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Universal truths easily translated

Back in 2002, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland quoted one of my favorite authors in his talk at general conference.

I was surprised at the time. In my self-centered way, I figured I was the only Mormon reading his books.

The author's name was Henri J.M. Nouwen. He was a Catholic who worked at a home for the mentally disabled in Canada, where he died.

His genius — and it was genius — lay in his ability to find universal truths in his own religion that could be translated effortlessly across into the faith traditions of others. Just as flowers come in a thousand shades and sizes but have the same working parts — petals, stem, leaves — Nouwen could find the common elements we all share.

Elder Holland's quote came from Nouwen's book "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Many consider that book his masterwork.

But it was just one book of more than a dozen that he wrote.

Recently I've been rereading Nouwen's "The Life of the Beloved."

And I find that same universal voice working there as well.

Tell me if this thought doesn't sound a chord with you.

It was Nouwen's feeling that when the Savior blessed the bread and gave it to his disciples at the Last Supper, he was doing more than showing them the purpose of his life.

He was showing them the purpose of their own lives as well.

Just as he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it away, he was teaching his apostles what it meant to live a spiritual life.

At some point, a religious soul must find himself taken by God, he must feel that God has claimed him as his own.

Then he must be blessed and broken (or, in the order of the LDS sacrament, "broken and blessed").

He must have his pride broken down, his appetites, his selfishness — everything that hampers spiritual growth.

This can take some time.

I think, in the LDS Church, that is where the commandments come in.

Fasting and chastity break down our natural desires.

Tithing breaks down our attachment to money.

Submission to authority breaks down our lust for power.

And service breaks our quest for glory.

The world must eventually be abandoned.

Once we've been taken and broken — like the bread — we are blessed — blessed with new hearts.

And then — like the bread — we are to be "given" away. We must go out and find others and bless their lives as well.

Nouwen says that, over the years, he came to see the bread at the Last Supper as the key for his life. I don't know if he ever thought his insights would end up in the Mormon section of a Utah newspaper, but I suspect he wouldn't be surprised by that.

For Henri Nouwen, as with most spiritual souls, truth had to speak to every human heart to be of true value.

He has spoken to my heart many times.

I hope — in my ham-handed retelling of this thoughts — he has spoken to yours as well.

Jerry Johnston is a Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times.

e-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com