Accidental author with a Christian following: Martin Wroe reports on a successful 'spiritual' writer who has found happiness with the downwardly mobile

BESTSELLING writers are not the norm at religious gatherings but the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, which begins this weekend in Northamptonshire, will play host to a Dutch professor whose books regularly sell more than a million copies.

Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and 13 years a professor at the divinity schools of Yale and Harvard in the United States, is one of the most popular 'spiritual' writers alive.

Books like Reaching Out sell like hot cakes to his devotees, particularly in North America, while many of his 15 other 'meditational' titles each sell annually in their tens of thousands.

This week sees the publication of his latest offering, a sort of literary-spiritual meditation on a 17th-century painting by Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (DLT pounds 14.95).

Unlike most writers, however, Pastor Nouwen, in England on a three-week retreat before fulfilling his speaking engagement, prefers to shun the limelight. 'I'm not a writer,' he insisted. 'It was an accident when someone wanted to publish some of my lectures. I'm a pastor of a religious community who writes a little.'

He takes no interest in sales figures, royalties or marketing and refuses to do signing sessions. Instead he devotes himself to a community of the mentally handicapped in Toronto where he is priest. He turned his back on university life for 'the way of Jesus, the way of downward mobility'.

Swapping lectures on psychology for washing, feeding and dressing residents, he considers that mentally handicapped people offer a unique revelation of divine love. 'Their love is not based on what you have accomplished in life. I'm not saying they are saints but that in their weakness, sometimes you can meet God more directly.'

Pastor Nouwen takes members of his community on the speaking engagements where their presence keeps him humble. 'They relativise everything, they don't admire me, they just know me. They grab the microphone while I talk, or just fall asleep and snore on the platform.'

He calls them God's messengers: 'Who is handicapped?' he asked. 'Is it these people who can't walk well or speak well, or is it us who fight and murder each other and are jealous and resentful in this crazy, ambitious, competitive, war-waging world. They are the most sane of all.'

(Photograph omitted)