Anne Snyder "The Fabric of Character" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the Daily Meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can continue to reach out to the world with Henri Nouwen’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I want you to meet a very bright, interesting thinker, Anne Snyder. She’s written a book entitled The Fabric of Character and has studied hundreds of organizations exploring what character looks like at its best in non-profits, in corporate settings, in the public sector and beyond. She’s looked to see what it takes to form and grow character today. Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine. From 2016 to 2019 Anne directed the Philanthropy Round Table’s Character Initiative. In this capacity she wrote this excellent guidebook, The Fabric of Character, a Wise Giver’s Guide to Renewing our Social and Moral Landscape. And as a 2020 Emerson Fellow and a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, you may also know her through her podcast, The Whole Person Revolution.
Anne I’m so glad to have the opportunity to talk with you today. I’ve loved your book. This book has called so many of my own behaviors and attitudes into question. It’s inspiring and challenging and rooted in life – giving examples of how to achieve and hone one’s character. But it’s much larger than a self-help book because it’s talking about creating the kind of organizations that build character. You write, “character really is destiny”. Help us understand what you mean.
Anne Snyder: It’s so nice to be here, I thank you for having me. Well, I was quoting a Greek philosopher. I think it was Heraclitus there. I was trying to bring to the reader’s mind something we’ve probably all heard in our lives. And it was as much a humble admission on my part that I very much went through a journey in writing the book. And not only because I didn’t, I along the way discovered that the word ‘character’ was a more loaded word than I anticipated for many different kinds of people and sort of strangely, could get polarized.
So I went through this journey of trying to stay committed to some of the ideals that as person who has strived for the morally beautiful. And when you meet someone who has a really sterling character, I think even to this day, we can’t help but kind of respect what we see even if we can’t name it. We know it when we see it. And so, I finished this book back in 2018 and it felt like the country where I live, the US, was in a lot of soul searching – sometimes really productive, sometimes unproductive. And that for all of our– on the one hand, and this is in contention right now, but I think back a couple of years ago– idolatry of meritocratic logic and what it is to achieve, achieve, achieve, and putting winning as the number one value or success in a certain kind of maybe materialistic or status oriented metric at the top. I think there’s a lot of distractions or distracting definitions as to what the good life really is. Both a rewarding life, but also the beautiful life, and through my travels and through recording for the purposes of this book, to try to figure out how to convey a fresh message of an ancient thing. I was so struck by how those institutional leaders– but also custodial staffers and people who are receptionists and people who clean houses, and mothers and neighbors, et cetera — I was just starting to see the world much more through the kind of person who is humble and who really is honest and who’s self-respecting, and who’s willing to admit their mistakes and who’s selfless and self-sacrificing. And it became this quiet delight and delighted way to look at people and how they, there was sort of a [unclear] at both individuals and institutions that keep a moral heartbeat, a coherent, moral heartbeat at the center of who they are and what they’re trying to achieve.
They just seemed to have more enduring power and frankly, more influence on at least locally, those who came in contact with them. And this is both institutional and individual. So, I think, yes, it was just a way of invoking a very familiar saying that I was trying to invoke by myself. I kind of went on a journey. I’m of the generation that might view the word ‘character’ as a little bit joyless and a little starchy and goody two-shoes or something. And yet, I really was humbled by how there’s something really importantly universalizing at least and bridge-building even about moral character; the quality that you’re viewing someone and not their partisan orientation or what social class they are or race or whatever else. So that was suggesting that there’s some deeply humanistic core faculty of who we are which is the end-all-and-be-all. There was just something about that, that I was like, wow, it’s so wonderful to land there in a world that often feels like you don’t really quite know where to land for a clear moral sense of compass.
