"In Conversation with Henri Nouwen, Part 1" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Welcome to a very special Henri Nouwen, Now and Then podcast. This is our Christmas gift to all those who are part of our podcast and YouTube community of listeners. I’m Karen Pascal, the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society.
This episode is the first of a series of programs drawn from a conversation between Father Henri Nouwen and the Reverend Brian Stiller. In 1995, these two met at L’Arche Daybreak, a home where Henri Nouwen lived the last 10 years of his life. Though we’ve shared this interview once before as a podcast, this time we’re making available both as a podcast and as a YouTube presentation, on our YouTube channel. The conversation is so animated and engaging, I encourage you to take time to watch it, as well as listen to it as a podcast.
This first segment gives us Henri’s personal story and the deep roots of his faith. It tells us how he chose to integrate faith and psychology and how he used the classroom as his pulpit. The whole recording is the very best interview that we have with Henri Nouwen. Brian is brilliant in his questions, and Henri is profound and insightful in his answers. In this interview, Henri gives us the essence of the gospel.
Brian Stiller: Henri, wonderful to have you with us today.
Henri Nouwen is a scholar, a writer, a pastor, and a friend, and one who speaks to us about the deep issues of spirituality and what it means to walk with Christ.
Henri, your childhood was shaped in Holland during the time of occupation. What did that do to the formation of your mind and heart, and your understanding of God at work in life?
Henri Nouwen: Well, it’s interesting. I had an extremely loving, caring family, and that loving care became particularly clear in a time of enormous amount of stresses and struggles. And so, I grew up during the war years, and my father and mother really, really did every possible thing to protect us from the violence and the ugliness of the war, and to give us a very regular life. And both of my parents are deeply, deeply spiritual people, with a great love for Jesus and a great desire to have their children grow that way. And even my grandmother was, even more, a person who nurtured my spiritual life very, very much. So, when I was five years old, I wanted to become a priest already. I actually never changed my mind. I had the desire from very, very young, as a very young child.
Brian Stiller: And was there encouragement by your parents to think that way, or did you just come?
Henri Nouwen: Well, yeah, it was the climate. I mean, we lived a very . . . my father’s a lawyer and my mother was a very sensitive person with an enormous literary sensitivity. And they both encouraged our whole family to live a life of prayer and a life of spiritual reading, and so on. And somehow, the desire was there when I was very young. I was the oldest son. And in our family, my uncle was a priest. And yeah, it came very naturally. And when I was even very, very young, I was already thinking about myself as being close to Christ, but also to be a minister somewhere.
Brian Stiller: You tell the story [about] when the SS troops were trying to take your father away. And he had built this hiding place in your home, and he was hiding there one day when the SS troops came in, and you were about to take him some food and you didn’t. As the fear element of that moment, what did that do to your understanding of God at work in your own life?
Henri Nouwen: Well, I was quite young, you know, and I somewhere felt very, very protected by God, in fact, in all of that. And I must even say that the German occupation and the time of war, in a way, was a time in which we were encouraged very much to deepen the spiritual life. I’ve never felt so spiritual and so religious [as] precisely when our family had to be very close and very protective. And we prayed a lot, and we brought people in the circle of prayer. And I don’t remember that time as a time in which I questioned God or wondered how God could allow all these things to happen. That wasn’t part of my emotional upbringing or thinking at all.
Brian Stiller: You know, Henri, as I read your material and the many, many books that you’ve written, it seems to me the central element of your writing and your ministry is defined by hope. And as I reflect on your time during the occupation, the despair of that occupation, is that where you first learned about the hope element of the gospel?
Henri Nouwen: I don’t think so. It was what I learned very young – that God was real and Jesus was very, very present. I remember as a little child, but mostly when I became around 10, I could hardly believe that anyone did not believe in Jesus, or anyone did not believe in God. And I think what it meant was that I sort of felt an intimacy and a closeness and a directness about my relationship with God. It was sort of as close as you’re sitting here in front of me. And it was amazing. There was an obviousness to it and a directness to it.
