The Heart of a Wounded Healer
“Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence – priceless and irreplaceable,” wrote Henri Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved (65). Within this simple sentence, Nouwen’s heart of love shines through. Though Nouwen often felt blessed by those he taught, mentored, and loved, he seldom realized the influence he had on others. In his book, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen emphasized a very real and compassionate brand of spirituality: one that is deeply involved in the lives of other people. Rather than becoming a distant miracle worker or some sort of mystical guru, Nouwen said we should model Christ in becoming a Wounded Healer. Yet Nouwen did not simply preach this message from a distance. He modeled it in his daily living. Within this paper, I will look at Nouwen’s teachings about love and grace, and how these teachings were dynamic in their approach. I will also attempt to reveal a picture of Henri Nouwen’s love for people and how that love influenced his writings and the choices he made in his daily life.
On January 4, 1932, Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen entered this world (Ford 71). Henri was the firstborn of his Dutch parents: Laurent and Maria Nouwen. Laurent and Maria eventually had three more children: two sons, Paul and Laurent, and a daughter, Laurien. Nouwen’s father, Laurent, was known for his skill in understanding tax law, while his mother studied English, Italian, Norwegian, French, Latin and Greek. Nouwen’s father ultimately outlived Henri and passed away in 1997, one year after Henri’s death. Henri’s mother died in 1978 and her death affected Henri in profound ways.
Nouwen’s early childhood was scarred by the trauma of World War II. Though he was unable to grasp the war’s significance at that age, on occasion he had to help hide his father from Nazi soldiers. This experience was both frightening and incomprehensible to Henri. Nouwen was also exposed to the Nazi’s horrific treatment of Jews during that time. “During the German occupation the Nouwen’s managed to shield their children from Nazi terror, but they could not prevent them from seeing their Jewish friends and neighbors being led away to the concentration camps” (Ford 74). This was both frightening and difficult for Nouwen to comprehend at such an early age.
Nouwen’s faith and his heritage were very important to him at an early age. It is noted that Nouwen, by the age of 6, knew he wanted to become a priest. On occasion, he would even celebrate the Eucharist in his parents’ attic with his younger siblings. Henri’s spiritual upbringing had many blessings, to the extent that he sometimes felt sheltered and overprotected as a child. Yet he also felt a strong need for affirmation at an early age. “Almost as soon as Henri was able to talk, his questions evolved around whether or not he was loved. Among his first words from the playpen were, ‘Do you really love me?’” (Ford 72). Though Nouwen virtually always felt loved by his mother, his relationship with his father was a different story of desiring but never quite feeling his approval. “Throughout his life his problems were always with his father, never with his mother” (Ford 72). Though his father was overall a good father, he was somewhat distant and was not especially verbal in his feelings of love for his children. Nouwen would often project these anxieties onto God, and would sometimes feel like he needed to win, or earn God’s approval.
In school, Henri excelled and he was praised by his teachers for being a good student. Henri’s father was proud of Henri’s accomplishments and encouraged Henri to become a more successful person. “Friends talk about Laurent Nouwen as a traditional patriarch, the stern taskmaster who, like a good Dutch father, called on his eldest son to achieve more and more” (Ford 76). A strong willed and disciplined man, Henri’s father was sometimes inconsistent with in his affirmations of love for Henri. Henri’s mother on the other hand bestowed consistent affirmation upon Henri, encouraging him to continue loving people and following Jesus.
After graduating from school with high grades, Henri decided he wanted to study priesthood. Nouwen was first educated by Jesuit priests, though he eventually decided not to become a Jesuit. In 1957, after studying for six years in the foremost seminary in Riisenburg, Nouwen was ordained a Priest. However, Nouwen’s education did not stop there. In college, Nouwen wanted to study psychology, though this field was sometimes frowned upon by those in the Church. Following his ordination, Nouwen spent six years at the University of Nijmegan, and graduated as a Psychologist in 1963.
In 1966, Nouwen accepted a position to teach at Notre Dame University. During these two years, Nouwen wrote his first two books: Creative Ministry: Beyond Professionalism In Teaching, Preaching, Counseling, Organizing And Celebrating, and Intimacy: Pastoral Psychological Essays. After teaching at Notre Dame for two years, Nouwen took a position at Yale, teaching there for ten years. During this period, Nouwen wrote some of his most famous work, including Clowning in Rome, and The Wounded Healer. Though Nouwen appreciated and enjoyed his teaching career, he was not quite at home. It was at this time that Nouwen began pursuing his ministry to Latin America. “In the seventies he became increasingly concerned about conditions in Latin America. When he left Yale in 1981 he spent several months in Central and South America and then traveled widely in North America, speaking about the suffering and the inspiring faith of the people there” (Porter xi). Nouwen also lectured at Harvard for two years during this time.
In 1986, Nouwen made a decision that would add a fresh new sense of purpose in his life: he decided to become the in-house minister at L’Arche Daybreak, a home for the physically and mentally handicapped in Toronto, Ontario. Nouwen finally found a home at L’Arche (“the Ark” in French), not among the scholars and the pious, but among children with severe disabilities. “In the end, Nouwen loosed the chains of independence, respect, and busyness, and moved from a prestigious institution to one few had ever heard of, to work not with the nation’s leaders but with society’s rejects” (Yancey, Soul Survivor 297). Where many saw only the “losers” of society who had nothing to give, Nouwen saw people who are beloved of God. In these last ten years of his life, Nouwen grew very much spiritually, and wrote some of the most intimate and personal writings he had ever written, including books such as Letters to Marc about Jesus and Life of the Beloved. Though he had moments of belonging and fulfillment within the education community, it is true that Nouwen never fully felt at home there. It is at Daybreak where Nouwen finally felt he had achieved a greater sense of purpose in his life. “At Daybreak, Nouwen began truly to look with the eyes of God’s love. Among those broken bodies and broken minds, his prestigious resume meant nothing. All that mattered was whether he loved them” (Yancey, Nouwen Then 28).