Karen: You know, it was interesting to me, you chose some wonderful examples. I mean, it’s one thing to talk about, it’s another thing to see it put into action. And for example, I enjoyed the example of the Oaks that you went to. You went to several different places or organizations within this and find in them these determining factors to create– in a sense to foster– character within all those that are part of the organization. And of course, when you look at framing the lives of young people, raising young people, educating them, what a wonderful place to have a clear set of motives. Tell us a little bit about some of the things that, for example, you got out of the Oaks; tell us what the Oaks is. And then maybe a little bit about what you saw happening there because that was the part that I went, oh, I want to share that because that’s so rich for families as a whole.
Anne: Yes, the Oaks. I visited hundreds of different kinds of organizations and institutions all throughout the U. S. in an effort to grasp, to try to find a thread through this ‘middle ring’ of all these different kinds of institutions. And the Oaks really captured my heart and mind. Again, to get back to this notion more recently I think of the word character having baggage and a lot of people in our current very pluralistic moment and society, that’s going to only become more that way – are often, well, would say things to me in the course of this work, like, ‘What kinds of character are you promoting and whose character?’ And, ‘Are we talking about a certain WASPY-y or male WASP-y Protestant ideals from a hundred years ago? We don’t want that anymore.’ That’s culturally imposing so there’s all that kind of pushback. I can go on a little on a soapbox about, so I won’t here, but I found that a little bit like wasting time when people push back on that. But with the Oaks it cuts through those kinds of objections and paired both a real love of beauty and of healthy relationships and shaping of young kids’ desires in a very diverse setting. So it’s one of the most ethnically and racially and socioeconomically diverse schools in the State of Indiana. It’s actually a network of schools and they pair both classical education with a philosophy of an English educational reformer from the 19th century that I had not actually known about before named Charlotte Mason. But they do it in this context that’s not homogenous at all — kids from all these different kinds of backgrounds — and somehow through a real intentional. I mean they talk about the sort of whole purpose of an education or one crucial purpose of a good education is to teach you the science of relationships. And that’s pairing the humanities world with the opposite sort of tech counterparts. And it’s really like you walk in and it’s just one of these places where you sense healthy relationships are the end for all things, whether that’s frankly, how you do on an exam or whether that’s — I think I gave an example early on in the chapter of a young boy who was acting out in class over and over and over. And a teacher pulled him out of the classroom and asked, ‘What are you doing Devin?’ And he wasn’t really contrite. And she said, ‘You know, I’m really worried about you; your conscience is getting really small.’ And he was seven years old and he had no idea what a conscience was. He was like, ‘Oh man, what’s a conscience?’ And he was not liking the fact that some muscle that he had was undersized. And she said that there’s a way to grow it back to normal size. Your conscience is shrinking, but we can grow it back. And he was like, ‘Well, how do we do that because I don’t want to be different from anyone else.’ And she said, ‘Well you just have to ask for forgiveness from some of the people you did X, Y, Z to in the classroom’. And I think it was a very different, but also culturally uniting way to talk about, to not judge people from all right and wrong on those grounds alone, but it put it in the context of any wrong you do is ultimately harming this broader social fabric and our community only thrives if you are contributing to it with your best self. So they lived out this mystery of the individual’s moral agency. And I think that’s just the sheer joy of a sustainable, healthy community that touches people at all walks, at all levels, kids, adults, staff, faculty. So I could say more about the Oaks, but it is a beautiful school that gave me a lot of hope for the future of education if more schools had a chance to visit and see their unique logic.
Karen: Well, it’s interesting because it did stand out to me too. It’s funny because I’ve got grandchildren, you kind of look at it and you go, oh, I love what they’re emphasizing. I wish there was something like that available in the world that I’m in or the world that my grandchildren are in. And I was impressed. I’m curious. I mean, this book is rich and there’s many good examples in it. And I really want to encourage those that are listening, especially as you’re beginning to think about how could we as an organization, we as an institution of any sort, be better at the issues of character. I want to encourage people to get the book because it’s deep and it’s rich. But I’d love to ask you what, in a sense were the elements that have shaped your character? I’m curious because I’m just getting to know you through this interview and I’m very struck by the directions that you have chosen. So I’d love to know what, what do you look back on and say really had a formative impact on your character?
