Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 16, 2001
Nouwen's friends reflect on his life
Befriending Life: Encounters With Henri Nouwen. Edited by Beth Porter, with Susan Brown and Philip Coulter. Doubleday Canada: Toronto, 2001. 275 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"I am a priest. I work in Canada with handicapped people and I write books."
With these words, Henri Nouwen introduced himself to Rodleigh Stevens, the leader of a trapeze act called the Flying Rodleighs which included family and other troupe members.
They met in 1991 at the Circus Barum in Freiburg, Germany. Nouwen had come to witness their act with his father and was so deeply touched he felt compelled to meet the performers.
Henri had an insatiable desire to know more about the art of the trapeze. After observing a high-risk routine, he reacted thoughtfully, "You know, that is just like real life. Not everybody is impressed with who you are but rather with who you show you are."
Henri later wrote about the Flying Rodleighs in his book Our Greatest Gift. He had found a religious parallel between the flyer and the catcher on the high wire. Trust was the key to a successful performance there and in life itself.
"While teaching him a new vocabulary," said Stevens, "we . . .were also giving Henri a new vision of his faith." He seemed to be experimenting with new images in his books and sermons just as the Flying Rodleighs were experimenting with new routines.
"Henri with the Circus" is but one of more than 40 contributions to Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen.
"His primary expectation was that you keep your heart open to life," writes Fred Bratman, marketing executive at a New York investment bank. When they first met in 1980 he became friends with the spiritual master, then a teacher at Yale.
Bratman, who is Jewish, is another contributor to this expansive and diverse collection - ranging in quality from rather lightweight to substantial.
Peter Naus, a fellow Dutch academic, who followed Nouwen to America, provides background. Early on, his compatriots envied Nouwen for standing out. He was hesitant to criticize the Church hierarchy and his spirituality was deemed by some as overly simplistic and pious. None of these factors ingratiated Henri to his peers.
Although he wrote much about downward mobility, he was, especially in his early days, quite a self-seeker. In time, he learned a good deal about his flaws and vulnerabilities and sought to live with them constructively and creatively.
Nathan Ball, his colleague at L'Arche Daybreak near Toronto, integrates the impact of Henri's life, friendship and death. Unlike some, Ball does not idolize his relationship but respects Nouwen as a suffering servant who helped many to struggle and grow in their vocation.
Jean Vanier introduced Nouwen to L'Arche and saw him as one who was always there for people, fully and freely.
"He knew how to describe his own mess as well as the mess of the world," says Vanier. He was one of the great ecumenical leaders of the 20th century.
Michael Ford says Nouwen wrote about issues with which he had personally struggled. Nouwen was inclinded to veer toward the limelight and to engineer situations to suit his own needs. He tended to do his own thing in the institutions where he worked. His greatest fear was that of being unloved and unrecognized.
Readers can identify with what others knew of Nouwen, either personally or through his many books. The contributors' words offer a window to what we too can learn from his life and witness.
Because of the multiple contributions there is a certain repetition. Some idolize the man; which is not that helpful. Others describe his humanity and vulnerability; recognizing that pain redemptively focused his passion and fuelled his creativity. Henri was so gifted yet so precarious in his need to be accepted.
Lovers of Nouwen's writings will invariably find invigorating these testimonies to his influence. Micheal Ford provides perhaps the best words for this reviewer's assessment. "He was a prodigious figure in modern spirituality," writes Ford, "but I hope people will now examine his work more critically in light of his own life story."
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer and has been an instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)