OGF 5/2017
Word OGF 2017-5 Nouwen – Can you drink the cup
PDF   OGF 2017-5 Nouwen – Can you drink the cup

Can you drink the cup?
Henry J.M. Nouwen

HENRI J.M. NOUWEN is the author of more than thirty books. He taught at the University of Notre Dame, as well as Yale and Harvard Universities. From 1986 until his death in September, 1996, he was pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto where he shared his life with people with mental disabilities. The present text is taken from the introduction and last chapter of his book Can you drink the cup? (AVE MARIA PRESS Notre Dame, Indiana – 1996)


When Jesus asks his friends James and John, the sons of Zebedee, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” he poses the question that goes right to the heart of my priesthood and my life as a human being. (…)

I still remember the day, a few years ago, when the story in which Jesus raises that question was read during the Eucharist. It was 8:30 in the morning, and about twenty members of the Daybreak community were gathered in the little basement chapel. Suddenly the words “Can you drink the cup?” pierced my heart like the sharp spear of a hunter. I knew at that moment-as with a flash of insight-that taking this question seriously would radically change our lives. It is the question that has the power to crack open a hardened heart and lay bare the tendons of the spiritual life.

“Can you drink the cup? Can you empty it to the dregs? Can you taste all the sorrows and joys? Can you live your life to the full whatever it will bring?” I realized these were our questions.

But why should we drink this cup? There is so much pain, so much anguish, so much violence. Why should we drink the cup? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to live normal lives with a minimum of pain and a maximum of pleasure?

After the reading, I spontaneously grabbed one of the large glass cups standing on the table in front of me and looking at those around me-some of whom could hardly walk, speak, hear, or see-I said: “Can we hold the cup of life in our hands? Can we lift it up for others to see, and can we drink it to the full?” Drinking the cup is much more than gulping down whatever happens to be in there, just as breaking the bread is much more than tearing a loaf apart. Drinking the cup of life involves holding, lifting, and drinking. It is the full celebration of being human.

Can we hold our life, lift our life, and drink it, as Jesus did? In some of those around me, there was a sign of recognition, but in myself there was a deep awareness of truth. Jesus’ question had given me a new language with which to speak about my life and the lives of those around me. For a long time after that simple morning Eucharist, I kept hearing Jesus’ question: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Just letting that question sink in made me feel very un comfortable. But I knew that I had to start living with it. (…)


The question now is: How do we drink the cup of salvation?

We have to drink our cup slowly, tasting every mouthful – all the way to the bottom! Living a complete life is drinking our cup until it is empty, trusting that God will fill it with everlasting life.

It is important, however, to be very specific when we deal with the question “How do we drink our cup?” We need some very concrete disciplines to help us fully appropriate and internalize our joys and sorrows and find in them our unique way to spiritual freedom. I would like to explore how three disciplines-the discipline of silence, the discipline of the word, and the discipline of action-can help us drink our cup of salvation.

The first way to drink our cup is in SILENCE.

This might come as a surprise, since being silent seems like doing nothing, but it is precisely in silence that we confront our true selves. The sorrows of our lives often overwhelm us to such a degree that we will do everything not to face them. Radio, television, newspapers, books, films, but also hard work and a busy social life all can be ways to run away from ourselves and turn life into a long entertainment.

The word entertainment is important here. It means literally “to keep (tain from the Latin tenere) someone in between (enter).” Entertainment is everything that gets and keeps our mind away from things that are hard to face. Entertainment keeps us distracted, excited, or in suspense. Entertainment is often good for us. It gives us an evening or a day off from our worries and fears. But when we start living life as entertainment, we lose touch with our souls and become little more than spectators in a lifelong show. Even very useful and relevant work can become a way of forgetting who we really are. It is no surprise that for many people retirement is a fearful prospect. Who are we when there is nothing to keep us busy?

Silence is the discipline that helps us to go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives. There we can let our sorrows and joys emerge from their hidden place and look us in the face, saying: “Don’t be afraid; you can look at your own journey, its dark and light sides, and discover your way to freedom.” We may find silence in nature, in our own houses, in a church or meditation hall. But wherever we find it, we should cherish it. Because it is in silence that we can truly acknowledge who we are and gradually claim ourselves as a gift from God.

At first silence might only frighten us. In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. These voices are often noisy and boisterous. They may even deafen us. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them and return to our entertainment.

But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.

These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and, most of all, love. They might at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far. They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light. They are part of God’s voice calling us from all eternity: “My beloved child, my favourite one, my joy.”

The enormous powers of our world keep drowning out these gentle voices. Still, they are the voices of truth. They are like the voice that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb. There God passed him not in a hurricane, an earthquake, or a fire but in “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kings 19: 11-13). This sound takes away our fear and makes us realize that we can face reality, especially our own reality. Being in silence is the first way we learn to drink our cup.

The second way to drink our cup is with the WORD.

