Gabrielle Earnshaw "Following Jesus" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now, and Then. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts taking time to give us a review or thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us reach more people. Our goal is to allow the wisdom, honesty, and encouragement found in the life and writings of Henri Nouwen to speak to a world hungry for meaning. And I am thrilled today to be talking to Gabrielle Earnshaw. Gabrielle has been the official archivist for the Henri Nouwen Society and the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust for, I think it’s now 19 years?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: We’re going on 19 years.
Karen: Wow. Gabrielle, that’s amazing. And I think of you as the person who knows more about Henri than anybody, because you have gone through the archives, you’ve read all these letters, you’ve read all this material. You are the person who just has a tremendous feel for the treasure that is there. Let me ask you first of all, how did this book come about, Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. Tell me about the book. How did it come about?
Gabrielle: Well, it was an exciting moment for me in the archives actually. I was there to see if there was some material for a book. And I was looking through Henri Nouwen’s notes from his early days from 1985 at Harvard. And I saw that at that point in time he was giving lectures on following Jesus and I had never seen them before. It wasn’t part of his courses at Harvard, it was a special set of series of lectures. And I saw that they went on until at least, I think, ’87. So from ’85 to ’87 and there was no book called Following Jesus and I hadn’t seen any articles called Following Jesus. And I thought, perhaps this might be a work that Henri Nouwen was involved in just at the moment that he got excited by L’Arche and Jean Vanier. And in fact, I was correct. And what happened is that he was -while his intellectual and emotional energy was going in 1985 towards the theme of discipleship and following Jesus, when he met Jean Vanier at around the same time, his energy shifted. And it shifted to L’Arche and it shifted to other themes. And so unlike many of his other works, this set of ideas or set of understanding of what following Jesus means to Henry Nouwen got set aside. And that really excited me because that meant that it was new material for us all these years later. So it was material that had never been published before. It wasn’t in book form, it wasn’t sitting there like a ripe plum for me to pick down and have as a book. But what I did see was that this was material that hadn’t been published in other places. Henri Nouwen -and if you look at – I meant to actually do this before I came for this interview- if you look at the titles of his 39 books I would guess that at least a third of them have Jesus in the title. So it’s not like he hasn’t written about Jesus, but this focus on what it means to be a follower of Jesus is what’s new for this book. And that’s what’s exciting for me and I think will be exciting for other people.
Karen: I love the title. I love the other part of it too. It seems to me to give it a kind of presence for this time. And that’s Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. Did you find that in what he’d written? Where did that title come from?
Gabrielle: Right. Well the subtitle wasn’t there. He called his lectures, his talks, Following Jesus but almost immediately when you start reading the book, he starts to talk about home. For Henri home is a theme that runs throughout his work. I mean he was always looking for a home and when he found L’Arche finally in his fifties, when he found L’Arche Daybreak to live there for the last 10 years of his life, that was a real homecoming. It was a physical homecoming as much as a spiritual one. And so this theme of home is very present in these lectures. Following Jesus to Henri, part of it means finding our way home and home means the safe place, everything that you would,… what connotations you have for the word, it’s a safe place. It’s a place of belonging. It’s a place of security. And Henri goes through the number of times that in scripture where God or Jesus are referred to as home, you know, “my home is your dwelling place”, or “I am your dwelling place”, or “I am your refuge”.” “I hold you under the wings of my arms like a bird.” There’s a lot of these metaphors that Henri draws forward about home. But home is also a physical place. But for Henri he’s also speaking about it as a metaphysical place. So a place where we can be at home while we’re on the road. It’s a kind of trying to understand that we are so connected to our birthright as the children of God, that no matter where we go in the world we’re always at home.
For me, that’s a very beautiful way of understanding the spiritual life, the way of understanding being a follower of Jesus. It’s always remaining home, always knowing that your identity is as a child of God, and you can go out into the world and you can be a person of compassion. You can be a peacemaker. You can be all of those things because you know you are safe at home at all times, even if you’re not physically there, you are there all the time. And how do we get home? How do we stay home? It’s prayer, it’s meditation, it’s solitude, it’s stillness, it’s silence. So in this book, while he is talking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, he also is inviting us to some of the spiritual disciplines that allow us to be the followers of Jesus.
So that those are things like prayer. So prayer comes up in every chapter of the book. To be a follower of Jesus, I think as anyone who’s ever tried it’s not easy. And Henri Nouwen is not saying that it’s going to be easy either for any of us or for him. But what he’s saying is that we can develop practices, everyday practices that allow us to stay strong for the journey, to allow us to feel safe for the journey. And those are things like having a very close life with Jesus and with God through prayer. And Henri gives us really beautiful examples of how to do that. It’s very personal, it’s very off the cuff. You don’t need to have any kind of grand thoughts.
