His Historical Impact
What is the historical impact of Henri Nouwen?
There continues to be a deep resonance between Henri Nouwen and the North American psyche. Over thirty years, Henri Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his Eucharistic celebrations, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teacher and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy. Nouwen’s books have sold over 2 million copies and been published in over 22 languages.
The August 23, 2003 edition of the Christian Century magazine reports on a study commissioned by Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit and Pew project, and conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago. Both mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy named Nouwen as the author they most often read, other than the Bible, in their work as pastors. Notables as respected and diverse as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S. Senator Hillary Rodman Clinton, and TV’s Fred Rogers (“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood”) have publicly acknowledged the considerable influence that Nouwen’s writing has had on them personally.
Nouwen ranks as one of the most significant spiritual leaders of our time. Nouwen was a priest, academic, psychologist, teacher, author, gifted public speaker, spiritual member, faithful correspondent and friend, wounded healer and a passionate seeker. With an uncanny ease he moved in and out of these different roles, never allowing himself to be fully contained or categorized. In so doing he showed, and continues to show, a generation of ministers, teachers and seekers how one’s gifts are to be placed at the service of those whom God places in our path.
Nouwen was a spiritual thinker, a synthesis and one of the first in our time, along with Thomas Merton, to consciously develop a “theology of the heart” and to lay this down as a template for both clergy and lay persons. Nouwen, as Merton before him, always stressed the relational. He writes very directly about our contemporary longings for meaning, belonging, and intimacy and, at the same time, integrates this with a powerful vision of service and social justice. Nouwen often used the three core themes of solitude, community, and compassion to help people enter into a fresh vision of the spiritual life.