June 24, 2017

Remembering Henri Nouwen

Remembering Henri Nouwen

This was written for the Church Times in September 2011

This week saw the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. Had he lived he would still be only 79. His death may have seemed premature, but his legacy continues to expand. More than seven million of his books have been sold worldwide, translated into 30 languages. At the last count, all forty titles he authored in his lifetime were still in print. Even more remarkable, at least ten more books have been published posthumously and his lectures circulate globally on DVD. His influence goes far beyond the boundaries of the church. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State spoke of his book The Return of the Prodigal Son as the one which had the greatest impact on her life.

Nouwen was a Dutch priest-writer who lived most of his life in North America. Having studied both theology and psychology, he lectured at the universities of Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale. He spoke often of two competing desires in his earlier life – the yearning for success and to  ‘make it in life’, and the more humble longing to love Jesus more. Yet he knew the route he needed to take: ‘Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability.’

A restless Nouwen became emotionally distanced from academic life, publicly musing whether ‘proclaiming the Gospel to others wasn’t the best way of losing your own faith’. At the age of 54 he made a dramatic choice. Despite attracting the largest classes in the history of Harvard, he left the university world and became the pastor of L’Arch, Daybreak in Toronto. Living in a close community of people with physical and mental disabilities, he spoke poignantly of coming home, of finding here a deep sense of belonging.

His themes of solitude, community, compassion and brokenness have touched so many. He saw life as full of brokenness –‘broken relationships broken   promises, broken expectations’. He asks, ‘How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?’ This pain was  reflected in his own life, which many biographers document as one of paradox and complexity. He had an enormous circle of friends (with whom he regularly corresponded in English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish), yet struggled persistently with intense feelings of loneliness. Fr Ron Rolheiser, his friend and fellow-writer saw him as torn between ‘the saint inside him who had given his life to God and the man inside him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthly yearnings, wanted to take his life back.’

Nouwen shares his journey deep into God’s grace. He invites us to see ourselves as God’s beloved. He urges us to reach out, to embrace vulnerability, to find that place where we have nothing to prove and nothing to defend. He exhorts us to open ourselves to Christ in prayer. But he never hides his own weaknesses.  And it is in the recognition that his struggles speak into the struggles of their own hearts that draws so many people to him. His Christian spirituality reflects the human condition, and articulates our longings. It awakens our desire to find our  identity in God and to know the freedom and generosity that brings. We glimpse the joy of a life well-lived. He says: ‘When we are people who are chosen by God — blessed, broken — we can give ourselves to others. Our life can bear immense fruit. The people who have lived as the beloved, continue to bear fruit generations after they have died.,,,’ This is surely his own epitaph.

Cambridge

Sept 2011

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