During his lifetime, Nouwen wrote more than forty books, which have been translated into at least twenty-two languages (Porter xii). Since Nouwen was an ordained priest, many of his books had to do with apologetics. Yet Nouwen was much more than a teacher of doctrine. Neither did he try to articulate his own piety. Rather, his poetic style of writing was able to find connections and similarities between the fabric of every day life and realm of spirituality. As we will discover, this was no accident. One of his goals was to help people realize their importance to God and walk in that importance. It is also possible and even likely that Nouwen was so passionate about God’s love because he was so in need of God’s love. Indeed, Nouwen would often write to himself as much as he would write to those he loved. “One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is that it can open in us deep wells of hidden treasures that are beautiful for us as well as for others to see.” (Nouwen, Bread for the Journey 123).
Within Nouwen’s writings are a few common themes, or threads, which unify all of his writings. One of such major threads is community. Nouwen both wrote about and lived community, as it was an essential part of his life. As he aptly articulated, “Keep returning to those to whom you belong and who keep you in the light.” (Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love 46). For Nouwen, community was not an option, which was possibly the main reason he moved to Daybreak. He needed to be surrounded by those who would love and accept him unconditionally. Yet this idea of strong community was sometimes met with criticism, Nouwen found, especially within the education community. “European and American education places so much emphasis on the development of an independent personality that we have come to view other people more as potential advisors, guides and friends on the road to self-fulfillment than as fellow members of a community of faith,” Nouwen articulates (Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord 59). As a result, he sometimes felt distant from the education community in which he was grounded.
Another possible source of loneliness for Nouwen was his commitment to celibacy. Yet Nouwen chose to live a celibate life not out of guilt but out of a desire to grow closer with God. Viewing God as the ultimate fulfillment of human need, Nouwen chose to increase his dependence on God through celibacy. Nouwen countered the popular view that celibacy is only a requirement for priests, arguing that a certain amount of celibacy is beneficial for all Christians. Celibacy as a discipline for the married person means abstaining from adultery, for example, while celibacy for the single person means preserving sex for an ordained relationship. As a result, Nouwen encourages different levels of celibacy for all Christians. “Celibacy, in its deepest sense of creating and protecting emptiness for God, is an essential part of all forms of Christian life: marriage, friendship, single life, and community life” (Nouwen, Celibacy and the Holy 45). Within Nouwen’s own life, his commitment to celibacy led him to foster a great sense of community both with God and with the people that he loved. Indeed, community was an essential ingredient in Nouwen’s life.
Just as community was Nouwen’s greatest source of joy, the greatest source of pain in Nouwen’s life was a feeling of loneliness. Philip Yancey describes it well in his tribute book to his spiritual heroes, Soul Survivor:
“[Nouwen] would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life, then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship. If a friend failed to compliment him, waited too long to respond to a letter, or neglected to invite him out for coffee after a lecture, he would sulk for days, nearly immobilized by rejection. In short, he felt called to present a message of inner peace and acceptance that he himself never realized” (301-302).
For Nouwen, community was not an option, which was possibly the main reason he moved to Daybreak. “Nouwen searched for a place where the religious life can be sustained, gauged, criticized, and sheltered. Finally, he found this community at L’Arche” (Beumer 127). Daybreak was a place where Nouwen’s spiritual life was able to be focused upon. It was at Daybreak where Nouwen felt accepted and loved in ways he had not experienced prior.
When Nouwen first arrived at Daybreak, he was surprised by a very strong welcome. ““Soon after I came to Daybreak, Linda, a beautiful young woman with Down’s syndrome, put her arms around me and said: ‘Welcome.’” (Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodgial Son 13). In fact, this was Linda’s custom with every new arrival at Daybreak. Linda had no social apprehensions about hugging a total stranger, and at first, this was hard for Nouwen to grasp. After all, he had never met Linda, and she had never met him. She didn’t know what kind of person he was, so why was she so free to display her love to Nouwen? This awkwardness was not rare at Daybreak. In fact, it happened on a regular basis, and Nouwen’s difficulty in accepting such gestures took some time in melting away. “It seems that every time – be it Linda’s welcome, Bill’s handshake, Gregory’s smile, Adam’s silence, or Raymond’s words – I have to make a choice between ‘explaining’ these gestures or simply accepting them as invitations to come higher up and closer by” (Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son 14). Indeed, Nouwen began to view these gestures for what they were; gestures of love representative even of God’s love for humanity.
One thing Nouwen learned from living at Daybreak was living in the present. “The disabled taught Nouwen, as no one had before, the value of experiencing God in the present moment, without worrying about the future or regretting the past” (Martin 46). Yet even with all of the joy and growth he experienced at Daybreak, Nouwen did experience emotional pain after arriving at Daybreak. Nouwen felt emotionally lost just when he had found himself. He felt homeless just when he had found his home. Yet these feelings of despondency grew less intense over time and Nouwen said that Daybreak provided a sanctuary of rest just when he needed it. “I had been received with open arms, given all the attention and affection I could ever hope for, and offered a safe and loving place to grow spiritually as well as emotionally. Everything seemed ideal. But precisely at that time I fell apart – as if I needed a safe place to hit bottom!” (Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love xiii-xiv). This “safe place” was found at Daybreak, where Nouwen called home for the rest of his life.