Anne: Yes thank you for that question. I think one thing I discovered in doing this work is you can’t be distanced and abstract about it. You have to be personal both in the sharing of oneself, even in my case as an interviewer or often trying to solicit people’s own honest thoughts, they had to kind of reflect personally. So I think, I’m going to say some things that are very probably universal and then a couple of things that are a little unique to my own experience. I should preface by saying, I have a long way to go in character development myself. This is not trying to advertise my character, but yes, I know I was very lucky. I had two very loving parents. And also beyond that, just a set of webbed relationships that extended family. We lived overseas for quite a chunk when I was young, in Asia largely. But my parents were Americans and my mother had grown up in Peru. And so she also was fairly, we just said ‘global’. It was like a global cross-cultural exposure every day paired with a deep, actually that inner ring that home base of a lot of love, a lot of creativity, a lot of effervescence, a lot of music in the house and just a sense that the world was colorful and that you should approach it with joy. And there was no such thing as boring. So I’m very grateful for those early lessons of a deeply attentive — and this is pre-cell phones — family with both a father and a mother who invested a lot of time in my sister and me. So that was, you know, looking back is obviously a hugely secure base.
I think the cross-cultural experience from a young age has always been a part of my desire to try to listen first and be curious. I really don’t like labeling people because I feel if you’ve been in multiple moral, not moral universes necessarily, but cultural universes, you just grow up assuming everyone’s so much more complicated than one singular narrative. And I think especially right now in the current– certainly the American — environment, I’m so grateful that I don’t feel imprisoned or feel forced to imprison other people in some ideological category, just give them room. I played a lot of music growing up and that was in a funny way as a serious pianist. I think there was something about being exposed to the range of drama and some of the classical works even in sound and harmony and rhythm, and to say nothing of the discipline of trying to become excellent at an instrument. I actually felt that deeply shaped my own sense of the gradual day-to-day work that it takes to try to master a craft. But also what you learned in performing, but just the music itself, I think really gave me a wide emotional — hopefully not too emotional– but a wide emotional life.
And then I came to Christian faith in actually a very secular high school environment, in which I have met many incredible people who have zero faith or atheist. And sometimes they are a lot better than those who are religious. But in my case, I think I discovered this personalist and coherent vision of love that was really other than anything that I encountered in the world. And I did so in an environment that has no frame of reference specifically for Christianity, it was in England at the time. And I think being both convinced that I’d found something really gorgeous and true, but having to be very alienated about that newfound faith as a teenager, probably just, it wasn’t always easy, but it gave me, again, I don’t mind being sort of a minority I guess, in a context where everyone believes something different. I don’t find that threatening. I find it an adventure. So a lot of reading and some hard things in my later twenties and a lot of struggles later on and some very deep losses and then institutions and new families that embraced me in those times. So yes, we all could tell long stories.
Karen: Yeah. That’s interesting. You ended up at Wheaton didn’t you? Is that where you studied?
Anne: I did, yes. This was a culture shock at the time for me, but definitely a good one.
Karen: I’m going to go back into the book because there’s one thing I’d love to hear from you about. You wrote when you, “visit elite college campuses today, it’s striking how outwardly driven students are, how sensitive to external feedback. Millennials are simultaneously stressed and coddled. Often their sense of self seems driven by the acclaim of others, which can lead to poor decision-making, unnecessary anxiety, and hypersensitivity to uncomfortable content.” And then it’s funny because as I read that, what you really seem to be looking at and saying is, and asking, have we created a generation of praise junkies? Did you, do you feel like in a sense when we’ve made everything so external, as opposed to an internal work of character, we’re ending up reaping some rather dire results?
