Can You Drink the Cup? Can You Drink the Cup?
Tenth Anniversary Edition

Henri Nouwen
ISBN 9781594710995 (1594710996)
Ave Maria Press, 2006 (123pp)
£5.99

Category: Spirituality

In this little book, written during the first few months of his sabbatical year, Henri Nouwen presents us with a huge challenge: Can You Drink the Cup?

Readers familiar with the Gospels will recognise the question:

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came with her sons to make a request of him, and bowed low; and he said to her, 'What is it you want?' She said to him, 'Promise that these two sons of mine may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.' Jesus answered, 'You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?' They replied, 'We can.' He said to them, 'Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.' (Matthew 20:20-23, New Jerusalem Bible)

Nouwen teases out the question, reflecting on his own experiences as a priest, presiding over the Eucharist and seeing a transformation in his own practice: the golden chalice, which only he as a priest could touch, becomes an open, transparent glass bowl from which all may drink. He retells the story of the cup as the story of life: the question is not simply can we drink the cup but, can we empty it to the dregs? Can we taste all the sorrows and joys? Can we live our lives to the full whatever it will bring? (p.23)

To do so, he tells us, we must first hold the cup; then lift it; and only then may we drink it. These three things — holding, lifting, drinking — become the framework for the book and, if we will, a framework for our lives:

Holding the cup of life is a hard discipline. We are thirsty people who like to start drinking at once. But we need to restrain our impulse to drink, put both our hands around the cup, and ask ourselves, "What am I given to drink? What is in my cup? Is it safe to drink? Is it good for me? Will it bring me health?" (p.31)

Reflecting further on his priestly experiences and on his life within the Daybreak Community, a community of severely disabled people and their companions to which he belonged, Nouwen quietly but persistently probes and explores these questions. He dares us to follow Christ all the way, through life's uncertainties and pain, through sorrows and joys.

As I reflect on the questions myself, painful memories arise in my mind: of lives loved and lost, friends and family torn away by time's relentless tide or destroyed by disease, by the evil of cancer. Time spent with those dying is privileged time, precious time: the cup of life tastes bittersweet as we drink the last drops together. There is fear, and that perfect love which drives out all fear frequently fails to materialise: we hold the cup with unsteady hands and raise it with trembling hearts. But drink it we must, and will. Each of us must drink his or her own cup; but a cup shared is beyond price.

May you, gentle reader, find the strength you need to drink your own cup of life, whatever it may hold; and may you find the grace to share it whilst you may with those whom you love. I hope and pray that this little book will help you to do so as it has helped me.

Phil Groom, November 2007

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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