When traveling, Nouwen would often bring his community with him. As Philip Yancey states, “Nouwen became so attached to the people in his home, and so dependent on them, that he began taking them with him on his speaking trips” (Yancey, Nouwen Then 29). Nouwen would even persuade those he brought along to share some of their experiences with the audiences. This helped provide a multi-dimensional experience for the audiences. Also, hearing from somebody who helped run Daybreak as well as a resident from Daybreak provided an inspirational example of community in action.
Another thread within Nouwen’s writings is compassion. This thread of compassion is closely connected with the thread of unity, as neither is complete without the other. Nouwen was able to emphasize both characteristics in ways that complemented and built upon each other. Within The Wounded Healer, Nouwen discusses the importance of compassion in great detail. “Through compassion we also sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate man nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying” (41). Nouwen believed compassion is a fundamental need for every human being. As a result, he had a great focus on the importance of compassion in the human life.
Nouwen’s strong faith in compassion came from his belief that God is a compassionate God. Nouwen believed that God has a heart of compassion especially for the “poor in spirit”. In fact, this was one of the reasons that Nouwen decided to move to Daybreak. “I was convinced that, after more than twenty years in the classroom, the time had come to trust that God loves the poor in spirit in a very special way and that – even though I may have had little to offer them – they had a lot to offer me” (Nouwn, The Return of the Prodigal Son 11-12). We can see through this statement that Nouwen went to Daybreak not with an attitude of superiority but with a desire to grow. This desire emerged from a strong belief that God truly has a special place in his heart for the poor in spirit.
The third thread within Nouwen’s writings that I will be focusing on is vulnerability. As Nouwen grew older and continued his writing career, he became more honest in his writings. “It indeed seems that the Christian leader is first of all the artist who can bind together many people by his courage in giving expression to his most personal concern,” he once wrote (Nouwen, The Wounded Healer 74). Nouwen saw being open and vulnerable as an integral part of growing closer to other people.
Nouwen’s openness to others allowed them to be more open with him. One example of this occurred when he showed up at his friend and colleague Kathy Bruner’s house with a bottle of red wine. They would often meet to discuss happenings at Daybreak. Yet this time was different, as she nervously confided in him that she had recently become pregnant. She was initially hesitant to confess this to Nouwen, and was afraid that he would scold her for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Yet Nouwen saw this as an opportunity to celebrate. “When she broke the news, Henri could not have been more thrilled and insisted that they open the bottle. He was amazed and delighted at the new person growing, developing, and becoming. Characteristically he expressed excitement and intense delight in creation, transcending the pain of the situation by reaching and grasping for the joy in the moment” (Ford 62). Responses such as this helped Nouwen’s friends feel open with him as he continued growing in openness with them.
A fourth thread within Nouwen’s writings that we will look at is humanity. As we will see, Nouwen embraced his humanity just as much as he embraced his spirituality. “The Latin word for priest, pontifex, means bridge builder: the priest is the person who builds a bridge between humanity and God. Through his zest for divine and human communication, Henri paved the way for his readers and friends to experience the presence of God in their lives” (Stroh 210-211). Rather than viewing humanity as an enemy that needs to be defeated, Nouwen vied humanity as God’s beloved creation. And if God embraced our humanity through the life of Jesus, Henri taught, we would do good to embrace it as well.
Seeing God in the fabric of every day life was very important to Nouwen indeed. The popular spirituality that views God as completely “other than” and not present in our existence was bothersome to Nouwen. “As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings” (Nouwen 70). Nouwen invites us to notice the splendor of God in his creation.
Often, people are drawn to those who seem to excel in life, such as the rich and the famous. Most popular magazines are filled not with pictures of people who are labeled “ordinary”, but with the glitzy and the glamorous. “One of our greatest temptations is to relate to people as interesting characters…We want to meet them, shake their hands, get their autograph, or just gaze at them” (Nouwen, Contemplation and Ministry 98). Yet Nouwen hopes that we will reach beyond such superficiality and find worth in all people. “How beautiful, then, is the ministry through which we call forth the hidden gifts of people and celebrate with them the love, truth, and beauty they give us.” (Nouwen, Contemplation and Ministry 101). In A Retreat with Henri Nouwen: Reclaiming Our Humanity, Robert Durback writes, “In seeking to reclaim our humanity, we have been led by Henri Nouwen to listen to the voice that calls us beloved” (60). Nouwen believed that all human beings are created in the image of God, and we are therefore beloved of God. As Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (New International Version). Nouwen’s hope was that people begin to search for God’s image in the people that society considers merely “ordinary”.
The fifth and final thread we will be looking at his hope. Nouwen’s books often addressed situations that many would view as hopeless, such as the loss of a loved one or the loneliness experienced by every human. But Nouwen chose to view these situations through a lens of hope rather than a lens of discouragement. In Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, Nouwen writes, “When hope grows we slowly see that we are worth not only what we achieve but what we are, that what life might lose in us, it may win in meaning” (Nouwen, Henri. Gaffney, Walter. Aging: The Fulfillment of Life 71). We will discover that hope is truly an integral theme within all of Nouwen’s writings, just as it was within his own life. As Will Hernandez aptly articulates in Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, “Henri Nouwen often rehearsed in his heart that living the spiritual life necessitates the inner disposition of expectancy, of eager waiting and hoping” (Hernandez 93).
