Obituaries: The Rev Henri Nouwens
Saturday 05 October 1996
Nouwen died in his native Netherlands of a second heart attack while in hospital recovering from his first. He was 64, and about to start work on a Dutch television film based on Rembrandt's painting The Prodigal Son, the subject of one of Nouwen's most popular books. Though he was widely read in Europe, especially in Britain, it was in the United States - where Nouwen came in 1964 as a young priest to study and teach - that he established his reputation as an engaging and insightful spiritual writer with a devoted following amongst Christians of all traditions.
Before the Second Vatican Council, that extraordinary mid-1960s upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church, liturgy and theology were regarded by most Catholics as the exclusive concern of a priestly caste. The Mass was something one watched rather than participated in; theology was something one expected those properly equipped for the task to do on one's behalf. And in spite of good, popular Catholic books on holiness and prayer being widely available, spirituality, too, remained largely the preserve of professionals - priests, monks and nuns.
After the Council, a large market for popular religious writing was created by a newly curious Catholic laity. Nouwen had all the ingredients to satisfy its demands: a sympathetic understanding of the ancient spiritual traditions, a doctorate in psychology, and a gift for popular writing. Americans, in particular, loved him. Works like Reaching Out (1975), The Genesee Diary (1976) and The Wounded Healer (1979) became best-sellers, and remain in print.
Nouwen's childhood in the Netherlands had been clouded by the Nazi occupation. He remembered little of those early years: "classmates laughing at me because I was cross-eyed, my first communion, the beginning of the war and my parents crying". Later, he reflected on the most difficult question every modern Christian has to face:
Why did the millions of religious people not invade the camps and tear down the gas chambers and ovens that were being built to annihilate the Jewish people? Why did those who pray, sing hymns and go to church not resist the powers of evil so visible in their own land?
Nouwen was to write over 30 books on spirituality, healing and ministry, drawing cleverly on the major intellectual preoccupations of the day, whether therapy and "personal growth", radical politics, Eastern religion, ecology, or feminism. But running through them all was a concern to integrate spirituality with social commitment. His spirituality was always intensely personal - he mined his own experiences exhaustively in his work - but never a purely private affair. For Nouwen the significance of Jesus was that he brought together personal healing and fulfilment with a passion for social justice:
His appearance in our midst made it undeniably clear that changing the
human heart and changing human so-
ciety are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.
Incorrigibly restless and inquisitive, he interrupted his time as a lecturer at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard with spells as a Trappist monk and as a missionary in the slums in Lima, Peru. Though he learnt much from his experiences in each, neither the monastery nor the barrios satisfied Nouwen's craving for a spiritual home. Natural teacher though he was - his lectures were regularly oversubscribed - the academic life, too, eventually left him disenchanted. "It's not an intimate place," he wrote of Harvard, "it's not a home. It's a place of intellectual battle."
He resigned his teaching post at Harvard and in August 1986 decided to live and work as pastor to Daybreak, the L'Arche community for the mentally handicapped in Toronto:
I was convinced that, after more than 20 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 very little to offer them - they had a lot to offer me.
At Daybreak, Nouwen lived in a house with six handicapped people. His special charge was Adam, a mute, wheelchair-bound epileptic. These last years at Daybreak produced some of Nouwen's finest work, books like The Road to Daybreak (1988) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992).
Nouwen's restlessness, self-consciousness and sense of exile made his a characteristically modern spiritual sensibility. Although he was never to feel he had found all the answers to his difficulties and doubts or his true spiritual resting place, his years with the L'Arche community brought him a kind of fulfilment. "Nothing about Daybreak made me feel I had arrived . . . None the less, the move from Harvard to L'Arche proved to be one little step from bystander to participant, from judge to repentant sinner."
As he added wryly, "The journey from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved proved much longer than I realised."
Henri Nouwen came to Daybreak already a well-known author, writes Carolyn Whitney-Brown. This was courageous; many members of our community do not read, so Henri's credentials meant nothing.
They were more interested in who Henri was - in fact, everyone was interested in a 55-year-old priest of such brilliance who seemed unable to make a sandwich; who totalled a new car driving it away from the dealership; who spoke with his giant hands flailing and his whole gangly body quivering with his desire to communicate; whose Dutch accent could offer a whole meditation on "face" and only halfway in would we catch on that he was speaking of faith; who might in a single week be giving talks on three continents; whose friends come hitch-hiking and in private planes; who loved to dance with the community's children at liturgies; who published over 30 books, willingly sharing details of his life that most of us would cringe to admit, much less publish.
Yet while in one way it was courageous of him to make a home where his impressive credentials were relatively unimportant, in another way Henri was responding deeply to the desire of his restless soul to find a home, and to be loved for who he was, not what he had accomplished.
In his book Can You Drink the Cup?, published this year, Henri Nouwen urged his readers not to be afraid of the raw material 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 too, can we 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.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, priest, writer and teacher: born Nijkerk, The Netherlands 24 January 1932; ordained priest 1957; Fellow, Menninger Clinic, Topeka, Kansas 1964-66; Associate Professor, Yale University Divinity School 1971- 77, Professor 1977-81; Professor of Theology, Harvard Divinity School 1983-85; pastor, L'Arche Daybreak community, Toronto 1986-96; died Hilversum, The Netherlands 21 September 1996.
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