Brian Stiller & Henri Nouwen, Part 1 | Episode Transcript
Brian Stiller: 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 your 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 it a very regular life. And both of my parents were deeply, deeply spiritual people. There was a great love for Jesus and a great desire to have their children grow that way. And 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. I actually never changed my mind. I had the desire from very, very young as a very young child.
Brian Stiller: What was their encouragement by your parents that way?
Henri Nouwen: It was the climate. My father was 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 the life of spiritual reading and so on. And somehow the desire was there from I was very young. I was the oldest son and in our family, my uncle was a priest. 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, to be a minister, somewhere.
Brian Stiller: You tell the story when the SS troops were trying to take your father away and he had built his 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. What did the fear element of that moment do to your understanding of God at work in your own life?
Henri Nouwen: Well, I was quite young, you know. I, somewhere, I felt very, very protected by God, in fact, in all of that, I must even say that the German Occupation and time of war in a way was a time in between. We were encouraged very much to deepen the spiritual life. I’ve never felt so spiritual and so religious 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. I don’t remember the 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, actually.
Brian Stiller: 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. 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, that 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 closeness and a directness about my relationship with God. The sort of closeness as you’re sitting here in front of me. And it was amazing. There was obviousness to it and directness to it. Prayer was not a problem. I just love to pray. I love to be in church. I love to hear about it.
I listened to every radio program. 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 get 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 that when I was ordained a priest, I had just discovered that that feeling or that emotion isn’t always there. And even today, I have to sometimes remember these experiences 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: 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 that I wanted to speak about God to people and to bring people closer into 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 the parish. He said, “Would you like to go on and study?” And I said, “Well, 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 I 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 I came 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 it had excellent supervisors. But when I finished that, I was invited to 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, 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 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 really connect 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 — Baptist and Congregationalists and Episcopalians and people with Methodist backgrounds and some Catholics. And I was absolutely fascinated when I was invited to come to this school that was enormously rich in variation. I was invited to be a pastoral theologian there, but they give 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. 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 and 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 laying down your life, you have to have first a life to lay down. You have to know who you are, and by laying down your life, I don’t mean physical martyrdom. I meant 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 in your own life, as a kind of the source of your ministry. That’s how I even got to the concept of 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 routes around it and then to say, well, if you are 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? 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, to break the ground where the good news can bear fruit, you know what I mean?
Brian Stiller: I’m ordained, as you are. The tradition for church professionals has been for us to 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 somebody’s strong and others are weak, or some people have it together and others not. And that those who are strong should help the weak. Now I don’t think that’s what the gospel is speaking about. I think it belongs to the center of the gospel that God became vulnerable. That God stripped himself of 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 means basically for me personally, and as a follower of Jesus, and 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. 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 them. But basically, my gift is 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 there, God’s healing power will become visible. I’m 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. 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. 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, splágxnon. That means guts. It says he experienced 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, someone’s going to die later on anyhow, but the miracle was that Jesus loved this mother so deeply and affectionately that he gave her a back a new life, you know? And so, I think that’s what ministry is about. It’s to do not with worrying about raising dead 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 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 have 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: The power of God becomes visible through our powerlessness. Well, first of all, that’s what you see in Jesus. Jesus is the most powerful of all human beings. He not only became human, but he died in the most, most horrendous death, stripped not only from his clothes, but stripped from friends, stripped from his experience of God: My God, why have you abandoned me? Jesus was completely powerless. And he hung on this cross, with nothing. And then there’s incredible word that John says, “and I am standing here and out of his side, came water and blood.” A sign of life. New life is 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, very often “useless” in the eyes of the world.
And they discover 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. And 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 stretched out his hand and is girded and led to places he rather would not 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: But 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 the community. 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 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 didn’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.
It doesn’t say blessed are the consolers, blessed are the helpers, blessed are those who know better. It says blessed are those who weep, 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 a power of God’s presence. Those good words, hidden blessing, come from “benediction.” “Bene” it means “good,” and “diction” means saying things. 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. And I think that’s what I’ve seen. I’ve seen it all the time. It’s not an idea. 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 fact 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 had chosen the weak to shame the strong, as Paul speaks about in Corinthians. And he had chosen the little ones, those who are not wise. God keeps choosing those who are in the margin of the society to speak. Because those who have nothing to lose, who in a way are poor, that means have nothing to lose, are the ones who become the carrier of good news. You know, it’s very real. What is important in life? What is important to life is things like knowing that you are loved, knowing that you belong, knowing that you are somewhere safe. And in the world in which we live, people are saying you better prove that you are good.
You know, why don’t you do something relevant? 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. It’s just 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. That’s there. And, you know, 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 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 am God’s beloved child. Long before I was born and my father and my mother and my teachers got involved, and I will be God’s beloved child long after I’ve died. I go from God’s intimate embrace until God’s intimate embrace. God says, I’ve loved you with an everlasting love. I’ve loved you before you were born. I have knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have molded you in the depths of the world. I was there long before any human being was there. And I loved you and loved you and have written your name in my hands.
And you’re 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, 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’s 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 am in deep grief, but can I live that grief as a way to say yes to my love of this 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 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’s 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 that’s what Jesus heard in the Jordan. When he came out of the water, a voice came in that said, “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 Jesus said, “I remain the beloved son of God. Everybody will leave me, but my father will never leave me alone. And it’s from that place. And he calls us to believe that you and I are as beloved and as important to God as Jesus. And we shouldn’t say, well, 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, you. I’m calling you to claim the truth of your divine childhood, you are a child of God — your divine childhood.
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