During Nouwen’s life, he was not one to run from pain. Within his writings, we see glimpses of a person embracing the hope of life that can be found even during times of great suffering. In Walking with Henri Nouwen: a Reflective Journey, Robert Waldron says, “Surely with today’s World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, Nouwen would be in the middle offering prayers, hope and encouragement” (58). As we shall see, such hope and encouragement is layered throughout each of the following books that Nouwen has written to those he loves.
Books to People…
Nouwen had a very unique style of writing. One reason for this was that his writings were often focused on other people, so much so that he would even write books specifically to people. This personal-letter style of writing was not a ploy for Nouwen to increase book sales or a demand of some publishing company. Rather, he was generally interested in seeing people develop in their faith, hope, and love, and found that the best way to go about this was writing books to them. Nouwen knew that he was gifted in writing, and so chose to use this talent for improving and blessing the lives of others.
This personal style of writing can be found even within the pages of the Bible. For example, in 2 Timothy 1:2, the apostle Paul begins the letter in a very personal way; “To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Similarly, in Philipians 1:3, Paul begins this book with a very personal greeting; “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Within Nouwen’s writings, such a personal style is very common. Five books that we will look at which display such a style are, respectively, Letters to Marc About Jesus, Life of the Beloved, Adam: God’s Beloved, A Letter of Consolation, and Heart Speaks to Heart: Three Prayers to Jesus.
Letters to Marc About Jesus
Marc van Campen was Nouwen’s 19-year-old nephew, who is mentioned in the title Letters to Marc About Jesus, a book consisting of letters written to Marc by Nouwen. Nouwen had a deep love for Marc, and began sending him letters of encouragement and hope. Nouwen took time out of his busy schedule to befriend and mentor his nephew, though Nouwen says that, through his teaching Marc, Nouwen learned much and was able to grow spiritually. Through this mentoring process, he felt he was growing in his knowledge and appreciation of Christ. “In the course of writing I became aware that I was engaged not only in telling Marc what I thought about Jesus and the meaning of our existence, but also in rediscovering Jesus and the meaning of my existence for myself” (Nouwen, Letters to Marc About Jesus viii).
The fifth letter of this book is titled “Jesus, the Loving God” (53). Within this letter, Nouwen emphasizes the importance of community, both with God and with people. This letter is written in the context of worldwide political battles that were taking place at that time: specifically, the fraudulent elections results in the Philippines. After discovering that fraud had taken place in order to keep President Marcos in power, many people became angry and the country was on the verge of a bloody civil war. But miraculously, the rightful leader was put into power without resorting to violence. For Nouwen, this was an incredible testimony of community, and how even large groups of people can unite in community when one learns to love one’s enemies. “I’ve dwelt on the Philippine situation in some detail because it helps me to write concretely about love for one’s enemy…The command of Jesus to love our enemies is, I think, a good starting point for entering more deeply into the mystery of God’s love” (55). Thus grace and forgiveness are important elements in attaining community, Nouwen affirms within this letter. Nouwen relates to Marc that these precepts can work on the individual level just as they can work on a global level. Love, when put into action, can indeed change the world, Nouwen affirms to Marc.
The third letter of this book is entitled “Jesus: The Compassionate God” (21). Within this letter, Nouwen focuses on the suffering, or the Passion of Christ. “You could say that everything else the four Gospels have to say about Jesus is intended to bring out the full significance of his suffering, death, and resurrection” (27). Nouwen saw the Passion of Christ as an important element of the compassion of Christ, as compassion literally means, when translated from Latin, “to suffer with”. Nouwen emphasizes this important spiritual application within this letter: “The spiritual life is a free life that becomes visible in compassion” (31). The spiritual life is not meant to be lived alone, but in direct contact with the fabric of every day life.
Nouwen begins all of the letters within this book in a personal and open manner. His frank and down-to-earth style of writing wraps these letters in honesty and vulnerability. For example, within the first page of this book, Nouwen addresses the heart of the matter, or the sole reason for writing these letters: Marc has some serious unanswered questions. “When you attended that summer course in Concord, New Hampshire, and saw young men and women as intelligent as yourself genuinely concerned with religion in their lives, it raised some new questions in your mind” (3-4). Marc had already proved himself successful in school, sports, and his social life, but found that he was still wanting more. Something in his life had not been fulfilled, and so he asked his uncle Henri to provide him with some much sought after spiritual guidance in his life. In fact, Marc had been asking Nouwen to write such letters for about a year before they were written. Yet to his regret, Nouwen had been delayed, and so decided to write a whole book of letters to Marc as a token of his love. It is very consistent with Nouwen’s style that he begins these letters in such an open manner.
On page 44 of Letters to Marc about Jesus, Nouwen discusses the humanity of Christ. “Again and again you see how Jesus opts for what is small, hidden, and poor, and accordingly declines to wield influence. His many miracles always serve to express his profound compassion with suffering humanity; never are they attempts to call attention to himself”. Nouwen then discusses how Christ was aware that his main purpose in life was to suffer and die a criminal’s death, and in so doing conquering sin. This was not the Messiah that many had expected, a warlord waging fury on doers of evil, but rather a Messiah who embraced and loved humans. Nouwen relates to Marc that Jesus is a Messiah whose every action was a gift of love and servitude for humanity.
