Henri Nouwen: His Weakness Was His Strength
From the September 19, 2009 issue of The Tablet. Reprinted with permission.
October 1st, 2009
by Father Frank Mann
The continued interest in the late Father Henri Nouwen is uniquely found in his writing, speaking and teaching. In the last half of the last century, he moved away from his role as an administrator, advisor, and one who has all the answers. His approach was not needing the answers so much as needing to be present in times of joy and pain, while caring, encouraging, praying with, and being supportive to others.
Themes that emerged in his life were: compassion, community, ministry, becoming God’s beloved, aging, death and dying, and the story of the Prodigal Son.
Born in Nijkerk, Holland, on Jan. 24, 1932, Henri Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest.
Father Nouwen was a rather energized and avid student of psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964, he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. For nearly two decades, this charismatic Dutch priest taught at the Menninger Foundation Clinic, the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University.
For a time in the 1970s, he lived and worked with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee in New York State. In the early 1980s, he lived and worked among the poorest of the poor in Peru. In 1985, he joined the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, the first of more than 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with various assistants. Father Nouwen later came to make his home at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada.
Recently, The Tablet had a unique opportunity to interview one of Father Nouwen’s dearest and closest friends, Sister Sue Mosteller, a Sister of St. Joseph of Toronto, Canada. “After teaching for many years, I came to live and work in the community of L’Arche Daybreak in 1972. I’ve been here ever since,” explained Sister Sue.
She and Father Nouwen met briefly in 1980 when they were both giving talks at a conference. They corresponded with each other until he came to live at L’Arche Daybreak in 1986. They worked together on the Spiritual Life Committee within the L’Arche community, planning worship and activities for Lent and Advent and they opened a small center for reflection, worship, and prayer, in the heart of this small community of Daybreak.
Here they found themselves working as a team in their visioning, planning, discerning with others, and the beginnings of raising needed funds.
“Our friendship grew and we supported each other in our individual ministries,” said Sister Sue. “When Henri died, he left me as his Literary Executrix responsible for all his published and unpublished materials, archives, and written legacy.” Since his death in September of 1996, she has worked with translators, publishers, and scholars on his written legacy and archives. She has given talks and retreats on his spirituality, while also editing some of his materials for publication.
“Nouwen played an important role in pastoring and in teaching others about how to minister and pastor. In this realm, he was a great leader.
“His passion was to teach pastoral theology, and his desire was to convince his listeners that pastoring meant walking in the footsteps of Jesus with the people close to those who suffer in body and spirit, unafraid of sharing the pain and vulnerability and being present as a brother or sister,” she said. In his lifetime, Father Nouwen wrote 43 books that were published in over 22 languages. Since his untimely passing there have been 10 more titles that have surfaced in print. There also are 20 to 30 books about his life and work. His most recent book, Home Tonight, was published this year.
“Henri had a wonderful gift to break open God’s Word and to explain it in relationship to our lives today,” said Sister Sue. He was open about his own life and his vulnerability without asking people’s sympathy, but simply sharing his struggles so others would have permission to look at their own challenges. “His diaries: The Genesee Diary, iGracias! and The Road to Daybreak are profoundly honest and refreshingly enlightening. Specifically, his work on the Prodigal Son invites each individual to make that parable their own most intimate story.
“In other words, Nouwen often showed profound movements, from hostility to hospitality, from resentment to gratitude, from dissipation to containment, from the house of fear to the house of love.”
Father Nouwen’s stirring statements of compassion and understanding, combined with his passion to serve, pushed him to creatively respond to the human situation as he saw it in the light of the Gospel.
“It is quite apparent that Henri Nouwen’s many students describe him as a man of great passion and movement, prayerful, articulate, curious, listening, and with a great gift to connect with his audiences,” she added.
Early in his life, Father Nouwen wrote a book entitled, The Wounded Healer.” Sister Sue remarked that he personified this title as a teacher, minister, and priest.
