The late psychologist priest may have been one of the last great letter writers
The late Henri J. Nouwen may be one of the most beloved spiritual writers of the past 60 years. A Dutch Catholic priest, he was a psychologist and theologian who, after nearly 20 years of teaching at places like Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame, went to live and work with the intellectually and physically disabled at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario, for the last 10 years of his life.
Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of his death (on September 21), over 200 of Nouwen’s unpublished letters have just been released in a new book called Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky spoke to Gabrielle Earnshaw, the founding archivist of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collections, about what readers will find in this collection of never-before-seen personal letters.
Zoe Romanowsky: To whom did Fr. Nouwen write these letters and why have they never been published before?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Henri Nouwen was a dedicated letter-writer. He cultivated friendships through frequent correspondence with friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues. In addition, as an author, speaker, and teacher of increasing popularity, he received over 16,000 letters in his life-time, many from people who had read his books or heard him speak and saw him as a trustworthy guide for their confusion, despair, and pains. I selected letters to represent the broad spectrum of his correspondence – including a well-known politician, a housewife with an ailing husband, a man whose marriage is breaking down, ministers struggling with burn-out, students, fellow spiritual writers, activists, care-givers, priests, nuns, and academics.
When Henri died in 1996, his correspondence, left at his home at L’Arche Daybreak, filled dozens of filing cabinets. It took me 10 years to catalog it! Meanwhile, for the past 20 years the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust has been actively collecting letters from his correspondents. More than 3,000 have been collected since Henri’s death.
These letters are precious and in some cases very personal. Generally, they are not open to the public. However, the Trust decided to share some of them to commemorate the 20th anniversary of [Henri’s] death. Each person whose letter appears in the book has been contacted to ensure permission. We have anonymized some sensitive letters. Henri Nouwen was a priest – many people shared some of their deepest and most pain-filled stories with him. We needed to find a way to share his responses without violating trust.
What do you think someone will find most interesting about this collection?
People familiar with Henri Nouwen’s writing will be delighted to hear his ‘voice’ again. He is warm, generous and attentive. His letters are direct and clear. He may just be the last great letter writer of the 20th century! These are not quick emails or texts – they are substantive, thoughtful responses to every manner of question or situation. He took time for his letter-writing. It was a ministry, but also a way of building intimacy.
The letters will be interesting to anyone invested in their spiritual life – each letter addresses common questions or struggles inherent in contemplative living – how to pray, how to respond to suffering, how to be of service to others, etc.
The book is also a fascinating portrait of a deeply engaged human being who is committed to the search for God’s presence and to “laying down one’s life for one’s friends.” His life wasn’t easy. Henri is the author of The Wounded Healer after all. He struggled with anxiety, loneliness, restlessness, and depression. What comes through so clearly in this book is how authentically he lived these struggles. Many of his key insights found in his books are lived through these letters.
You’re an expert on Nouwen’s work, but did anything surprise you about any of these letters? Why did you choose these in particular?
I have been receiving this question a lot from journalists and wish I had something to report! But unfortunately, after 16 years as Henri’s archivist, nothing can surprise me. If anything, it still astonishes me how Henri could keep up with the demands on his time and energy. Readers will be amazed by the pace of his life as well as the number of people/issues he dedicated himself to.
I had about 5,000 letters to choose from. My methodology for selecting the 204 letters in this book [began with the question]: Did it touch my heart? I suspected if it touched mine it would touch yours as well. In addition, I wanted the book to be a comprehensive representation of all the various questions that 21st-century people are asking: What is marriage? Why go to Church? Who is Jesus and why should I care? How can I live with my spouse’s deceit? What does it mean to be good? Where is God in this suffering world? What does it mean to die well?
Henri is a genius at unmasking illusions people might have about reality and the human condition. He identifies what ails us and then gently suggests a way forward that brings life and healing. You will notice in several letters, for example, that [he] will ask people to consider carefully what questions they are asking. The questions we ask are as important as the answers. He suggests that we be aware of where we are putting our attention. To Jim, a student-friend, he wrote: “My only fear is that you will fight your fight on the wrong front. Don’t spend too much time fighting demons, but give all you have to God.” It is a subtle distinction but an important one.
