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Nouwen lives again in tribute volume


Edited by Beth Porter,
with Susan M.S. Brown
& Philip Coulter
Doubleday, 273 pages, $21.95.


In the years immediately following Fr. Henri Nouwen’s death, friends began expressing interest in writing their memories about him and the influence he had on their lives. L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, where Henri had served as pastor from 1986 until his death in 1996, became a gathering point where these friends from all over the world came to renew their connection with his spirit and the community he served.

As they shared their interests, the idea eventually took hold that a collection of stories and memories about Nouwen should be compiled and published in a single volume. The result is Befriending Life, edited by Beth Porter with assistance from Susan M.S. Brown and Philip Coulter.

Porter, a resident at L’Arche Daybreak since 1981, previously taught college English for several years. She was well acquainted with Nouwen as friend and colleague throughout his tenure at Daybreak. She currenty chairs the interfaith committee of the community’s pastoral team and writes on spirituality and interfaith matters.

Contributors were asked not to eulogize Nouwen but to write about him as the complex person he was. The resulting collection is an offering of choice vignettes, accounts from people who knew Nouwen personally, saw him “up close,” observed him at his best and at his weakest.

The book opens with the witness of the wife of a rabbi based at the local synagogue in Toronto. Her impression of Nouwen, upon meeting him for the first time at a party, speaks for the many who would come to know him in the course of a marathon ministry that would propel him on his many journeys around the world: “ … here was this man I didn’t know offering me the gift of his complete focused attention. … My conversation with Henri took only 15 minutes or so, but it was intense. … 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.”

Bob Massie, a longtime friend of Nouwen’s from his days at Yale, offers a glimpse of Nouwen in one of his lighter moments. In a conversation with students on dreams, one student asks: “Do you dream in English or in Dutch?” Nouwen replies with a smile: “In English, but with a little Dutch accent.”

Michael Ford returns to regale readers with insights gleaned in the course of his research for his first book on Nouwen, Wounded Prophet (Doubleday, 1999). Recalling an interview with Nouwen’s brother, Laurent, at his home in Rotterdam, Ford reports the problem Laurent had with his world-famous, globe-trotting brother: “When Henri came to stay, he was on the phone for so long that nobody could reach us, they told me.”

“We were cut off, so we had to have another line put in just for him.” With a smile, Ford concludes: “As I tried to keep up with Henri’s footsteps around the world, his faithfulness to prayer and his fidelity to the telephone featured frequently in the conversations.”

Retaining the critical stance taken in his book, Ford concludes: “I still consider him a prodigious figure in the world of contemporary spirituality, but my hope is that people will now examine his work more critically in the light of his own life story.”

Tastefully interspersed throughout the book are quotes from Nouwen’s writings. Editor Porter notes: “The idea of including Henri’s voice in this way was Philip’s (Philip Coulter, Canadian Broadcasting producer). He commented early on that in many tribute volumes the guest of honor is absent. Henri could not have borne to be absent!”

Out of 42 character portraits of Nouwen, some of his friends delighting in the opportunity to lampoon him, others expressing their devotedness, gratitude and admiration, a constant emerges from the many strands of shifting emphasis: from hero to tragic hero, from wisest to weakest, from healer to wounded healer. In perhaps the most penetrating, even-handed character portrait, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, sums up the one overriding characteristic that won for Nouwen his broad appeal:

People loved Henri’s books because he wrote about spiritual things not as they should be but as they are. He knew how to describe his own mess as well as the mess of the world; at the same time he showed us how to discover the seeds of hope in it all.

Vanier concludes: “The last thing anyone could accuse Henri of was hypocrisy. … Through his words and his writings, he knew how to meet people where they were. … Henri was among the great ecumenists of this century.”

Befriending Life is a book Nouwen disciples will surely want to befriend.

Robert Durback is editor of Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (Doubleday) and most recently, Henri Nouwen: In My Own Words (Liguori).

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001