Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
October 29, 2001
Nouwen's childlike enthusiasm
Film captures unique personality of a unique man
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
CALGARY — During the early 1990s, when Karen Pascal was producing the Crosscurrents television program for Vision TV, she invariably asked visitors the question, "What do you read?"
Over and over again the answer came back, "Henri Nouwen."
After picking up and devouring several of Nouwen's books, Pascal reacted with a "Wow." She had to have the Catholic spiritual giant on the program.
Because of the show's tight schedule and Nouwen's jammed-packed calendar, however, it proved difficult to bring him on the program.
Finally, after a couple of years Pascal decided to visit Nouwen at his home at Daybreak, the L'Arche community north of Toronto.
The day she arrived for filming, Pascal told her crew, "Film everything. This man is important."
Those prophetic instructions have left the world richer, particularly in light of Nouwen's unexpected death five years ago at the age of 64.
Pascal related her encounters with Nouwen while speaking at a gala premiere in Calgary of her new hour-long documentary, Straight to the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen.
The premiere on Oct. 20, attended by a sell-out crowd of more than 300 people at Mount Royal College, was one of five held across the continent in October.
The premieres also served to launch the Henri Nouwen Foundation and the establishment of Nouwen societies at the local level across the continent.
"We want to build his legacy and expand his ministry and show other people around the world," said the Rev. Jeff Imbach, a friend of Nouwen's for more than a dozen years, chairperson of the Nouwen foundation and pastor of Calgary's Barnabas Christian Fellowship, an ecumenical faith community.
The foundation has several goals: to initiate ministry within the themes and spirit that were important to Nouwen; sponsor retreats, lectures and other gatherings to inspire people; provide internships for students and leaders; create distance education models emphasizing "education of the heart"; distribute books to those in need; support and encourage the mission of L'Arche; and support the preservation and expansion of the Henri Nouwen archives at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.
The evening featured music, dance and stories celebrating Nouwen's spirit. Each guest received a handcrafted sunflower as they entered the Leacock Theatre.
Nouwen, it seemed, loved sunflowers. His memorial service was filled with sunflowers. Gazing upon Van Gogh's painting, Vase with Sunflowers, Nouwen said that each flower is imperfect but taken together they are perfection.
His writings were like a field of sunflowers. He wrote an average of a book a year throughout his life. Among the most popular and well known of his books, readers and journals are Genesee Diary, The Wounded Healer, Bread for the Journey and Return of the Prodigal Son.
"I want to make a film to help people who never knew Henri except through his books," says Pascal. "I want them to know who he was and how he operated."
She succeeded in every respect.
Presented by the foundation and Windborne Productions, the documentary is a biography of one of the most popular Catholic spiritual writers and teachers of the 20th century.
The film features significant portions from the Crosscurrents' interviews woven together with glimpses recollected by family, friends and colleagues of his early life in Holland, and then later in the United States as a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard.
At Harvard Divinity School, he held forth at the largest classes in living memory while interspersing his lectures with Taize chants.
It explores his social justice initiatives from his participation in the civil rights march from Selma to his interlude in Latin America, which lead to his idea of the importance of "downward mobility."
The film reflects on the spiritual nourishment he found at the Cisterician Abbey in New York State and the profound influence that Thomas Merton, another Catholic giant, had on Nouwen's life.
Finally, it follows him through his final years with the developmentally-disabled at Daybreak, including the deep depression into which he sank when a dear friendship broke up. Nouwen died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack while vacationing in Holland in 1996.
What catches the viewer by surprise is Nouwen's childlike enthusiasms and ebullient personality. His body language was a frenzied liturgical dance.
As any reader of his books knows, Nouwen used his own brokenness and vulnerability to speak to the human condition. His transparency served to illuminate the spiritual truths that lay within the pain and struggle of daily existence. As in all great literature, what was most personal was also most universal. He addressed the soul.
The world premiere of Straight to the Heart will be on Vision TV on Nov. 9 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. EST. Repeat airings will be on Nov. 13 at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. EST.
A formation meeting for Calgary's Henri Nouwen Society will be held Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Bethany Chapel, 3333 Richardson Way S.W.
For more information about the Henri Nouwen Foundation, write 11339 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, ON L4S 1L1. Telephone: 905-884-0025; Fax: 905-884-0379; Email: email@example.com
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