Arthur Boers "Picking Up the Pieces of My Father's Rage" | 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 society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts and our free daily meditations with your friends and family.
Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Arthur Boers. Arthur is an Anglican priest and the author of several award-winning books, including The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago; and Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership. Most recently, Arthur Boers has authored a very moving, beautifully written memoir, Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage.
Arthur Boers, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. It’s lovely to have you. You know, you’ve completed this very beautiful, insightful memoir titled, Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage. In the foreword to the book, Andre Dubus writes, “This is one of those rare memoirs that is honest, yet fair, that pulls no punches, yet lands at a place of hard-earned light and repose.”
Let me ask you, what led you to write the book? To write the memoir?
Arthur Boers: I’ve long aspired to move from writing pastoral theology. I’ve been writing books for 30 years, and most of my books would qualify as pastoral theology. So, you know: advice, counseling, persuasion, addressing an obvious kind of need in some respect. But about 20 years ago, a little over 20 years ago, I started noticing that there were writers that I admired both for the quality of their insights, but also for the quality of their writing, that they really paid attention to the craft of writing, the rhythm of the language, vocabulary, alliteration, character development, description, all kinds of things. And I decided I really wanted to learn how to write more like that.
And it’s been a long journey. Among other things, I did an MFA just recently – a Master of Fine Arts in creative non-fiction – to learn how to write better.
And then, I thought it would be interesting to write about my childhood. And there were three things about my childhood that I thought were intriguing. And the first was, I grew up in a very Dutch context. So, we had a Dutch butcher and a Dutch baker, and if we needed a candlestick maker, I’m sure we would find a Dutchman. And we went to the Shell station. Shell is a Dutch corporation, and it was owned by a Dutch member of our church. And I went to a Dutch school, essentially a Dutch school. And most of the people in our church were Dutch. My dad’s clients and employees were all Dutch. It was very, very Dutch.
And I grew up thinking, “I’m not a Canadian, I’m Dutch.” In fact, English is my second language. I learned Dutch at home and I couldn’t even pronounce my name correctly even by the time I got to kindergarten, because my parents gave me a name that they couldn’t pronounce. So, I thought this was kind of interesting, to explore the experience of an immigrant kid.
And then, the second thing was I had a very vivid faith already as a child. It was quite important to me, to the point where I felt a call to ministry at the age of four, just sitting in church one Sunday morning, in a church that didn’t really talk about calls to ministry. So, it was kind of strange that that happened. And I had a number of – well, I had a few mystical experiences, including a very powerful one when I was 14. So, I thought that would be worth exploring.
And then finally, there was the mystery of my father, a man that I loved, and loved very much. I look forward to seeing him by the sea of crystal someday. But he was a very troubled person. He was quite accomplished. He had a successful business. He was very smart. He had different perspectives on the news than anybody else I knew. It was always worth listening to him, but he also struggled with anger and with alcohol. And he very much wanted me either to go into business with him or to join the army. Actually, those were his two big ambitions for me.
And so, there was a lot of tension in our family, especially because my father could be at times be violent. The first thing I remember about him was an act of violence. And several times, his violence circled back on me, and pretty much all the time, I was afraid that he might lose his temper and take it out on me.
So, there were those three strains that I thought would be worth exploring. And then, as I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the memoir through many different drafts, I realized the primary challenge of understanding my background and my childhood is really reflecting on my relationship with my father. And so, more and more I focused on that. The other two themes are present as well, but the main driving force is, “How do I resolve the issues with my father?” And so, that’s how it emerged.
Karen Pascal: I find it to be such a beautiful book, because of that kind of focus. I come from a Danish immigrant family, and although it was not in a way the same as your experience – and you articulate so well aspects of the Dutch immigrant experience here in Canada – I could identify with a lot of it, too. That sense in which you first come to Canada and you form communities that are based around your church, around your ethnicity. And it feels safe, it feels safe. It feels like a place of belonging in that sense.
You know, before we even talk about the book, I just want to say it is beautifully written. And that’s interesting, because obviously, you wanted to write something that would stand alone, not just as a spiritual book, but as a true memoir.
