References are to Henri J. M. Nouwen, Can Your Drink the Cup? Ave Maria Press, 1997.

Drinking the Cup of Life

Part 1: I want this to be my life

Henri Nouwen does a terrific job explaining what it means to drink the cup. “Drinking the cup makes our own everything we are living,” he tells us. “It is saying, ‘This is my life,’ but it is also saying, ‘I want this to be my life’” (81). If we truly want to drink our cup, this is the point to which we need to come: not merely to accept our joys and sorrows but to embrace them, heartily, as a gift from God, recognizing in them not only our own experience but the presence of Christ.

Not all wine is sweet, but we are called to drain the cup of our lives completely, even though we may find some of it very bitter indeed. Tennyson has his hero Ulysses say,

. . . I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone.

We have this opportunity too, if we can trust in God’s grace and take the risk of living and dying in full consciousness and confidence. We will reach out to others, and solidarity with others will sustain us and give us courage. Because the cup we drink is shared, communal, the cup empowers us: we can share everything, good and bad, in tribulation and ecstasy; we can share our brokenness and, like Christ, be wounded healers to one another as we meet in each moment.

Part 2: Hesitation

I’ve always liked the way Luke formulates his description of those first Christians: “Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Salvation is not only for the future; it’s for now as well. It finds its reality for us not just in the word “saved,” but also in the word “being.” I am, and I am being saved. I am. I am being. And I am being saved. Sometimes it’s helpful to savor the words, to roll them over the tongue and taste them deeply. I am, and I am being saved. I am. I am being. And I am being saved. It reminds me of a way of looking at, and reflecting upon and praying, a line from one of the Psalms: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still, and know that I am. Be still, and know. Be still. Be. My life is an intersection between who I am and what God is. This is God’s Present to me, my salvation.

“Drinking the cup of salvation means emptying the cup of sorrow and joy so that God can fill it with pure life,” Henri Nouwen tells us (89). Sounds good, doesn’t it? But most of us resist this hope in various ways; we hesitate to drink the cup to the lees.

Part 3: Peter

The apostle Peter provides us an example of this reluctance. Peter was a fisherman, a strong man certain of himself, no doubt sure of his leadership and the steadiness of his faith. He was not like James and John, who were uncertain of their station and had to ask if they could share Christ’s glory in his kingdom. No, Peter had confidence. We all know about that. In the gospels he stands out among the disciples. He was an enthusiastic follower of Jesus. He tasted of the glory. Yet he strenuously resisted the bitterness of the cup. He fought Calvary with all his might.

Peter was by all accounts the chief disciple. As you heard in last Sunday’s reading, he was the one who boldly answered Jesus’ question about his identity by confessing, “You are the Messiah.” The gospel writers carefully place Peter’s affirmation immediately before Christ’s first prediction of the Passion. After Jesus tells the disciples he must suffer and die, then rise on the third day, Peter rejects what Jesus has said. He tries to argue about it, whereupon Jesus calls Peter “Satan” – a tempter. “You are thinking not as God does,” Jesus says to Peter, “but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33).

This scene is immediately followed by Jesus’ remarks on the conditions of discipleship, the necessity for privation and sacrifice. Shortly after, we read about the powerful experience of the Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John behold the wondrous glory of the Son of God. And what is Peter’s reaction? He wants to stay there, build a shrine, and enjoy the glory permanently. But, as the evangelists point out, “he did not know what he was saying”; and in the end he has to come down from the mountain and continue with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. After Jesus’ second prediction of the Passion, Peter and the other disciples still don’t understand; they think only of the triumph of the Messiah and argue about which of them should be the greatest in the coming kingdom. Even after Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion, they still don’t get it. After the Last Supper, Peter slumbers like the others in the Garden. When the crowd comes for Jesus, he resists with violence, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave. But Jesus advises him to put away his sword. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Peter is baffled. Should he not try to protect the Lord? Should he not battle the evil ones? Should not the suffering of the innocent be resisted? Should not the Holy One, the Lamb of God, receive only “power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 6:12)? Surely the Messiah must not be handed a cup of sorrows! Suffer and die? This idea is way beyond Peter’s capability of imagination. And so he denies Jesus and the reason for which he came, and flees the scene in bitter tears. And later, after the resurrection, even after having seen the risen Lord, Peter finds nothing better for himself than to return to his old line of work. “I go a-fishing,” he declares.

