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He had a résumé to die for—which was the problem, exactly. The pressing schedule and relentless competition were suffocating his own spiritual life. So he took six months away and went to work with the poor in South America. But upon returning to the states, he jumped back on the hectic schedule of teaching, writing and speaking.
Finally he took time off to work at L,Arch in France, a home of the severly mentally retarded. He felt so nourished by them that he agreed to become priest in residence at a similar home in Toronto called Daybreak. There, Nouwen spent his last ten years, still writing and traveling to speak here and there, but always returning to the haven of Daybreak.
Author Philip Yancey went to visit Nouwen while at Daybreak. Yancey had lunch with him in his small room. It had a single bed, one bookshelf, and a few pieces of Shaker-style furniture. The walls were unadorned except for a print of a Van Gogh painting and a few religious symbols. No fax machine, no computer, no calendar posted on the wall—in this room, at least, Nouwen had found serenity.
After lunch Nouwen celebrated a special Eucharist for Adam, the young man Nouwen looked after. With solemnity, but also a twinkle in his eye, Nouwen led the liturgy in honor of Adam’s twenty-sixth birthday. Unable to talk, walk, or dress himself, profoundly retarded, Adam gave no sign of comprehension. He seemed to recognize, at least, that his family had come. He drooled throughout the ceremony and grunted loudly a few times. Later Nouwen told me it took him nearly two hours to prepare Adam each day. Bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, guiding his hand as he tried to eat breakfast-these simple, repetitive acts had become for him almost like an hour of meditation.
Yancey raised the subject of whether this was the best way that Nouwen could use his wonderful gifts. Couldn’t they, asked Yancey, find a servant to do all this menial stuff. At which point, Nouwen responded, “. "I am not giving up anything," he insisted. "It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship."
Jesus knew something about being a leader, something about how to effect the world around us, and he modeled that type of leadership for us the night he washed his disciples dirty feet.
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