Anne: Yeah. And I say, so. I do think we have, although it’s complex and I feel, I want to say that we’ve created a generation of — we or society or the boomer parents or something, whatever, whoever you want to attribute — created a generation of praise. And I do think that’s largely true. But I want to say it with some modesty because I also think uncontrollable technological forces in the last decade or so, especially social media, especially little TV screens in our hands or computer screens in our hands all day long, has paired with actually the erosion of these community building institutions and full presence in person and has contributed to a very lonely and insecure generation that is hyper-anxious. On the one hand–and this is so not original for me to say–it’s more hyper-connected in a way that often leads to shaming and judgment in a virtual space and yet in physical sort of true engagement, I think just feel very much without a moral compass, very much without a coherent, meaningful community that they can find their own role within. So what you end up with is a lot of individualistic status of success. Speaking for those that have even the luxury or the opportunities to do that without a deeper understanding of why you might want to be excellent at something. So yeah, I think there tends to be a very fragile generation whose inner core was never attended to either by their educational systems or even parents. I’m not smart enough to diagnose or better explicate it, but it has been an observation.
Karen: I think it’s a very interesting observation. You also wrote, “Across multiple domains from education to marketplace, to millennials, generations, longings, and demands, there’s a kind of humanistic renaissance going on, a renaissance in which the needs of the whole person are getting a fresh hearing. You might call it the whole person revolution.” I found that a fascinating phrase, “the whole person revolution”. Tell me what you’re seeing.
Anne: Sure. Well it’s fun to hear that. Because I actually have had a lot of joy this year doing my own content. I decided to call it a “Whole Person Revolution”, what I call community services that are themselves quite holistic in their lens, whether they’re in social service or they’re police officers or even chefs. This was a very fun thing to discover. Some of it’s the more recent rise of positive psychology in academia and in our public education systems. And I have some problems with positive psychology. I think it’s a little spin on how it understands the moral life, but there are some good things. And I think in part because — and I don’t know all the reasons for this, but — something has occurred in the last 15, 20 years where young people in particular and again, maybe it’s because they’re less religiously devout they’re not going to be part of other, self-consciously moral communities. But what they have left is when they get out into the real world they have their working life. And so there’s been a huge clamor somewhere along the way I think young people have recognized that they are more than just heads on sticks. They’re more than just workers in a factory and they want more from specifically, the workplace to tap into ‘their whole selves’. And we could debate whether workplaces should be part of that or not, but I think that there’s almost here a secularized acknowledgement that we are spiritual creatures, we are psychological creatures and we are certainly social creatures and in a society of worrisome increasing loneliness and isolation, how can all sorts of institutions actually come to recognize more than just the utility that you as an individual have to bring, but something deeper and more whole, and you just see this in all sorts of sectors.
I think there’s a lot of medical schools that are trying to figure out how do we — and some of it’s in response to tragic crisis, like too many suicides amongst medical students — come alongside these students and not make it all feel like such a horrible grind where they lose their whole passion for becoming doctors in the first place. How do we give them a fuller picture of what it means to truly care or to layer in a deeply, other-centered care into their practice? You see, it’s tricky. There’s more I could say, but there’s this and there’s debates around this, but you look at some of the more successful TED talks in the last five years, and they’ve all been deeply humanistic in what they’re pointing to. And so for all of our investments in STEM and all that, all of which is fine and good. I think you’ve got also a lot of other thinkers and doers who don’t want to allow us to become dominated by purely machines. There’s a recognition of the human soul and our longings as a part of it.
Karen: It’s interesting because as I read your book, one of the things that I felt was an underlying current was the longing for community and the longing for good relationships and for people to even learn how to have a good relationship, how to repair relationships. I think we’re at a point right now societally where that’s going to be one of the biggest questions we face, How do we repair relationships? They have thinned and gotten very worn, but I found that was one of the within the various things that you looked at, the various groups you looked at, I just found at the base of it was how much we long for community and how much we long to know how to have a good relationship with others. The two are kind of worked together, obviously. In your book, you introduced 16 questions, they’re a guide to great character formation. And obviously I’m not going to ask you for all 16 questions because they’re pretty deep and pretty intense, but I’m going to encourage people to get the book because I think you’ll enjoy it. But, I would like to ask are there any that you would like to share that you say should be considered; a few that you thought were kind of interesting that maybe we haven’t touched on?
