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Nouwen Archive reveals depth of his interest in people

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In two display cases just outside the the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archive and Research Collection, one can look at two chalices Nouwen used during his priesthood, the rosary he was carrying when he died and one of his pocket-size address books, which includes a breathtaking number of telephone and fax numbers.

It was this need for social connection that marked much of Nouwen’s life, according to Sr. Sue Mosteller, literary executor for Nouwen, who was one of the most widely read spiritual writers of the late 20th century. “His telephone bills would keep the telephone company in business,” she said. “He was telephoning at all hours of the day and night, all around the world.”

Writers and researchers now have access to much of Nouwen’s correspondence since the opening of the archive at the John M. Kelly Library at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. A large portion of the collection includes letters Nouwen wrote to individuals. “I think he did a lot of his pastoral work through his letters,” said full-time archivist Gabrielle Earnshaw. “Often he would have correspondence with his readers over several years.”

Earnshaw said every letter Nouwen received was answered in some fashion. There is correspondence with readers of his books, friends and letters he received from Jean Vanier, founder of the movement to establish L’Arche communities for developmentally disabled persons, author Madeleine L’Engle, and TV preacher Robert Schuller.

Officially opened last September, the collection also includes calendar files, audiotapes, personal papers, videos, research material, memorabilia, original manuscripts and lecture notes from courses Nouwen gave at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame.

The author of 40 books, hundreds of lectures and many articles, Nouwen was pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak community (located north of Toronto) from 1986 until his death in 1996 at age 64. Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Holland in 1957, Nouwen spent much of his life in the United States and Canada.

Writers and researchers who have visited the Nouwen archives have been inspired by what they have found. “One could construct a model of community and church on Nouwen’s spirituality,” said Russell Pollitt of Capetown, South Africa. “There is enough material for that.” Pollitt, who is studying for the priesthood, hopes to do a thesis on Nouwen.

American author Tim Jones has been doing research on Nouwen for a book to be called Turning My Mourning into Dancing. He looked at sermons Nouwen gave at L’Arche Daybreak, material from a series of classes Nouwen gave on the Psalms, and notes from lectures on the spiritual life Nouwen gave at Yale.

“It was a wonderful experience to be at the archives, where I was spending time with the published and academic side of his life,” said Jones, “and then to spend the evenings at the Daybreak community where Henri ministered and was pastor. I felt both were significant in giving me a portrait or sense of the man.”

Robert Ellsberg, editor-in-chief of Orbis Books in Maryknoll, N.Y., said Orbis plans to publish a reprint of a 1980 book titled Desert Wisdom by Yushi Nomura. It consists of Japanese-style drawings and notes from the lectures Nouwen gave at Yale on “Desert Spirituality.” The reprinted edition will include a new conclusion based on some of Nouwen’s unpublished writings found in the archive collection.

Ellsberg, who published several of Nouwen’s books including Adam: God’s Beloved; Gracias! A Latin American Journal; and With Burning Hearts, is pleased Nouwen’s literary legacy is being preserved. “I’m also pleased that his deeper, wider spiritual legacy is continuing,” he added. “I think Henri will be a person whose influence and importance will increase over time. There seems to be no diminishment in the interest and inspiration people find in his work.”

Earnshaw said there are approximately 30 unpublished manuscripts in the Nouwen archives. Also included in the collection are Nouwen’s financial papers and photographs, including pictures Nouwen took of the civil rights march on Selma in the 1960s.

In addition to the Nouwen Archive Collection, there is also the Nouwen Literary Centre, located at L’Arche Daybreak. The center was formed in 1997. Administrator Maureen Wright said the center is sponsoring a “Seeds of Hope” Nouwen Spirituality Series at Daybreak. The center also works in collaboration with The Henri Nouwen Society in the United States, which sponsors retreats and days of reflection on Nouwen’s spirituality. A workshop on Nouwen’s spirituality for screenwriters was offered in Los Angeles in 1999.

Since Nouwen’s death, eight books have been published about him including The Spiritual Legacy of Henri Nouwen by Deidre La Noue and Nouwen Then: Personal Reflections on Henri Nouwen, edited by Christopher de Vinck. Seven more books are forthcoming including an anthology with 42 contributors, edited by Beth Porter, entitled Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen. There is a film being made of Nouwen’s life, Mosteller said, and this year the archive will be releasing more unpublished work, calendar files and correspondence.

Ellsberg said it was Nouwen’s unique spirituality that accounts for the continuing interest in his life and work. “One of the reasons I think he’s so accessible and appealing is that his spiritual wisdom was very clearly housed in a frail vessel,” he said. “He had a lot of personal struggles, issues and weaknesses, and he didn’t disguise that, or pretend he was perfect.”

For Mosteller, Nouwen’s continuing appeal is linked to his vulnerability and intellect. “He was gifted with a very sensitive heart, and with an incredibly fine-tuned mind,” she explained. “The combination of those two things, I think, led to his being able to really listen to people, and to feel and to sense what the human experience was.”

Mosteller added that Nouwen’s heart was a suffering one. “It was a heart that was lonely,” she said. “He always wanted something more. His need for affection was very great. Then as he listened to people with this sensitive heart, and this very sharp intelligence, he was able to articulate the pain of the heart with the mind.”

Although Mosteller’s day-to-day work with the Nouwen Literary Centre and Archive Collection ended last summer, she remains in close contact and plans to start writing a book on Nouwen this year. She said that Nouwen’s wide range of social connections was truly astonishing. He was comfortable talking with a homeless man on the street, she said, or sitting next to the Prime Minister of Canada at a Communion breakfast, or talking with Hillary Clinton on the telephone. “He wasn’t knocked over by personas,” she said, “he was interested in people.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001