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A beautiful collection of reminiscences celebrating the life and works of the bestselling author of The Wounded Healer, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and The Inner Voice of Love.
Henri Nouwen (1932-96)was a Catholic priest who taught at several theological institutions and universities in his home country of the Netherlands and in the United States. He spent the final years of his life teaching and ministering at the L'Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. His writings have touched millions of readers around the world, and since his death, recognition of their enduring value has continued to grow. Oprah Winfrey, one of Nouwen's many admirers, ran an extensive excerpt from The Return of the Prodigal Son in her magazine, O, with Hillary Clinton contributing an introduction revealing the profound effect Nouwen had on her own life.
Nouwen's influence was not limited to the printed page. His one-on-one encounters as a lecturer, teacher, and spiritual guide, and as a leader at the L'Arche Daybreak Community, a home for people with mental and physical disabilities, enriched the lives of a wide variety of people. Now, Befriending Life brings together thoughtful, heartfelt remembrances of Nouwen by those who knew him best, from members of the L'Arche community to such prominent figures as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and Hillary Clinton. Their personal reflections on his life both on and off the page magnificently capture his spirit, compassion, and wisdom. With a wealth of quotations from Nouwen throughout,Befriending Life, like Nouwen's own great books, will inspire readers in all walks of life.
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The Crown Publishing Group; September 2002 305 pages; ISBN 9780385507103 Download in secure PDF format
Title: Befriending Life
Author: Beth Porter
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A Conversation with Henri
Jackie Rand, with her husband, Baruch, was a friend of the L'Arche Daybreak community and a member of the Kehillah Ahavat Hesed, the small Toronto synagogue some Daybreak members attend. She was a social worker and family therapist and also worked with people with AIDS. Jackie passed away shortly before this book went to press. Baruch continues their friendship with Daybreak.
I met Henri Nouwen only once, at a soiree held by a Daybreak friend in the spring of 1995. When my husband and I came into the elegant home where my friend was living at the time, a number of people were semiformally milling about with appetizers. She introduced me to a tall man in a dark suit jacket. We started what I thought was a casual conversation, but quickly I realized I was engaged in a very unusual experience. I think it was because I felt enveloped by Henri's gaze, the object of his undivided attention to the exclusion of everyone else. I have seldom had this sensation--only in intimate conversations or with a therapist. Yet here was this man I didn't know offering me the gift of his completely focused attention. I had no idea who Henri was. When I was introduced, I gathered that he was a priest, but I knew nothing else about him except that he was in some way involved in L'Arche Daybreak. At that time I knew very little about L'Arche itself.
Just to make conversation, I asked Henri what he was planning to do during the coming summer and was astonished by his reply. He said he was planning to rejoin a circus troupe in Germany and travel with them while he studied their way of life. When I asked him what prompted him, a priest, to such an unlikely undertaking, he said, "You have to understand that I regard circuses very highly. The best circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil from Montreal, teach me a great deal. They've taught me more than anything else about trust." Here Henri explained how in the trapeze act the flyer must allow himself to fly in the direction of the catcher without grasping, and it is the catcher's responsibility to connect without hurting or injuring the flyer. This requires infinite artistry and precision, and transparent trust. Unless the trapeze artists resolve all problems, doubts, or difficulties between them every day, this ability to connect within a split second becomes flawed and can lead to a fall.
In addition to the beautiful work of the trapeze artists, Henri would observe the circus community as a whole. He said, "I'm very much interested in understanding the workings of this circus community so I can apply my learning to the communities I am involved in, especially L'Arche. All the elements I need to learn are there in the circus: above everything, caring and trust and the ability to take risks without fear because of this caring and trust."
The skill of this completely charismatic stranger in combining philosophical and theological ideas with popular entertainment had for me the force of a parable. Had his ideas been expressed only conceptually, they could have been sterile and dry. Yet as he presented them, they were vivid and utterly engaging. He never seemed to be talking about religion, yet he was talking at a deep spiritual level.
I remember that Henri and I also spoke about the practice of meditation. I was meeting at the time with a meditation group that included some other guests at that party, but I was just a beginner. Henri was acquainted with both Eastern-style and Christian meditation. He demonstrated, taking a huge breath, what it would be like to take in a word that conveys a powerful concept--like love or shalom or a line from a prayer--to fill oneself with this healing quality breath after breath. This approach, according to him was different from the detachment and peace sought in Eastern meditation. In his acceptance of both approaches and his clear explanation, he widened my understanding of what is possible in meditation.
