A life remembered: Henri J.M. Nouwen, 1932-1996
By Gustav Spohn
With reporting by Elizabeth Wilkinson '09 M.Div.
and Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications
Some 200 admirers of Henri J.M. Nouwen, many of them touched personally by his ministry, gathered at Yale Divinity School March 1-2 to remember Nouwen and the Nouwen legacy a decade after his death.
The official title of the symposium was "Spirituality in the World Today: The Influence of Henri J.M. Nouwen." But the gathering could equally well have been called "Celebrating the Problem of Henri," as suggested by one of the speakers who referenced the Sound of Music song that asks, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" The "problem" being that Nouwen was so complex, meant so many things to so many people, and did so much during the course of his relatively short life.
Indeed, as former Nouwen student Robert K. Massie '82 M. Div said in the symposium's keynote address, "In some ways Henri Nouwen was a kind of an illusion, seen simultaneously to be completely known, and completely unknown."
Born in Holland and ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1957, the multifaceted Nouwen taught pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School from 1971 to 1981. A prolific writer-he wrote close to four dozen books-he was especially well-known for his powerful celebrations of the Eucharist, the many personal friendships he cultivated, his affinity to the poor and powerless, and his connections with the peace movement.
Nouwen studied clinical psychology at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, then taught at Notre Dame before coming to Yale Divinity School, followed by two semesters at Harvard Divinity School. He spent the last 10 years of his life at L'Arche Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a community for the developmentally disabled , which he served as pastor. He died of a sudden heart attack in Holland while traveling to Russia to complete work on a documentary on Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son."
The symposium was imbued with a spirit of reverence and delight, as speaker after speaker, including members of the audience, conjured up the spirit of Nouwen through impersonations, remembrances, and analytical considerations of his life and thought. The celebration occurred on approximately the 75 th anniversary of Nouwen's birth and 10 th anniversary of his death.
Francine Cardman '74 Ph.D., associate professor of historical theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, said she got to know Nouwen during her years of graduate work in Religious Studies at Yale. She would frequently visit him on Sundays at his residence in the now-demolished Porter Hall.
"We would gather on Sunday nights with our homemade bread, Gallo wine and guitars to give thanks," recalled Cardman, a speaker on a panel entitled "Henri Nouwen and Spirituality in the World Today. "It was a remarkable and enduring experience of hospitality and welcome."
John W. Cook, professor emeritus of religion and the arts, gave a talk on the topic "See Henri See" in which he said, "He (Nouwen) brought an entrée to spirituality that we all thought we knew but didn't... We do a lot of looking but we seldom see. That was one contribution that Henri made."
Nouwen's appointment to YDS "probably stirred the campus in a way that no one else probably stirred the campus," said Cook.
Massie, former president of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, titled his address Immediate Grace: The Urgent Faith of Henri Nouwen.
"Why did we love Henri Nouwen?" and "Why do we love him still?" asked Massie, noting that with the depth and breadth of Nouwen's self-disclosure in his many publications it was possible for those who have read his work to know as much as those who knew him personally. Massie recalled the powerful presence Nouwen exuded, and his imitations of Nouwen's Dutch accent drew many laughs from the audience, many of whom knew Nouwen well.
Massie recalled his own arrival at YDS in 1978 at the age of 22, a curious new Christian who quickly discovered the paradox of divinity school; the more one learns, the further from faith one is tempted to drift.
But for Massie and many other students in the era of the 1970s, it was Nouwen who provided a spiritual anchor when they began drifting too far afield.
One of the seminal aspects of the Nouwen presence, according to Massie, was his presentation of the Eucharist. Massie described Nouwen's slow pace and his understanding that students, their minds filled with books and papers, were coming to him "waterlogged with words,... one could almost see the excess words dripping from our hair, our clothes." In the face of this, Nouwen restored the value of words, through his slowness and passion, asking those partaking of the elements to look again and listen again. Massie described those moments as bringing forgiveness to life, making it no longer seem abstract.