It is not enough to claim our sorrow and joy in silence. We also must claim them in a trusted circle of friends. To do so we need to speak about what is in our cup. As long as we live our deepest truth in secret, isolated from a community of love, its burden is too heavy to carry. The fear of being known can make us split off our true inner selves from our public selves and make us despise ourselves even when we are acclaimed and praised by many.

To know ourselves truly and acknowledge fully our own unique journey, we need to be known and acknowledged by others for who we are. We cannot live a spiritual life in secrecy. ‘ We cannot find our way to true freedom in isolation. Silence without speaking is as dangerous as solitude without community. They belong together.

Speaking about our cup and what it holds is not easy. It requires a true discipline because, just as we want to run from silence in order to avoid self-confrontation, we want to run from speaking about our inner life in order to avoid confrontation with others.

I am not suggesting that everyone we know or meet should hear about what is in our cup. To the contrary, it would be tactless, unwise, and even dangerous to expose our innermost being to people who cannot offer us safety and trust. That does not create community; it only causes mutual embarrassment and deepens our shame and guilt. But I do suggest that we need loving and caring friends with whom we can speak from the depth of our heart. Such friends can take away the paralysis that secrecy creates. They can offer us a safe and sacred place, where we can express our deepest sorrows and joys, and they can confront us in love, challenging us to a greater spiritual maturity. We might object by saying: “I do not have such trustworthy friends, and I wouldn’t know how to find them.” But this objection comes from our fear of drinking the cup that Jesus asks us to drink.

When we are fully committed to the spiritual adventure of drinking our cup to the bottom, we will soon discover that people who are on the same journey will offer themselves to us for encouragement and friendship and love. It has been my own most blessed experience that God sends wonderful friends to those who make God their sole concern. This is the mysterious paradox Jesus speaks about when he says that when we leave those who are dose to us, for his sake and the sake of the Gospel, we will receive a hundred times more in human support (see Mark 10:29-30).

When we dare to speak from the depth of our heart to the friends God gives us, we will gradually find new freedom within us and new courage to live our own sorrows and joys to the full. When we truly believe that we have nothing to hide from God, we need to have people around us who represent God for us and to whom we can reveal ourselves with complete trust.

Nothing will give us so much strength as being fully known and fully loved by fellow human beings in the Name of God. That gives us the courage to drink our cup to the bottom, knowing it is the cup of our salvation. It will allow us not only to live well but to die well. When we are surrounded by loving friends, death becomes a gateway to the full communion of saints.

The third way to drink our cup is in ACTION.

Action, just as silence and the word, can help us to claim and celebrate our true self. But here again we need discipline, because the world in which we live says: “Do this, do that, go here, go there, meet him, meet her.” Busyness has become a sign of importance. Having much to do, many places to go, and countless people to meet gives us status and even fame. However, being busy can lead us away from our true vocation and prevent us from drinking our cup.

It is not easy to distinguish between doing what we are called to do and doing what we want to do. Our many wants can easily distract us from our true action. True action leads us to the fulfilment of our vocation. Whether we work in an office, travel the world, write books or make films, care for the poor, offer leadership, or fulfil unspectacular tasks, the question is not “What do I most want?” but “What is my vocation?” The most prestigious position in society can be an expression of obedience to our call as well as a sign of our refusal to hear that call, and the least prestigious position, too, can be a response to our vocation as well as a way to avoid it.

Drinking our cup involves carefully choosing those actions which lead us closer to complete emptying of it, so that at the end of our lives we can say with Jesus: “it is fulfilled” (John 19:30). That indeed, is the paradox: We fulfil life by emptying it. In Jesus’ own words: ”Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

When we are committed to do God’s will and not our own we soon discover that much of what we do doesn’t need to be done by us. What we are called to do are actions that bring us true joy and peace. Just as leaving friends for the sake of the Gospel will bring us friends, so too will letting go of actions not in accord with our call.

Actions that lead to overwork, exhaustion, and burnout can’t praise and glorify God. What God calls us to do we can do and do well. When we listen in silence to God’s voice and speak with our friends in trust we will know what we are called to do and we will do it with a grateful heart.

Silence, speaking, and acting are three disciplines to help us to drink our cup. They are disciplines because we do not practice them spontaneously. In a world that encourages us to avoid the real life issues, these disciplines ask for concentrated effort. But if we keep choosing silence, a circle of trusting friends to speak with, and actions that flow from our call, we are in fact drinking our cup, bit by bit, to the bottom. The sorrows of our lives will no longer paralysed us, nor will our joys make us lose perspective. The disciplines of silence, word, and action focus our eyes on the road we are travelling and help us to move forward, step by step, to our goal. We will encounter great obstacles and splendid views, long, dry deserts and also freshwater lakes surrounded by shadow-rich trees. We will have to fight against those who try to attack and rob us. We also will make wonderful friends. We will often wonder if we will ever make it, but one day we will see coming to us the One who has been waiting for us from all eternity to welcome us home.

