Nouwen uses his own journey into integration to illustrate the fact that it is a challenging (even scary) experience that unfolds unevenly over an extended period of time and includes ever area of life (pp 90-94).
It is an experience that requires radical hospitality (offered by both givers and receivers) and that creates surprising community, which Nouwen defines as a pushing out of boundaries and a breaking down of walls (p 93). The key signs of this community are forgiveness and celebration–nothing short of a worldview reconstruction–what scripture calls life in the Kingdom of God.
As I read Nouwen’s story, I thought about this formative journey in terms of a transition of pronouns: my, our, and the. “My” comnunity is the one I largely create and maintain. It is the smallest and a self-referent community. A few others may be in it, but I decide who is “in” and who is “out.” Insiders are people like me. This level is my “happy place.”
The next step is moving to “our” community. Here a race, tradition, culture, value system, or institution defines community. I participate in something that I did not create–something which is larger than myself, but which does not challenge my ego very much. This level is my “comfort zone.”
The final stage is “the” community. What seems at first to be an impersonal pronoun turns out to create the most intimate community. Nouwen used his entrance into the L’Arche community as the example of it–the community where people unlike him–people with severe disabilities–became the dearest friends he had ever had. “The” community is the largest community–“the” community is one ego can never create or live in–community created by the Father, made possible by the Son, and sustained by the Spirit. This level is my “home.”
Theologically, Nouwen declares the ultimate sign of integration to be “the” Table–the Eucharist (p 97), which makes any exclusive offering of it a tragic counterfitting of what Jesus intended it to be. Instead, the Eucharist is the convergence point–where the grace of God and the response of persons unite–the place where people from all locations and conditions find life in Christ and life together.
I end this meditation confessing that this view of integration is difficult to grasp, and all the more so in a time when this kind of unity seems to say “all roads lead to Rome” or “everything is acceptable.” The challenge is to learn how to differentiate between universalism (which integration is not) and universality (which it is). The only way to approach this is through Christ, the Incarnation of integration.
Will we make mistakes when we try to live like this? Of course. But we will fail on the side of the Kingdom, moving away from the damning prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”–when the truth is, we are.