Henri Nouwen’s Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in An Age of Anxiety is the new, posthumous release that’s finding its audience in the disquieting Venn overlap of Lent and COVID-19.

Fittingly, the book began its life as a series of talks Nouwen gave during Lent of 1985 as he was discerning what direction to take with his own life. Anxiety was an extremely non-theoretical factor for Nouwen as he pondered leaving behind a prestigious post at Harvard Divinity School. The restless unease he experienced imbued his words with a sparkling pastoral insight that, unlike all too much “pastoral wisdom” on offer today, makes the compassion of God tangible.

Nouwen cuts right to the chase in the book’s introduction: “Are you following Jesus? I want you to look at yourself and ask that question. Are you a follower? Am I?” (p. 11). What could, in other hands, become the launching pad for a guilt-inducing call for self-improvement here serves as an invitation to examine what we rely upon to relieve our anxiety.

“Often we are more wanderers than followers,” Nouwen says (p. 11). We wander from one thing to another trying to stanch the wounds of our lives with activity but become exhausted from the ceaseless working and doing. We’re worn out and, if asked, can’t always name what it is we’re busy with. Subjected to the pressures of an age of anxiety, it’s easy to become numb to the world and even to ourselves. But while numbing ourselves may silence the clamor of our needs for a while, it never takes them away.

Why is it so hard to admit our need? Because if we were to admit it, we would have to reckon with how fractured and incomplete we actually are. We would have to admit that all our scheming and strategizing and all the sweat we’ve poured into trying to control life and the people around us really were pretty hopeless from the start.

We usually only bring these things to speech in self-deprecating jokes, trying to beat other people—we imagine—to the punch. It’s terrifying to recognize that we aren’t sufficient in ourselves to guarantee our being; that it wouldn’t take very much at all for us to not be. We would have to live with the conscious possibility of our needs going unanswered, of limping on our way with our deficit known by others but ignored.

Our lives are clenched fists, clinging angrily to what we think we need because we fear we can’t trust anyone to give it to us. We fear nothing will be adequate to our need, or worse, that anyone who could help will say no. This is principally why faith is the response Jesus is seeking to draw out of us: faith is the trust that takes him at his word and lets go of the suspicion that he’s no different from all the people and things that have let us down.

Following Jesus means loosening the baggage of our fears by believing him when he says he wants to set us free from the things that enslave us. Following Jesus is a lifelong disencumbering of the habits of fear that choke our efforts to truly live, that tightens our grip on our things and the ways of being that hurt us, that never actually deliver on security or acceptance or assuage our guilty consciences.

Responding to Christ’s call is always about faith in the lord of abundance who multiplies the little we have, who calls what we need into existence from nothing. Following Jesus isn’t fundamentally about works: to carry on with the usual, ineffective routines is to rely on works. The invitation we receive is to crucify the logic that gives shape to our lives and all the futility it represents. To abandon the logic all of us are tired of but feel like we don’t have permission to bypass.

Finding our way home may sound like crossing a finish line, but Nouwen’s emphasis is on continually returning to the God who has promised “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is the decisive thing, not an imaginary arriving we accomplish once in our lives and then the deed is done.

Lent returns year after year and in its repetition we rediscover we are in many ways just as disordered and sinful as we were the year before. We can despair over this fact or we can focus instead on our persistent need to return to our home in God. If we forego the illogical “certainties” that motivate our anxieties we will better recognize that the repetition doesn’t mean we’ve been doing it wrong—it’s just the truth of our nature and need as creatures.

And this is why the participles in the title are so crucial. Following Jesus and finding our way home aren’t tasks we succeed at or lose once and that’s it. Home awaits, wherever we are, whenever we are. A few years after giving the lectures that would become this book, Nouwen would write in The Return of the Prodigal Son, “Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.” This voice, he says, is the one that sets us “free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light.”

We are too preoccupied with what lies beyond the darkness of the immediate. If we look into the dark our eyes will adjust to accommodate it, at least enough to make out immediate obstacles. It’s hard to see beyond that at any given moment but the proof we find in navigating the darkness is that we don’t have to see that far out to make the moves we need to make now.

Nouwen helps us understand that we aren’t trying to conform to the darkness in doing this—we’re learning how to catch what light there is. We never pretend the darkness is actually misidentified light (i.e., we don’t pretend that calamity is really blessing if we would just look at it the right way; we don’t pretend that whatever happens is a direct manifestation of God’s character). We simply acknowledge that light is always already penetrating the tenebrosity because Christ has gone into the darkness to sabotage its own processes. We wouldn’t know the darkness at all were it not for the light there is within it and surrounding it. The darkness is real, but isn’t original; the darkness doesn’t comprehend the light, but the light does the darkness (John 1:5).

Following Jesus means continually returning home in faith, and that faith often looks like waiting. Waiting is more than pure passivity, though: it’s a trusting “that all you need is where you are,” “that God is with us and that we are already now breathing his Spirit.” If we could face our anxiety head-on from the safety of our dwelling in and with Christ, then we could “let the future emerge out of the present” (123). There is darkness and pain in the present, but the present-with-God is the site out of which hope and a secure future blossoms. We mustn’t keep uprooting the seed of that future to examine whether it’s growing—we must dispel that morbid self-scrutiny by simply dwelling with the One who says, “Come and see.”

As is well-known, Nouwen ultimately did leave academic prestige behind and followed Jesus into ministry at L’Arche Daybreak. The talks that became this book solidified the direction the Spirit breathed into his waiting. What’s particularly poignant about this, though, is that this decision didn’t amount to a once-and-for-all accomplishment never requiring another returning home in faith. A short time after the victory that was coming to Daybreak, Nouwen would suffer a breakdown and undergo months-long treatment out of which would later emerge his book The Inner Voice of Love. Nouwen himself would have to return home time and time again, always following the invitation of Christ to dwell in him and disencumber himself of his anxieties.

Near the end of the book Nouwen writes,

The great art of spiritual living is to pay attention to the breathing of the Spirit right where you are and to trust that there will be breathing of new life. The Spirit will reveal itself to you as you move on. That is the beauty of the spiritual life. You can be where you are. You don’t have to be anywhere else. You can be fully present to the moment and trust that even in the midst of your pain, in the midst of your struggle, something of God is at work in you and wants to reveal itself to you.

Be here.

Be quiet.

Listen. (125)

This is the furthest thing from works-righteousness. This is returning home again and again and waiting in faith for God to do what only he can do. To do what he has promised to do.