Anne: Sure. I always laugh because when I talk to teachers or pastors or anyone who’s in a position of public speaking, when they hear I have some 16 points or 16 questions, they’re like, are you crazy? I reduced them as much as I could and they were really born out of observing some of the healthiest organizations that are forming and sometimes transforming young people, adults, et cetera. Probably they’re all important, but I would say a few that I’ll just mention here. Actually one of them is the first one and I use an old word called “telos”. I’ve expressed all of these principles in the form of questions so that both the philanthropic world, but also organizational leaders might have a rubric to ask, self-interrogate. As they think about the culture of their own organizations and the telos when, if I said something like, ‘Does your organization have a clear, strong reason for existing in the world that’s embraced and pursued by all of its members? Does it give its members or constituents organizing criteria for what to love? And I think it’s sort of a very big question. Again, it gets at this notion of, do you have a deeper ‘why’ than simply a materialistic reason for being or whatever. So that was one. Another one — and this won’t happen everywhere — is vulnerability and accountability. Has psychological safety been established so that individuals are free to be honest? Is there a structure of mutual accountability? And I think that is something like how many young people in particular – to go back to earlier conversation – just say that they don’t even totally know how to allow themselves to be seen deeply or to see another deeply.
And there are certain organizations that model; they both give you the space to feel like whatever I say is safe, even if at a certain point I will be challenged to grow. I am allowed to divulge some of my deepest struggles in this setting. Another — this is just a sign that something was usually going really right in a company, in a school, in a local health care facility sometimes even, I think it’s even fine with an AA or recovery groups — is joy. Is there joy in the house? I think I added, ‘Are hospitality and unconditional welcome a key part of the organization’s DNA? And there’s a lot more. I think this is an ancient spiritual principle, but there’s a lot more science in recent years that is really fascinated by the presence of joy.
And, you know, for instance, going back to the Oaks academy, that’s the first thing you notice. I mean, not even walking the halls, you’re just walking up the steps of one of the campuses, is just this deep sense of welcome and delight that the children and the parents have as they’re departing one another and the kids are going into their adventures. And I think there’s some really very prominent social scientists, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, and they’ll say things like, we’ve learned that you don’t actually learn unless joy is part of the process. And so it was kind of fun to feel like something that feels probably obvious at the intuitive level is now a whole sort of field.
Karen: In my own life I know that what I have found is that I need joy and peace to mark a decision. That to me is something I look for. I look for joy. It needs to be the marker of am I, is this the right path? Is this the right decision? I find it’s become something I watch for. Did you want to share one more of those 16 wonderful questions you’ve got? I’m curious.
Anne: Sure. I’ll share one more. Some of these are in slight tension with one another, but one that I think is still important is I think I framed it as ‘the power of the particular’. Does the organization have a particular identity, ethics, set of norms that gets passed on to its members? Does it having a unique quality that is recognizable in those it has shaped? And some of this is just also a sign of the community that you’ve been a part of, that you’re so proud to have been a part of. You know, sometimes I wouldn’t say they’re all character forming, but of course you can find this in certain fraternities and sororities but you also find it in military veterans. You find it in those who have been through AA groups, you find it in even my own Alma Mater, Wheaton, which was not a perfect place. But, I meet fellow Wheaties now out and about in the world and even it’s funny you can almost, there’s the subculture of the place and the way in which they shaped us intellectually which was different and unique and intentional. And you can sense when I meet these other brains, I’m like, ‘You’re a Wheatie aren’t you?’ And there’s something about that. That sense that is intentional, like you believe certain things and they could be at any level, deep or not so deep. And you structure your institutions, rituals, and whole culture in such a way that it leaves the fragrance on the people who passed, who traveled through.