Part 4: Peter learns the truth

Even though Peter had honestly tried to understand, to grasp what it means to follow Christ, and though he had seen the glory more than once, he finally gives up and goes home. But then, that didn’t work out either; he can catch nothing. He has to face emptiness and failure. But at that low point for Peter, Jesus appears again, showing him how to recover from his failure, to catch a load of fish so heavy that the boat almost capsizes. When he recognizes his Lord, in his eagerness to reach his Lord, Peter jumps into the sea, as he had done once before (during the storm when Jesus walks on the water). After they have eaten, Jesus asks Peter repeatedly if he loves him. Peter, perhaps in a small voice, replies each time that he does. Finally, chagrined, he bursts out, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). At last, Peter begins to understand the depth required for his commitment: to “feed my sheep,” as Jesus commands. Peter has to abandon his own preferences, his old freedom as a young man to do as he wanted, whenever he wanted. Now he knows that following Christ promises not only a simple and straightforward glory. His life leads him now not only to exquisite joy, but to great suffering and sorrows as well. “When you grow old,” Jesus tells him, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Peter’s life will no longer be as simple and unambiguous as he would have preferred; the path to glory is not always glorious. Like all of us, Peter is called to drink the cup of his life fully, in happiness and in pain, in the Lord. He is called to the deepest commitment, not for himself alone, but for others, for service to his community, and to the world, for the Lord.

Peter learned, as Nouwen put it, that our mission emerges “out of a life that is never pure sorrow or pure joy, a mission that makes us move far beyond our human limitations and reach out to total freedom, complete redemption, ultimate salvation” (88).

Part 5: My experience

I can identify with Peter, since I only want the good stuff too! But in my bipolar disorder I have known the extremes of sorrow and despair, euphoria and joy. I am sure that many people have enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly, as I have, and many certainly to greater extremes. But life’s tribulations and its ecstasies are routinely and compellingly obvious and clear cut to persons with bipolar disorder. You experience them repeatedly and dramatically. You just can’t miss them, nor is there any way you can deny them, though you may try to do so, both in the black, devastating, hopeless depths and in the towering, energetic but frenetic, highs of mania.

With me, the whole thing was complicated by what Father Thomas Keating calls an emotional program for happiness, an unconscious and debilitating “script” left over from early childhood days. By the use of the scripts we manage to get through childhood, but they become inappropriate when carried over into our adult lives. The scripts may revolve around safety and security, esteem and affection, or power and control. My emotional program was continually to seek love, esteem, and acceptance from others by excelling in what I did. Like all such programs, it worked for a while but then proved inadequate to its goals.

I had a passionate desire to succeed in the work I was doing. From my teens I dreamed of achievement, accomplishment, distinction, recognition, and respect. I wanted to do all things well; if I found I was not able to do so, I would give things up and look elsewhere for situations and circumstances in which I could truly distinguish myself. And in the end, I succeeded . . . and failed. It was never enough. I couldn’t meet my own standards of what it meant to be a success and gain recognition and respect. Indeed, I don’t think I ever articulated these standards, even to myself. I would know when I got there, and I never did, even though I realized many achievements and enjoyed recognition and rewards. Still, in the end, I didn’t go out with flying colors. After a career with many changes, many ups and downs, after pursuing several different and seemingly unrelated fields of work and doing well, and after having attained a summit exceeding what I might have expected, I was abruptly laid off.

Strangely enough, this did not trigger depression in me but rather mania. I put great energy into an unsuccessful attempt to land a similar position, then into redirecting my career to a path I had followed earlier. That, at least, helped me understand for sure that that first road was not the right one for me.

