In my mid-30s, two decades after the last time my father beat me, and two years after he died, I broke glass twice in one week. Once, for the first time in my life, in anger.
On a September Saturday, atop a stepladder, I was scraping the peeling wood around our garage window, preparing it for painting. I thought about long to-do lists at home with our small children and at the rural church I pastored, which was suddenly attracting newcomers who squeezed our small space, not to mention our comfort zone. In a couple of hours I was to head to a Christian education conference where I would give a workshop on spirituality. Plus, this window needed work. On top of it all, I was to leave for a five-day retreat in 48 hours.
Overwhelmed by an impossibly long list of duties that was complicated by my upcoming trip, a cloud of steamy mist descended into my brain and swirled behind my eyes. I grunted in frustration and plunged my fist against the window, startled by how little resistance the glass offered.
The cascade of jagged accusers clattered to the ground. I felt relief that I had not cut myself, as such an injury would be hard to explain. I fetched a broom and dustpan from the kitchen.
As I stepped back into the garage, my mother pulled up; she had just completed the 90-minute drive for a prearranged weekend visit. She saw the broken window and scattered glass. I averted my face.
“Is het weer zo?” she asked in our native Dutch. “Is it happening again?” She remembered my father.
With nothing to say, I finished cleaning up the debris, then went in, showered, changed into good clothes and put on a tie. I drove to the conference, held in a local high school gym, where Sunday school teachers listened to me claim that prayer can de-stress our lives.
On the way home, I stopped at a hardware store and spent the day’s honorarium on a replacement pane, a can of gray putty, glazing nails and a putty knife. Back home, placing and securing that window, I remembered that my father glazed for years but never repaired his own rage-inflicted destruction.
On Monday, I went to stay with Henri Nouwen, a priest whose books had influenced my prayer life and ministry. He resided an hour’s drive away, just north of Toronto at Daybreak, part of L’Arche, a worldwide network of communities where people with developmental and intellectual challenges live with their assistants.
I had interviewed Nouwen for a magazine several years earlier, and then visited a couple times. Now he would guide me on a five-day retreat.
I knew Henri was speaking at a nearby seminary so, as expected, when I arrived at his house, no one was there. I found my room and was welcomed by a warm note and vase of bright sunflowers that testified to his love for Van Gogh. Minutes later he phoned, apologizing for not being there for my arrival. I was glad to hear his familiar Dutch accent, the one that consoles and reassures me. He said he’d given me the “best room.”
That first evening, through my open door, he saw me reading, and said, “You better get a nice lamp. This one is so awful.” He went down the hall and in minutes showed up with one that he’d retrieved from his room. A while later, he returned, handing me a CD player and discs, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Mozart symphonies, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Play these as loud as you like,” he told me. “I won’t mind.”
Every day we met twice for an hour to discuss Scripture passages that he assigned for my meditation, insisting I use his Jerusalem Bible. Pondering those texts, my week’s mantra emerged from Mary’s Magnificat: “The Almighty has done great things for me.”
On my second day, we went to his office, at the front of the Daybreak property. He showed me shelves of his published books. “Just take whatever,” he told me, giving me three copies of the Dutch translation of his Prodigal Son book, Eindelijk Thuis, “Finally Home,” the title naming a yearning that he and I both shared,
Another evening, he arrived back at the house around 10 p.m. I was in a chair, illuminated by his lamp, reading with my feet propped on the bed. He sat down on the mattress and gave my legs a friendly pat. We each reviewed our day for the other.
Henri explained that he’d made sure his calendar that week had plenty of space for our conversations. I knew this was no small thing, given his responsibilities and long to-do lists.
Why, I asked, when he had many other commitments? He said, “We’ve built up a relationship and know each other. And you have the stamina to do your thing without being intrusive or demanding.” I thought about that, saying nothing; then he added, “By the way, I don’t want you to pay anything to Daybreak for this stay. You are here as my friend.”
All week, I struggled with whether to tell him about that window. It felt ridiculous and humiliating. Every time I came to Daybreak, I seemed to be in crisis. During my first visit, an hour-long interview turned into a daylong conversation, and Henri addressed my evident stress. Toward the end of our time together, he pulled a chair near and leaned toward me, explaining, “You have a tender heart. This means that God is calling you to a deep spiritual life. Tenderness can destroy you because you can just be pulled apart, burn out, and the whole thing. But you can also be a mystic. That’s what you obviously have to be.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“To be a mystic, I don’t mean anything more than that God is the one who loves you deeply. And that’s what you have to trust. And keep trusting, keep trusting, keep trusting.”
On this most recent visit, I evasively summarized my recent days of feeling once again “overloaded” and “stressed.” I couldn’t bear to confess the broken glass, even when he said, “Our time together will be helpful only if you are completely honest.”