Karen: Beautifully put. Anne you wrote in your book, “Ultimately when it comes to character, we’re shaped by the things and people who mean the most to us, in part because they command our affection and respect, but also simply because of our natural inclination to spend more time with them.” Well, of course, David Brooks is your husband, and he is also somebody who’s written about character. And I guess it’s no coincidence, but I was curious about how you’ve influenced each other, whether he’s been the greatest influence on you, or you on him, on this issue of character?
Anne: Well, it’s sometimes hard to know where one person’s mind ends and the other begins which I suppose is marriage, blurring into one another. We actually got to know each other through his writing of The Road to Character, which I think came out in 2015. And he was at the time really trying to write a book about what he would call epistemic modesty or systematic modesty, like basically being cautious about thinking you know everything. So it’s a little bit more of an intellectual virtue. But then he got more interested in people of excellence who were also really humble and as he was going about at the time, he was really not at all interested in theological or religious sources. And somewhere in that project, I was like, I’d love to help because there’s definitely, you could write this purely on kind of University of Chicago, Western Civ, sources alone and very philosophical, but there’s also some probably fairly radical examples of humility that come out of various monotheistic traditions. So I was like, ‘You should read Augustine and you should read Dorothy Day.’ And I guess that process of even my own instincts then led to me spending a lot of time helping with the research of these various figures he highlighted; and then I think our own conversations. I probably, I don’t mean to sound, but I probably opened his eyes to the transcendent, but sometimes it’s hard to make sense of one’s own shortcomings and blessings without some reference to a transcendence.
I didn’t realize I had some particular distinctive kind of focus on the moral life and all of its aspects, but he really encouraged me in that. I would think 20 years ago maybe certain, Oprah or pastors or folks who talk about that and they obviously have large followings, but it wouldn’t be taken seriously or wouldn’t be part of a large portion of society. And David’s always early on; he was actually more and more people are worried about impoverished relationships and are worried about a society that doesn’t have a shared moral narrative to bind them together. And I think some of your native interests could come in handy. And of course he shaped me in a million other ways.
Karen: Oh, I’m sure. I thought it was such a surprise because I have David’s book and put two and two together. And when you’re both interested in character, this is really quite something. Now, I know you’ve also been deeply influenced by Henri Nouwen’s book, Compassion. I’d love to hear a little bit about that. The subtitle to this book is A Reflection on the Christian Life. And I think it’s significant that it was a collaboration that came out of three people talking through how to live compassionately in their world. It was the early sixties and they’re worried about this and I’m thinking it was the most important question they felt they could address. And I wanted to mention all three authors, Henri was obviously one of them, Don McNeil and Douglas Morrison were the other ones. And there’s a beautiful, an additional beautiful component to this book. And those are the drawings by Joel Filartiga. I think that’s how you’d say his name. And I just love to hear what you got out of this book, because as I looked at their thing of saying this is the most important question we can address today and they’re talking middle sixties. I feel like there could never be a more important question that we could address right now. So tell me what, how did Compassion influence you?
Anne: Well, that book was very vital and a turning point for me, both in my faith and even in my longer-term vocation. I read it when I was 19, maybe 20. And I still remember the introduction of those three authors talking about putting their notes down on scraps of napkins and papers in a Greek restaurant in DuPont circle in Washington, DC, some year in the sixties. And I’m pretty sure I’ve been to that restaurant. It was like a Greek deli kind of place, and I sorta get shivers going there because the book was so impactful. But it came at a time in my life when I was exposed to the mysteries of pain and poverty and selfless love all together. And I won’t go into that story, but I was really trying, I think, my understanding both specifically of the God of Judaism and Christianity, as well as I think it’s almost encounters with an other worldly love I had experienced from those who had almost nothing to give. I was wrestling with how these paradoxes of why does the spiritual depth of a person somehow seem forged through extraordinary suffering or through being really neglected or being really marginalized. And I was drawn to it, but afraid of the suffering. And I think this book Compassion, which is of course naturally translated ‘to suffer with,’ gave me language and portraits of the same God that I was getting to know more deeply and also have a more trustworthy form of love that was fearsome and yet also really, really tender. So I wouldn’t necessarily, I mean I hope compassion is a part of my life, but it’s more than I think it was. It wasn’t approaching problems or the problems of pain from a fixed standpoint. The book really encourages, it’s all about accompaniment and encounter. It somehow captured the mysteries that I continue to face in my own life anytime there’s darkness in my own life or darkness in someone’s life I know and to say nothing of our broader society this year in the globe, that there’s just riches to meet mine with all of them stripped away. And especially in the religious context, I think, I feel I have been so fortunate to have been really compelled by a tradition that has within it one who suffered and one who cries with you and so on. So it kind of gave me a tenderness in the labor of faith that I’m really drawn to in this labor with persons that I’m really drawn to.