It reminded me of how much Henri longed to write in a different way, to find a different way to communicate, to find a way to put his story, maybe put it within other stories that intrigued him. I don’t know. But I was very struck by that in your work, too, that you two must have had some sense of being kindred spirits. The very fact that right at the beginning of the book, you mention what an influence he’s been to you, and Eugene Peterson. I find that interesting. Was he an influence because he was Dutch in background? Did that make him more accessible for you?
Arthur Boers: So, I was introduced to Henri’s ideas quite a long time ago, 1980 or so. And so, I started reading him, and then he became very influential to me, just from the reading. And I had occasion to meet him. One time he was speaking at Notre Dame in Indiana, and I lived nearby. And I went and talked to him a little bit. And then I had some other opportunities down the road to meet with him, to stay with him at Daybreak.
And those were really powerful encounters. The first time I went to Daybreak, I was supposed to interview him for an hour, and then he made me stay the whole day, which I really was glad to do, because it gave me a chance to meet other members of the community and see the life there.
But also, I was going through a crisis at the time, and he was helping me navigate that. So, I think he was a man of profound pastoral wisdom, who really helped me. And then in retrospect, what I realized was how much comfort I took from the fact that he had a strong Dutch accent. Because Dutch is my comfort language. It’s not my best language anymore. But, you know, I feel comforted by Dutch.
And I also realized in writing the book, I’ve realized how important pastors were to me in my life. And of course, when I was a child, all the pastors were male. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I had a pastor who was female. So, in writing the book, I realized how important pastors were to me.
And I realized, as well, how important Henri had been to me. So, he’s clearly a father figure. And as a priest, he’s called Father. And he had this Dutch accent, as I say. And then, I tell a remarkable story about him towards the end of the book, which really counterbalances some of the difficult things that I experienced as a child. And I was surprised how much it reflected or counterbalanced those experiences.
But as I was writing the book, I read through all my journals twice. I’ve been keeping journals for over 50 years. And I came across this incident with Henri that I’d actually forgotten. I couldn’t believe it. And then I read it and I went, “Oh yeah, that all happened.” And it evolved. Broken glass is a big theme in my book. So, it fit very well. So, I think those were all factors. And I think Henri really helped me come to a different understanding of God and my relationship to God. And so, he helped me in my ministry and my faith.
Oh, we also talked a lot about writing, about his writing and my writing. I was really impressed. One time I went to visit him and he told me he was taking a writing course, because he wanted to improve his writing. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, Henri Nouwen with all his success is still taking writing courses.”
But it was also a good message to me, to say, you can keep learning. You can keep learning. And he had advice for me, practical advice. I had a book I was trying to get published and he connected me with some people. That didn’t pan out, but he wrote a foreword for another book of mine. And the most specific advice I remember from him was, he says, “Arthur, you have to build more suspense into your writing.” That was something he told me as we were zipping around in his car one day.
Karen Pascal: Well, if you’ve driven with Henri Nouwen, hats off to you. He was quite a driver.
Arthur Boers: Yes. Well, we had no mishaps when we were driving, but yes, I’ve heard the same stories.
Karen Pascal: It’s funny, because people have asked me if Henri would ever be sainted, and I’ve said from what I hear, the people who drove with him might be sainted, because they survived. But anyway. . .
Arthur Boers: Yeah, there are saints and there are martyrs, right? So, yeah.
Karen Pascal: Well, going back into the book, let’s go back into the heart of it, because as you said, it became really about your father and your relationship to your father. Here at the beginning, you wrote, “I, the oldest son in a line of oldest sons, examined our family tree and know this: Boers men beat Boers sons.”
That’s pretty profound. Take us back and tell us about those experiences, and what it meant to have that generational cycle of abuse.
Arthur Boers: So, it’s hard to know where to start, where to get a grip on this. When I was growing up, it was pretty normal for fathers to be rough and brutal with their children. So, when my father was that way with me, I didn’t really think much about it. I assumed that I deserved it or that it was his right. And he was not as bad as a lot of other fathers that I knew about. So, I didn’t think about it a lot.
