Since his death in 1996 at the age of 64, there has grown what has been dubbed the "Nouwen phenomenon", as biographies have been written about him, and Nouwen websites, societies and centres all tend the flame of faith which burned so brightly in his life. Though I had read only one of Nouwen's books, it was my love of biographies that led me to Michael O'Laughlin's God's Beloved: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen.
What many, including myself, may not have known, this flame of faith burned within a person riddled with anxieties, worries and angst. Though Nouwen was deeply convinced of God's love, he also was convinced that he was unlovable, and struggled in many of his writings to accept God's unconditional gift.
At times as I was reading about this struggle, I wondered if it wasn't a bit much. Is this a book about Nouwen’s foilbles or a book about God's transcendence in Nouwen? If it was just the former, I wanted to quit reading. Didn't I have enough clay on my feet weighing me down without reading of Nouwen’s struggles?
But as I kept turning the pages, I became duly inspired and moved to see God's light shine through. As I was buying groceries one day, it struck me that Nouwen’s story was like most of our lives -- much clay to be sure, but also, if we observe with eyes of faith, as Nouwen did, there is much evidence of God's ability to break through the barriers of our humanity. It would be impossible to write a biography about him without including his suffering next to his deep sense of God’s presence. As the ends of Jesus' cross touch both earth and heaven, so too our lives. One without the other is not possible.
It was a happy coincidence that this book found me just as our community was studying the gospel of John. The Jesus we met in this profound book was someone who was always in communion with God. The image of the branches abiding in the vine illustrated the life of prayer, and Jesus became a model whose example I longed to follow. No doubt Nouwen felt this way too. Here was another person who wanted nothing more than to deeply abide in his identity as God’s beloved. Nouwen, along with Jesus, became someone pointing the way on the often murky path of life. Two aspects of Nouwen’s life in particular caught my eye: his example of “moving downward” throughout his life, as Jesus did, and the teachings which held up Jesus at the centre.
I read with interest about the early influences on Nouwen’s life, how he was born in Holland and always had a sense of God’s calling to the priesthood. As a young boy, he would playact as a priest. His grandmother’s seamstress made him liturgical robes, and by the age of 8, he would say mass and deliver sermons for the whole family in a makeshift attic chapel. It was a calling, he later said, from which he never wavered, though he did struggle deeply about where this calling would best receive its fulfillment. He was never satisfied with the popular places of Christian expression, such as mainstream churches or universities. His itchy inner feet always seemed to lead him away from the beaten path.
The influences of both Holland and the Catholic church at that particular time in history (during WWII and onwards) were fascinating to read about. Nouwen was drawn to the teachings of Freud and Jung, which were ground breaking at the time. While he chose to study psychology, he never liked the “professionalism” he was supposed to adopt in his studies. He felt the trappings of being a psychologist took him farther away from the ideals of the gospel, and so, he was led on a different path.
The field of “pastoral counseling” was at the time a largely unknown discipline, combining psychology and religion. He left the university setting temporarily to serve as a chaplain on a Holland-American cruise line, and so came to the United States in the early sixties. It was there he found people who led him towards pastoral counselling. He thought he had found his calling at last, but when his doctoral thesis in this area was rejected as not being scientific enough, he again wanted to drop it all. He seemed to be the odd man out no matter where he planted himself, either within the church or, as much as he loved to teach, as a university professor.
One of the courses he taught at Harvard Divinity School was called 'An Introduction to the Spiritual Life'; Henri’s classes were always filled to capacity. In its second year, Henri decided to move away from the book of Luke, and adopted the gospel of John as the primary source. Soon enough, he ran into trouble. John’s gospel portrays a Jesus who is more blunt and direct, as opposed to the other gospels where acceptance of Jesus is built slowly. The effects of this came out in his teaching as he became more direct and plain in speaking of Jesus. While many rejoiced at Nouwen’s words, others became offended. His surprise and distress at this reaction eventually led him away from the university setting.
Nouwen was searching for a more true expression of his vocation and this vocation seemed to lead him downwards. His experience of rejection at Harvard gave him new eyes to see that Jesus too had been rejected. Though Harvard had cast him off, God was still with him. American culture favoured the “Yuppie” life, which sought comfort and security, but Nouwen did not buy into this vision. He was convinced that God loves us as we are, not for what we achieve or acquire. He was convinced that “downward mobility” was the way of Christ, and the way in which God’s Spirit moves.
This move eventually led Nouwen away from Harvard and to care for people with mental handicaps at the l’Arche Daybreak community. These people didn’t know Henri had written books and couldn’t read them even if they knew. Yet these simple people came to minister to Nouwen because they accepted him for who he was, not for any of his achievements.
Jesus at the centre
Wherever he taught or preached, people were drawn to his enthusiasm and his way of making Scripture and God alive and relevant. As the author says, Henri brought Jesus closer to many, many people. He had a way of taking delight in talking with people, and bringing a sense of God’s love. In Henri’s own words, his whole life had been an “arduous attempt” to live with Jesus at the centre.
This desire grew deeper the older he got. As a younger man, he had gotten caught up in problems of church and society so that, in his words, “My whole life had become a sort of drawn-out, wearisome discussion.” Not only that, feelings of neglect, disappointment or burn out surfaced regularly. However, he found again and again that Jesus stepped in front and invited him back into relationship.
One of the book’s strengths is the summaries of Nouwen’s teachings. He was deeply affected by the gospel of John. As God blesses Jesus with the words in John’s gospel, “You are my Beloved”, so Nouwen took these words to heart, for himself and for everyone whose path he crossed. We are not only loved by God, we are beloved as Christ was beloved. We are cherished sons and daughters of the Father.
This book is aptly described as “a biography of the soul”. The author was Nouwen’s teaching assistant for many years; you can sense his love of Nouwen throughout the pages. This look at Nouwen’s life and soul was thorough and well-told, leading me to read one of Nouwen’s classics, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. It is good to hear of someone’s life journey who had struggles but found God’s accompaniment to be greater.