Prayer was not a problem. I just loved to pray. I loved to be in church. I loved to hear about it. I listened to every radio program. And it wasn’t that I was particularly pious compared with other people. It was just my natural, normal surroundings. And it was much more than that, than the war, that developed in me that whole hope in God. And it was not so much hope in God that something would go better, as well as I would need to see the experience of God’s presence here and now in our daily life. It was very, very real.
And only later, it’s interesting — when I already was ordained a priest, I had to discover that that feeling or that emotion isn’t always there. And even today, I have to sometimes remember this experience of intimacy that sometimes, later, aren’t there anymore. And then it becomes a question of faithfulness, even when my heart or my body or my mind isn’t always fully there. You know what I mean?
Brian Stiller: But then, as I walk with you through your life, you become a scholar, you become well-trained to the universities of the world, but then you move towards an interest in psychology, and your life changes from being a scholar-academic to being a psychologist and then a pastor. And then you go to a barrio in Peru, and you live with the poor.
Tell us about that, that pilgrimage of your life, and why you made that choice out of academia, out of the great halls of Harvard to care for the mentally handicapped, here in Canada.
Henri Nouwen: Well, as I was saying to you, from very early on, I wanted to be a priest, and I wanted to speak about God to people and to bring people closer into the relationship with God. That was the desire I had as a child. That’s why I went to the diocesan seminary, where I could be ordained young and could work in a parish. And when I was ordained, the bishop didn’t send me to a parish, but said, “Would you like to go on and study?”
And I said, “What I would like to study is not more theology, but psychology, because I want to know a little bit more about how people behave, how they think, how they feel, what’s going on in people’s lives.”
But after I’d finished psychology, and I was a psychologist, and I knew about diagnosis and about therapy, I suddenly realized that I had to integrate my spiritual journey at home and in the seminary with this psychological knowledge that I had. I didn’t want to become a psychologist. I always wanted to be a minister who has an understanding of psychology. So, I applied for a fellowship, and it was accepted, at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, which had a program called Religion and Psychiatry.
And that was a very, very influential time for me, where under the influence of Karl Menninger and others, I learned to integrate my spiritual journey with my psychological knowledge and my psychological understanding and so forth. And I had excellent supervisors.
But when I finished that, I was invited by the University of Notre Dame to come there and to help out a little bit in a new psychology department. And so, I wrote the bishop and said, “Well, I can’t come home yet. Would it be all right if I accepted for a while?”
And he said, “Yes, do it.”
And so, I started to teach. But my teaching from the very beginning, and I would say to the very end, was more a pastoral teaching than a scholarly teaching. I was very much interested in bringing people into a knowledge of God that was very real, very simple, very direct, and very, very much helping them in their own journey.
So, I never thought of myself very much as a scholar. I thought of myself, I would say, I would really say, as a pastor who used the classroom as his pulpit. You know what I mean? Even though I did a lot of research and a lot of academic work, the main interest for me was always ministerial formation. And even in the psychology department, I invited priests and ministers to come and do pastoral psychology.
And when I went back to Holland for a little bit, I studied another little bit, a few years of theology, to reconnect with the theological tradition. And then I was invited to Yale, to be there in the theology department at the divinity school. And I suddenly found myself surrounded with hundreds of young people, women and men from all religious denominations, from all backgrounds, from Baptists and Congregationalists and Episcopalians, and people from Methodist background and some Catholics. And I was absolutely fascinated when I was invited to come to this school that was enormously rich in variation. And I was invited to be a pastoral theologian there, but they gave me an enormous amount of freedom. And I felt what I had to teach was the integration between the spiritual life and the life of ministry. See, that’s what I was interested in.
Brian Stiller: But it seems that your ministry wasn’t just to use a pulpit and a psychiatrist’s couch, side by side. But indeed, you were exploring other people’s needs through your own pain and suffering in your personal journey. So, there was a deep integration of self into your ministry.