Karen: And it asks a question within it, ‘How do we live a compassionate life?’ Is our guiding ideal a life of maximum pleasure and minimum pain? And to me it comes back to your questions of character, you know, What are we? What has become our core determination? And, How are we going forward with that? Have you read any others of Henri’s books? Are you at all familiar with other writings by Henri Nouwen?
Anne: Yes. I don’t have all the titles in front of me, but yes. Life of the Beloved, and, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. There’s one that is like a series of his diary entries he wrote to himself when he was really depressed and I’m blanking on what it called.
Karen: The Inner Voice of Love.
Anne: The Inner Voice of Love. What’s actually a very cool story is some years ago I worked at this ecumenical retreat center in west Texas called Laity Lodge. And about a mile from the main lodge is something called the Quiet House and the lodge is very ecumenical. So Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox have come there over the years as well as secular folks. But it is rooted in a Protestant tradition and in the sixties and seventies before this became more happenstance in the Protestant world, they wanted to borrow from the Catholic monastic tradition and build a little cabin that would encourage silent retreats for married couples and singles. And I was working for this retreat center years ago in Texas and I had this journalistic background, so they asked me to come and go through these journal entries that had been kept in diaries in this tiny little cabin in the middle of the woods for 45 years since the beginning and they wanted to archive it.
So I’m going through and I’m all by myself. And I was kind of personally going through a bit of a tough time in life. I’m reading all these trying to put my journalistic eye on, but also feeling quite like it’s very touching to read these – basically people describing their encounters with God and these spiritual experiences in the woods in this house. And I’m turning, turning, turning the pages and I’m in 1971 or ‘72 somewhere around there. And I see this beautiful handwriting. And it’s saying something like, ‘I’m so grateful to have had the leisure or to have had the gift of being able to stay here. This is very thin air in these woods and I had much closer access to the inner voice and to God. And while here have been able to finish three books: a book of prayer, Compassion, and one other’. And I’m reading this and I’m thinking the whole time, oh, I wonder if this person is still alive because I just love the way they talk. And I feel we would be friends and I can’t believe he also loves Henri Nouwen because that book changed my life. And so I turned the page and it keeps going. And at the end it says, ‘Thanks for the family foundation that built this place, signed, Henri J.M. Nouwen’. So was thankful for staying in a cabin that hadn’t been renovated in 45 years and possibly sleeping on the same mattress as Henri Nouwen himself. I mean, I was just like, this sounds like you can’t believe it but was very special. I feel like I haven’t read all of his books but I’ve read some of his private thoughts.
Karen: Well, I was listening to somebody talk the other day and they said it was like Henri knew the cartography of the heart. And I think that’s such a great description because that’s a place we can all go to and you don’t have a denominational barrier when you start talking heart language. Henri knew the map of the human heart and he spoke so honestly about his own heart. If you read a book like The Inner Voice of Love, that’s a time of great struggle in his life. And yet there’s such an intimacy and honesty in it. And it pulls us forward into that kind of realness that we’re allowed to have and that we can give to others. And it’s interesting. What a unique experience that you overlapped with Henri and as you said, maybe slept in his bed! That’s really special. What are you up to these days? Tell us about what’s happening with Comment magazine and what’s your vision for this? Where are you heading?
