On Fostering That Significant Conversation
I had the extraordinary fortune to overlap Henri Nouwen’s time at Yale University at the end of the Seventies. Henri was a gregarious Dutch Roman Catholic priest who came to Yale and offered a totally different way of teaching. For example: in his course on spiritual direction he used one book: the Gospel of Luke. He was the driving force behind interfaith conferences on spirituality. Henri stressed matters of the heart rather than on the accumulation of intellectual data. I worked with him in spiritual direction courses, and he encouraged and sponsored me to teach a course on calligraphy and spirituality. I have always been grateful.
Always a restless spirit, Henri remained at Yale for a decade, with occasional sabbaticals at monasteries like the Abbey of the Genesee, then pushed on to Harvard for a couple years, and wound up as pastor to the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto – a community of mentally and physically handicapped people. He died, some would say too young, in 1996. His legacy lives on in the many people who read his books or in new readers who discover his lucid style and depth of heart.
I learned, or had confirmed, three important lessons from Henri. First, he believed you have to approach all of life “with open hands” (the title of one of his books). He talked about creating space between people, about allowing others to fill in the space with their own concerns and cares. If only you would not fill in those spaces, he taught, then people will eventually open up and begin to talk about their real concerns, rather than what they present on the surface. Their hearts would become visible, not only their thoughts, and thus they could approach the spiritual side of their lives in a natural and honest way.
Second, you have to become a “wounded healer” (the title of his first popular publication). People need to see each other as vulnerable, as open, as available, or else they cannot and will not confide in others. You have to be willing to let your own faults and incapacities shine through because only then do others see you as fully and completely human. Henri was always willing to allow his own life to be such a vulnerable tool; he was beset by bouts of depression most of his life, and he chronicled his trials in his book, Inner Voice of Love.
Third, everyone is a beloved child of God even if they don’t know it and even if they refuse the honor. Hence, to really minister to one another, we have to learn how to elicit that beloved nature from one another. We have to learn what it means to be the beloved daughters and sons of God. The model for this lavish love is the parable of the prodigal son in scripture (Luke 16) that has been written about by many commentators. Henri added his own twist to the commentary: he believed in the power of human touch to communicate the love of God. He wanted to embrace and be embraced by his friends and often declared his need to be bolstered up by an embrace. Those who saw him as super-human found it hard to reconcile Henri’s vulnerability with their mistaken vision of him, but the point is clear: for Henri, the personal is the universal and the material bears the spiritual. As he wrote, “My hope is that the description of God’s love in my life will give you the freedom and the courage to discover . . . God’s love in yours.” Thanks, Henri, for your example.