Part 6: What we are called to be

You’re looking at a person who takes in the world with enthusiasm and excitement. I love to be with people. Yet, for a number of years, I have experienced the joyfulness of a most profound solitude. When I say solitude, I don’t mean loneliness, and certainly not isolation, though I have known them too. For me, solitude makes possible a profound spiritual state, a doorway to mystical union with God, through which I can ponder my sorrows and joys in the presence of the Lord. “As we gradually come to befriend our own reality,” in Nouwen’s words, “to look with compassion on our own sorrows and joys, and as we are able to discover the unique potential of our way of being in the world, we can… put the cup of life to our lips and drink it, slowly, carefully, but fully” (82).

Nouwen describes how addictions, compulsions, and obsessions “reveal our entrapments” and become the most insidious ways we sin. “Sin makes us want to create our own lives according to our desires and wishes, ignoring the cup that is given to us” he says. “Sin makes us self-indulgent” (90-91). My obsession was trying to achieve happiness on my own, to gain esteem and affection – love – through career achievement, accomplishment, recognition, and success. I wanted to be a hero and be loved.

“Sin and death entrap us,” Nouwen continues. “Drinking the cup, as Jesus did, is the way out of that trap. It is the way to salvation . . . . Unless we are willing to drink our cup, real freedom will elude us” (91). Silence, solitude, are the first means we have available to begin gaining real freedom. In silence it is possible for me to find my true self, that which God made and what God wants me to be. To find it, to recover it, I have to be quiet and let God peel away the layers of false self I have built up in my desire to “make it” on my own terms in the world. God helps me lose the scripts of my emotional programs! I must tolerate not being in charge of my life, not being busy! not constantly performing and seeking recognition! “In silence,” Nouwen says, “we can truly acknowledge who we are and gradually claim ourselves as a gift from God” (95). Not that it’s easy. “Just as we want to run from silence in order to avoid self-confrontation,” Nouwen says, “we want to run from speaking about our inner life in order to avoid confrontation with others” (97). But with those we trust, with our soul friends, our spiritual companions, we can find the sacred space we need to discern and commit to the mission to which God calls us.

Ultimately we are called not to remain in solitude but to action, to public engagement with others, to service. Determining what this action should be requires careful discernment. As Nouwen reminds us, “It is not easy to distinguish between doing what we are called to do and doing what we want to [do]” (99). But we must make the distinction because, as he says, “true action leads us to the fulfillment of our vocation” (99). And if we are true to our vocation, to our calling, there will come a time when, as with Jesus, we can say, “It is finished” – “It is fulfilled” (John 19:30). With Jesus, “we fulfill life by emptying it” (Nouwen).

At the end of his life, Jesus experienced joy in the crowds and hosannas as well as sorrow and suffering in the cross. For him, this time was completely public and also completely private. In the end, he was radically alone, feeling that even God had abandoned him. Jesus made his commitment to us at the Last Supper and to his Father in the Garden, and then made his saving sacrifice for all creation on the cross. It was a total commitment; he drank fully of the cup he was given to drink. He was able to do so because of the transforming power of love. God is love. Jesus called his disciples – us – to experience the power of love and drink to the lees, in the power of love, the same cup he drank. This is the reality of the Eucharist. It calls to mind both the reality and sorrow of death, and at the same time makes possible our hope and joy in the resurrection. We stand in fellowship, in awe and amazement at the grace God gives us to be able to find sanctuary, sacred space, to make this stand through both contemplation and action. And therefore I can rejoice in

Being able to say Yes

Being able to say Yes to past, present and future,
recognizing that there is only Present,
that God has a plan for me,
that it is what is predestined for me,
and that I am completely free to make of it what I will;
To accept it or reject it,
to accept God or reject God;
To fight against it or accept it,
to go with the flow or struggle against it,
to have my way or find my way;
To make it or break it or fake it, or take it;
To see and understand things as they are
and, with God, to co-create things as they are with me;
To find my true self, what God made, and
to find my way back to my maker,
and to become one, in being with my Creator,
losing myself to Godsself, for Godssake,
and this not for sometime, but for now, Now.