Henri Nouwen is a man in whom opposites seem to dwell side by side. A Catholic priest, author of dozens of widely acclaimed books on spirituality and ministry, Nouwen writes often of Christians' desperate need for reflection and solitude. Yet his gangly, slightly stooped frame moves with nervous, almost frenetic energy. People are in and out of his home and office at all hours, usually beginning around 7:30 A.M. and often until late at night. Every day he is involved with at least one Eucharist service, gives spiritual direction, attends to personnel issues, and offers care to many at Daybreak, the community for the mentally and physically handicapped where he ministers just north of Toronto.
And this eloquent exponent of prayerful silence loves to talk. In one interview I managed to pose only three or four questions to Nouwen in as many hours. Each question triggered an unstoppable flow of observations, stories, biblical references. Sometimes he sheepishly apologizes: "Sorry I talk so long." But his talk is more than words. He brims with insights about the spiritual life. Once he told a gathering of Baptist ministers, "Ministry is the least important thing. You cannot not minister if you are in communion with God and live in community. A lot of people are always concerned about: 'How can
I help people? Or help the youth to come to Christ? Or preach well? But these are all basically nonissues. If you are burning with the love of Jesus, don't worry: everyone will know. They will say, 'I want to get close to this person who is so full of God.'"
Perhaps the greatest irony concerns Nouwen's present work. This former professor at Notre Dame, Yale, and Hazard now devotes his energies to those whose IQs and disabilities place them on the margins of society. Books such as "The Wounded Healer" and "Creative Ministry" have been textbooks for untold numbers of seminarians, yet Nouwen frequently addresses those who can understand only the barest rudiments of faith.
There is, however, a certain consistency in the midst of the opposites and ironies, one found not in Nouwen's career accomplishments, but in his faith.
The Daybreak community where Nouwen has served as pastor for eight years is spread throughout the town of Richmond Hill. Its heart is an old farm with several houses, an office building, a meeting hall, a wood shop, and a prayer center. Until recently, the buildings were linked by a gravel road, upon which Nouwen frequently raced between his home and office in a little blue Honda Civic. When the community considered getting the lane paved, some members objected, concerned that would encourage Nouwen to drive even faster.
Life at Daybreak, however, requires patience for the long haul. It is part of L'Arche (French for ark), an international network of ecumenical communities where mentally handicapped persons and their assistants attempt to live together according to the gospel. The first L'Arche community was founded in Trosly, France, by French Catholic layman Jean Vanier in 1964. Nouwen has lived in Daybreak since 1986. One of the oldest and largest L'Arche communities in North America, it is home to more than a hundred people.
"Jesus didn't say, 'Blessed are those who care for the poor.' He said, 'Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.' It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself. I find it very important," Nouwen adds, "to stress that we are wounded healers; we don't have to run away from our vulnerability as if we don't hurt."
One evening I went for a long walk with a member who had severe brain damage as a child. I was touched by his humor, insight, and empathy. Without Daybreak, he—and others in the community—could end up on the street. Many people in L'Arche are rejected and outcast in the world. But L'Arche embraces everyone, handicapped members and assistants, reminding all that God loves us in our brokenness.
Nouwen insists that those who want to understand him must encounter L'Arche. Interviewers are encouraged to spend time at Daybreak, absorbing its unique dynamics. He told me, "L'Arche exists not to help the mentally handicapped get 'normal,' but to help them share their spiritual gifts with the world. The poor of spirit are given to us for our conversion. In their poverty, the mentally handicapped reveal God to us and hold us close to the gospel." Many times, as he travels, Nouwen brings along one or more handicapped members to his speaking engagements. "I'm not just Henri Nouwen anymore," he often says.
The community indeed seems exceptional. Assistants are not do-gooders who come in a short burst of naive idealism. Many serve in L'Arche for years or even decades. And I met people from around the world: Italy, Germany, Australia, the Dominican Republic. Assistants often quickly engage in intense spiritual conversations. (You also hear much "shop talk" about wheelchairs, lifts, and illnesses. )
One morning, as I sat in the semidark chapel praying, Scan, an assistant from Ireland, opened the door and pushed in a large wheelchair bearing Michael. Michael is profoundly handicapped: unable to walk, talk, or feed himself. He was elaborately draped in a poncho to protect him from the cold. Scan carefully removed Michael's poncho. They sat, praying. From time to time, Scan shifted or massaged Michael's body. At L'Arche, physical care and spirituality are deeply interwoven.
The work can be physically draining and emotionally exhausting. It holds constant reminders of pain and suffering. As I read C. S. Lewis's "Prince Caspian" to some young residents, one suddenly began having a seizure, with spastic movements and grunts and other unsettling noises. The assistants treated this as routine.
Many evangelicals find their way to Nouwen tier help with their walk with God. Some time ago, Mike Yaconelli, iconoclastic editor of "The Door," and other evangelical youth ministry leaders came for a lengthy stay. Yaconelli wrote of that retreat: "I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus; I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. … I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me."
