Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest and prolific writer whose books have sold millions. He died in 1996 at age 64. Photo by Frank Hamilton

Book fails to cast new light on Nouwen

By  Jason Vaz, Catholic Register Special
  • November 3, 2019

It’s not entirely clear that Michael Higgins and Kevin Burns are all that interested in Henri Nouwen as a writer or a priest.  They’ve got bigger fish to fry — namely the Roman Catholic priesthood itself.

Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen As A Model For A Reformed Priesthood is well researched, and the authors deal with the historical, cultural and theological ethos of Nouwen’s life and times. They do not, however, do interpretive justice to Nouwen’s works. In some chapters, he is hardly quoted, and when Nouwen is quoted, the authors do not unpack the quotations satisfactorily. Furthermore, they seem to shy away from key moments in Nouwen’s story. As a result, Nouwen’s priesthood remains in the shadows. 

The authors start and end the book by pointing out that the priesthood needs reform. The introduction examines the “radical collapse of prestige” of the priesthood, which is evident in the incrementally unsympathetic portrayals of priests in films. The book’s conclusion exposes the stark contrast between the ideal of the priesthood and the reality of it. The ideal is that the “priest is revered as Christ Himself.” In reality, though, priests have to “self-censor to an alarming degree” and “sublimate (their) sexual instincts.” 

The conclusion contains a diatribe about clergy sexual abuse. Although this “collapse of prestige” theme is scrutinized in the introduction and the conclusion, it remains unexplored throughout the book.

Higgins and Burns lose their way in a thicket of historical and theological allusions. There is, for instance, a mini-biography of Willibrord, who evangelized Holland in the seventh century. Readers may well wonder about the purpose of this reference in a book not about the history of Dutch Christianity, but rather about Nouwen as priest. 

The book contains John Padberg’s analysis of the Jesuit pedagogical rationale. The authors comment that Nouwen’s seminary in Rijsenberg operated under a brand of Jansenism. Then, they delve into a brief history of Jansenism. These digressions are distracting. One is left wondering when and how all of this will be tied back to Nouwen as a model for a reformed priesthood.

In the beginning, Nouwen’s works are hardly quoted. His writings feature more prominently in chapter five and onwards, but Higgins and Burns do not mine them for any systematic exposition of Nouwen’s priesthood. 

Rather, one must wait for the conclusion, which has a section about three priestly attributes that Nouwen exemplifies. They are: priest as teacher, friend and anam cara — the concept of a soul friend derived from Celtic Christianity. Why were these themes not explicitly discussed throughout the book? 

Passing references are made to Nouwen’s watershed moments: his mother’s death; his close friendship with Adam, a severely handicapped young man in the L’Arche community; and his falling in love. The authors, surprisingly, do not treat these events at length. 

The book sets the stage well. It gives a detailed sense of the historical milieu in which Nouwen lived. It also gives a background not only of the psychological tradition that Nouwen espoused (he taught psychology at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht), but also of his favourite psychologist: Anton Boisen. Nouwen comes off as a richly multi-coloured person — he befriended trapeze artists, he held dramatic and standing-room-only lectures at Harvard, and he yearned for identity and belonging with a poignant restlessness. 

Higgins and Burns discuss issues such as priestly formation and celibacy. The fact that both Nouwen and Thomas Merton fell in love as older priests points to a sexual adolescence that the rule of celibacy promotes. The authors are clever in the way they employ Nouwen’s life as a canvas to meditate on such issues. 

Yet, the authors too often give the stage to other historical characters and do not spend enough time understanding Nouwen as priest.   

Every biography necessarily takes a step back to treat the whole picture of the protagonist’s life. Reading Impressively Free leaves the impression Higgins and Burns have taken so many steps back from Nouwen’s priestly life that the picture has become unclear.

(Vaz is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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