do not hide their joys and sorrows but make them visible to each other in a gesture of hope. In community we say: ‘Life is full of gains and losses, joys and sorrows, ups and downs—but we do not have to live alone. We want to drink our cup together and thus celebrate that the wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care.’”

"A fellowship of mutual care." How lovely is that as a description for godly family and friendships? The Christian life was never meant to be lonely. We are a faith centered on personal relationship with God and built in churches and families. Embraced, healed, and sanctified lives lead to loving communities and families. And that, my friends, makes for one beautiful Church, a shining light into deep and lonely darkness.