Henri Nouwen: I was very, very convinced, from the very beginning, that ministry is to lay down your life for your friends. Like Jesus said, being a shepherd is being the one who lays down his life for his friends. But to lay down your life, you have to first have a life to lay down, you know? You have to know who you are. And by laying down your life, I don’t mean physical martyrdom. I mean your pain, your anguish, your doubt, your confusion, your struggle with your sexuality, your struggle with relationships, your knowing and not knowing, and the whole complex . . . You’re dealing with living in a world where there’s a lot of injustices. So, you live all that interiorly, and how can you get in touch with what you’re living? How can you really enter into that and discover there, God’s healing grace? And when you make that experience, that adventure with God within your own life, as kind of the source of your ministry.
That’s how I even got to the concept of a wounded healer. That came out of my own sense of loneliness. When I came to the States, I wasn’t feeling all that connected; I needed friendship and community. And I didn’t have that very much. My anxiety, whether I would do well or not so well – all these human struggles that everybody has. I started to try to articulate that, to find words around it, and then to say, “Well, if you’re in touch with that, then you can bring other people in touch with that.”
And then, you become like the fertile ground for God to let the words sink in. You know what I mean? It’s like if the ground is not broken up, how can the seed sink in? And I felt more important than announcing good news was, first of all, to break the ground where the good news can bear fruit. You know what I mean?
Brian Stiller: I’m ordained, as you are. And so, in a sense, as church professionals, the tradition has been for us to kind of have it all together and be the dispensers of grace and dispensers of wisdom. And so, to be a wounded healer really cuts across the grain of professionalism in our culture, doesn’t it?
Henri Nouwen: It does. It does. I think we live in a world where professionalism suggests that some are strong and others are weak, or some people have it together and others not, and that those are strong should help the weak. Now, that’s not, I don’t think, what the gospel is speaking about. I think it belongs to the center of the gospel, that God became vulnerable, that God stripped himself from power, that he didn’t cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself and became a human being like we are. And that the essence of our faith is that Jesus became in everything like we are. And I think that that means basically, for me personally, as a follower of Jesus, what I have to offer is, first of all, my own vulnerability, my own weakness, my own brokenness, my own wounds.
Now, not uncared for. I mean, my wounds can only be a source of healing for others if I care for my wounds, if I bandage them well, if I pay attention to that. But basically, it’s not my power, but my willingness to be powerless with other people who are powerless, and to create a fellowship of the weak, and trust that God’s healing power will become visible. I mean, I am very, very convinced that what we have to offer is vulnerability, to lay down your life for your friends, to be compassionate. That means to suffer with, to feel the anguish and the pain of others in your own guts, so that you can be with people.
I mean, just, just for a second, just look at the story of Jesus and the woman of Nain, who brings her only son to the grave. And Jesus sees a widow; that means she lost her husband, see? And she has only one son, who died. And it says, “Jesus was moved by compassion.” And if you literally look to the Greek, it says, “He felt the suffering of that woman in his guts.” There’s a Greek word, splanchna, that means “guts.” Jesus experiences the anguish, the loneliness, the pain of that woman in his own interiority. And he could be with her so closely, that in that closeness, he was moved so much that it was a movement to life. And therefore, he was able to give the son back to the mother.
But the miracle is not that the son was raised to life. I mean, the son is going to die later on, anyhow. But the miracle was that Jesus loved so deeply and affectionately this mother, that he gave her back new life, you know? And so, I think that’s what ministry is about: to not worry about raising that people to life, but first of all, to be compassionate with those who suffer losses, and trust that that will give life. That’s something else.
Brian Stiller: The first time we met, Henri, was at the parliamentary prayer breakfast, in Ottawa. I did the evening dinner, and you did the morning breakfast, and I was astounded by your approach. You were standing in at the front of the head table and the Prime Minister was there, and the heads of the opposition parties and the head of the Senate, and the head of the Supreme Court and the Speaker of the House – all the symbols of power.
And you stood and you opened by saying, “I have a word from God for you today.” And I thought, “How audacious.”
But it was interesting. As people just sat back and you could almost see by their body language, they were saying, “And what is that word?”