Hope is also a common theme within this book. Nouwen tries imparting a sense of hope to Marc that is not often found or emphasized within the world around us. Nouwen does this by focusing on the cross. “The cross is transformed from a sign of defeat into a sign of victory, from a sign of despair into a sign of hope, from a sign of death into a sign of life (44). The cross, an instrument of pain and suffering, brings victory, hope, and life in a paradox that is relevant in our daily lives, as Nouwen affirms that God can use any situation for good, no mater how dire it may appear at the moment.
Life of the Beloved
Life of the Beloved is another book that Nouwen wrote specifically for a friend. “This book is the fruit of a long-lasting friendship, and you will read it with more profit, I believe, if I begin by telling you the story of this friendship” (11). Nouwen and Fred Bratman first met when Fred was interviewing Nouwen for the New York Times. The interview had ended, and Nouwen realized that, though words had been spoken, they had not been beneficial beyond their presence in a weekend column. And Nouwen could sense a longing in Fred’s eyes that was not currently being filled. “Nouwen sensed from the very onset of the interview that the journalist wasn’t at all enjoying what he was doing, and confronted him with this” (Durback 35). After digging deeper, Nouwen realized that Fred’s true ambition was to write a novel, and that his job at the New York Times was unfulfilling. Nouwen offered to help Fred with writing this novel, though Fred was initially skeptical of this offer. It didn’t take long, however, before Fred accepted Nouwen’s offer, and over time he and Henri became close friends. They would meet and discuss life happenings and Nouwen would encourage Fred to pursue his passion of writing.
Though Fred eventually moved away and his meetings with Nouwen grew less frequent, their friendship stayed intact. Often, they would discuss each other’s writings, and Fred would sometimes question Nouwen’s spiritual style of writing. Fred was a non-practicing Jew, and took his secularism seriously. Fred had read some of Nouwen’s material, but ultimately felt that Nouwen relied too heavily on spiritual terms which were foreign to a secularist like himself. Turning the tables, Fred now challenged Nouwen to write a different kind of book; one that was written especially with the secularist in mind. And so Henri wrote Life of the Beloved specifically for Fred. Ultimately, the book never persuaded Fred away from his secularism, but it did leave lasting impressions on many others who read it. As a result, Nouwen was encouraged to publish this book, and it has since become one of his classic writings.
Within these letters to Fred, Nouwen emphasizes the importance of community. “Imagine that, in the center of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and your kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace” (123). The community referenced here has not yet been achieved, yet Nouwen is encouraging Fred to hope for such a community of love and peace. Nouwen is urging Fred to see the signs of such a community within his own signs of affection. Nouwen is encouraging Fred to view the good in humanity as a sign of the future rather than a token from the past.
In very personal language, Nouwen relays God’s compassion to Fred. “Fred, all I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved’” (30). I find it interesting that Nouwen does not say, “You will be the Beloved”. Rather he says, “You are the Beloved”. The difference is important, as God’s love is not bound by time or circumstance. Nouwen makes it clear that God’s unconditional love is overflowing into Fred’s present condition. “My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – “You are the Beloved” (30). It is Nouwen’s hope that Fred loses all doubt in order to fully believe in this love and compassion.
Within this book, Nouwen is articulate about his own weaknesses. His sense of openness shines through when he discusses his desire and need for true community. Nouwen admits a sense of neediness, a sense of emptiness he feels within his own soul, asking Fred if he can relate. “Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire” (30)? Nouwen does not yet claim to have attained a constant feeling of complete happiness. In fact, as he is writing to Fred, he admits his own longing for God and discusses the different ways that God can quench and satisfy those specific longings.
“In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place”, Nouwen articulates to Fred (64). I find it interesting that Nouwen’s portrayal of heaven here is connected with humanity. Each human being has a specific place in heaven, and each place is designed specifically for each human being. It seems that Nouwen believes that heaven is as unique as the people occupying heaven. In this way, Nouwen is able to paint a picture of an eternity that is deeply respectful of our humanity. In this way, Nouwen focuses again on the gift of humanity.
Lastly, within this book, Nouwen unites all of these themes with a message of hope, specifically, a hope to leave a legacy. Nouwen underlines the common trait of those who have left legacies. “When we think about certain great people in history, they still give us life. They still give us hope because their lives became fruitful, fruitful in the giving” (5). When one becomes “fruitful in giving”, a legacy of hope will follow that person’s life.
Adam: God’s Beloved
Another very interesting book that Nouwen wrote not to a person but specifically about a person was called Adam, God’s Beloved. Adam Arnett was the most disabled person at Daybreak, and someone that Nouwen had become especially close to. Adam had epilepsy, was mute, and his movements were very limited. But though Adam’s mouth could not speak, his heart was always speaking. At first, Nouwen felt awkward and a little confused around Adam. He felt that his time was of no use because Adam would never respond to his actions. But after a while, Nouwen began to realize that Adam was listening to those who were with him, and was very aware of his surroundings.
“Adam somehow made those around him feel more at peace. Henri began to talk to Adam, telling Adam what he was doing and what he was thinking, and began to feel very assured and comforted in the intimacy that grew up between them. The many hours that Henri Nouwen spent caring for Adam and talking to Adam became, in the end, another kind of religious experience and another kind of contemplation” (O’Laughlin 154-155).