“He was a man who suffered in his humanity all the yearnings and longings of someone with great sensitivity. Early on, he realized that laying down his life for his friends meant allowing himself to be known in his truth. “He had deep integrity and was able to do this without wallowing in his own pain, but simply offering it as a witness to his understanding of the human condition.” One of his most famous works, The Inner Voice of Love,” his diary from December, 1987, to June, 1988, chronicles a period during one of his most serious bouts with depression.
“Nouwen deeply loved his priesthood and the Eucharist, and he saw the classroom, the consulting room, his office, the conference room, or the church as his pulpit, said Sister Sue.”
She recalled that as a seminarian he worked a summer in the mines and tried to become close to ordinary people. “He was passionate about the plight of people and wanted to be close to them in their suffering as a pastor and minister to bring hope and comfort,” she explained.
“Henri was bright, keen, passionate, extroverted, yearning, searching, and aware. He was compassionate, sensitive, pained, energetic and fatigued, listening, and wise. He likewise loved to be where the action was. He joined the Civil Rights march at Selma, he went to Martin Luther King’s funeral, and he met with senators in Washington and elsewhere.”
Sister Sue commented, however, that “Nouwen really didn’t possess a strong sense of humor. He often found it hard to relax and do or say nothing.”
Although he loved being a professor and teaching the young, Nouwen really didn’t find happiness in the university setting and remained faithful in his long search for home among the disadvantaged. He came to a L’Arche community after a meeting with its founder, Jean Vanier.
After Vanier had listened to Henri speak of being unsettled at Harvard, he simply replied, “Perhaps our people could offer you a home.” By speaking of “our people,” Vanier was referring to the people with disabilities that are welcomed at L’Arche where they and their assistants form community and make home together. Sister Sue felt that Nouwen was drawn to this because of his desire to be a pastor, to be close to the weak, and his need for a home for his heart.
According to Sr. Sue, it is important to note that Nouwen had an artist’s heart and was deeply moved by the writings and paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He avidly read the Desert Fathers, the writings of Thomas Merton, as well as a wide range of spiritual writers. “He was also profoundly influenced by people he met, films he saw, artists, authors, and poets. Most certainly, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, strongly inspired Henri in his life and writing.
“Father Henri Nouwen will be known most uniquely for his rendering of the parable of the Prodigal Son, his conviction about our being, like Jesus, the Beloved of God, and by his many, many books.”
Despite being such an extrovert, Nouwen nourished a deep inner life “often in suffering and darkness.” Vanier summed it up in his eulogy at Henri’s funeral when he said, “Henri’s anguish fueled his genius.”
“Despite darkness and weakness, Henri Nouwen was able to help others see themselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons,” said Sister Sue.
Father Gerald Twomey, who co-edited Remembering Henri: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen, sees Nouwen’s ‘weakness’ as “the sign of an uncommon strength that allowed his readers to see his frailties, to encounter places where the faith of the spiritual guide whom they had admired was splintered and frayed, and to see how he understood and sought to integrate these aspects of himself and move forward.”
After a long period of declining energy, which he chronicled in his final book, Sabbatical Journey, Nouwen died on Sept. 21, 1996, from a sudden heart attack. He is buried in King City, Ontario, Canada. A Catholic elementary school in Richmond Hill, Ontario, is named in his honor.
The Tablet will sponsor a Forum on the Life of Father Henri Nouwen on Thursday, Nov. 5, beginning at 7 p.m.
The Forum will begin with the showing of a documentary about the life of Father Nouwen. It will be followed by a talk by author Robert Ellsberg.
Tickets are free but must be ordered in advance. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Tablet Forum, 310 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215. Tickets will be mailed in advance of the Forum.
Photo: Father Frank Mann manages the book table at the Nouwen Forum, which took place November 5, 2009 at Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, NY.
Photo by Marie Elena Giossi.
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