Anne: Well, [with] Comment, I’m really excited. I feel we’re poised at a fresh season of growth. We had a bit of a pre-growth pause for this year when the pandemic hit. We decided to link up with a variety of other like-minded but distinct publications and think tanks and non-profits and seminaries and so on to create this platform called Breaking Ground, which I’m running as well as running Comment. It’s an attempt to bring a theological reflection and voice looking at the past; trying to see what’s being revealed in all the crises of this year and trying to re-imagine new institutions and new ways of being, going forward from distinctively what we would call like 2,000 years of Christian social thought, and we’re doing it in partnership with all these other organizations.
And that’s been a big lift and total adventure and some days really, really exciting and encouraging. And other days it’s just been a very difficult year to see clearly or I have found it that way. So that has happened and will probably turn into some other – I’ll release it next year and it may become something else Breaking Ground. I’ll return to focusing on Comment. My vision when I inherited this amazing little publication was to honor. It’s always been known as deeply thoughtful and a little less focused on ideological positioning or the world of faith vis-à-vis politics and much more on, ‘Look, how do you love your neighbor well?’ It does it in a really serious way drawing from 2,000 years of tradition, but also very sociologically and culturally sensitive.
And so I’ve wanted to only continue that and perhaps deepen and broaden it by bringing in a wider array of voices that I feel, whether it’s voices from the African-American church or many more Catholics or indigenous voices or Latins and Vietnamese. And I think because my own faith experience has been so cross-cultural in its cast I feel like it’s such a pity if only one group of people, demographics, are expressing theological convictions from their cultural norms. So, I’m trying to widen the tent. Another thing I try to do is bring practitioners and thinkers onto the same pages so they converse with one another, and that feels – the whole thing in some ways it’s like a publication but seeking to build bridges between sectors between cultural groups, between cerebral folks and more sort of street things as I call them.
And we’ll just continue doing that primarily through the print magazine, but we’ve got some fun plans to really expand our online offerings. And also I think most importantly, try to build really meaningful communities that are conversing about our content. And we’re just the trampoline for people to bring about better relationships in their neighborhoods and think about the good life and the well-ordered society and all of those kinds of questions from a position of hope and to do so in a way that’s engaged and where they’re relating with others. And we get to be the sort of the prompt that catalyzes a slightly more thoughtful, slightly deeper conversation.
Karen: We are delighted to have had this time with you. It means an awful lot. I’m so grateful. I can tell our audience that the reason that I found you is because we at the Henri Nouwen Society have been developing the Wisdom Project, which is something that we’re gearing for grade fours and is looking at virtues. And we felt like this was a place we wanted to put our foot in the door and we’re getting some positive help with that. But it was interesting because it was one of my people who said, oh, you’ve got to connect with Anne Snyder and you’ve got to read this book. And I was really inspired. So, I want to tell people that it is a very good book and I really encourage you. The Fabric of Character is worth getting, I also want to encourage you to connect with Comment.
We’ll make sure all those links are on our website when you go looking to see what you want to find from today’s conversation. It’s been a delight to talk with you. I think you’re one of the brightest, young minds out there and you’re obviously doing some really interesting work and I loved it as you described it. You’re part of building a big tent, a big vision, and a fresh vision. And I so appreciate you and I wish you well in all you do. It’s been a joy to be with you. Thanks so much.
Anne: Nice to be with you too. Thank you.
Karen: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I’m confident this talk with Anne Snyder has given you some challenging ideas to consider and true inspiration for your heart and spirit. I hope you’re going to share it with others. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find the additional content that was referenced, book suggestions and other materials. Of course, we’d be very grateful if you’d give us a thumbs up or a good review, help others find that we are here and let them know we have some rich food for the spirit from Henri Nouwen to offer. Thanks for joining us today until next time,
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