My conversation with Henri took only fifteen minutes or so, but it was intense and I was even a little embarrassed by the exclusion of others—not deliberately but because we were communicating so authentically. When we parted and went on to chat with other guests, I felt that I had stepped out of a circle of light and deep significance back into the mundane world. Only later did I find out about Henri's achievements and renown. All I knew was that I had been in the presence of a very special human being.
God's Restless Servant
Bob Massie, author, Episcopal priest, environmental and social justice activist, wrote Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years. He directs CERES, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, a national U.S. organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, through which environmental groups and institutional investors, including churches, promote greater accountability for large corporations. Bob met Henri at Yale.
When I met Henri Nouwen I had never heard of Henri Nouwen, his books, his courses, or his fame. It was early September 1978, I was twenty-two years old, and I had just arrived at the orientation retreat for incoming students at Yale Divinity School. From my first moment at the windswept retreat house on Long Island Sound, I knew that I was in some different sort of place, where warmth and laughter and hospitality flowed with unsettling abundance.
At one point early in the weekend, someone suggested that a group of us swim out to a clump of rocks about a hundred yards from the beach. We arrived, clambered up, and someone began to sing. After several moments I noticed a tall, skinny man sitting next to me, his arms wrapped around gangly legs. He had pale skin, thinning hair, and active eyes. I said hello. He introduced himself as Henri. I almost didn't catch his name because he had an accent that swallowed some of his vowels.
I ran into this fellow periodically during the weekend, and eventually I noticed that other students were treating him with a touch of deference. Over supper I finally asked him who he was. He said simply that he was a Catholic priest. I didn't quite know how to react. There had been a Roman Catholic church across the street from the Episcopal church I had attended as a child. My Catholic friends had told me about some of their complicated rules and practices. But I had never before talked to an actual priest.
Thus began a friendship that stretched over eighteen years. By the time he died, Henri was such an important part of my life that I could not conceive that we would ever be out of touch. He had known me while I was a student; I had helped him with a number of his books; he had formed friendships with my family; he had been present at my ordinations to the Episcopal diaconate and priesthood; he had participated in all the major liturgical moments in my life; he had helped me through two of my most painful traumas; and he had offered spiritual and material support at critical moments without hesitation or reproach. Because I had lived with a range of health problems, for many years we both believed that he would outlive me. When I became a parent, I once asked him to take on a special task. If anything happened to me, I said, would he be willing to sit down and convey some of the nature and depth of my faith to my children? He solemnly vowed to do so. It never occurred to us that I might be in the position of explanation and interpretation after he had died.
To return to those first days at Yale Divinity School, I had taken a fairly long adolescent detour away from the Episcopal Church, in which I was raised, and had been deeply perplexed about faith. Only a year before, in the summer of 1977, I unexpectedly had an experience of Christ's presence and God's love and forgiveness so strong that I have never doubted God's existence since. I had returned to college, where I found that few people felt comfortable talking about religious conviction of any kind, and I ended up at Yale Divinity School for what was, in many ways, a foolish reason —the desire to be with people who could discuss Christianity without awkwardness.
In those first weeks I was hungry to learn about what it meant to be a follower of Christ. I had had an experience of Christ, yes, but I knew nothing about theology, liturgy, or church history. I knew nothing about prayer or the daily rhythms of a life of faith. Within a day or two someone--perhaps it was Henri himself--invited me to attend Henri's daily Eucharist, which took place in a small chapel directly below Marquand Chapel. I went with trepidation; I had been to only one Catholic service before. Soft light from two small windows near the ceiling streamed into the octagonal room. Every sound deepened and echoed off the massive stone walls. As people entered, they left the chatter of life outside. The gentle grace with which Henri led the liturgy testified to its familiarity and importance in his life. He invited people to join him in reading Scripture, in leading prayers. His dignity and his quiet made us feel welcome.
Henri read Scripture more slowly than any human being I have heard. He often read a short phrase and then left an immense pause.
"I am the vine…
You are the branches."
Henri treated each phrase as important, and his very attention seemed to bring new life to phrases that had seemed too familiar to be powerful.
