Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Henri J. M. Nouwen.  2006.  Can You Drink the Cup?  Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When a friend of mine in Christ recommended this book, I was surprised and happy to take the recommendation.  I thought that I had read all of Henri Nouwen’s books. The book’s dedication to the l’Arche Daybreak Community here in Northern Virginia added special meaning for me because a friend of mine worked and lived there.

In this book, Nouwen talks at length about his personal history, particularly his ordination. From the age of six, Nouwen wanted to be a priest and he was ordained as Roman Catholic priest on July 21, 1957 in the Netherlands (16). As a gift for his ordination, his uncle gave him a chalice (20). “Can You Drink the Cup?” is a book structured around the metaphor of drinking wine.

The book starts with citing Matthew 20:20-23. In this passage, the mother of Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, comes to Jesus to request that her sons be given seats at the left and right of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus denies the request posing a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt 20:22 ESV).

Nouwen sees the cup as a symbol of our life. He asks: “Can we hold the cup of life in our hands? Can be lift it up for others to see, and can we drink it to the full?” (24) Nouwen structures his book around these three themes: “holding, lifting, and drinking” (25).

Holding. Nouwen comments: “drinking wine is more than just drinking. You have to know what you are drinking and be able to talk about it” (29). (Now I know why I prefer beer!) In talking about this holding of the cup, Nouwen talks about the joys and sorrows of living and working with special needs people. Nouwen writes: “Joys are hidden in sorrows!” (56) In my own work with Alzheimer’s patients, I have come to know both the joy of walking with them and the deep sorrow, deep abandonment they feel.

Lifting. Nouwen writes: “Lifting up the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together” (61). The symbolism here is not only the toast and the word that are spoken, but the celebration, especially the celebration of communion. A toast is a blessing (68). In Spanish, a blessing is a good word (bendición) and a curse is a bad word (maldición). In the biblical world where worlds are created and destroyed by God’s word, one learns to choose one’s words carefully.

Drinking. Nouwen reminds us that offering a drink to a visitor is a basic act of hospitality (86). Being willing to share is another way of saying that one accepts one’s status in life. At what point do we reach that point? A resident of L’Arche, Gordie, asked Nouwen: “Why are people leaving all the time?” (93). This question cuts to the core of pastoral ministry. As an intern, I was happy to work with Alzheimer’s patients but Gordie’s question cut to core–could I, as Nouwen did, give up the fast track and just simply work in a home with Alzheimer’s patients? What level of sacrifice are we willing to offer? What about our families?

As a seminarian, I found “Can You Drink the Cup?” very convicting. Perhaps, you will too.

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