One evening during his sabbatical, Nouwen received a phone call that Adam was dying. He quickly boarded a plane and arrived just in time to witness Adam’s last few hours. Nouwen held his hand, prayed over him, and administered the last anointing as Adam passed from earthly chains to heavenly freedom. Nouwen was so touched by Adam’s lifelong witness and grace in passing that he soon wrote the book Adam: God’s Beloved. Within this book, Nouwen evaluated Adam’s journey in light of Christ’s journey and illuminated God’s presence in Adam’s life. “Just as Henri had, after many hours, come to discern the face of Jesus in the figure of the prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting, so he also found Christ in the figure of Adam. This slow realization began with Henri’s growing sense that Adam’s life had a purpose and a mission” (O’Laughlin 155). Though Nouwen initially set out to bless Adam’s life, he in turn was blessed and encouraged by Adam’s presence in his own life.
Adam: God’s Beloved, was written during the last year of Nouwen’s life. Nouwen had been given a one-year sabbatical in celebration of ten years of service to the Daybreak community. Nouwen was very excited about this opportunity to focus on his writings again. Indeed, he wrote five books this year, before a heart attack tragically claimed his life. Nouwen had never written so much in such a short period of time, and the quality of his writing was not sacrificed in doing so, as we shall discover in Adam, God’s Beloved.
After his death, Adam was profoundly missed by Nouwen as well as the entire Daybreak community. Nouwen tells of how important Adam was to the Daybreak community. “Not just for me, but for many people Adam was the soul of the community, the still center around which we lived our restless lives. Now that center was gone” (116). Adam, somebody who could not speak nor communicate in any traditional way, was the very center of the Daybreak community. Why? Because Adam’s presence communicated more than words alone could communicate.
Nouwen also discusses Adam’s passion, his suffering, in his life. As was stated earlier, Adam was completely dependant upon the love of those around him for his well being. When he was weak, he would often need to be fed, changed, and dressed by his caretakers. Yet Nouwen points out how Adam’s disabilities actually increased compassion at Daybreak. “Adam clearly challenged us to trust that compassion, not competition, is the way to fulfill our human vocation” (90). Nouwen compares Adam to Christ, whose suffering was truly at the heart of his purpose.
When Nouwen was first asked to help take care of Adam, he was aghast. He didn’t know Adam and Adam didn’t know him. Nouwen was not a trained nurse, and had never taken care of anybody to that extent. He was also uncertain of how to communicate with Adam, since Adam could not talk. What if Nouwen were to accidentally hurt Adam, and Adam would not be able to tell Nouwen of his pain? All of these concerns were racing through Nouwen’s head when he was first asked to take care of Adam. But he chose to anyways, albeit reluctantly, and ultimately found that Adam could indeed communicate through gestures as simple as eye movement. “Adam often looked at me and followed me with his eyes, but he did not speak or respond to anything I asked him” (43). Eye movement, however, was not the extent of Adam’s communication. Several times Nouwen found himself rushing to get Adam dressed in the morning, looking forward to getting on with his other daily routines such as writing letters or taking a walk. And so he would quickly dress Adam, pushing his arms through sleeves and brushing his teeth as quickly as possible. But Nouwen soon learned how much this bothered Adam.
“He let me know that I wasn’t being really present to him and was more concerned about my schedule than about his. A few times when I was so pushy he responded by having a grand mal seizure, and I realized that it was his way of saying “Slow down, Henri! Slow down” (47).
The more time Nouwen spent with Adam, the more he realized that Adam was truly a vulnerable human being. It just took Nouwen a while to learn to fully understand Adam’s unique language.
Adam: God’s Beloved is in many ways a celebration of Adam’s humanity. Adam was completely human, completely dependant on the actions of others for his well being and survival. Yet in many ways this is what made Adam such a unique person: he was eager to accept and embrace the love of others. In fact, Adam was in constant need of the tangible love of his community. Yet in a way, Adam is a symbol for all of humanity, as every single person is in need of love and affirmation. Yet Adam embodied that need, and embraced the love that was given to him. In a way, Adam can be presented as a great teacher for a humanity obsessed with do-it-yourself philosophies. Truth be known, we are all incapable of surviving on our own. When Nouwen first came to Daybreak, he said it was easy to identify who was handicapped and who was not. Yet as time progressed, the lines began to blur, as Nouwen’s own handicaps began to express themselves. During this time, Nouwen realized that he too was handicapped in his own areas. “The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn’t make them less real,” he said (77-78). Indeed, living at Daybreak and spending time with Adam helped Nouwen become a more vulnerable and open person.
Nouwen closes this book by illuminating the hope that Adam brought to those around him. After Adam died, his picture was put behind his chair for both residents and guests to see and ask questions about. As a result of this picture, Adam’s legacy was told to all who anyone who inquired. Nouwen describes the words that were often used to describe Adam and the legacy he left. “Adam was a wonderful friend and guide. Because of Adam’s life and death we have been gifted with peace, hope, love, and immense gratitude” (125). Even in Adam’s death, he was able to bring hope to those he loved and those who loved him.
A Letter of Consolation
The fourth book that we will look at is a book that Nouwen initially intended not to publish. A Letter of Consolation was written to comfort Nouwen’s father after the passing of his wife and Henri’s mother, Maria Nouwen, in 1978. Yet Nouwen chose to make this letter public in order to help reach out to those who are going through the loss of a loved one. “I now realize that this letter had to be written for my father, for me, and maybe, too, for many others who are asking the questions that we are asking” (1). Perhaps because of the personal nature of this letter, Nouwen’s insights and vulnerability ring especially true with those who have lost a loved one.
