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Henri Nouwen


A simple wooden bench sits a few feet from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s grave. Etched onto the bench are a series of drawings created by Nouwen’s friends at Daybreak, the L’Arche community on the outskirts of Toronto where Nouwen lived the last decade of his life with mentally handicapped people.

Those etchings replicate pictures originally drawn to decorate Nouwen’s casket. Those Daybreak residents also created the bench itself in The Woodery, their community woodshop.

Nouwen is buried not in a prominent cemetery, but in the corner of Sacred Heart Cemetery north of Toronto, a tiny rural cemetery about the size of an urban dweller’s plot of ground. The gravesite is not fancy. In addition to the single bench, it has a small cross marker, tastefully crafted, and lots of flowers, especially sunflowers, which Nouwen loved. It’s as if large crowds are never expected, but individuals or small groups are always more than welcome.

A Daybreak resident named Bill proudly showed us his drawing on the bench. Then he sat on the bench for awhile, socializing quietly with a small group that visited the gravesite on a balmy September Saturday, two days before the second anniversary of Nouwen’s death.

Then, during an informal ceremony and prayer service, each person placed a flower on the grave and softly expressed gratitude for Henri’s influence on their lives. Bill did, too. I don’t remember what Bill said, but I do remember that he wept. He wept not long, but vigorously. He called Henri his friend and said he missed him.

Words were woefully insufficient throughout that September weekend. About 50 of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s friends and admirers gathered in Toronto to reflect on Nouwen’s writings, spirituality and relationships. They reminisced. They swapped stories. They visited the grave. In group discussions, they used common nouns and adjectives to describe Nouwen’s impact on their lives: courageous, intense, friend, boundless, broken.

What became clear was that Nouwen was far more than the sum of what several dozen words and a few stories could only begin to describe. Far more powerful during the retreat was the community experience of hearts speaking to hearts, where Nouwen’s influence remains profoundly alive in intensely personal ways among his friends.

That retreat publicly launched the new Henri Nouwen Society, which hopes to spread around the world the spirituality that Nouwen wrote about and struggled with. Because of Nouwen’s sensitive exploration of his own sometimes joyful, sometimes troubled heart, the society has taken a sound reality check. It understands that any attempt to spread Nouwen’s great legacy would lose its punch if people idolize him and overlook his human weaknesses, loneliness and brokenness.

A year before his death, for example, Nouwen wrote in his journal about an “inner wound that is so easily touched and starts bleeding again. It is such a familiar wound. It has been with me for many years. I don’t think this wound -- this immense need for affection, and the immense fear of rejection -- will ever go away.”

Such honest reflections are included in a new book called Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year. Nouwen was a priest and psychologist from Holland who taught at Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale, became an internationally known speaker and wrote more than 30 books, including With Open Hands, The Wounded Healer and The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Daybreak community members participated with Nouwen’s other friends at the retreat. Much of their sharing was inspirational and serious, but some was funny. When one speaker mentioned that Henri had the incorrigible habit of slamming doors while a guest at his house, Bill spontaneously said from his place in the audience that Henri was the same way at Daybreak, always slamming doors. Everyone laughed. That was the same Bill who wept at Henri’s grave, perhaps with fond memories of traveling with Henri.

Nouwen often insisted on taking Daybreak community members with him on his speaking engagements. He understood that audiences might forget what he said, but he believed they could not forget the visible symbol of community created by sharing the podium with his friend Bill, who cannot read but who, Henri said, kept him honest.

“Other people need to be part of a community that knew Henri,” says Wendy Greer, president of the Henri Nouwen Society. “Henri left a legacy that’s rich, and it multiplies as we share it. This rich legacy is not ours to keep. It’s ours to share, and the more we share it, the more fruitful is his life.”

The society likes to talk about “fruitfulness” because Nouwen preached it is more important to be fruitful than successful or productive -- more important to be a hopeful, compassionate person than a relevant, powerful person in the eyes of the world.

In that spirit the fledgling society is developing. To give definition to Nouwen’s life and writings, the society is focusing on three of Henri’s favorite words: solitude, community and compassion.

The society will publish a newsletter and maintain contact with people around the world. A board will encourage regional, national and international gatherings of people to explore Nouwen’s spirituality and promote fellowship.

The New York-based society is working closely with the Daybreak community and the new Henri Nouwen Literary Centre in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, where documents from the last decade of Nouwen’s life are being cataloged and preserved. It is also supporting the expansion of the archives known as the Henri Nouwen Collection at Yale University for use by scholars, students and the general public. And soon the new organization will invite people everywhere to become “friends” of the society and share in its mission.

What is happening with Nouwen is comparable to the continuing interest in Thomas Merton after the famous monk died in 1968. It is fitting that Nouwen initially felt disappointed after his only personal meeting with Merton more than three decades ago. In their informal visit, Nouwen later wrote, Merton acted like a regular guy, and their conversation was ordinary, not one for the ages. The much younger Nouwen felt cheated.

He later reflected, however, that Merton would be “horrified” if he thought anyone would idolize him. Nouwen would be equally appalled if the public admiration of his own work ever evolves into anything close to a sanitized idolatry. For he not only wrote brilliantly and helped so many people personally, but by his own admission, he also suffered and felt deep anguish. He longed for deeper relationships with God and the people around him, but never quite internalized what he thought he was searching for.

So as the society named for him preserves his legacy, it has the task of helping people accept that developing compassion includes the pain of struggling with loneliness, and that the process of building community is never really complete.

For more information, write the Henri Nouwen Society, P.O. Box 523, Ansonia Station, New York, NY 10023. A Web site about Nouwen, with links to the Nouwen Collection in the Yale Archives and to remembrances of Nouwen and his influence in people’s lives published in NCR in 1996, is available from the Henri Nouwen Literary Centre in Richmond Hill. Find it at www.hnlc.org.

Ed Wojcicki is publisher of Illinois Issues magazine in Springfield, Ill., and author of A Crisis of Hope in the Modern World, for which Nouwen wrote the foreword.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998