Fr. Henri Nouwen’s spiritual writings were simple and clear, a real language of the heart, according to Fr. Ron Rolheiser. Photo by Kevin Dwyer, courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Society

20 years beyond the grave, Nouwen still teaching

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  • April 23, 2016

TORONTO – Fr. Henri Nouwen is still trying to help us understand. He’s been dead 20 years, but he’s still there talking to us about our gifts and our failures, our hopes and our doubts, God and love and sin and community and loneliness.

Thirty-eight of Nouwen’s 39 books are still in print, some available in half a dozen or more languages. The books are studied in Catholic and Protestant seminaries, assigned as spiritual reading by retreat masters and passed from friend to friend. More than seven million copies have been sold. U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has named his most popular book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, one of the most influential books in her life.

A new Nouwen book is scheduled to hit the presses this fall, consisting of excerpts from 16,000 letters he wrote over more than 20 years to readers who sought his advice.

This extraordinary legacy from a single spiritual writer only partly explains Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s enthusiasm for a three-day conference on Nouwen scheduled June 9 to 11 on the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. As a popular writer, a priest and psychologist, Rolheiser has found himself following a path laid by Nouwen for almost 40 years.
“This is not my most unfavourite topic. I love Nouwen,” said Rolheiser. “He’s influenced me in both the academic world and the non-academic world.”

As a popular writer whose weekly column has been featured in The Catholic Register for close to 30 years, Rolheiser has aspired to achieve Nouwen’s combination of simplicity and insight.

“You go back further, when I was young and I was in the academic world, I tried to be colourful and use bigger words. Through the years, I have adopted Nouwen’s formula. How simple and clear can I make it?” said Rolheiser. “The deepest things are the simplest things. It’s easy to write complexity. It’s not easy to write simple.”

Despite Nouwen’s success, or perhaps because of it, his books have never had an enthusiastic embrace among academic theologians.

Academic snobbery directed at the author of The Wounded Healer, The Way of the Heart and Life of the Beloved does not leave Rolheiser serene.

“That’s academic bias. You can use the word jealousy if you want,” he said.

“He was trying for a language of the heart. His formula was simple, but not simplistic.”

In his own career as a university professor, Rolheiser has taught Nouwen’s books despite the murmurings in the staff lounge.

“I’ve had that argument with faculties I’ve taught on,” he said. “They said, ‘Well, he’s not academic.’ I look at them and say Harvard and Yale didn’t seem to think so. Harvard and Yale both gave him sweetheart contracts.”

Nouwen’s teaching career began at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. From 1971 to 1981 he was professor of pastoral theology at the Yale Divinity School. He also was a fellow at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., and a scholar-in-residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

In 1983 he was appointed Horace De Y. Lentz Lecturer and professor of divinity at Harvard.

Throughout this time he maintained a career as a popular writer with a column in the National Catholic Reporter, and as a widely sought speaker.

Nouwen was born into a middle class family in Nijkerk, Netherlands, in 1932.

He followed a very traditional, unremarkable path into the priesthood, studying at the minor seminary in Apeldoorn and then the major seminary in Rijsenburg. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Utrecht on July 21, 1957.

While his desire to help others was sincere enough, there may have been more to it. Nouwen struggled with depression throughout his life. These struggles were certainly related to another, unspoken, struggle.

While today there are studies that quite readily acknowledge anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent of Catholic clergy are homosexual, 50 years ago it was a forbidden topic. Nouwen found his sexual self, his desire for intimacy, a deep struggle he had to face almost entirely alone. There is no evidence he ever acted out sexually. But the struggle was there in the background through the years — a concrete experience of doubt, loneliness and confusion.

“He was extremely intelligent and he was also extremely sensitive,” said Nouwen’s friend and literary executor Sr. Sue Mosteller. “He allowed those two things to work together. He wasn’t totally sensitive and he wasn’t totally intellectual. What he tried to do is find a balance.”

In 1985 Mosteller was the community leader at L’Arche Daybreak in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill and confronted with a problem of diversity. L’Arche was a very Christian movement. Out of a Christian sense of welcome and generosity it had brought into the community developmentally disabled Jews and Muslims. There could be no justification for L’Arche to deny the benefits of community to disabled adults on the basis of their religion.

But how were these new members to fit into a community that revolved around Christian prayer and assumptions about community life? Mosteller invited Nouwen to come and look at the situation.

“Our primary mission was to help people to live and to grow and to help people be accepted into society. It wasn’t to solve the ecumenical problems of the world,” said Mosteller.

Nouwen moved into the community and quickly saw that people were worrying over a non-existent problem.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I wonder — I hear you talking about this problem that exists within your community — I just wonder whether we can move from saying it’s a problem to saying it’s a gift.’ ”

Nouwen got Daybreak to begin celebrating the different religious traditions. More than 30 years on, such an insight might seem commonplace. But in 1985 it was a brave new world.

Mosteller is quite ready to concede that Nouwen’s books are really all about the same thing.

“My sense is that he is giving the same message in most of his books, but he’s going down,” she said. “He’s going deeper and deeper in terms of knowledge of Scripture and experience — life and Scripture, life and what the teaching of Jesus is.”

In 1996 Nouwen died suddenly of a heart attack in the Netherlands. He is buried in St. John’s Anglican Church Cemetery near his L’Arche friends, in a coffin built in the Daybreak carpentry workshop.

For the Henri Nouwen Society the 20th anniversary of his death is an opportunity to see him again through the eyes of his literary heirs. Popular spiritual writer and novelist Anne Lamott will give a lecture titled “Henri and me” at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall May 13. “The Way of the Heart — Exploring the Inner Journey Through the Lens of Henri Nouwen” will feature singer-songwriter Steve Bell, Evangelical theologian Shane Claiborne, Mosteller and Rolheiser in panel discussions and presentations at U of T’s Mississauga campus June 9 to 11.

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