But in my mid-thirties, that’s over 30 years ago now, I did family-of-origin work, and I started to think about my childhood and some of the scary things that my father did. And that was really helpful to me at the time, but I don’t think, I still didn’t really plumb the depths of what that meant.
And then, as I was writing this memoir – and it took me about seven or eight years and went through many different drafts and iterations – I hit a kind of crisis point. I plummeted into depression, and I had some things that I was struggling with that really, I’d struggled with on and off all my life. But, you know, I’d set them aside or I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with them.
But as I was thinking about it, I gradually realized that my father had PTSD; clearly, he had PTSD. He was beaten frequently by his father. He lived through the Second World War. In the last year of the war, he lived in an attic. He hid in the attic, rather, because he was eligible to be conscripted for slave labor by the Nazi occupation.
And so, he was living in the attic, and there were actually Nazi officers billeted in that same house a couple floors below. So, it was pretty frightening. And then he volunteered, after the Second World War, when the Japanese withdrew from Indonesia. Holland wanted to reclaim it as a colony, but the Indonesians understandably wanted independence. And so, they rebelled. And my dad volunteered for that war. So, he went to Indonesia to try to retain Indonesia as a colony.
It was a very brutal war. A hundred thousand Indonesians died. And my father had sweat-drenched nightmares that woke him up for the rest of his life. So, more and more, I started to understand that my dad had PTSD – a term, of course, that we never knew about or thought about when I was a child. And in some ways, it’s only coming to the forefront in the last 10, 15 years or so. And as I reflected on that, then I realized, “Oh, I also have PTSD,” and that helps explain my erratic moods and my struggle with depression.
I think it also helps explain a lifelong struggle with migraines. But after having written this book, it seems like my migraines have stopped. I don’t want to be too cocky about it, but this has been the longest stretch without migraines that I can remember.
So . . . Karen, I’m forgetting what your question was.
Karen Pascal: Well, it was really about this cycle of abuse and about you in a sense, you know? How you have come through that. You knew what it was to be abused, but I sensed the line was broken in you as well, that you haven’t been an abusive parent.
Arthur Boers: Right. My wife and I decided early on before we had kids, that we were not going to hit them. So, I didn’t beat my kids. So, in some serious ways, the cycle was broken. But I’d also say even my father helped, in a strange way, pave the way for that, because yes, it’s true that he was violent, but he was not as violent as his own father. So, he managed to dial it down to a degree, which I think helped me dial it down even more.
Karen Pascal: Interesting. There are a couple of episodes that you mentioned within the book that are very striking. I mean, literally: one where you’re unconscious and another where you’re beaten quite savagely. And, and in a way, I look at it and I think I can imagine, and this is a terrible thing to say, but in some ways it’s probably, with you as a pastor and as a counselor, equipped you with an insight into the reality of that. And then, how can that cycle be broken for others? What are you able to offer to others from your own experience and from how you’ve seen God intervene in this?
Arthur Boers: I told somebody, a fellow priest, a little while ago – I was telling him about PTSD, and at one point I said to him, “You know, one of the things that this means is that I have emotional pain every day. Every day there are things I wrestle with.” And so, he kind of took that in and listened to it, and he said, “You know, I don’t want to downplay your pain in any way, but I think that that’s part of what makes you a good pastor. You’re really sensitive to the pain of others, and you really want to help people deal with their pain.”
And so, I think that’s true. I think that that all helped for me to be a pastor. And we can think of Henri’s over-quoted idea, perhaps, about being a wounded healer. But I think that rings true for me. And so, I think that is part of the reason why I’m a pastor.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting; your “pastoral journey” is quite interesting. I loved throughout the book, and it starts very early on, you weave in somehow this call of God on your life, this kind of intimacy, really, in childhood. And it wasn’t necessarily that that’s where your family was heading. In fact, they worried about you becoming too fanatical. But there was something so genuinely in you that pulled you into relationship with God. Maybe talk a little bit about that, because it really moved me. It echoed as true.
