Lisa Cataldo a former assistant at L’Arche Daybreak writes in the recent Henri Nouwen Society newsletter about her experience at the Corner House and the influence of Henri Nouwen in her life.Walking into my office, I happen to glance down at my bag imprinted with the seal of Fordham University. It is heavy, filled with books and papers, the constant companions of any professor. I notice the sign outside the door that says “Dr. Cataldo,” and experience what has become a not unusual moment of surprise. How is it that I am carrying this bag, that I have this office, that graduate students, many of them experienced priests, nuns, and ministers, call me “professor?”
I find myself remembering another office, this one in midtown Manhattan, where I used to have ostensibly important meetings about real estate deals with wealthy clients whose suits cost as much as I now earn in a month. In those days, I spent my free time shopping. I thought if I just had all the right things, I would be fulfilled. I would be happy. But I finally realized that what I was searching for was myself, and a way to be connected with something larger than myself – with people, with meaning, with God.
That midtown office is a far cry from the windowless, “junior faculty” office at Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, and from the small, homey office where I conduct my small private practice as a psychotherapist. I have passed through many places in the fifteen years since I left the banking world. Thanks to my encounter with Henri Nouwen, one of those places was Corner House at L’Arche Daybreak.
I met Henri when he gave a talk at my church in New York. From the first moment I saw him at the front of the church, waving his hands, exhorting us to move from greed to gratitude, I felt, “this man is alive!” I was tentatively stepping into a new life myself, having recently left my banking job in the wake of a profound religious conversion.In my state of transition, I was in hot pursuit of a “guru” to guide me, and Henri seemed to fit the bill perfectly.I soon discovered that Henri was not interested in being my guru, but his invitation to Daybreak and the talks we would have there became touchstones for everything my life has become since then.
Living with Tracy, Alia, Heather, Hsi Fu, and an international group of assistants at Corner House taught me to let go of my concerns for prestige and power, and to recognize the presence of God in simple, everyday acts of receiving and giving. Spending time with Henri taught me to pause in my frantic pursuit of answers, and to listen for the presence of God in my life, just the way it was at the present moment.I have written elsewhere of my talks with Henri,? of my constant questioning about what I should do with my life, now that I had found God. What I learned from Henri, what he gently stressed in each of our talks, was that I was already doing it.Searching.Journeying. He reminded me that the deepest truths of our lives are not so much about what we do as about who we are, uniquely gifted and profoundly loved. Henri, not known as the calmest of people, calmed my anxiety with his deep attention – his great gift – and helped me to accept that my life would unfold in the way it needed to, and all I had to do was trust that I was being led.
Since then, my life has been touched by grace in ways I never would have imagined. I suspect it always was, but I just didn’t know it. Henri helped me to feel the presence of that grace-ful river. Sometimes the river has run underground, winding its way outside my vision and awareness. Other times it has burst up through the earth like a geyser, splashing back down and carrying me along with such a force that I could only hang on for the ride.
Trusting the river isn’t easy, but it is the only way to let go so that we can embrace new life. Because of Henri, I followed the river of grace where it led me – to seminary, to doctoral studies in Psychology and Religion, to training and working as a psychotherapist, and finally, to the campus of Fordham University, where I teach Pastoral Counseling to students who are pursuing their own journeys toward helping others transform their lives. I try to live the things I learned with Henri. I try to pass on to my students the importance of being with their patients instead of doing for them, of listening from the heart, and trusting in the presence of God in their work. And I am humbled as I bear witness to the transformation of my patients, who with tremendous courage follow their own journeys toward new life.
I keep Henri close through all of this, as close as my cell phone, where I store a smiling photo of him to remind me to trust and let go of needing answers before their time. Henri had a special gift for seeing into the heart of things. His life, his writing, his very being embodied the message that no matter how lost we may feel, how unsure or alone or afraid, there is at the center of our lives nothing less than divine love, a force that binds together all that is. Trusting in this love, we can find ourselves transformed in ways we never thought possible, truly believing God’s promise, “look, I am making all things new!”
Lisa Cataldo, M.Div., Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University where she currently teaches courses in Psychology and Religion, Professional Ethics, and Race, Culture and Gender. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, Lisa is also on the faculty of the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies, and the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, where she teaches courses in Clinical Practice and Trauma and Spirituality. She is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. Lisa was a summer assistant at l’Arche Daybreak in 1995 and 1996 and more recently animated a beautiful retreat for the Assistants in 2005 and 2009.