Ron Rolheiser "The Influence of Nouwen" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal and I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences right around the world. Today in this podcast, you’re going to meet Fr. Ron Rolheiser. Fr. Ron is a gifted writer with titles such as The Restless Heart, The Holy Longing, and A Spirituality of Leadership. He’s a Roman Catholic priest who is the president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Ron Rolheiser has been a featured keynote speaker at several Henri Nouwen conferences. His insights into the heart and mind of Henri Nouwen are so rich. I know you’re going to enjoy hearing what Ron has to say about Henri Nouwen.
Fr. Ron, you’re a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. We’re here because it’s the annual Summer Institute and you’ve titled it Downward Mobility. Why?
Fr. Ron Rolheiser: Because it’s in many ways the central part of the gospel, I think the part of the gospel we don’t pick up on. As St. Paul puts it in Philippians, “though Jesus was in the form of God he didn’t cling to that. He climbed down to become a human being, and then he climbed down further to take on the form of a slave.” And so that the Christ movement is a move downward. And so much of just our whole cultural ethos is we’ve got to climb upward, onward upward. I gave a talk last night. The motto of my school was ‘Onward and upward, ever upward.’ So many of us come from the background where were raised both consciously and unconsciously with the whole thing about from rags to riches, which isn’t a bad ideal, but I think we’d go from rags to riches and then back to rags. I think we need to learn to become post-affluent; to become post-rich. We need to step away from privilege. We need to step away from money. We need to step away from comforts and so on. Not that they’re bad but until everybody has equal access and you know, I should only have, an encyclical says, you should only have two coats whilst everybody has one.
Karen: Let me ask you, how does this relate to Henri Nouwen? Do you see a link at all as you’ve chosen downward mobility? Is there a way in which Henri was at all interested in downward mobility and how did he demonstrate it?
Ron: Well, first of all, Henri was obsessed with this. This is central Henri Nouwen, from the time when he had his first successes, that he got published, he teaches at Yale, he goes to Harvard. As soon as he leaves Yale, remember, he goes to South America. He’s already, “I need to step away from this. I need to step away from privilege.” Privilege bothered Henri even though he liked it. He was always a contradiction. But then he went to Harvard when South America didn’t work out for him. He went to Harvard and again was always to step away. He was always trying to somehow find a way to climb down, which was difficult for him because, well, first of all, it’s difficult for everybody, but he’s an international figure. He liked traveling. He liked doing things. He liked comforts and at the same time, he was always – his heart was clear: ‘I‘ve got to step away from this. I’ve got to go.’ And even his ending up in L’Arche is a very clear example of a person who clearly kept trying to step away from privilege in the downward movement.
Karen: It’s interesting, because we talk about downward mobility and we think in terms of resources, we think in terms of money or privilege. But one of the interesting things about Henri’s downward mobility is that he’d reached the pinnacle of what we called academic or intellectual success, both in the fact that he’s at Harvard, but also because he’s got a lot of published materials. And it was interesting, his choice to go to L’Arche. What was he having to let go of in that?
Ron: Well, he had to let go of his academic career which again– you knew Henri; he was always a bit of a contradiction to himself. He needed that kind of affirmation and yet he was never comfortable with it. So his idea was, ‘I need to let go of this prestige.’ He writes about that very explicitly. Before he went to South America, he wrote very explicitly, “I’ve got to step away from this privilege. I’ve got to step away from this privilege.” Then he was even stronger at Harvard. And of course he was envied. The academics envied him because his classes were so full and also his books were read. But Henri’s mind was always — Henri was a gospel person — and he was always clear we’ve got to move towards the poor. He didn’t quite know how to do it. And his meeting Jean Vanier, I think, was a great providential thing in his life because he was always looking for that home. So there were two things in Henri’s mind that were meshed together. One was the downward mobility. But remember he was always trying to find a home. He was always trying: ‘This is not where I’m at home. I’m not at home at Harvard. I’m not at home in Yale. I’m not at home in South America. I’m not quite at home in the United States and so on.’ But it was a deeper sense of home. And then he lands with L’Arche, which really tested him, you know, washing the bodies and then feeding people. That wasn’t Henri, he was always physically awkward but at the same time, he begins to realize, ‘I’m home, I’m home with these people I’m home.’ And he’d write so honestly. He said, “They don’t admire me academically. These people don’t know I have ever written books.” And it was the first time he wasn’t admired for what he was doing. And it’s the first time he really felt at home.