Arthur Boers: Well, thank you. Yeah, I always took faith very seriously. I believed what I was told; I was fascinated by the Bible stories. And I listened attentively in church, although I didn’t understand sermons for quite a long time. And I had a very powerful experience when I was four sitting in church, where I felt God calling me to ministry. And I don’t know where that came from, because I think we had a minister in the family in the 16th century. That’s no joke. Before the Reformation, or around the Reformation. And so, our family didn’t talk that way, and our church didn’t really talk that way, either.
So, it kind of baffled me. But it hung with me. It stayed with me. And I always had a sense of God’s reality and God’s presence, and being able to converse with God throughout the day. Of course, I say converse, but it was mostly monologues for me, that way. But I had a sense of God’s presence and care. Now, it was complicated, because my childish view of God obviously got conflated with my father. And so, at times I saw God as my father, only writ larger, who was hostile and easily provoked and just waiting for me to step out of line. And so, that took some overcoming. And partly, it was overcome by a very powerful vision that I had when I was 14 years old, on a Good Friday. And that helped transform my vision.
And so, I think that for me, mysticism moved me to a new understanding of God that was more helpful on healing and also more helpful to offer to other people.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting because, when it follows along your journey, and it starts with Dutch Reformed or Christian Reformed, and it moves along to the Mennonites and then other elements. Here you are today, an Anglican. Is that where you’ve landed, or are you still on the move? Tell us a little bit about that, what you found there that is of worth and feeds your spirit.
Arthur Boers: In terms of being Anglican?
Karen Pascal: Anglican or I think maybe more the mystical and the contemplative, which I think can be fit into so many different denominations. It’s not just particular to the Anglican church.
Arthur Boers: Yeah. So, I’ve been an Anglican priest now for over 10 years. I was a Mennonite pastor most of my adult life. I taught at a Mennonite seminary in Indiana. And then, I hit a bit of a crisis when I was at that seminary, because I felt the need for more of a sense of transcendence in worship. But I was teaching at a denominational school. It’s kind of hard to think about changing denominations when you’re teaching at a denominational school.
And then Tyndale asked me to apply for a job here in Toronto, and I came up, and the first Sunday, I walked to the nearest Anglican church. And I’ve actually been deeply connected with it ever since. And my first Sunday in church, I had a vision of the heavenly banquet. It’s a beautiful space, and it’s a very multinational congregation. And as people moved forward for the Eucharist in their best clothes, because most of the people are immigrants and they wear really nice clothes to church, and their best clothes that were obviously clothes that came from around the world, I thought, “Yeah, this is what the heavenly banquet looks like. Many people from many different nations coming together around the table.”
And so, for me, Anglicanism provides, I would say, a safe place for worship. I think this is also for me, connected to PTSD. I didn’t like going to church when I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what personality would be in charge. I didn’t know where things were going to go. But there’s a kind of predictable rhythm in the liturgy that I’m able to sink myself into. And yeah, my experience is more safe. And then of course, I love presiding over Communion. That’s a very powerful experience. And I often think about Henri.
Karen Pascal: That was a precious experience to Henri, very central to his daily life, really.
Arthur Boers: That’s right. That’s right. And in the book, I write about one of the Communion experiences that was quite powerful when I was at Daybreak.
Karen Pascal: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think one of the things that I enjoy on a Sunday morning is the reality of the Catholic and Anglican and Episcopalian lectionary, that I feel like I am reading what’s being read in African and South America, you know, in Texas and in Toronto. And I love that sense of a shared experience. I have someone who sends me the prayers for that Sunday and the word for that Sunday from England. But I like that world communion. So, I get your image of, “this is the table of the Lamb. This is the celebration that we share together.” That’s very beautiful.
What other sorts of things are you finding nurtures your contemplative life today?
Arthur Boers: A big one for me is spending lots of time outside. When I’m here in Toronto, that’s mostly going for long walks in the area. We live in a very walkable area of Toronto, near the Don Valley, so I can walk down in there. But when I’m up north, I really like to paddle on the water, either kayak or canoe, and engage the wilderness and see the beauty of nature. That’s a very powerful experience for me.
Karen Pascal: It’s food for the spirit, isn’t it?
Now, something about the book, just going back to the book, which, perhaps I really intended as an initial question, and I don’t want to leave out: You use this motif of glass. I mean, the book is called Shattered, which immediately tells us it’s going to somehow deal with that image, immediately. Tell me about why that happened, what that’s about, that image of glass. We haven’t really talked a little bit about how that weaves itself through the book and where it started.