Working with experienced evangelical pastors, Nouwen sometimes senses fatigue and spiritual exhaustion. They might wonder: "How can we-who talk about Jesus and want to bring people to Jesus, and want to help others bring people to Jesus-keep living a vital spiritual life?"
About a retreat with evangelical leaders, he remembers: "Our time was fruitful because they discovered what it would mean to live a Christ-centered life. To live in communion with Jesus was very central. We discussed what John the evangelist says about a relationship with Jesus. Jesus wants to dwell in us. Out of our intimate communion with Jesus we can start to minister. So Jesus is not just someone who lived a long time ago and was the Son of God and whom we follow. He is also the one with whom we live in constant communion and whose life is our life."
Evangelicals do not just come to Nouwen, he also goes to them, accepting many invitations to speak at Bible schools or to even bigger audiences. In the summer of 1992, for example, he was a featured speaker at the annual Greenbelt Festival, an arts-oriented evangelical superevent in England, with 30,000 people attending.
Nouwen appreciates evangelicals'' openness about faith—"I love the directness that's involved, speaking about Jesus without embarrassment or complications"—but he argues that evangelicals have "a great need for a mystical dimension to their lives so they could be more free in living and not driven. The question is not 'How many people did I bring to Jesus?' but 'How faithful has your life with Jesus been?' Jesus was often not very successful, either. The question becomes 'Can I live a life of faith in the world and trust that it will bear fruit even when it has not many successes?'
"The evangelical movement has become just a bit victimized by a success-oriented culture, wanting the church—like the corporation—to be successful. On that level, the mystical tradition of communion with Christ is important. 'I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain connected with me, then you will bear fruit.' The fruit is not success?'
At the core of life at Daybreak is worship. Although the community is ecumenical and there are variously stripedd Protestants present, the Eucharist is usually "high church —Roman Catholic or Anglican. Candles burn everywhere. Here is a picture of Francis of Assisi, there a Russian icon of Jesus. The priest is arrayed in a liturgical robe with a colorful stole. Handicapped community members sit on either side, ready to assist. Chairs encircle a huge, ark-shaped wooden table that was built in the community's wood shop. In one corner is a large bean bag for those handicapped people whose bodies cannot fit into a "regular" chair.
The service is an unlikely juxtaposition of the unexpected. At times we sing Greek, Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). Then the formality, ritual, and candles feel "high church." At other times, we sing "Kumbayah" or other simple, folksy ,songs. Not all voices are on key. Not all the worshipers sing: Some moan or groan; some loudly gnash their teeth; some are silent. Some sway and moan the whole service through.
During the sermon, some interrupt the preacher with their editorializing or rebuttals. Handicapped members assist with preparing the emblems, wafers, and wine, and then help serve. Sometimes this works and sometimes not. During my first Communion here years ago, one person finished the wine before it circled half the room. We smiled, and as we touched the empty, fragrant cup to our lips, we had Communion.
Nouwen admits that at first he needed to learn to be patient with such interruptions. But ministry is two-way: "The handicapped people in their poverty were able to communicate to me God's first love." Thus, the Daybreak experience has shaped his understanding of the Eucharist; his most recent book "With Burning Hearts" (Orbis), explores the "eucharistic life" as a journey through failure and loss to thanksgiving.
As the community's pastor, Nouwen gives spiritual direction and encourages assistants to see their whole lives as opportunity for prayer: they do not just work with the handicapped during the day and pray at night. God speaks at all times and in all places, Nouwen counsels, not just in routine times of prayer. Regular disciplines are crucial, but all our lives can be prayerful. Developing this sort of consciousness, in accordance with Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing," is a way of making our daily lives into a "window" for how God works.
Indeed, Nouwen's work is a constant, repeated, and emphatic reminder of the call to prayer: "Praying at all times means keeping our eyes always fixed on Jesus the Christ. As Peter began to sink as soon as he moved his eyes from Jesus to the restless waters on which he walked, so will we lose heart as soon as we stop praying. But as long as we keep the eyes of our hearts and minds focused on him, we can walk confidently in this world, bringing peace wherever we go."
Another recurring theme of Nouwen's life is his search for a spiritual home. "When I was five years old, I wanted to be a priest. I don t have any memories of wanting anything else. As a very tiny child, God was important to me. I've never had doubts about that. In those days, young boys were sometimes encouraged to act like priests. I had a little altar, tabernacle, and vestments. That was a way of playing then. It was normal in those days," he told me.
From early on, however, his vocation was tugged by different urges. "One voice said," he remembers, "'Show me that you can make it in this world, be an independent person, and compete with others. Show me that you're going to accomplish something.' This voice encouraged me to work hard, do much, set high goals for myself.
"And another voice ,said, 'Whatever you do in your life, don't lose contact with Jesus. Being known or having a big job is unimportant. It is important that you continue to carry Jesus in your heart and that you don't lose his light.'"
Nouwen, always restless, has often been on the move. He has lived in Bolivia, Peru, the Trappist Abbey of Genesee in New York State, the North American College in Rome, and other religious communities, exploring and testing.