When Nouwen talks of community within this book, it is often in bittersweet terms. After all, as Maria was dying, community was not able to bring her back to life. Love was not able to heal revive her earthly body. And hugs did not fill the void of Maria’s loss. “We, who loved mother so much and would have done anthing possible to alleviate her pain and agony, could do absolutely nothing,” Nouwen writes (45). But when human community is lost in the passing of a loved one, a different kind of community is offered to comfort us through the promises of God’s love. “Mother’s death encourages us to give up the illusions of immortality we might still have and to experience in a new way our total dependence on God’s love,” Nouwen writes (53). Through the passing of his mother, Nouwen is able to grow closer to the love and community offered by God to his children.
Throughout this letter, Nouwen emphasizes the compassion and love that his mother had for life. As Nouwen is speaking of his mother’s love for life, he also reminds his father of her love for him. “She loved life, loved it to the full. She loved you with an unwavering devotion” (74). Perhaps it was Maria’s spirit of love that made her absence so painful. The loss of Nouwen’s mother deeply affected his sense of community, as Nouwen was very close to her for most of his life.
Nouwen talks about the vulnerability of his mother and how that affected him. “She was open to those who came to her. Many found it easy to talk with her about themselves and remarked how much at ease they had felt in her presence” (55). It is true that Nouwen almost always felt free to be open and honest around and with his mother. It was this loss of a listening ear that was especially painful for Nouwen. “The absence of that caring attention often gives me a deep feeling of loneliness,” (55).
Nouwen emphasizes within this letter that death is not something to be desired, but rather part of humanity that is painful and gripping. Even Jesus longed for a way to avoid dying on a painful cross. “The Gospels contain no evidence that death was attractive to him. What we see in him is, rather, a deep inner protest against death” (72). This protest against death is a natural part of our humanity, Nouwen articulates, as death was not initially intended for humanity. The hope of escape suffering and death is not an alien emotion but a human longing. And just as Christ overcame death through the Resurrection, so too will humanity be resurrected through the power and grace of God.
Within a book specifically referencing the death of one’s mother, one might be surprised that a message of hope unites the pages of this book. Nouwen avoids the pitfalls of falling into despair about his mother’s death by pointing out that God’s love is present in every situation, including death. “The same love that reveals the absurdity of death also allows us to befriend death,” Nouwen communicates. “The same love that forms the basis of our grief also forms the basis of our hope” (33). These words encourage Henri’s father to search for a “meaning to the madness” rather than simply embracing a worldview that is dominated by happenstance.
Heart Speaks to Heart: Three Prayers to Jesus
It may be surprising to some that, while placing great importance on the importance of community, Nouwen also stressed the essentiality of times of solitude. Yet Nouwen did not view this as a contradiction by any means, as solitude simply increases a different kind of community; namely, community with God. Within solitude, we are able to listen to the quiet voice of God that is often drowned out by the static of everyday business. “One of the concerns of Nouwen’s later life is that we are often productive at the expense of being fruitful” (Shaw, A Prayerbook for Spiritual Friends 28). As Nouwen puts it, “As members of a community, we keep returning to solitude in order to become more sensitive to the ways in which God calls us here and now” (Nouwen, Solitude and Community 22-23). It was this desire to become more sensitive to God’s calling which led him to seclusion at a Trappist monastery, where he wrote Heart Speaks to Heart: Three Prayers to Jesus.
This book contains prayers that were written in a very personal and vulnerable manner. First, we will look at the area of community. “It is the water of baptism that has been poured over me and so many others and that has given entrance to the new community fashioned by your Spirit” (29). In this prayer, Nouwen thanks God for the communion which comes through water baptism. Nouwen articulates that God uses a physical means (water) to bring about a spiritual act (baptism). Within other writings, Nouwen illuminates this bridge between the physical and the spiritual. For example, in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Nouwen discusses icons, which he considers another bridge that is able to shed light on God’s character. “An icon is like a window looking out upon eternity. Behind its two dimensional surface lies the garden of God, which is beyond dimension or size” (15). Tangible expressions such as water and icons can help bring us closer in communion with God, Nouwen expresses. Rather than rejecting physical and artistic expressions, God sees value in using them to foster a more tangible sense of spiritual communion.
Second, Nouwen discusses compassion; specifically, the compassion of Christ. “Jesus, look at me in my struggle and show me your compassion”, prays Nouwen (37). This prayer of searching for God’s presence in many ways resembles the book of Psalms, which is filled with pleas for God’s compassion and intervention. In Psalm 119:77, we can see that Nouwen’s prayer is an echo of an ancient Psalm. “Let your compassion come to me that I may live,” David prayed. “For your law is my delight.” Within both of these prayers, God’s compassion is passionately sought by means of prayer.
In his prayers, Nouwen mentions that in order to be loved, Christ first had to become vulnerable. By entering life as a human being, Jesus became vulnerable to human suffering. “Yes, Jesus, you became vulnerable so that you could receive love from vulnerable people” (37). In a sense, by being open to experiencing life, Christ challenges us to do the same, even if life includes suffering and temptation. As Hebrews 2:18 states, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted”. Nouwen’s prayer exalts Christ as an inspiring example of vulnerability.
