I have recently been revisiting some of my earlier writings and came across this one that I wrote in the Spring of 1997 regarding Henri Nouwen. That year was a period of change and deepening spiritual awareness for me, and Nouwen’s life and work had, and continues to have, tremendous influence in my life and journey. Here is what I wrote then and what I still believe now.
A Reflection on Henri Nouwen
I have not picked up a spiritual magazine or journal over the last two or three months — and I have picked up several — without finding some words eulogizing the late Henri Nouwen. He died of a heart attack in September, 1996. What was there about this mere man that so many from such varied sources would offer such consistant tribute? Philip Yancy in Christianity Today refers to Nouwen, “A better symbol of the Incarnation, I can hardly imagine.” Gary Collins, president of the near 18,000 member American Christian Counseling Association, touts Henri as his favorite Christian counselor and writer.
Nouwen was born and raised in Europe and was trained in psychology and theology in Holland. He came to the United States as a ship’s chaplain when in his 20’s. At Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame he was an admired and popular professor. He averaged a book a year –some 30 in all. His reputation as a conference speaker was evidenced in his extensive travel schedule. He walked among spiritual giants not the least of these being the seriously disabled residents of L’Arche Daybreak, Richmond, Ontario, where he lived the final decade of this life. While at L’Arche Daybreak, a community home for the seriously disabled, Henri served as priest for the community and personally cared for Adam, a profoundly retarded young man. Carolyn Whitney-Brown, artist and spiritual director at Daybreak, reminds us that Henri chose to live where his reputation meant nothing. Many, if not most, of the community could not read. At Daybreak Henri found a place where the longing of his restless soul was satisfied — a home where people would be less interested in his credentials than in who he was. He continued writing and traveling to speak from time to time. However, when travelling a member of the community usually went along to speak with him, and he always returned home to the haven of Daybreak.
Nouwen’s books were written from the heart with great candor. He revealed personal struggles and shortcomings that most of us would dare not admit, not to mention publish. In The Genesee Diary he wrote, “While teaching, lecturing, and writing about the importance of solitude, inner freedom, and peace of mind, I kept stumbling over my own compulsions and illusions.” In his transparency he touched the core feelings and concerns of his readers’ hearts. His works returned again and again to the theme of the “beloved”. His message to us in Life of the Beloved is that “becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do. It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation.” Henri gives us some glimpse of what that “painful process of . . . incarnation” might entail in Can You Drink the Cup. He encourages us not to be afraid of the raw realities of our lives:
When each of us can hold firm to our own cup, with its many sorrows and joys, claiming it as our unique life, then we too can lift it up for others to see and encourage them to lift up their lives as well. The wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care.
Nouwen revealed in absolute truth who he was, and who he was not, in simple trust and faith that in the revelation others might come to know their belovedness. “A better symbol of the incarnation, I can hardly imagine.”
I personally was introduced to Henri Nouwen and his works in 1990 through a gift of his book, The Wounded Healer. Each reading of it, as well as his other works, touches the depths of my heart and renews afresh the truth of my belovedness, the reality of my struggles and brokenness, and the promise of rest for my longing soul in the bosom of my loving God. I do not wonder that so many would offer such tribute to the life and work of such a mere man as Henri Nouwen.
When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian.. The minister is the one who can make this search for authenticity possible, not by standing on the side as a neutral screen or an impartial observer, but as an articulate witness of Christ, who puts his own search at the disposal of others.
from The Wounded Healer by Henri J. M. (Just Me) Nouwen