Susan Mosteller of the L'Arche Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill delivered the formal response to the keynote address. Echoing Massie's depiction of the enigmatic Nouwen, she agreed that he was at once, "charming, frustrating, enthralling, infuriating, and inspiring."
Mosteller, who heads the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust at L'Arche, spoke at length about Nouwen's fascination with the art of the trapeze, which he came to see as a metaphor for the spiritual life. That fascination began when, in his later years, Nouwen went to a performance of the South African trapeze troupe The Flying Rodleighs. At one point Nouwen even convinced the troupe to strap him up to a safety harness and let him fly from the platform.
Mosteller considered the roles of the main players in any trapeze act-the flyer and the catcher - and suggested that, as demonstrated during his L'Arche years and at other times, Nouwen participated in both ways.
As the flyer, Nouwen was disciplined, returning to prayer every morning and evening. Reading, talking, and listening were also disciplines for him. Nouwen seemed fearless at times, walking into situations of great pain where others dared not tread , Mosteller noted.
Nouwen was also a catcher, Mosteller suggested, a very hidden person, but one who is the real hero of the act and must catch another human being. She asked listeners to consider how they are called to be catching, welcoming people, listening and allowing people to be angry, low to the ground, to be broken.
Carl MacMillan, Executive Director of L'Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario, spoke of Nouwen's years there and his remarkable ability to create transformative friendships with Daybreak residents.
"Henri had no practical skills," said MacMillan. "He could not cook. The operation of a washing machine was an absolute mystery. Even his driving was terrible... Henri's books did not impress many of our core members, many of whom could not read.'
"People came to love him there not because he was Henri Nouwen but simply because he was Henri," said MacMillan. "Daybreak became a home for Henri, even through it was not an obvious or easy place for him."
A central moment of the symposium came with the formal dedication of the Henri Nouwen Chapel, located in the lower level of the YDS library, following an ecumenical Eucharist in Marquand Chapel.
On countless occasions, Nouwen celebrated the Eucharist in the space dedicated to him. In a reminiscence enclosed with the program, Mary P. Carney recalled the times that she and others spent there with Nouwen.
"In the intimacy of this circular chapel, we were not self-conscious with our close proximity," wrote Carney. "We were connected, active and equal sharers in sacred moments that spilled over into conversation and study and further prayer. We moved to the table and back, each of us hosts and guests; each of us finding communal substance in mind and heart; each of us finding new mission."
At the worship service preceding the chapel dedication, Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics, said, " It is true that Henri Nouwen shared his own wounds and struggles as he sought to heal the wounds and struggles of others. But no one who knew Henri, at least when he was here at YDS, experienced him as sorrowing all the time. No one who shared parties with Henri could think that. And more importantly, no one who knew Henri's strength, his hope in divine mercy, and the indomitable energy that went with him even into the valleys of death, could think that."
Farley and Nouwen joined Yale Divinity School the same year, 1971, becoming the first full-time Roman Catholic members of the faculty.
The 1970s were years of upheaval, anti-war protests and civil rights demonstrations, and some of the participants in the symposium recalled Nouwen's links to social activism.
Allie Perry '80 M.Div. spoke of her vivid memories of Nouwen leading the Stations of the Cross at Electric Boat in Groton, CT, where nuclear submarines are built.
"His was a powerful witness," said Perry. "Passion emanated like flames from his finger tips as Henri prayed... quite literally doing liturgy in the belly of the beast."
Nouwen, she said, "understood the inseparability of pastoral care and peacemaking, the inherent connectedness of the inner and outer, of the personal and the global, of the pastoral and the prophetic."
Dean Hammer '78 M.A.R., a practicing psychologist and Ploughshares activist who spent time in jail for his provocative anti-war protests, said the Nouwen legacy "wills us to become seeds of compassion" and "not to lose heart in the face of worldwide mass murder."
Read about Henri Nouwen's years at Yale Divinity School in an excerpt (pdf) from Henri Nouwen, His Life and Vision (2005, Orbis Books), by Michael O'Laughlin. Reprinted with permission.