[Re-posted in part from The Catholic Register, April 23 – story by Michael Swan]
TORONTO – Fr. Henri Nouwen is still trying to help us understand. He’s been dead 20 years, but he’s still there talking to us about our gifts and our failures, our hopes and our doubts, God and love and sin and community and loneliness.
Thirty-eight of Nouwen’s 39 books are still in print, some available in half a dozen or more languages. The books are studied in Catholic and Protestant seminaries, assigned as spiritual reading by retreat masters and passed from friend to friend. More than seven million copies have been sold. U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has named his most popular book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, one of the most influential books in her life.
A new Nouwen book is scheduled to hit the presses this fall, consisting of excerpts from 16,000 letters he wrote over more than 20 years to readers who sought his advice.
This extraordinary legacy from a single spiritual writer only partly explains Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s enthusiasm for a three-day conference on Nouwen scheduled June 9 to 11 on the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. As a popular writer, a priest and psychologist, Rolheiser has found himself following a path laid by Nouwen for almost 40 years.
“This is not my most unfavourite topic. I love Nouwen,” said Rolheiser. “He’s influenced me in both the academic world and the non-academic world.”
As a popular writer whose weekly column has been featured in The Catholic Register for close to 30 years, Rolheiser has aspired to achieve Nouwen’s combination of simplicity and insight.
“You go back further, when I was young and I was in the academic world, I tried to be colourful and use bigger words. Through the years, I have adopted Nouwen’s formula. How simple and clear can I make it?” said Rolheiser. “The deepest things are the simplest things. It’s easy to write complexity. It’s not easy to write simple.”
Despite Nouwen’s success, or perhaps because of it, his books have never had an enthusiastic embrace among academic theologians.
Academic snobbery directed at the author of The Wounded Healer, The Way of the Heart and Life of the Beloved does not leave Rolheiser serene.
“That’s academic bias. You can use the word jealousy if you want,” he said. “He was trying for a language of the heart. His formula was simple, but not simplistic.”
In his own career as a university professor, Rolheiser has taught Nouwen’s books despite the murmurings in the staff lounge.
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