Henri Nouwen- a lonely mystic

Henri Nouwen- a lonely mystic

Chris McDonnell CT December 7th2018


Many have struggled over the years debating in their own lives the Christian message but have to the end remained faithful to the Gospel of the Lord. One such was the Dutch priest and writer, Henri Nouwen.

Henri died of heart failure in September 1996, at the age of 64. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Utrecht in 1957, but was destined to spend much of his life beyond the borders of his native country, largely in North America. His studies in clinical psychology took place at the University of Nijmegen during the early 60s followed by two years as a Fellow in the Religion and Psychiatry Program in Topeka, Kansas, graduating in 1966.

It was a time a social unrest in the States on many fronts, Civil Rights being one of the significant issues. He took part in the Selma March and later published a memoir of his experience.

From ’66 to ’68 he was a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame followed by a couple of years back home at the Catholic Theological Institute of Utrecht.

He then returned to the States to spend some ten years as a professor at Yale Divinity School. He was to follow this with a short period experiencing the Church in Latin America before returning to the North and Harvard. A full biography of Nouwen was written and published in 2006 by Michael Ford- ‘Wounded Prophet’, a full and detailed account of Nouwen’s life and work.

Henri wrote many books, taught in many places and inspired many thousands of people. Now Michael Ford has published a sequel to his first book on Nouwen, entitled ‘LonelyMystic’. This time he examines Nouwen, not through sequential biographical events but through a different lens, who he was, what was the nature of the man. It is a valuable companion to his earlier text.

One thing is sure, Nouwen was essentially a lonely man. Frequently the centre of a crowd whether teaching, leading retreats or celebrating the Eucharist, yet in spite of it all there was an emptiness. He was indeed a wounded healer. Because of his own struggles and experiences he was able bring support to those who were struggling, he knew where they were for he had been there himself. “Henri was there seeing the mystery of God, then interpreting it for those who did not understand” wrote a close friend Frank Hamilton quoted by Ford.

His perceptive nature and ability to relate to those in distress demonstrated that he was more than an inspiring teacher and fine book writer. It has led some to ask if indeed he was a Christian mystic, following in the steps of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux. ‘Lonely Mystic’  offers  stepping stones and pointers in that direction.

His published writing often took the form of Journals, the first and most famous. The Genesee Diary, published in 1976, recounts his six month stay at the Cistercian Abbey of the Genesee in upper state New York. It was the first of his books that I read and was inspirational. There was an honesty in his writing that was immediately recognisable, this man has been there and wished to share that experience for the benefit of others.

He was a man generous with his time. Early in the 90s, I began a correspondence with him, a complete stranger writing from the UK to Toronto where he was then living with the L’Arche Community, a clear and vivid contrast to the academic life that had been his lot for so many years. Then without warning, a package arrived from Toronto, a copy of his book ‘With Open Hands’with a beautiful hand-written inscription to me. We had only met through the words of his books and a few brief letters yet he took the trouble to be so thoughtful in his gift. It is a book I value. My last letter went unanswered till I saw his Obituary in the Tablet in the Autumn of 96. Those few words we exchanged are now lodged with the Henri Nouwen Foundation in Canada.

Without doubt, his is a significant Christian voice of the late 20thCentury, recognisable for his integrity and honesty. That he should spend his final years at the L’Arche Community in Toronto is not without significance. The priest and teacher who was himself wounded spent time with others who were also severely wounded in so many ways.

He was en route to Russia to see Rembrandt’s painting  ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’when illness took his life. His voice remains through his numerous books and the memories of those who experienced his magnetism in his public teaching and his deep holiness in times of prayer. He had a story to tell and his generosity allowed others to benefit from the telling. A lonely mystic indeed, one who shows us the way.

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