"From everyone to whom much has been given …
much will be required."
After he finished reading, he would speak. And listening to Henri preach in a small setting was unforgettable. In thinking about how to describe it, I keep returning to the statement used by people who heard Jesus: "He spoke as one with authority." It was not the authority of power or office; it was not the rhetoric of brilliant assertion, which forced conclusions on the listeners. He had the authority of clarity, vulnerability, and truth. He was able to do what Jesus did--to take the smallest encounters, the simplest experiences, and the most common human flaws, and cast them in a light which revealed them as vehicles for the grace of God.
For example, Henri once talked to us about the importance of cultivating a sense of gratitude in the spiritual life. Yes, I'm sure we all thought, yes, that's a good idea. We should definitely feel more gratitude.
But how does one do this, asked Henri. Gratitude seems to be an involuntary reaction. If this is so, how does one discover more gratitude in one's heart? That one had us stumped. If I had been forced to respond, I would have said that it was important to realize how much more we had than other people or some such variation on gratitude through guilt.
"The key to gratitude is to cultivate a sense of surprise. Surprise!" said Henri. We looked at each other.
"Let's say I call you up and say that I am coming over soon and I am bringing you flowers," he continued. "You might be very happy. You also might build up expectations about when I would get there and how nice the flowers would be. Indeed, you might build up such a strong sense of what was going to happen that when I actually got there and had only three daisies you might even be disappointed.
"But imagine instead that I call you and say that I will be coming by and then, when you open the door, there I am standing with a bunch of flowers. Surprise! I have brought you a gift that you didn't expect. You would be touched and happy…and grateful."
This idea, so deceptively simple and transparent, set off an internal reflection that has stayed with me for two decades. I look at myself, at the people around me, and at the way our ambitions and our culture goad us to ever higher expectations, and thus ever deeper resentments, and I realize that Henri's example is radical.
Some people, including some of the faculty in the schools where he taught, were uncomfortable with the simplicity of Henri's words. We live in an era of interpretation, of deconstruction. Nothing is what it seems; everything contains an element of irony and betrayal. The challenges of the world are challenges of the intellect--how to peel back layers of meaning, how to trump the unwitting enthusiast.
There is, of course, joy in the intellect, a joy that Henri understood well. I remember the pleasure of learning all the different ways theological words and deeds could illuminate each other; how the Eucharist could be understood through its Jewish roots, its early history, its extensive treatment in Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox writings. Yet even as my intellect came to appreciate the strata and nuances, my heart longed for something direct. I enjoyed gaining knowledge about God through elaborate mental schemes. But I still wanted to know God in a way that went beyond verbal paradox, in a way that a hand brushes another hand in the dark.
And Henri made this possible. I am not quite sure how he did, except that it was a gift of the Holy Spirit. He succeeded partly because he did not fear simplicity and repetition. Instead of laminating new layers of clever interpretation on top of each other, he presented the Gospel as simply as possible. His life and his language were full of basic gestures and images, as one can see in the titles of his writings. The spiritual life was lived With Open Hands. Prayer was not a matter of mind but The Way of the Heart. Ministry was not about power, it was a commitment to Reaching Out. A life of faith was not a heroic act of the will but a continuous response to Jesus' question Can You Drink the Cup?
Henri, in person, conveyed a physical concreteness, an immediate energy that riveted his listeners. His voice had an immense range of intensities and moods--playful humor, wise admonishment, passionate urgency, quiet reflectiveness. He could be wonderfully self-deprecating. Once with several students he began talking about dreams. "Do you dream in English or in Dutch?" someone asked. Henri smiled. "In English," he said, "but with a little Dutch accent."
Little Dutch-isms popped into his speech and writing all the time. In his preaching about Jesus' time in the desert, Henri often described the three temptations as the temptation to be powerful, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be relevant. He always pronounced it with a great rolling Dutch r and soft v--rrrrrrrrellephant. He told me about a time he had been giving this talk to several hundred people in a large hall with a poor sound system. Afterwards, as often happened, people rushed to speak to him. One woman, visibly moved, came up to him and said, "Oh, Father Nouwen, thank you for those spiritual insights. You know, honestly, I had never thought about it before, but as you spoke your words pierced my heart. You are absolutely right. I do indeed feel the temptation to be an elephant!"