Although a permanent home remained an elusive hope, its promise and symbolism spoke deeply to him: "How often images connected with a new dwelling place are used in the gospels! Jesus not only invites his followers to live with him in the same house, but he himself is the house," he writes in Lifesigns (Doubleday).
Restless longing is also reflected in the sudden changes in vocation that have punctuated Nouwen's adult life. After ordination in 1957, he expected to work in a diocese in the Netherlands. But at his bishop's request he continued school, studying psychology for six years. Next, he spent two years at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, integrating theology and psychology. Finally, in his thirties, he began to teach psychology at Notre Dame. He loved teaching there. "But deep within me, I soon knew that psychology would never be my main field. I had such a desire to speak about God and to announce the Word. I felt that if I stayed in the university I should do theology." Copies of his lectures evolved into his first book, "Intimacy" (HarperSanFrancisco). Although he had never intended to be a writer, his writing career was launched.
After Notre Dame, he returned to the Netherlands, taught for two years in a theological institute, and pursued further theological studies. Then he was offered a position at Yale. "I was impressed by the opportunity to proclaim the Word in a school like that." He got permission from his bishop to teach for a few years and stayed ten. He eventually became a tenured professor.
Nouwen liked Yale, but it was not where he felt called to be. "I felt I needed something else because my spiritual life was not deep. I'm just a fragile person, and I knew that I wasn't rooted deeply enough in Christ. I wanted something more basic."
Nouwen prayed about this. "Something happened that, while a small thing, was important." He received a surprise visit from a L'Arche director, Jan Risse, who brought greetings from L'Arche founder Jean Vanier. "I expected this greeting to be followed by a request to give a lecture, write an article, or offer a retreat," Nouwen recalls, but the visit had no strings attached. Instead, Risse visited Nouwen for a few days, cooked a beautiful meal for him, and helped him in practical ways.
"Later, I saw how much in the spirit of L'Arche that was, although at the time I was just surprised. She didn't ask me to do anything. It impressed me deeply because it was a radical shift from how people usually related to me. They all want something from me, and that's normal. I remember thinking that this was something of God's response to my prayer." In 1981, Nouwen burned his bridges, resigned from Yale, and went to Latin America. "I'd been there many summers and felt that's where God was calling me. Or at least that it was what I should do." His motives were a mixture of guilt about his affluence and an earnest desire to know God's will. His journal, Gracias! (Orbis), recounts his attempts to find a vocation there. "I was coming up with great schemes of what I could do if I went to Latin America, but gradually discovered that it wasn't God's call," he told me. Later, he visited Nicaragua and embarked on a two month U.S. lecture tour. This exhausted him and raised new questions: "I've never been so tired. My soul was in danger from preaching the gospel: It was akin to preaching to the whole world and losing your own soul. I was very lonely and broken."
Nouwen spent six weeks in the original L'Arche community in Trosly, France, recovering from his lecture tour and re-evaluating his involvements. L'Arche gave him room to be healed. "There was this whole feeling, 'Maybe here you can be held and cared for; we don't want anything of you. We love you and want you to experience God's love.'"
Nouwen returned to the United States to teach at Harvard. There was much that he liked, but it also tore him apart: "Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger." Harvard was not a good experience: "It was one of the hardest places I'd ever been. It's an ambitious school, sometimes even somewhat arrogant. I didn't know how to deepen my heart and my soul, how to stay close to Jesus in the midst of it all."
He sought out the one home he knew, living for a year in Trosly and keeping a journal, which evolved into "The Road to Daybreak" (Doubleday). He was invited to be pastor of Daybreak in Toronto. "It was the first time in my whole life: that I felt called to do anything. The rest I'd done. I'd made a lot of initiatives. This was the first time that I felt that God was calling." He gratefully accepted. The move startled many. This successful writer and Ivy League academic moved backwards from the way society recommends. He wrote that, in going from Harvard to Daybreak, he went from "an institution for the best and brightest" to work with people who are often most despised in society.
Ironically, this one place where he experienced God's call is also the least interested in his expertise as a writer and lecturer: "If [the handicapped people] express love for you, then it comes from God. It's not because you accomplished anything. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I'm completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments."
Nouwen has also never been more aware of his own needs. In finding a physical home, he had not yet resolved a deeper inner issue. Outer restlessness was a symptom of an unwillingness to rely primarily on God. "When you expect from people what only God can give," he confesses, "you cling and ask more from them than they can offer. A friend's love is for you but not to replace God." He experienced both physical and emotional exhaustion. With the support of Daybreak, he took a six-month leave in 1988.
Years later, Nouwen is still surprised—but convinced-that his work at L'Arche is precisely what God has called him to do.
Has Henri Nouwen finally found his home? While he cannot be sure he will remain at L'Arche for the rest of his life, he believes his call to L'Arche is different from when he went to Yale or Harvard. He has no plans to leave. In his house at Daybreak, he has some antique furniture he inherited from his family and also a large collection of religious paintings and sculptures. It feels like a home. This might not be his final address, but Henri Nouwen has moved much closer to his longed-for House of the First love.
Arthur Boers is the author of "Lord, Teach Us to Pray" (Herald) and "Justice That Heals" (Faith and Life).
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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