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Priest, Writer, Mentor, Misfit: Understanding Henri Nouwen

December 7

by Michael W. Higgins [re-posted in part from Commonweal Magazine]

Two decades ago, on September 21, 1996, while on the way to St. Petersburg to shoot a documentary based on his acclaimed spiritual meditation, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen—priest, writer, professor, and pastoral mentor—died of a heart attack in his homeland of the Netherlands. His friends and countless admirers were stunned. Prolific author of more than three dozen books, and a much-called-upon speaker and preacher, Nouwen was a large presence in Catholic circles and a growing influence in Protestant ones as well. His loss was felt not only in his immediate community but around the world.

I knew Nouwen slightly, having had two memorable personal interactions with him in the 1980s. Asked to establish an adult education and pastoral information structure at my new university (St. Jerome’s in Ontario), I was seeking an inaugural speaker for the opening of the university’s Centre for Catholic Experience when my dean, Peter Naus, suggested his close friend Henri Nouwen, then a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Though my awareness of Nouwen was limited to his early book, Thomas Merton, Contemplative Critic, which I had found superficial, I did not demur; after all, I was untenured, new on campus, and the dean was Nouwen’s friend and a big name to boot, so it seemed a good thing to do.

And it was. Nouwen’s address—a dramatized homily titled “The Spirituality of Peace-Making”—was informative, skillfully constructed, and masterfully delivered. But what most impressed me was his request, prior to his talk, to spend some time in our chapel. The interval of prayer and solitude set a tone, a disposition, that flowed into Nouwen’s presentation in the packed hall. He asked the gathered multitude to join him for several minutes of Taizé hymns, after which—moving about the dais with awkward strides—he spoke with the passion of a televangelist, eschewing academic jargon, delighting in the anecdotal, and not once referring to a text. It was performance art, and he was very good at it.

(To read the article in its entirety, click here.)