AN ACT OF DISCOVERY
Ever since I can remember there has been a book beside my bed. I think it all began when as a little girl I was in bed for months after reconstructive surgery to my leg. Every body who came to visit me brought books. My favourite was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. My mother snuggled down on large pillows beside me, held me in the crook of her arm and read the first few chapters to me. Her voice was soft and gentle, her body warm and cozy, and the story riveting. After rousing my curiosity in the story, she left me to finish the book on my own. Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth became my companions for those long months in bed. I think it wasn't just the story that comforted - also the feeling of being held close when I hurt, being read to by someone so dear, being cared for and made to feel special.
Little Women quickly became a "comfort" book. I knew my mother couldn't be with me whenever I was in pain, and every time I missed her, Little Women took her place. It lay close to where I could reach it……and later on as I grew up, on difficult days I found myself reaching out for Little Women again and again. . I knew it by heart by now, but it didn't matter, for the familiar passages, the much loved characters and the warmth and coziness of the story almost always restored my heart and soul.
All of us need comfort books to take us through times of loneliness, pain, fear or doubt. Some need adventure or fantasy or romance. Others require something inspirational like biography or poetry or chicken soup for the soul stuff. Some others drift into religious fare. When we see someone in pain or confusion the gift of a book can often redeem them and touch them in a way that we possibly can't.
During a time of loss and grief, my friend Philip Athyal sent me a gift of an old book. His note said, " This is something precious that was given to me. I have been torn between keeping it for myself and sending it you….. torn, because it is no longer in print, and reading it has saved my life many times, so I loathe to part with it…… I am sending it to you now as I think your need of it is greater than mine. I hope it brings you healing." The book was The Inner Voice of Love, by Henri Nouwen.
Touched by Philip's selflessness and generosity, I flipped through the old book. It's pages were fragile, yellowed with time and stained with what I'm sure were tear drops. At the time I didn't really think that a book could heal me in any way. Certainly not one written by a Dutch Catholic priest.
Henri Nouwen , had written this during the most difficult period of his life when he was abandoned by a very special friend. His bitter feelings of rejection and the grief and betrayal of a lost friendship took him into a sinking pit of self- pity, despair and self -doubt. He knew he couldn't live in this pit for ever, he had to climb out sometime. While crawling back to life again, he recorded his deepest and most personal thoughts in his diary which later became The Inner Voice Of Love.
I had no idea what Nouwen looked like, but as I read his words I could feel him holding me in a warm embrace. His voice was gentle and understanding. Many times he echoed my own feelings of fear at being left alone. I felt the same sense of despair and cried the same words.
' What do I do with all this pain?', " Will I ever heal?' , "Will my life ever have meaning again?", " How do I get through one more day?"
The Inner Voice Of Love became my comfort book and Nouwen a trusted friend. It lay under my pillow and often in the middle of the night I would crawl into his arms again and listen to his familiar words. I didn't belong to anyone, I was no longer a beloved, and that hurt. Nouwen embraced me with his writing. He understood, he had been there and he was showing me the way out of my hole too. Slowly my wounded heart began to find strength in his words and to believe them for real.
Writing, for Nouwen was 'an act of discovery,' both for him and his readers. It opened up new spaces within him of which he was not aware when he started to write. Certainly as I journeyed through my readings of The Inner Voice of Love, I discovered new facets, strengths and weaknesses within myself. I knew too that one day I would crawl out of my hole. I became a different person.
Authors of comfort books get very close to their readers. At times it seems as if the book we are reading was written especially for us. Most of us are unable to recognize the feelings that lie deepest in our hearts. We are unable to share our fears, our sadness , our confusions even with those closet to us, so when someone else does it for us we feel a 'oneness' with that person. Here at last is someone who understands! And we cling to them. This creates a special bond between the author and the reader.
Nouwen died long before I got to know his work, but those who knew him say that he was a remarkable man. Most writers jealously protect their writing time and guard their work schedules from interruption. Not so Nouwen. He replied all his fan mail with sincerity, had a personal relationship with about five hundred of his regular readers, and encouraged many of them to visit him to talk out their problems. His writing may have suffered as a result of his openness, but many individuals had a new lease of life because of their contact with him.