Henri Nouwen’s Spirituality

Summarized by Paul Henry Carr

I was inspired last evening, September 26, 1999, by Dr. Robert A. Jonas’ talk on Henri Nouwen at Our Lady Help of Christians Church, West Concord, MA. Before meeting Henri in 1983, Robert was in the process of leaving his Christian birthright behind for Buddhist meditation. At that time, he was completing his doctorate in clinical psychology at Harvard. Robert was so inspired by Henri’s preaching, which communicated a way of being rather than information, that he asked Henri to be his Spiritual Director. They decided to become best friends.

Henri sometimes invited Robert to play his "skakuhachi," a meditative, bamboo flute from Japan, at Henri’s lectures and retreats. Robert played this flue at the beginning of his talk last evening. It has a calming, meditative tone in contrast to the tremendous evangelical energy that Henri would radiate.

When Henri was alive, Robert never read Henri’s books. In preparation for writing "HENRI NOUWEN: Writings Selected with Introduction by Robert A. Jonas" (Orbis Books, 1998), Robert read all 40 of Henri’s books and over 500 of his papers at the Yale Archives. These will he moved to "Daybreak" in Toronto.

Henri wrote simply and spoke to the heart as a universal human being. He expressed this universal dimension in telling his own story.

Henri’s core message was "You are the beloved." Our culture does support this but encourages a personal identity that is marketable. Henri wanted us to take time for solitude. That fact that there is no joy without suffering is the contradiction of the spiritual life. Henri taught at divinity schools because he was concerned that they had been placing too much emphasis on psychology and not enough on Jesus and spirituality. Henri’s early writings contained many references to psychology, in which Henri was educated, but in later writings there were almost none.

From September though December 1995, Henri began his sabbatical year by living in Robert’s house. After breakfast, Henri would retreat to his third-floor apartment and write long-hand in beautiful cloth-bound journals. During his time, Henri would get about 50 requests per week to speak or lead retreats. Robert recalled how Robert Schuller invited Henri to speak at the "Crystal Cathedral." I remember one of these talks. Videos of these talks are still available.

Robert showed us Rembrandt’s painting "Return of the Prodigal Son." Henri was on his way to make a documentary of the original painting in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he died of a heart attack in Holland. His father and other family were with him before he died in September 1996. Robert felt that Henri never achieved the intimate relationship with his father that he had longed for. His father had Henri’s books piled up in his room, but he never read them.

After Henri’s death, Robert has had many Emmaus-type resurrection experiences and sensed the presence of Henri’s spirit among us.

Henri’s ministry to me was through his books. I first became acquainted with them when my cousin, Rev. Dr. Steven E. Berry, gave us "THE WOUNDED HEALER" when our family was staying at Lake Eden. It has the handwritten inscription "To Steve in friendship from Henri J. M. Nouwen." I showed this inscription and Steve’s picture to Robert and told him that Steve was Henri’s teaching assistant at Yale in the late 1970s. He said: I somehow remember him." This book was helpful to us in our healing ministry with The Order of St. Luke the Physician.

After my Karin died in May 1986, the following quote from "LIFESIGNS: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective" gave me the healing peace I was yearning for:

"We come to see intimacy as a divine gift allowing us to transcend fearful distance as well as fearful closeness, and to experience a love before and beyond all human acceptance or rejection."

When my mother died in August 1990, I ended my "Reminiscences of a Son" with the following quote from "Making All Things New:"

"We have to keep in mind that community, like solitude is primarily a quality of the heart. While it remains true that we will never know what community is if we never come together in one place, community does not necessarily mean being physically together. We can well live in community while being physically alone. In such a situation, we can act freely, speak honestly, and suffer patiently because of the intimate bond of love that unites us with the other even when time and place separate us from them. The community of love stretches out not beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries. Not only the awareness of those who are far away, but also those who have lived long ago can lead us into a healing, sustaining, and guiding community. The space for God in community transcends all limits of time and place."