The occasion might well have slipped by me. Bishop Gregory Palmer reminded us last Tuesday at our North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops meeting that September 21 was the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. On September 21, 1996, Nouwen, my seminary professor, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 64.
Nouwen played a significant role in my life. After college, I went to Yale University to study music at the graduate level. As part of my interdisciplinary curriculum at the Institute of Sacred Music, however, I was encouraged to take courses at the Divinity School as well.
Nouwen’s class, Ministry and Spirituality, has had more impact on my life than any course I have ever taken, not to mention that I met my husband Gary in this class. A Catholic priest from the Netherlands, Nouwen had become a leader in the emerging disciplines of pastoral psychology and clinical pastoral education. Preferring simply to be called “Henri,” he taught at Yale Divinity School from 1971 to 1981, and his students, to his embarrassment, considered him a real “rock star.”
I wasn’t headed toward pastoral ministry when I took Henri’s class, but I was keenly interested in the spiritual life. Eighteen months before enrolling in Ministry and Spirituality, my heart was strangely warmed through a conversion experience I had after months of struggling with my faith. I was deeply committed to Christ and had already read Nouwen’s1972 classic, The Wounded Healer. However, my faith was black and white and untested in many ways.
I understood “wounded healer” as a theological concept. Yet, as a 22-year-old, my only real experience with “wounds” was occasional laments from church members about my eclectic choice of choir music at the Stratford United Methodist Church where I was the part-time Director of Music during my time at Yale.
How I wish I could take Henri’s class again now that I am in my fortieth year of ministry. As a young adult, I did not have enough pastoral wisdom, life experience, or hard knocks to fully understand the depth of Henri’s spirituality or my own. He was always quiet, unassuming, and humble. Yet I sensed that Henri was a holy man, chosen by God to model the spiritual life for millions of students and readers around the world.
Henri divided our class into small groups of six or seven students, and Gary just happened to find his way into my group. One of our assignments was to go away to a retreat center for a weekend, and we ended up in a monastery in upper New York State. The bonds we formed were deep, as our group attempted to develop spiritual practices that would last a lifetime. I will always carry with me the way Henri embodied the heart of Jesus in his mind, body, and spirit.
- Henri was an authentic and transparent person. By his willingness to share his vulnerability, insecurities, doubts, and brokenness, Henri created a safe place where his students could wrestle with their demons as well.
- Henri insisted on the importance of listening and connecting intimately with others. At the same time, he recognized the value of solitude, retreats, and time apart spent with God in silence.
- Henri never judged others yet always called his students to spiritual disciplines of prayer, relationship, and solidarity with the poor.
- As a Catholic priest, Henri struggled mightily with celibacy. Yet he vowed to remain focused on his fervent desire to connect others with God.
- Henri continually wrestled with what “success” means. His celebrity status never changed him, and Nouwen lived a simple life, even spending years at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada. He took care of a severely handicapped young man named Adam, who became a source of healing for Henri after an emotional breakdown.
I have read many of Henri’s 42 published books, the last of which is Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Published in 2016, Love, Henri commemorates the twentieth anniversary of his death. When Nouwen died, he left a legacy of personal papers and letters, which have been collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. She wrote, “Over his lifetime, Henri received more than 16,000 letters. He kept every postcard, piece of paper, fax, and greeting card that arrived in his mail. And he responded to each of them.”[i] Among the 204 letters in the book, several excerpts spoke to me. I suspect his thoughts may resonate with you as well.
In a letter to Walter J. Gaffney July 8, 1979:
“The whole central idea of meditation is to simply pay attention to God and find your real self in God. If I keep paying attention to myself and my little world, I get more and more entangled in the old self, which really amounts to a death trip.”[ii]
To a student named Timothy in 1980:
“When I discovered not only that my weakness was my humanity but also that my humanity was a forgiven humanity, I truly found my freedom.”[iii]
In a letter to a friend in 1991:
“Jesus’ invitation to ‘lay down my life for others’ has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard these words as an invitation to make my own life struggles, my doubt, my hopes, my fear and my joys, my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”[iv]
To another friend in 1993:
“I know that I do not need to be ashamed of my needs, that my demons are not really demons but angels in disguise, allowing me to love generously, to be faithful to my friends, to be sensitive to many forms of human suffering and to live my priesthood with courage and confidence.”[v]
Henri’s last words, spoken to his friend, Nathan, in a hospital in Hilversum, The Netherlands, after suffering a heart attack in 1996:
“I think I’m going to be OK, but you never know. So if I die, just tell everybody that I’m grateful, that I’m enormously grateful. Make sure you tell everybody that.”[vi] Henri died early the next morning.
It’s good to remember Henri. Thanks be to God for richness of Nouwen’s life, for his generosity of spirit, and for demonstrating to all of us that we, too can be grateful, wounded healers of mind, body, and spirit.
[i] Love, Henri; Letters on the Spiritual Life, Henri J.M. Nouwen, edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, New York, Convergent Books, 2016, p. ix.
[ii] Nouwen, p. 36.
[iii] Ibid, p. 41.
[iv] Ibid, xii.
[v] Ibid, xv.
[vi] Ibid, p. 346.