Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Take and Read: Book review of Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri JM Nouwen

Looking for a Christmas present for your favorite clergy person or other readers of devotional writings?   May I suggest this new book collecting letters from Henri JM Nouwen, among the 20th century's most endearing Roman Catholic writers whose ministry and witness reached across ecumenical and religious/not so religious lines.  

This book review will appear in print in early 2017 for "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy ( 

Take and read!

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor.  (New York, NY: Convergent, 2016).  ISBN #978-1-101-90635-4.  $24.00. 

Henri JM Nouwen occupies an appreciable part of my devotional reading in college and seminary.  I count his book “In the Name of Jesus” among the most helpful in my early days of discerning a call to ministry. His journals and writings welcomed many Christians (and a number of not so religious persons) into his journey as a person seeking God’s love, embracing his own vulnerability and finding where he might find his deep calling and the world’s need connecting. 

After his death in 1996, his writings remain in print with a few “new” works culled from his writings and talks.  His literary legacy is being furthered by this new series of books featuring his correspondence with various persons, some well-known and others just drawn by his writings to send a note and ask his thoughts and counsel.  His generous spirit and gregarious approach to life resulted in a high volume of letters returned from friends and strangers, offering his thoughts personally with no thought to using a form letter or citing his schedule for not being able to respond personally.

Nouwen retained every piece of correspondence, resulting in over 16,000 letters, postcards, faxes and greeting cards gaining his response and later the challenge for archive preparation and this new series of publications.  When Gabrielle Earnshaw began her work with the Nouwen papers, she dealt with this incredible volume of mail.  Fifteen years later, sixty-five linear feet of material is now archived at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in Canada.  Future readers of Nouwen’s correspondence are indebted to Earnshaw’s careful and labor intensive work and St Michael’s College’s willingness to be the custodian for this correspondence to be available to scholars and others interested in reading the material first-hand.

This first volume is arranged chronologically into three eras:  1973-1985, 1986-1989, and 1990-96.  The letters chosen for this collection revolve around Nouwen’s correspondence around spiritual life matters.  Whether it is a parent grieving a child, a friend dealing with a health ailment or a colleague pondering some form of spiritual quandary, Nouwen’s letters are engaging, as if sitting across the table from his correspondent face to face.  (NOTE:  Appropriately, the letters published within the collection have been cleared for publication and public dissemination.)

Nouwen shares his own wrestling with matters, temporary and ongoing, practicing his vulnerability as much as he spoke about it.  During the 1970s, he wrestled with vocation, spending time back in his native Holland (only to opt to return to the US permanently), receiving a tenure track position at Yale Divinity School (yet wrestling with whether or not he should enter into monastic life as a Trappist) and wearying himself with a heavy speaking schedule (while pondering if he should spend more time withdrawn in order to pray and to write). 

The collection of letters trace Nouwen’s journey already in his previously published works:  seeking a place to call his home that also summons him to be the “Henri”, the “self” most desired by God.  As most readers know, a tenured Yale professor, temporary monk and missionary later in Latin America, would land in the midst of the L’Arche Community in Toronto, living as a priest to a community of disabled adults and their caregivers, living in community with one another.  The letters collected herein speak to that struggle as well as the contentment he eventually finds.

For most clergy, such internal arguments go on for years, shaping vocation or perhaps stunting it.  Nouwen keeps his tensions in perspective, wanting to be erring on the side of what God might be calling him to do.  In a side note in a 1979 letter, Nouwen shares, “I think I am going to buy myself Butler’s four volumes of the Lives of the Saints; the best way for me to get over my endless distractions is to look at God through the mirror of his saints.  Maybe later I will receive the grace to speak to Him and be with Him more directly” (p. 37).

Reading through Nouwen’s letters will be a matter of perspective of what value the reader has for this collection.  What letters of Nouwen speak to me will be different for other readers.  Some may come to this volume finding the letters marginally of interest.  Others will find a great treasure trove of spiritual wisdom with tic marks and marginalia as an insight resonates from a letter written decades ago.  Yet the beauty of Nouwen’s writings is that he has a good word for any reader, religious and otherwise.

I look forward to future volumes of this remarkable series of Nouwen’s correspondence.  Even twenty years after his passing, Nouwen continues to tend souls and offer insights into our lives even as he was wrestling with what mattered most in his own.

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