Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 18, 1999
Nouwen reflects on Jesus
Letters To Marc About Jesus: Living the Spiritual Life in a Material World., by Henri Nouwen. 88 pages. 1988 (reprint 1998 Harper and Collin).
Review by DEAN SARNECKI
Special to the WCR
On occasion a writer strikes a chord for me that leaves me somewhat unsettled. I am not saying that all writers do this or even one writer does this all the time, but Henri Nouwen does it more than anyone else.
Nouwen, priest, psychologist, theologian and spiritual writer before dying of a heart attack two years ago, was a prolific writer.
Not all of his writing appeals to me. I have tried to work my way through some of his larger, more theological/psychological works (for example The Wounded Healer) but they just don't reach me the same way.
Don't get me wrong, I have received much spiritual guidance from these books, it's just that I feel that Nouwen can get too caught up in his own struggles that the reader can be left somewhat cold.
The first book dealing with specifically "spiritual" material that really made me sit up and take note of my life was Nouwen's Can You Drink the Cup? I proceeded to read many other books by Nouwen but it was not until I read Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living the Spiritual Life in a Material World that I felt Nouwen speak to me again in the same way.
This book, published originally in 1988, but released in a new paperback edition in the fall of 1998, was the brainchild of a friend and publisher in Holland.
Nouwen was asked to publish a work in Dutch, his mother tongue, but he had lived in North America for so long he wasn't confident about his ability to deal with the Dutch scene.
The publisher suggested instead a series of letters to someone he knew that would convey something of the spiritual life. Nouwen agreed and made arrangements with his nephew Marc who was 19 years old at the time and a self-described seeker of a spiritual identity.
Nouwen, knowing these letters were for publication, chose not to overly personalize the text of the letters but, while keeping Marc at the centre, opened them up to reach beyond a limited age group or cultural audience.
Marc was "reared amid post-war prosperity and secularism. Born into comfort and with the blessings of a keen mind and sound body (he) senses a void in life and in his aspirations."
In Marc, Nouwen was able to identify with and write to an entire generation of First World inhabitants. But the letters become a growth experience for Nouwen himself who, at this point in his life, was going through a struggle of faith and identity.
So using Scripture and Church teachings he identifies in each letter different perspectives of Jesus and how these understandings of the life of Jesus can bring us closer to his kingdom.
The focus of the book, as the title suggests, is on our relationship with Jesus and how this affects our spiritual life in a world focused on material things and consumerism.
The first letter asks Marc and the reader to situate Jesus in the centre of our lives. For Nouwen, the spiritual life is the heart, the centre, of our existence and a healthy spiritual life revolves around coming to know Jesus.
Each of the remaining six letters concentrates on how different ways of knowing Jesus can touch our lives. Each letter then proceeds to describe a way of looking at Jesus.
Each chapter offers a different insight into Jesus and our relationship with our God. For Nouwen the most intimate relationship with Jesus comes through the Eucharist. All of his writings point to the Eucharist as the centre of our spiritual existence and our lives.
I found the book interesting and unsettling. Despite being very short, it is not an easy or quick read so it may not appeal to everyone.
I wish that we could have read Marc's replies to the letters for I feel that could have supplied some interesting dialogue but the introduction states that this was considered but in the end the idea was discarded.
This brief, but challenging book provides an interesting and moving plea for Marc, and all of us, to strive to know Jesus. That was Nouwen's goal and he achieves it with great success.
(Dean Sarnecki teaches religious studies at Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School in Sherwood Park.)