March 13, 2020

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Get out of your rut, find a new path in life

David Bethuram

There is a sign along an Alaskan highway that has brought a smile to many a motorist: “Choose Your Rut Carefully. … You’ll Be In It For The Next 150 Miles.”

Author Henri Nouwen, in his book In the Name of Jesus, admits to being in one for more than 20 years. Judging from the externals, he had it made: the University of Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard were on his resume. And his field of study was equally impressive: theology mixed with courses in pastoral psychology and Christian spirituality. Nothing wrong with that, but the rut got so deep he began to churn internally. Listen to his honest admission.

“I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, ‘Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?’ After twenty-five years of the priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. … Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. … I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.”

Nouwen asked the Lord to show him where he wanted him to go and he would follow, “but please be clear and unambiguous about it!” Well, God was. The Lord made it clear to him that he should leave his prestigious role as a distinguished professor at an Ivy League university and join the L’Arche communities for mentally challenged people.

In Nouwen’s own words: “God said, ‘Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.’ ” So he did.

The lessons awaiting Nouwen were numerous: some painful, a few humiliating, but all of them necessary. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he experienced a change deep within his being. The master teacher learned to be the humble servant. The self-confident, proud individualist became a compassionate, caring friend.

Most of us have no idea how deeply entrenched we are in the rut of routine. Externally, everything looks fine. Our activities often revolve around the Church, family and friends. We have work at home and in our jobs, children to pick up, parents to keep healthy, and meetings to attend. Who can criticize us for being attentive to these relationships?

Unfortunately, this rut of both religious and daily activities can numb our souls until we find ourselves in need of spiritual refreshment—a fresh touch from God, who works to create his masterpiece within us. Frequently, we feel this during the waning weeks of winter.

It is then that we need to slow down, pull out of that rut and take a different path. Sometimes this means just getting away from it all—literally—to a place where there are no demands of our time, where we can find spiritual renewal. Or maybe it is a good time to assess what we are doing in service to others. It could be the right time to “go and live among the poor in spirit.” It could be the right time to reach out to those whom we know little about—the poor, the refugee or immigrant, the mentally or developmentally disabled.

During this season of Lent, slow down, be quiet, watch nature, and think about life. Then when we celebrate the risen Lord, go out and serve, be a witness, a disciple for Christ. Get out of your rut. It’ll make a difference for the rest of your life.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at

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