Arthur Boers: Well, as I was writing the book, I had a dream. And in the dream, my father and I were standing in a greenhouse range that was demolished by a hailstorm. This would happen. My father built greenhouses and manufactured greenhouses. And so, this would happen periodically to farmers: that hail would sweep through and ruin greenhouses. Greenhouses then were all glass. And that was really good for my father’s insurance business. But he always felt bad for the farmers. Anyway, for something that occurred regularly. And then in the dream, he and I are standing in that ruined greenhouse range, both of us wearing paint- and putty-stained clothes for work. And I grabbed an empty putty bucket and started to pick up broken glass, to clean it up, which was actually the first job I ever had for my dad when I was 11.
So, it was going way, way, way back to that. And in the dream, my father said, “No, son. That’s okay. You don’t have to do that anymore.” And as I woke up, this was one of those dreams that lingered. And by the way, I tried to talk to Henri about dreams, and he didn’t care for talking about dreams very much, I remember that. But I find dreams quite meaningful. I like to engage them and wrestle with them. So, I woke up from that dream, and it was, as I say, one of those dreams that lingers.
And I heard two messages in it. The first was, in a real sense, I felt like my father was releasing me. He was freeing me up to do what I needed to do, and not to be burdened anymore from the hard things that happened way back then. So, it was a real release, and I was grateful for it.
But the other thing that struck me, as I reflected on the dream, is that glass and broken glass is throughout my life, and in fact, my family. So, the first act of violence, the first thing I remember about my father, is he threw a potted plant at my mother. And it went through the picture window of the living room, which in retrospect seems really shocking, but back then it seemed normal. And my father’s family comes from an area of Holland called Glazen Stad, which means the glass city, because many, probably hundreds of square miles of that region are covered with greenhouses. So, it’s called the glass city. And as I say, my father made a living from glass. And my grandfather actually ate peaches that were needled with broken glass. He didn’t know that they had the broken glass, but he was then damaged. His intestines were damaged. And it took over two decades before that it was repaired. So, there’s a lot of glass and broken glass. I have scars on my hands from some incidents with glass. My father had more.
And I started to see that you could tell my life through glass. David James Duncan has a wonderful book about telling his life through water. And so, I took on the challenge to think about, well, where is glass in my life? And one of the reasons to talk about Shattered is because yes, there was broken glass, but I also believe that there’s redemption and healing and beauty that can emerge even in those difficulties. So, the publisher chose for the cover theme, kintsugi. And kintsugi is a Japanese art form. And when precious pottery or ceramics are broken, then the artists will reassemble the pieces with gold enamel, say, and restore the beauty of the broken pot. But you can still see the lines of the brokenness. And that’s really how I feel about my own life: that, yes, there were these traumatic things. There were these hard things. But beauty has emerged through them. And I could trust God for that.
And so, that’s partly where the glass comes from. It’s just, once I saw it, it became impossible to ignore. And in one of the chapters I write, the one about Henri Nouwen, there’s an incident with broken glass there. And Henri acts very redemptive and very parental with me in that respect. And if you read the whole book, you’ll see that it’s a studied contrast with how I was sometimes dealt with by my father earlier in my life.
Karen Pascal: I loved that little chapter. And in that chapter, we feel your fear, in a sense. We feel some of your anger with Henri, but we also felt your fear of what’s he going to do: “Have I broken something that’s precious to him?”
Arthur Boers: And yeah, I was worried.
Karen Pascal: It was very striking. I loved that. It was interesting to bring it full circle. And then, even, you know, following your journey to your cottage up north, and to glass in the windows and not always perfect. And I don’t know, it’s part of the way this book is beautifully written. It’s part of the way, it makes it very memorable and a treasure. I feel that I would want to recommend the book to others who can look back into their life and know the impact, the trauma of abuse, and question, “What was that? What was that all about? Why did you allow it, God? How can that be redeemed? How can I live forward from that experience?”