If other people that I know who are public as religious spokespeople had said that, they would’ve said, “Who do you think you are?” But there was something out of your weakness – that day, you had spiritual power. How does that come to you? How do you appropriate the power of God in your own brokenness and weakness? So, you were spiritually powerful to the powerful, and yet you were weak?
Henri Nouwen: Well, the power of God becomes visible through our powerlessness. And first of all, that’s what you see in Jesus. Jesus is the most powerless of all human beings. I mean, he not only became human, but he died in the most, most horrendous death. Stripped not only from his clothes, but stripped from friends, from his experience of God: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Jesus was completely powerless. And he hung on this cross with nothing. And then, this incredible word that John says: “I am standing here and out of his side came water and blood,” as signs of life. You know, new life was born at the moment of total, total emptying.
And I think when I was claiming some authority, it was an authority that I claim not because I know something or I have a particular voice that speaks to me, but it was more that I felt very much that I who live with very weak people, very broken people, very, very non-verbal people in community of very weakness, that in that community I had discovered and seen the power of God and the power of God’s healing, the power of God’s love that comes out of brokenness, out of weakness, out of vulnerability, out of people who are very marginal, very poor, and quite often “useless” in the eyes of the world.
And I discovered that precisely there, where people are poor and where I am poor, and where we are poor, God’s power is manifest and we are empowered.
But it’s not a power that comes from control. It’s not a power that comes from having things all in your hands. In fact, it’s the powerlessness of the person who, finally, stretches out his hand and is girded and led to places he rather wouldn’t go. And I felt very, very free to say, “I’m a very powerless person. I live with powerless people. But I am deeply convinced that this is the place from where I have something to say that comes from God.”
Brian Stiller: That’s so radically different from the whole cultural assumption of power and authority.
Henri Nouwen: Well, it is, but that’s the gospel. It’s counter-cultural in that sense. That’s also what it means for me to live in a community, where I am now. That’s why I finally chose to leave the university and join a community, is to be empowered by the poor, to be empowered. I don’t have power because I have a degree in theology. I’m not empowered because I read many books or I’m not empowered because I know so many things. (I might know a few.) But basically, that’s not where my power comes from. My power comes from the empowerment through living with the poor. That’s where it comes from.
And that’s what the whole center of the gospel is about. Blessed are the poor. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who care for the poor.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who help the poor.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who grieve; they will be consoled.”
He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the consolers, blessed are the helpers, blessed are those who know better.” He says, “Blessed are those who are weak, who are broken, who are poor, who are mourning, who don’t have it together.”
Because in their brokenness, there is a blessing hidden. And blessing means the power of God’s presence. There are good words. Hidden blessing comes from “benediction.” Bene means good, diction means saying things, and God is saying good things precisely in the place where people are broken and weak. And that’s where the healing power of God can become manifest, you know? And I think that’s what I’ve seen. I’ve seen it all the time. I mean, it’s not an idea. I mean, this is what I’m living, day by day. I’m living with people who don’t speak, people who don’t walk, people who are very, very weak, but in effect, who radiate out of them God’s healing power.
Brian Stiller: But it isn’t just the fact that they are poor or that they’re weak, but is it because God is at work within their poverty and their brokenness? Because in poverty and brokenness of itself, God is speaking? Or is it the world or the environment or the means by which God speaks?
Henri Nouwen: Well, God has chosen the weak to shame the strong, as Paul speaks about in Corinthians. He had chosen the little ones, those who are not wise. He keeps choosing those on the margin of the society to speak. Because those who have nothing to lose, who in a way are poor – that means they have nothing to lose – are the ones who become the carriers of good news. You know, it’s very real. What is important in life is things like knowing that you’re loved, knowing that you belong, knowing that you are not an outcast. Knowing that you’re somewhere safe.
And in the world in which we live, people are saying, “You better prove that you’re good. Why don’t you do something relevant, so people can say you’re a successful person? Why don’t you do something that makes you popular, so people see you and you have a good name? Why do you have no power, so you can influence people with whatever you have?”
