Love, Henri is a collection of letters from Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Dutch priest and author who won the world's accolades (as well as teaching posts at Yale and Harvard), but found his deepest fulfillment in living community life with the disabled. Along the way he published book after book of his (often deeply personal) spiritual reflections. His experiences and insights resonated with many. His correspondence was not limited to personal friends or collaborators or ministry professionals, but included generous and thoughtful letters to readers, many of whom entrusted him with their struggles (and some of them, it becomes clear, with sharp criticism).
The book is filled with warmth, with spiritual treasures—and with the name of Jesus, Jesus loved and doggedly sought. In one letter alone, the name of Jesus appears in every paragraph (6) in addition to references to “He/Him” and “the Lord.”
Jesus was his hope. In a time of deep interior pain, he wrote, “I am quite, quite aware that this pain is given to me to purify my heart, to deepen my love for Jesus and to give Him every inch of my being.”
Jesus was his message. “The desire to proclaim Jesus,” he wrote to someone who had asked about the value of evangelization, “belongs to the essence of knowing Him and loving Him.” To a friend about to begin theological studies: “The church, the world need you to speak about Jesus, loudly, clearly, intelligently and with great zeal. Whether you become a priest or... marry...you are clearly called to proclaim the love of Jesus.” To another professional contact: “Ministry is to point again and again to the Lord.” To the superior of a Benedictine community he wrote, “Speak often about the life of Jesus. That is where the spiritual life starts.”
Nouwen's letters are, to me, striking for their honesty and for a freedom that was unclouded by the need to conform to the expectations or values of an elite (despite being immersed in the class-conscious Ivy League environment). Seeking to follow Jesus, he spent long periods of service in Latin America (later realizing that he was not cut out for the particular kind of intensity that involved), but eventually found his way to L'Arche at the invitation of the founder, Jean Vanier. This was a discovery. “Precisely because they are so dependent on others, [profoundly disabled people] call us to live together, sharing our gifts. ...people from the most different cultures … have started to live in community”; “the call of the handicapped to form communities of love is truly a blessing from Heaven.”
I have read several of Nouwen's books, and enjoyed them. I found particular inspiration in his Road to Daybreak and In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. But these letters contain so much more. They remind me of something I experienced when meeting Pope John Paul in 1985: As the Pope greeted us one by one, gazing in each one's eyes as if entirely at our disposition. I felt flustered and a little embarrassed by the complete availability of such a great man. Nouwen, too, made himself completely available in these letters with their assurances of concern, awareness, of continued prayer for the recipient in whatever the situation at hand.
I might risk comparing the Nouwen of this book with several other important Catholic spiritual writers. Thomas Merton comes to mind first. Nouwen explicitly rejects this comparison in one of his letters, saying that Merton is too towering a figure for him to even consider himself in the same category. He was wrong. Merton had a very different temperament and vastly different life experience, but the two priests have something much deeper in common: a profound and explicit desire for communion with God and the ability to be honest with themselves and before God. I also hear echos of the letters of St Ignatius Loyola, another man who shared his spiritual journey deeply with any who might profit from it, and who carefully and thoughtfully responded to those who wrote to him with their spiritual struggles. Finally, the gentleness and practicality of Nouwen's counsels reminds me of the beautiful soul of Jean-Pierre de Caussade.
Love, Henri is a beautiful and worthwhile read.
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