In order for Christ to become vulnerable to human need, he first had to become a human, says Nouwen. “You became a human being among other human beings so that nothing human would be alien to you, so that in everything, except sin, you could be like us” (5). By embracing a life as a carpenter’s son and dying a criminal’s death, Christ was willing to subject himself to the most intense kind of human suffering. Yet through Christ’s humanity, all of humanity is able to catch a glimpse of God’s love. “Through your human heart we can catch a glimpse of the divine love with which we are loved and with which you yourself loved us,” writes Nouwen. “Because you and the Father are one” (5). Christ’s unity with the Father does not detract from his humanity. Rather, it gives us a glimpse of the love of the Father, as Christ and the Father are united in perfect and complete harmony.
Nouwen closes Heart Speaks to Heart by thanking Christ for the hope in his life. “Your broken heart is the source of my salvation, the foundation of my hope, the cause of my love” (36). Christ’s openness to embracing humanity left him vulnerable to experience the denial of friendship of a close disciple (John 18:25), betrayal of another disciple (Matthew 26:45), the mockery of soldiers (Matthew 26:49), and the death by crucifixion in place of a criminal (Matthew 27:26). As Nouwen writes, “The love you came to give was not received; the love you came to receive was not given” (37). Yet there is reason to hope, as Nouwen reminds us that Christ rose from the dead and defeated death by doing so. We have seen this hopeful message of a life that overcomes death presented to Mark van Campen, Fred Bratman, Adam Arnett, Laurent Nouwen, and now to Christ, who Nouwen identifies as the source of such life. “You who drew all people to yourself as you were lifted up in your pain and in your glory, you stay with us as the wounded and risen Lord” (40). Christ’s presence did not dwindle in his death, rather he overcame death with hope and life, thus bringing hope and life to all.
It is true that Nouwen lived beyond his earthly physical existence, especially in the hearts of those he influenced. One example of Nouwen’s lasting influence on his friends can be found in an interview with Nouwen’s friend, Gordon Henry, shortly after Nouwen’s passing in 1996. Gordon came to L’Arche Daybreak in 1972, and Henri became Gordon’s spiritual director in 1986 after moving to Daybreak. Nouwen invited Gordon to accompany him sometimes when he taught or spoke at special events. Gordon asked to be interviewed for this contribution to Befriending Life.
“He’s a good teacher to me. I went to see him before work. Pretty often. Henri said, ‘Just open your heart.’ Help me get my feelings out. The way I see it, Henri cared about me, about temptations. Henri said, ‘You see a wallet there. What are you going to do? Tell someone about it. Don’t steal.’ He told me, ‘Be yourself, Gordie. You care about people.’ I feel a bit strong. So nice that Henri took me out for a beer. ‘Don’t get drunk, Gordie.’ After talking to Henri I found it a bit peaceful. Henri visited me in hospital. He’s taking me on a train in Holland. He takes me to see his friends. I really come close to Henri’s family. Henri says nice words. Help me get my anger out, talk to God. Henri was a good friend to me. He cared about my family” (Guido, Befriending Life 71).
Nouwen’s legacy extended to many more people. As Michael Ford says, “Henri Nouwen’s presence in the life of his friends will long be remembered. It seemed they could share anything with him” (Ford 62). These memories of Nouwen have been preserved in several different biographies about Nouwen, as those who were close to him remember a life of community, compassion, vulnerability, humanness, and hope.
- Beumer, Jurjen. Henri Nouwen: A Restless Seeking for God New York: Crossroad, 1997.
- Durback, Robert. A Retreat with Henri Nouwen; Reclaiming Our Humanity New York: Saint Anthony Messenger Press and Franciscan, 2003.
- Ford, Michael. Wounded Prophet New York: Doubleday, 1999.
- Guido, John. Edited by Porter, Beth. Befriending Life. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
- Hernandez, Will. Nouwen, Henri. A Spirituality of Imperfection, Paulist Press, 2006.
- Martin, James. Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton And Other Saints Paulist Press, September 2006.
- Nouwen, Henri. Adam: God’s Beloved New York, Orbis Books, 1997.
- Nouwen, Henri. Gaffney, Walter. Aging: The Fulfillment of Life. Image, 1976.
- Nouwen, Henri. Behold the Beauty of the Lord Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1987.
- Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey San Francisco, Harper. 1996
- Nouwen, Henri. “Celibacy and the Holy.” Pastoral Psychology 27.2 (1978).
- Nouwen, Henri. “Contemplation and Ministry.” Sojourners June, 1978.
- Nouwen, Henri. The Inner Voice of Love New York: Doubleday, 1996.
- Nouwen, Henri. A Letter of Consolation San Francisco: Harper and Roe, 1982.
- Nouwen, Henri. Behold the Beauty of the Lord Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1987.
- Nouwen, Henri. Letters to Marc About Jesus. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
- Nouwen, Henri. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World New York: Crossroad, 1992.
- Nouwen, Henri. “Prayer and Thought.” America 29 July 1978
- Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Nouwen, Henri. “Solitude and Community.” UISG Bulletin 48 (1978).
- Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
- Nouwen, Henri. Heart Speaks to Heart: Three Prayers to Jesus Ave Maria Press 1989.
- O’Laughlin, Michael. God’s Beloved: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen. New York: Orbis, 2004.
- Shaw, Luci. A Prayerbook for Spiritual Friends Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1999.
- Stroh, Jack. Edited by Porter, Beth. Befriending Life New York: Doubleday, 2001.
- Waldron, Robert. Walking with Henri Nouwen: a Reflective Journey Paulist Press, 2003.
- Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survived the Church, New York: Doubleday, 2001.
- Yancey, Philip. Edited by De Vinck, Christopher. Nouwen Then. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.