Yes, we can drink our cup of life to the bottom, and as we drink it we will realize that the One who has called us “the Beloved,” even before we were born, is filling it with everlasting life.


I have looked at many cups: golden, silver, bronze, and glass cups, splendidly decorated and very simple cups, elegantly shaped and very plain cups. Whatever their material, form, or value, they all speak about drinking. Drinking, like eating, is one of the most universal of human acts. We drink to stay alive, or we drink ourselves to death. When people say: “He drinks a lot,” we think of alcoholism and family trouble. Bur when they say: “I wish you could come over to have a drink with us,” we think about hospitality, celebration, friendship, and intimacy.

It is no surprise that the cup is such a universal symbol. It embodies much that goes on in our lives.

Many cups speak of victory; soccer cups, football cups, and tennis cups are eagerly desired trophies. Pictures of captains holding a victory cup while being carried triumphantly on the shoulders of their teams are imprinted in our memories as reminders of our excitement at winning moments. These cups speak of success, bravery, heroism, fame, popularity, and great power.

Many cups also speak of death. Joseph’s silver cup, found in Benjamin’s sack, spelled doom. The cups of Isaiah and Jeremiah are the cups of God’s wrath and destruction. Socrates’ cup was a poisonous one given to him for his execution.

The cup that Jesus speaks about is neither a symbol of victory nor a symbol of death. It is a symbol of life, filled with sorrows and joys that we can hold, lift, and drink as a blessing and a way to salvation. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asks us. It is the question that will have a different meaning every day of our lives. Can we embrace fully the sorrows and joys that come to us day after day? At one moment it might seem so easy to drink the cup, and we give a quick yes to Jesus’ question. Shortly afterwards everything might look and fed quite different, and our whole being might cry out, “No, never!” We have to let the yes and the no both speak in us so that we can come to know ever more deeply the enormous challenge of Jesus’ question.

John and James had not the faintest idea of what they were saying when they said yes. They hardly understood who Jesus was. They didn’t think about him as a leader who would be betrayed, tortured, and killed on a cross. Nor did they dream about their own lives as marked by tiresome travels and harsh persecutions, and consumed by contemplation or martyrdom. Their first easy yes had to be followed by many hard yeses until their cups were completely empty.

And what is the reward of it all? John and James’ mother wanted a concrete reward: “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She and they had little doubt about what they wanted. They wanted power, influence, success, and wealth. They were preparing themselves for a significant role when the Roman occupiers would be thrown out and Jesus would be king and have his own cabinet of ministers. They wanted to be his right- and left-hand men in the new political order.

Still, notwithstanding all their misperceptions, they had been deeply touched by this man Jesus. In his presence they had experienced something radically new, something that went beyond anything they had ever imagined. It had to do with inner freedom, love, care, hope, and, most of all, with God. Yes, they wanted power and influence, but beyond that they wanted to stay dose to Jesus at ali costs. As their journey continued, they gradually discovered what they had said yes to. They heard about being a servant instead of a master, about seeking the last place instead of the first, about giving up their lives instead of controlling other people’s lives. Each time they had to make a choice again. Did they want to stay with Jesus or leave? Did they want to follow the way of Jesus or look for someone else who could give them the power they desired?

Later Jesus challenged them directly: “What about you, do you want to go away?” Peter responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69). He and his friends had started to glimpse the Kingdom Jesus had been talking about. But again there was that question: “Can you drink the cup?” They said yes over and over. And what about the seats in the Kingdom? They might not be the kinds of seats they expected, but could they still be closer to Jesus than the other followers?

Jesus’ answer is as radical as his question: “… 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 20:23). Drinking the cup is not a heroic act with a nice reward! It is not part of a tit-for-tat agreement. Drinking the cup is an act of selfless love, an act of immense trust, an act of surrender to a God who will give what we need when we need it.

Jesus’ inviting us to drink the cup without offering the reward we expect is the great challenge of the spiritual life. It breaks through all human calculations and expectations. It defies all our wishes to be sure in advance. It turns our hope for a predictable future upside down and pulls down our self-invented safety devices. It asks for the most radical trust in God, the same trust that made Jesus drink the cup to the bottom.

Drinking the cup that Jesus drank is living a life in and with the spirit of Jesus, which is the spirit of unconditional love. The intimacy between Jesus and Abba, his Father, is an intimacy of complete trust, in which there are no power games, no mutually agreed upon promises, no advance guarantees. It is only love-pure, unrestrained, and unlimited love. Completely open, completely free. That intimacy gave Jesus the strength to drink his cup. That same intimacy Jesus wants to give us so that we can drink ours. That intimacy has a Name, a Divine Name. It is called Holy Spirit. Living a spiritual life is living a life in which the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us the strength and courage to keep saying yes to the great question.