I can imagine you as a pastor have had much to say and to offer. Sometimes you hate the fact to say that out of the things that have hurt me, I will end up helping others. But nevertheless, there’s probably a lot of truth to that in your life.
Arthur Boers: Yeah. And I’ve been going around talking about the book, and it’s really sparking intense and good conversations, including with my neighbors. We’re on friendly terms with a couple dozen people, no exaggeration, on the block here in East York where we live, and a lot of those folks came to my book launch at a nearby Anglican church, even though they don’t normally set foot in churches. But they happily came to the book launch, and they want to talk! They want to talk about their families or their fathers, or anger that they’ve seen in the family. Another church that I’m closely affiliated with has a lot of immigrant families in it. And so, they also make connections with the immigrant experience. But also, a number of them also have difficult family backgrounds, and so they want to talk. So, this is really opening up all kinds of conversations, and I’m grateful for that. I’m not sure how it’ll totally unfold, but it feels like I’m doing a good service. I’m giving people permission to explore and talk about these things. And in a way, you know, I’m breaking a taboo, because many of us have families that don’t want to talk about difficult things that happen, and just want to move on. But I think that healing and reconciliation requires telling the truth and exploring the truth together. Not in a way of accusing or denouncing or “gotcha.” None of that kind of stuff. But it does have to be explored. It has to be opened up, because I couldn’t really stop the cycle of violence if I wasn’t able to name it in the first place. So, I think the naming gives you a certain power to move in a different direction.
Karen Pascal: I think the book has so much to offer to others, those who have had an immigrant upbringing, an experience like yours. I felt it so resonated with me. But on the other hand, it’s much broader than that. It’s a coming-of-age story, with all the sensitivity of how God moves in our lives and how you don’t stop at any one point. I was so touched by that. I was touched by the bravery of you leaving your Christian Reformed situation, your Dutch Reformed situation, to move out into other denominations, even though that wasn’t supported by your family.
And I know that you, one senses, as you read in those early years, the kind of fear that might have been there, that need to please, that need to perform for your parents and do what was assumed to be the right thing. And yet, somehow you were drawn, and you continue to be drawn into a deeper faith. And I found that very, I’ll say, delicious. I quite loved it. I learned something from you. I love the way you say you learned to pray for others, that you finish it with, “May you always know deep in your heart how much God loves you.” And my sense is you can’t pray that unless that’s what you’ve discovered yourself. And the book offers that, too. It’s a rich book, and I’m grateful that you wrote it, and I recommend it to others.
Arthur Boers: Oh, good.
Karen Pascal: Arthur, thank you so much for being with us on this episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Arthur Boers: Oh, it’s a great privilege and joy. And as you know, I owe a lot to Henri. So, I’m grateful to make this connection. And that insight about knowing that you’re deeply loved by God? I mean, that’s pure Henri. That was from one of my retreats with Henri while I was a Mennonite pastor, and I brought that back into the pastorate. I thought, “Yeah, that is the central issue: God’s first love, and relying on God’s first love and to keep tapping into that.”
In fact, in one of our conversations, he told me, “Arthur, you’re called to be a mystic.” And when I asked him what that means, he said, “That’s to trust that God loves you, and to keep trusting, keep trusting, keep trusting.”
Karen Pascal: What a beautiful thing. So, he identified that call that God had on your life. And it’s true. I feel that in the book. I feel that in the book. I feel like that he read clearly who you were, the mystic aspect in the book, your sensitivity to dreams, to events, to God’s word. Your hunger for it. All of that’s there. It was, like, planted long before you were in a Sunday school class or you were in a school for theology. It’s just there. And I love reading about that.
Arthur Boers: Oh, I’m so glad.
Karen Pascal: Yeah. Thank you so much. This is a good book; I recommend it to others: Shattered, by Arthur Boers.
Arthur Boers: Thank you, Karen. It’s a privilege.
Karen Pascal: Thank you all for listening to our conversation today. You’ll find links in the show notes of this podcast for Arthur’s book, Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage. I can highly recommend this book. It’s honest, insightful, and beautifully written. I think for those who wrestle with the trauma of domestic violence and abuse, there are valuable insights and hard-won wisdom within its pages.
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