Gabrielle Earnshaw "Love, Henri" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, welcome to Now and Then. I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society and sitting with me today is Gabrielle Earnshaw. Gabrielle has been our archivist for many years, and now the editor of three wonderful books. Today I want to introduce you to one of those books. It’s called Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Gabrielle, where did this come from? Tell me about the letters of Henry Nouwen.
Gabrielle Earnshaw: All right. Well, I was working in the archives and from the very beginning the letters that Henri Nouwen received were the most remarkable aspect of his archives. There’s other wonderful things about his archives, but the fact is that he received 16,000 incoming letters. When I finally got around, 10 years into my work, to being able to actually number them all and count them all up, 16,000 incoming letters. So that meant that he would’ve written that many letters back. Not all of them would be terribly interesting necessarily, but many of them would be. So with Sister Sue Mosteller, who Henri had left his legacy to, she is his Literary Eexecutrix, we started a program to try to collect these letters that Henri wrote to people. We called them, we wrote them, we asked them would you consider donating your letter to the Nouwen Archives so that we have the full correspondence, not just the letter that he received. And many, many people agreed to do that. And over the course of around 10 years we collected about 3,500 letters from people all around the world who were willing to part with their letters and donate them to the Henri Nouwen Archives. And then in addition to that, Henri had his own way of saving some of his letters. So in total, we have about 5,000 letters that Henri wrote, copies of letters that he wrote, or the originals that people sent to us. And it became apparent that if we were going to do any book by Henri Nouwen from the Nouwen archives, it would be a book of letters. And I was chosen to be the editor of this. And it really was a life-changing moment for me. And I had spent already, I guess, close to 16 years with Henri Nouwen’s archives, but then to be able to very carefully and slowly go through his letters. That was really, it was so different from what I’d been doing because I had to work through great sort of reams of paper as an archivist to get everything cataloged. But to finally be able to sit down with each letter and then evaluate it and say, is this a letter that should be included in the first volume of letters by Henri Nouwen? And that’s what I did.
Karen: How did you get those choices? How did you choose something that you felt should be included? Like what was the criteria?
Gabrielle: Well I went through a lot of different scenarios about what letters should be included, but I ended up essentially saying this book is going to be published about 20 years, it was actually to mark the 20th anniversary of Henri’s death. It’s being published 20 years after Henri’s death and do I want it to be a historical document? Should it be an historical document for scholars, for Nouwen studies or actually is the need so great right now that we need Henri’s voice in our current lives, in the 21st century. And so I started thinking, what are people worried about right now? What are people thinking about right now? What are people lying awake at night about right now? What are people going through right now? A lot of them are the same things that people were going through in Henri’s time.
People are losing their spouses. People are having to leave a career they love. People are having to kind of contend with how do they balance their contemplative life with social justice needs. People are wondering whether or not they should become a priest or a nun. Yeah, there’s just a lot of different ways that his letters continue to speak to people. And that’s how I decided it was actually based on. I made a list of what are sort of the major questions that I’m asking, that my friends are asking and that people around me are asking and how can Henri respond to this? And so I went through his letters with that very sort of – actually a lot of letters just were obviously not going to be part of that book under those criteria.
So it was really these books [sic] that he was writing mostly to individuals, people who had written to him and saying, my marriage is breaking down and I don’t know how I’m going to survive this. And Henri would write, he would sit down at his desk and he would put pen to paper and he would write something like a spiritual director would to the person. And these letters, though they were written to a specific person in a specific situation, they actually speak a universal truth. And that is the nature of truth actually. I think that when you actually have a perennial wisdom, something that is true, it is true through the ages. And those were the letters that I chose. And it was hard of course, I had 5,000 letters to go through. I had six months to do it.
But in the end I ended up picking 204 to be exact. And so there’s 204 letters in the book and I was going to order them thematically because I thought, well, people who are experiencing a loss or a divorce or a career choice or any of those decisions could quickly go to a letter that would address their need. But in the end, the letters actually ended up telling Henri Nouwen’s life story. So in fact, the book is also a biography. It’s an autobiography, but more a biography in that a person can learn a lot about the life of Henri Nouwen through these letters. I provided not a lot of detail on each letter, but just so that you know who he’s writing to and why, what might be the circumstances of why he’s writing this letter. But there’s also letters which I included on purpose with intention, where Henri Nouwen might be going through his own… Henri Nouwen struggled with depression and he wrote some beautiful letters to people who were also struggling with depression. But I included some letters where he was reflecting on his own experience with depression and how he was living it. So that’s why in the end, putting them chronologically made the most sense, because you saw how Henri lived his own experiences of loss, of career changes. You know, he left Harvard to move to a community here in north Toronto, the L’Arche Daybreak community. How did he make that decision? That letter is in the book about why did he make that decision? What was going on at Harvard that invited him to make such a drastic life change? So in fact, this book has many points of entry. So it could be for people who want to know more about Henri Nouwen’s life, but it can also be for a person who is interested in how to live, like the subtitle is, Letters on the Spiritual Life. A person who’s asking the question, ‘How do I live my spiritual life?”
And a lot of the letters will resonate whether or not you’re going through something yourself, dramatic something, but it will – I think the feedback I’m receiving is that these letters touch people in a very deep way. He’s very personal. He’s very, very accepting. He’s non-judgmental, he’s wise. And there’s a feeling I’ve always had with Henri Nouwen that you can just relax. You can just let your hair down. You don’t need to be anything other than who you are. And you can sense that in all of the letters and it’s very moving, it’s very touching and it’s very inspiring.
Karen: I find that I have enjoyed the book immensely. I’ve read it several times. It’s not a book that you have to sit down and say, I’m reading from cover to cover in one sitting or anything like that. I think what I love about the letters from Henri is the great intimacy that we have come to love in his writing; that which seems almost disarming, disarmingly, honest which is a way in which you connect and you find yourself saying, oh, he’s describing me at a very deep place of my heart. And I find that in the letters, in spite of the fact that it’s may be a page or two to someone, and sometimes even a page or two to a stranger, the incredible genuineness that I found there is very, very touching and helpful. I would say helpful. Henri is a helpful guide for us. I would certainly encourage people to get this book Love, Henri, you will find it to be a real treasure. Do you have anything else you’d like to add Gabrielle?
Gabrielle: Just when you were speaking, I was thinking the word that came to mind is ‘authentic’. I think that there’s a lot of falsity in our world right now and there’s a lot that people are having to really think about what truth means and what false means. And I think that Henri in all of my years of working with his writings and his teachings, the word authentic comes to mind because I think it’s such an important quality of his character. So he was authentic. He was authentic to his own self, to his own vocation and he was faithful to it. So again, this kind of authenticity of living, it’s inspiring. And I think that it comes, really comes through in the way he writes and the letters that he wrote.
Karen: I want to encourage all of you. You will love this book. It’s called Love, Henri, and it’s called Love, Henri because that’s how he would sign his name to people, Love, Henri. And I would encourage you to go to our website, go to the bookstore and take a look. I think you’ll enjoy Love, Henri. It’s really worth a read.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!