Why is his work so relevant to people today?
My dream is for everyone to read this book! I believe Henri’s voice of integrity would help restore sanity to our hectic and fear-driven world. He names many of our modern problems – busyness, worry, the drive to be relevant, useful, successful, self-rejection, etc. – and offers simple, but not simplistic, advise on how to be a person of compassion, tolerance, and hospitality. Henri’s spiritual vision holds the tension between light and darkness. You don’t need to check your intelligence at the door when you’re with Henri. His is a mature faith that isn’t scandalized by paradox and mystery. Henri opens doors for you to walk through and find your own way to God and a meaningful life.
The book’s promotional materials say it is “comforting.” What makes it so?
If there is one main message from Henri Nouwen’s letters it’s this: “You are the Beloved. You are enough. You are unconditionally loved.” Just this alone is comforting! But, this book also shows us that it is possible to live our suffering in a way that brings new life, freedom and creativity. As the letters show, Henri never completely overcomes his struggles, but gradually begins to see them as portals to love and compassion.
Henri doesn’t provide pat answers to life’s questions that don’t hold up in times of loss, crisis and death. His gift is for articulating the situation of our lives with honesty and directness. He gives us strength to pursue our own search. His courage to enter so deeply into human suffering and to stay present with people in pain is very powerful, inspiring – and comforting.
What stands out to you most about Fr. Nouwen as a spiritual teacher?
Henri used to speak and write in threes so I will do the same. Three things stand out: First, his faith is non-judgmental and hope-filled. A sentence from one of the letters stays with me: “It is not the must but the may that characterizes the Christian witness.” This is a very subtle distinction but I think it points to his attitude of openness and tolerance[…] He is deeply, deeply Christian but has a resistance to proving anything to anybody. He reaches a point so deep in the center of the spiritual life that we forget arguments and suspicions and lean into love.
Second, Henri helps us become more sensitive to our inner movements and to attend to “our innermost being.” He helps us see how what is going on there restricts or opens pathways to relationships with others, ourselves, and God. He helps us create space in our lives for “the still, small voice.” He guides us to the quiet core of ourselves. Solitude, meditation, prayer, inner attitudes of gratitude, celebration and forgiveness, these are all hallmarks of Henri Nouwen’s spiritual teachings. He calls us to find our sacred center and from there reach out in compassion to a hurting world.
Third, an enticing characteristic of Henri’s teaching is his ability to breath new life into tired clichés and outmoded paradigms. His writing can be like a breath of fresh air. Consider this sentence from a letter to a friend: “The great challenge remains to find the eternal in the midst of the temporary, to touch what remains in what passes and to love the ever living God in the love of the quickly passing family of people.” What a challenging and beautiful invitation!
Well-known author, speaker and social science researcher Brené Brown lent her support to the book by writing the foreword. Why will people who resonate with her work love this book?
I think of Brené Brown as the female, younger, 21st-century, secular twin of Henri Nouwen. I hope she won’t mind my saying that! Brené and Henri share a common understanding that vulnerability and weakness are portals to compassion and community. They believe that these qualities, common to all of us, are not to be avoided but attended to with courage and directness. It is only by accepting our own fragility that we can care for the fragility in others.
Brené and Henri share a willingness to challenge people. As she says in her forward, “Henri Nouwen can be fierce.” I think the same could be said of her – “courage over comfort” is one of her popular tag lines.
Brené is much funnier than Henri, but as you read the letters you might be pleasantly surprised by Henri’s occasional venture into humor.
Is there a plan for more work of Fr. Nouwen’s to be published?
Since Henri’s death, more than a dozen books have been published from unpublished talks, sermons, drafts, etc. in his archival papers. Sister Sue Mosteller, his Literary Executrix, has carefully stewarded the material so that Henri’s ministry could continue after his death. Currently, the Henri Nouwen Trust is considering carefully what should be published next. I am keen to see his sermons published, as well as selections from the more than 130 oral history interviews we conducted with people who knew him. In the last years of his life Henri was fascinated by the trapeze as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Creative thinking is going into how to publish his ideas from the many fragments he left in notebooks.