And Jesus is saying, “These are temptations.” Jesus is saying, himself, “I don’t need to prove to the world that I’m loved. I don’t need to change stones into bread to be relevant. I don’t need to jump from the tower to be on television to be popular. I don’t need to kneel down and have power. I don’t need any of that to prove that I am the beloved son of God, that I am the beloved child of God. I am the beloved.”
And I’m saying all this because the people that I’m living with are precisely the people who aren’t successful, aren’t popular, aren’t powerful. And, in a mysterious way, because they aren’t able to prove anything, they can live out the truth of who they are. That in their brokenness, in their weakness, in their inability to be successful and popular and powerful, they communicate somewhere in a very direct way that they are the beloved children of God. And my task as an articulate person who can talk and can do a lot of things is to find a way to bring these gifts of the poor to the front and offer them to our society as a source of healing.
Brian Stiller: Is that why the gospel calls us to conversion, to the new birth? Because it’s so radical in opposition to the cultural norms, the prevailing attitudes of today. That’s why conversion is essential to a person coming to Christ?
Henri Nouwen: But conversion is, first of all, an ongoing thing. It doesn’t happen once. Conversion is a lifelong process. Conversion is claiming again and again and again, the truth of myself. And what is the truth of myself? That I’m God’s beloved child, long before I was born and my father, my mother, and my teachers and church got involved. And I will be God’s beloved child long after I’ve died. I go from God’s intimate embrace into God’s intimate embrace. God says, “I’ve loved you with an everlasting love. I’ve loved you before you were born. I’ve knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have molded you in the depths of world. I was there long before any human being was there. And I loved you and loved you, and I’ve written your name in my hands, and you were safe in the palm of my hand long before you were born. And I’m sending you into this world for a little time, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years. That’s just a little bit, so that you have a chance to say, ‘I love you, too.’”
See, that’s what life is about. Life is simply saying “yes” to God saying, “I love you.” And you say, “Yes. I want to say ‘yes’ to that. I want to say ‘yes.’”
And all the struggles and the pain and the anguish and the losses that take place in our lives are endless opportunities to claim God’s love. I lose my mother and I’m in deep grief, but can I live that grief as a way to say “yes” to my belovedness, belovedness before I was born? I lose a job. Can I somewhere live it not to become bitter or angry or resentful or jealous, but can I somewhere claim that even if though I lost my job, even though I’m not relevant, even though people don’t praise me, even though I’m not a big shot, that still, I’m the beloved child of God. I can start living from that place.
See, that’s the spiritual life: to live from the place of your spiritual truth. And see, that’s what Jesus heard in the Jordan, when he came out of the water. A voice came in that “You are my beloved son; on you my favor rests.”
And Jesus lived from that place. And people loved him, and people hated him. And people said, “Hosanna,” and people said, “Crucify.” All that was happening.
But he says, “I remain the beloved son of God. And everybody will leave me, but my father will never leave me alone.” And it’s from that place that he calls us to believe that you and I are as beloved and as important to God as Jesus, and we shouldn’t say Jesus was the son of God and we are not.
Jesus says, “Just as the Father loved me, so he loves you.”
He calls you the beloved. I’m calling you to claim the truth of your divine childhood. You are a child of God – your divine childhood.”
So, we have to claim it for ourselves, here and now, in the Christian community, in the place where we are living. I’m not talking about some sentimental thinking back to 2,000 years ago. I’m thinking, and this is my big struggle, and I had it all the way through: Can I keep believing, that even when people don’t like me, I’m still acting. And then you say something to me that’s hostile. Can I still respond to you from the place of my belovedness? You reject me or somebody else rejects me? Can I still respond to that from a place of belovedness? Can I still live from the place of my truth?
Karen Pascal: Isn’t this the very best of Henri Nouwen in conversation? I am sure you want to hear more. We plan to post Part Two of this very rich, deep dialogue of faith at the beginning of the New Year.
Thank you for being with us today on Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. If you’d like to watch this amazing interview, you can see it on our YouTube channel.
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