It was a great privilege I won’t soon forget to attend the conference on “Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton: Spiritual Guides for the 21st Century” at Yale Divinity School in New Haven with my wife and friends from the Nouwen Society. There were so many rich moments in the workshops, lectures, and in a very memorable “open microphone” reception when former students and friends of Henri’s shared stories and reflected on his impact in their lives. But three memories and messages from the weekend stand out for me in particular. They were in the presentations by Sister Sue Mosteller, Father Ron Rolheiser, and Robert Ellsberg, one of Henri’s editors.
First, Sister Sue Mosteller delivered a “Call to Conference” that transported us imaginatively into the world of the first century at the time of Jesus. She reminded us about the story of John the Baptist who one day exclaimed to his followers, “Behold! There is the Lamb of God,” pointing to Jesus. With a twinkle in her eye and compassion in her voice, Sister Sue compared John’s action to that of a spiritual GPS or guidance system, orienting people, telling them the right route to find their way home. Just like “that lady who lives on the satellite and talks to us and tells us where we are going” in our cars on all our devices, she said. Following Jesus can orient us in this world and set our course to find our true home.
“Where are you staying?” the curious would-be disciples asked Jesus. “Come, follow me,” Jesus replied. By spending time with Jesus they would come to know him as “the way, the truth, and the life,” and the door to the Kingdom of God.
I pondered how directionless and out-of-control much of life can sometimes feel; how in our lives, in the headlines, and in our culture today things can often feel very dark, marked by a sense of fear, unease, and anxiety; more like homelessness than being at home. We are seeking direction today and we don’t know where to find it. As our time together at the conference progressed, I began to see just how relevant the life and writings of both Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton can be for us today as spiritual guides when we seek to navigate difficult and chaotic times.
Both Henri Nouwen and and Thomas Merton lived life as an adventure in pursuit of God. They were aware and awake to their own struggles and those of others. Father Ron Rolheiser’s presentation helped me better understand their distinctive contributions as major figures in 20th century spirituality.
Henri, he explained, was a soul friend to millions through his 39 books, teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, and in his personal letter writing to friends and those he never met. We can see and hear that in the new book of his collected letters, Love Henri. Henri often created intimate bonds through his writing and speaking wherever he went, because he couldn’t and wouldn’t hide his wounds and weaknesses.
Invoking a hometown New Haven example to convey this side of Henri’s personality and spirituality, Fr. Ron Rolheiser in the opening talk said, “If you remember Karen Carpenter’s voice, it was like she was singing softly, gently, directly into your ear. And that’s my image of Henri Nouwen. He always spoke as if he was talking directly to you. Merton, very different.”
He explained that Henri was both learned in psychology and theology, but he worked very hard like an artist, writing and rewriting drafts to communicate spirituality in down to earth terms with a new kind of language that was both simple and deep, speaking straight to people’s hearts. This allowed him to “take spirituality mainstream in the church”, he said, but also to speak with authenticity to an increasingly secular society. Henri spoke from his own place of pain. He reminded us often that “what is most personal is also most universal.” He spoke about how our deepest identity is not defined by what we have, or what we do, or what people say about us. What mattered to Henri, and what matters most, is our relationship to a God who loves us.
That certainly sums up my experience of reading Henri Nouwen since I was first introduced to his wisdom in the book Reaching Out decades ago, then subsequently through deep and tender explorations like The Inner Voice or Love and The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri has been a guide for me and my wife (and for so many people) beyond the traps of self-rejection and selfishness to an experience of living life more awake to the fact we are loved unconditionally by God. We are much-loved sons and daughters in a big, beloved family. Belonging. Belovedness. Compassion. Henri helps point the way.
Describing the distinctive gifts of both Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, Fr. Ron Rolheiser told us that “Henri gets you praying and standing on your feet and gives you the courage to walk now. Thomas Merton gets you walking, and lays out the path towards the fullest maturity that’s demanded of you.”
Merton’s guidance for the path of the spiritual life takes us into somewhat different territory. Thomas Merton’s writing, Rolheiser said, has a different tone and impact: “It has Bob Dylan’s directness, Paul Simon’s genius for lyric, Leonard Cohen’s poetic cadence, and John Coltrane’s soul.” Merton offers a more systematic critique of both society and the church, emerging from the monastic disciplines of silence and solitude, that Henri also cherished and practiced most often outside the monastery.
According to Pope Francis, Thomas Merton was “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” Henri Nouwen too had a passion for peacemaking and ecumenism, but Fr. Rolheiser explained that Merton’s influence was more “structural.” He profoundly shaped Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Richard Rohr, and others as their intellectual and spiritual mentor, modeling a critical contemplative posture during the Vietnam War that would guide and influence future generations. Pope Francis honoured Thomas Merton as one of four great American spiritual leaders when addressing a joint session of the United States Congress in September, 2015.
The conference presentations throughout the weekend explored the paths of Nouwen and Merton, and offered a major dose of faith, hope, and courage. This was especially true for me in Robert Ellsberg’s presentation. He edited Henri’s final book Adam. Robert shared with us how Henri’s leaving Harvard and moving to L’Arche Daybreak became a spiritual homecoming for him. Some of this is recounted in The Road to Daybreak.
He also shared how Henri was intrigued by friends he met in a family circus troupe, the Flying Rodleighs. Henri saw a portrait of God at work in our lives in their graceful and strong cooperation together on the trapeze. The flyer does nothing, the catcher does everything, Henri learned. Robert shared the words Henri recorded in one of his journals after interviewing them about their artistry in air: “When I fly to the catcher I have simply to stretch out my hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safe behind the catch bar. A Flyer must fly and a Catcher must catch. And the Flyer must trust with outstretched arms that his Catcher will be there for him.”
Both Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton showed that the path home to God involves that kind of deep trust, allowing oneself to be led and caught. For those of us who now, or in the future, struggle to see our next steps or the long road ahead, Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton are welcome companions.
Robert Ellsberg offered these words of wisdom inspired by Henri’s life and spirituality, a fitting conclusion: “So often we measure our identity and success by how well we remain in control. But in the end, the final meaning of our lives may be measured by our capacity to trust, to let go, and to place ourselves in the hands of another.”
That insight is captured well in a prayer of Henri’s that Robert Ellsberg concluded with — a prayer written by Henri just four months before he died in September 1996.
“I do not know where you will lead me. I do not know where I will be two, five or ten years from now. I do not know the road ahead of me. But I know now that you are with me to guide me. And that where you lead me, even where I would rather not go, you will bring me closer to my true home. Thank you, Lord, for my life, for my vocation and for the hope, that you planted in my heart. Amen.” — published in Sabbatical Journey