Karen: He was admired for being present. “Are you going to be home tonight?” It’s interesting because for those who might be listening to this you might not know what L’Arche is. L’Arche is a community where developmentally handicapped adults and assistants live together in community. And Henri joined this. He a person who, at that point, had written literally dozens of books. He joined a community where no one could read a book. And I think that was quite interesting and it was life giving to him because he had found home there. What do you think Henri Nouwen has to offer today?
Ron: Oh, a lot. I think Henri Nouwen– to use one of his own words — Henri Nouwen made a distinction between achievement and fruitfulness. He said, “Your achievements are what you accomplish, but they stop when you die, but your fruitfulness can go on and on.” Henri Nouwen probably has a deeper influence in spirituality than he had the years when he was alive. So his books go on. To my mind, that’s also why I was so powerfully drawn to him — and I’m a spiritual writer– is that he was able to articulate spirituality in a new language. If you look at the books before Nouwen, you know, like spiritual classics, you have The Imitation of Christ and Fulton Sheen’s books or evangelical stuff. You have Billy Graham and stuff. It’s a different language. It’s biblical, it’s powerful. But Nouwen was – we just heard Shane Claiborne and he says, quoting Frederick Buechner, “We’ve got to connect all our deepest passions to the deepest pains in the world.” Henri did this by connecting the gospel to our deepest longings. So I like the title of the book that Michael Higgins wrote about him called Genius Born of Anguish. So Henri, there was always an anguish inside of him. And out of that he was able to articulate how we relate to Jesus, how we relate to the gospel, how we become God’s beloved in a way that was absolutely unique and gives this sense. I’ve often said this about Henri Nouwen: when you read him, you get the sense of being introduced to yourself. That was my first sense. I read him when I was still young in my twenties and I realized this person is introducing me to myself and he’s given me permission to feel the way I feel. And yet at the same time, it’s all under a Christian canopy.
Karen: I love that one of the letters written to Henri said, “How could you know the map of my heart?” And I find that to be a great truth about Henri. Do you think he is a spiritual master for this age of anxiety?
Ron: Definitely. Definitely. First of all, he’s a spiritual master and his long term stay-ability, history will decide that. Will he be read 150 years from now the way The Imitation of Christ is? I think some of his works probably, like his masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son, they’ll remain spiritual classics, But you know, it’s like any artist or musician, a lot of the other stuff is going to survive a hundred years from now but he’s a spiritual master for the age. And that I can say kind of very confidently. Nobody, no spiritual writers enjoyed this kind of popularity in the last 70 years as Henri Nouwen. So, a popularity that’s deserved isn’t like he’s a pop sensation. So sometimes you get pop sensations. You have it in the arts worl. You get a Justin Bieber or a Katie Perry or somebody like they’re pop sensations. Okay. And you can get that in spirituality and it’s some mega preacher, but that wasn’t Henri. Henri’s popularity is with, if I can call this, a certain depth community and it’s serious people. And also that he was able to — he wrote clearly as a Roman Catholic. He never apologized about –I’m a Roman Catholic priest– but he wrote in such a way that his readings, first of all, he opened up spirituality. Protestantism, the evangelicalism, the evangelicals, they became interested in spirituality because of Henri Nouwen. And even the famous thing on Oprah where Hillary Clinton said she carries one book in her purse, and it’s his book The Return of the Prodigal Son so that he really reached across all these lines.
Karen: Well, you have done probably more than anybody I know to help promote Henri. You’ve been there for us and I am so, so grateful. I’m grateful for the way you have understood Henri as this spiritual master, but you’ve also understood something of his creative genius. And that’s been wonderful. I would encourage people to follow Ron Rolheiser because Ron Rolheiser is a spiritual master for today too. And we are so grateful for the way in which you bring people to Henri. I thank you for that.
Ron: Thank you. Well, he has been a major influence in my life, my writings. You know, as I‘ve said, oftentimes I’ve been at Henri Nouwen conferences and I said, he developed a genre that most of us are following, a way of writing and spirituality, a way of approaching spirituality and even a language for spirituality. He was a pioneer and the rest of us, we don’t write exactly like him but there’s a genre he developed the way we write spirituality today. And also the other thing about Henri that I often emphasize, he wrote spirituality as opposed to writing about spirituality. We have many people who write about spirituality the same as some people write about artists or painters or whatever. He was an artist, he was a painter. He didn’t write about spirituality he wrote spirituality.
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