Each morning, we prayed with a Carmelite breviary. I kept losing my place in it and Henri helped me find my way. After the formal prayers, we sat for thirty minutes of silence. He concluded our time by kneeling and stretching out his hands and reciting aloud, from memory, Charles de Foucauld’s prayer:
I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you;
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this,
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love
of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence.
For you are my Father.
At one breakfast, Henri told me that I needed to make my ministry “more eucharistic,” but I had no idea what he meant. Our church celebrated the Supper only a few times a year. I didn’t ask for clarification though. I felt I should know. Later, that day, he gave me a manuscript of a forthcoming book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life. From it I learned that in the Eucharist Jesus takes us, blesses us, then breaks us and, finally, gives us into ministry.
At the end of Thursday’s breakfast, Henri stood: “I need to make a quick phone call.” He paused, then said, “Oh. Can you clean these for me?” He gestured toward two simple glass candleholders on the counter, streaked by discolored wax that had dripped and accumulated along the sides.
“Sure. Ik moet iets doen voor de kost.” (“I have to do something for room and board.”) One at a time, I held each holder over the garbage bin. With a butter knife I pried and scraped away large wax chunks. Then I removed the remaining bits with my thumbnail. Finally, I filled the dishpan with warm water and immersed the first, scrubbing and setting it aside on a kitchen towel, before doing the same for the second.
Drying them, I was shocked to see cracks in one. But how? I thought I had handled them carefully, set them down gently. Had the fracture been there before and I overlooked it? Surely I would have noticed? Is this how I repay Henri’s hospitality. What would he say? He cherished nice things. Cheryl, a community assistant, wandered through the kitchen.
“Look,” I told her. “Somehow this cracked. I don’t know whether I did it, but I feel bad. They’re pretty simple. They can’t be worth much.”
“Unfortunately,” she said, “they are. A famous glass blower in Vermont custom-made them for Henri.”
My stomach tightened over this mishap. I worried about his disapproval or worse. I could hardly sit still as I waited. Minutes later, he burst into the kitchen, hurrying to get to the basement.
“Wait, Henri, I have to show you something.”
“Okay, but I don’t have much time.”
“I’m not sure what happened. Whether I did it or not. But one holder is cracked. I’m sorry. I thought I was careful.”
He grew very still, no longer in a rush. He looked toward the counter and turned the glass stem in his hands, studying the damage. I waited, fretting. Would he scold and tell me about its value, its specialness, its uniqueness? Would he question whether I was careful enough? Would he raise his voice? Would this ruin—even end—my visit, perhaps all future visits? Would he ask, as my father often did, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, Artur,” he said, for his accent, like my father’s, always mispronounced my name. “It’s okay. Don’t worry.” Pulling me from my kitchen chair, his long arms swept me into a bear hug, tight against his chest, full body contact. I could count each bony finger pressed into my back. Seconds later he released me and then disappeared, descending noisily to the basement chapel, bouncing down the wooden steps. I hardly knew what had happened.
I went to brush my teeth, hoping to calm myself. Then I too hustled down the stairway planks. I settled into the gentle sway of an IKEA armchair, one where I had meditated on Scripture texts every morning and afternoon that week. Assistants and members arrived, unwrapping blankets, positioning wheelchairs, murmuring encouragements, arranging large pillows for contorted bodies, massaging backs and shoulders.
I knew what to expect: informal eucharistic liturgy and simple songs that involved and included people with severe handicaps, some of them periodically moaning. I would savor Taizé chants and the upcoming homey and holy worship.
I looked at the low-slung altar. Made of highly polished wood and shaped like a boat, an ark, a safe haven in turbulent times. It had been commissioned by Henri for this space.
From behind it, Henri, in white alb and emerald stole, flung his arms right and left, embracing the gathering, and calling, “The Lord be with you.”
My eyes ran to and fro at his ambidextrous invitation and were drawn to the candles. The holders, each bearing one lit taper, stood at attention on opposite ends of the altar. Studying the small sentinels, I could no longer see where that break might be.
Arthur Boers is an Anglican priest, Benedictine oblate, former Mennonite pastor and author. He lives in East York, Ontario. The above is excerpted and adapted from his book, Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ©2023. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
The glass sculpture titled, Imperative Change, is made from upcycled glass by Steinbach, Manitoba artist George Klassen. (Photo by George Klassen)
Henri Nouwen in 1996. (Photo by Kevin F. Dwyer, used by permission of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives at the University of St. Michael's College)
This glass fountain is made from upcycled glass by Steinbach, Manitoba artist George Klassen. (Photo by George Klassen)