A few years ago a retired minister, Steve, the father of a friend of mine, introduced me to the writings of Henri Nouwen. What gave him the idea that I would be moved by this man’s writings, I have no idea. Perhaps it was because of his own fondness for this great spiritual author that he wanted to share the joy of the writer’s words with me. Steve was enthusiastic in his recommendation and though I had not even heard of this priest from the Netherlands, I was intrigued. He suggested that I start with the introspective and artsy, Return of the Prodigal Son, in which a chance encounter with a reprint of the Rembrandt painting of the same name sparks in Nouwen an interest in the expressive figures on canvas and drives his to think on how the famous parable relates to his own life. I had trouble finding the book at a library and eventually ordered a copy and read it. And that was it; I was hooked on the writing of the priest with the gentle, consoling voice. I have since read several books by Nouwen and I have come to consider him one of my favorite Christian writers. (Thank you, Steve, for widening my perspective and adding to my joy!)
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, from the Netherlands, born on January 24, 1932. He spent much of his adult life teaching and writing. He published 39 books that were translated into 30 languages and sold over 7M copies. Nouwen taught divinity at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He spent time at the Genesee Trappist monastery in upstate New York as well as time at L’Arche community for the mentally disabled. Henri Nouwen died unexpectedly of a heart attack on September 21, 1996 at the age of 64. He was in the Netherlands and preparing for a trip to Russia to speak about his book Return of the Prodigal Son.
As a writer, Nouwen was insightful in the way that great spiritual teachers often are, with an ability to look (sometimes painfully) into his own soul for the benefit of others. He was able to interpret what he found deep within himself and then communicate his self discovery in language that was at once incisive, gentle, and revelatory. He was a person who thought deeply and asked hard questions of himself with regard to his faith and his dedication to his vocation. In much of his writing he unabashedly shares his struggles and often details the internal conflicts that he wrestles with. A major theme of his writing is his desire to come closer to God through silence and through isolation, which was constantly at odds with his love of teaching, writing, and communicating his thoughts and self discoveries.
All these aspects of Nouwen remind me of Thomas Merton, the writer and teacher cum Trappist Monk who also loved to communicate widely by way of the written word and yet was driven to seek isolation when he came to believe that he was closest to God when alone. And Nouwen, it turns out, was a guest at the Trappist Monastery, Genesee, for six months where he spent time in solitude and silence in hopes of coming to better understand and deepen his relationship with God. His Genesee Diary has entries for almost every day of his time there. He recounts in detail his many ups and downs through the process of integrating himself into the isolated community and seeking council from the abbot. He describes his experience working in the monastery bakery and outside performing property maintenance. His desire to talk with others and teach/lecture, while also growing closer to God, cast him into a self doubt that he could quiet his mind enough to feel the spiritual benefit of solitude. With everything he describes of his time there, this gentle and honest priest provides a transparent view into his success and struggles at the Genesee monastery. I found the down to earth, simple language and the discussion of his triumphs as well as his tribulations to be heartening. The spiritual giant man lays his soul bare on the page so that readers can learn along with him and also see that even the most holy, learned, and well put together among us also struggle with faith, relationships, self assessment, and other aspects of our lives.
Nouwen spent much of his career helping other people to build on their relationships with God and to gain the strength to lead honest, vulnerable lives. At the same time he battled mightily with his own sense of how much he was loved and worthy of God’s grace, so much so that he went through dark periods during which he lost his self confidence and his way. He shared these experiences in all his writing so that others would benefit from his personal work on himself. When I read Henri Nuowen I am always reminded that it is the here and now that is most important in our lives. He has taught me to be more present in my daily life and to face fear and self doubt in the matter of fact way that he does in much of his writing.
Henri Nouwen is one of those people who I feel I missed out on. His lifetime overlapped mine by several years, but I only learned of his existence and wonderful words after he had passed away. I feel like this despite knowing full well, there was probably little chance I would ever have met him. Still, he was known to be an insightful and compassionate spiritual counselor. I envy those who got a chance to take one of his courses or had an opportunity to hear him speak. Talk about being able to learn from a master. I do acknowledge that, though I have never met this great man in person, he has contributed to the fullness of my life through his writings.
One of the ways that Nouwen expanded my horizons was with his ready acknowledgment of the people who contributed to his spiritual journey. Some of those people were writers and one of those was Thomas Merton. I came to my deep respect for and love of Merton’s writing by way of Nouwen. He admired Merton and his writings and referenced them often. This led me to pick up a book by Merton and now I count him as a member of my personal pantheon of great spiritual writers. My take on Merton and my experience with his writing can be found in this MJMWanderings article.
Another aspect of Henri Nouwen’s writing that always tugs at my heart is the balanced and gentle tone. It is never preachy and one never has the sense that he is lecturing or talking down to the reader (or anyone). When I read his books I feel like I am having a conversation with a close friend, with someone who accepts me for who I am and only has the deepest desire to see me happy and fulfilled.
I think it is important for each of us to have heroes in our lives, people who we admire and can learn from. I enjoy reading and writing and so it is no surprise that many of my favorite people are teachers and writers. It is through words and actions that we get to know people. Their actions tell us what they value most in their lives and their words shed light on their philosophy of life and illuminates the challenges that they faced and overcame. One of the actions that Henri Nouwen took was to spend time with L’Arche Daybreak, the faith based community of mentally challenged adults. He fell in love with the people of L’Arche Daybreak and spent the last part of his life as paster at the community in Toronto, Canada. People said that he was a blessing to the residents, but ever the self-effacing gentleman, Nouwen insisted that it was the residents who rescued and cared for him.
With his extensive writings and his salt of the Earth, relatable manner, Henri Nouwen created a legacy that has continued to touch people from across the globe, despite the 22 years since his untimely death at age 64. This spiritual giant lived his emotional struggles, his desire to be around others while also seeking the solitude to feel close to God (a similar theme in Thomas Merton’s life), out in the open. Despite all his struggles, or perhaps as a result, this man has been able to provide solace and comfort to hundreds of people in person and to millions, in his life and well past his death, by way of his writing.