Not Really Demons, But Angels in Disguise

Today may be Halloween, but tomorrow is All Saints Day, when the demons are really angels in disguise. Taking time in worship to honor those who have gone before us is one of the most meaningful days of the church year. In The United Methodist Church, All Saints Sunday is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday closest to November 1, which is All Saints Day. Every year I take time to remember my parents, grandmothers, and countless saints whose witness in their life and death has strengthened my faith and spiritual practices over many years.

I especially give thanks this year for my seminary teacher, Henri Nouwen, who died suddenly of a heart attack twenty-six years ago, on September 21, 1996. He was 64 years old. I had no idea at the time how privileged I was to be Henri Nouwen’s student. After all, I had originally gone to Yale University to study music, not theology. 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.        

Henri Nouwen’s class, Ministry and Spirituality, has had more impact on my life than any other class I have ever taken, and that is not counting the fact that I met my husband Gary in his 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 was a true “rock star.” 

I hadn’t yet felt the call 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, but my faith was black and white and untested in many ways.  

I understood “wounded healer” as a theological and even theoretical 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 in Stratford, Connecticut, where I was the part-time Director of Music during my time at Yale. 

The only notebook I kept from my seminary days is from Ministry and Spirituality. How I wish I could take Henri’s class again now that I am in my fourth decade of pastoral 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 people, and my now husband Gary just happened to find his way into my group. Hmm. 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 groups 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 body, mind, and spirit.

  • Nouwen was a very 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 importance of solitude, retreats, and time apart spent with God in silence.  
  • Henri never judged others and always called his students to spiritual disciplines of prayer, relationship, and solidarity with the poor.
  • Henri continually wrestled with what “success” means. His celebrity status never changed him. In truth, it embarrassed him. He lived a simple life. Nouwen spent years at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada, where 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 thirty-nine published books and was delighted to purchase his latest book, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Published just this month (Convergent Books, 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.” Among the 204 letters in the book, several excerpts spoke to me. 

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.” 

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.” 

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.”

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.”

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.” Henri died early the next morning.

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. 
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. 
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, 

in the house next door; 

They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.  

A demon … or an angel in disguise? How are you dressed for Halloween … and for life?  I, too, am enormously grateful. For all the saints, especially Henri Nouwen … and you.

P.S Because it is Halloween today, you might be interested in John Wesley’s Ghost Story about “Old Jeffrey.” Click here.

3 thoughts on “Not Really Demons, But Angels in Disguise

  1. What a moving tribute to your teacher! I wish I could have met him. Thank you for sharing your insights into the lessons he taught about life and about God.

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