He shows us, you can just say, “God, I’m feeling despair today please be with me. I need that so much today as I head out into my day,” and sort of staying connected to the place of God within us throughout our days. And that’s one of the practices that Henri shares in this book. He shares it, of course, in almost every book he ever wrote. Any talk would include something to say, we need to create space in our lives for God. We can’t fill it completely. We are very busy people, we have a lot to do. There’s a lot of things to do, important things to do, but we can’t fill our entire days with that. There have to be moments that we carve out consciously to be with God.
And again, it’s not in a big way that requires a lot of effort. It’s actually just snuggling into God. Just sort of thinking about, sort of crawling into the lap of God. And there don’t need to be words. And in fact, words, thoughts, those can sometimes just be more distractions. And we can’t listen to the voice of God, the voice of love, as Henri Nouwen calls it, if we’re talking all the time, if we’re thinking all the time. So, this is a very important aspect of being a follower of Jesus. Henri Nouwen wanted – he’s talking in this book, this is really getting at transformation. This is transformation going from being a person who doesn’t know what they’re doing, having no purpose in life or wondering what it is, being sort of running around trying desperately to help the world but wondering if you’re actually making a difference, some people are getting burned out. And so what he’s trying to do is say yes, those things are important, but it’s also important to have a deep and abiding relationship with the one who made us, God, and to retain and remember and claim our identity as the children of God.
Karen: You know something, this is really exciting. It sounds rich, but let me ask you, is it just like, is this an addition to Nouwen’s canon of work? If I’m a person who’s read a lot of Henri Nouwen, is this something I mustn’t miss? Tell me about your sense of that. Actually, I should probably say I already sense that because I have read it and I have been thrilled by what I feel it adds, it feels so truly Henri. But what does this bring to that overall vision that Henri had of sharing the spiritual life?
Gabrielle: Right. Yes, I think that there could be some people saying, well, come on Henri Nouwen wrote 39 books how can there be now we’re at 24 years since his death, how can there be anything new? Well, I can speak to that because I have read all of his books and this book has something different in that it’s almost like he’s giving practical ways of being a follower of Jesus. And whereas before it could be in other books — and one of his very, very powerful, important books is In the Name of Jesus, which a lot of people who are ministers and pastors will say they reread every year because this is something that you just should not be a minister without sort of attending to what Henri Nouwen is speaking about in In the Name of Jesus. But In the Name of Jesus is about how to be a leader as a person who’s a follower of Jesus. This is really for the everyday person. This is for me, for you, for people who are out in the world, people who are in families trying to be good parents, trying to be good colleagues, people trying to effect social change, people trying to help with the climate crisis. You know this is for people who are – how do we orient ourselves so that we can be a source of hope and good for the world without burning out. And this book is almost, I don’t want to call it a manual, but in a way it is. It sets it out. What I loved about it when I first saw it because, what I first saw was actually just a draft proposal of what this Lenten series could be. So he gave it during Lent, this series of talks. And just the notes that he had, now match the chapter headings that we have in the book. And let me just read you those because I think when you hear them you’ll hear that this is really just a – if you could follow what he’s talking about here you’re already on the road to being a follower of Jesus. So there’s the invitation, the call, the challenge, the cost, the reward, the promise. Now, some people might have fun trying to guess what he’s going to focus on in each of those chapters, but essentially he’s encapsulated there the full glory or the fullness of what it means to be or the full grace of being a follower of Jesus.
So for example, the first one is The Invitation and this is such a wonderful way to start because like Henri himself, who is very gentle and invitational, Henri draws our attention to the way that Jesus introduces himself to us. It’s not like, okay, be my follower, you must be my disciple. Follow me. It is more, “Come and see, come and see.” So Henri draws on scripture in each of the chapters, he draws on scripture, something that Jesus said or did that Henri then works on as a way of how he has now come to understand being a follower of Jesus. And so in this chapter, The Invitation, he focuses on when Jesus says to two men who are with John the Baptist and they’re saying, “Who is that? Who is that man?” And John the Baptist is saying, “That’s the lamb of God.” And so they’re a little bit excited and they say to Jesus, “Where are you going?” And Jesus says, “Come and see. And he invites them to his home. And so right there we see that Jesus invites us home. And then not only does he do that, but he says, dwell with me, dwell with me for a while, for as long as you want. So again that other theme in the book is dwelling. And that’s tied of course to the theme of home and that’s how the book starts. So already there’s this gentleness to being a follower of Jesus. Some people might think, oh, wow I’m going to have to give everything up. I’m going to have to do things I don’t want to do. I’m going to have to give up all the things that I love to do that give me pleasure and fulfill my desires. Well, Henri’s saying, just hold off on those thoughts for a little while. Let’s just look at how Jesus speaks at the beginning. He is saying, “Come and see,” “Dwell with me,” and the whole time there is no coercion. There is no harshness. There’s nothing about it that has the air of authoritarianism. It’s very gentle. It’s very invitational. And this is how Henri experienced his own faith life. There was for him and I think that’s why he has so many people respond to him because his experience of Jesus, his experience of God, his experience in his prayer life was one of softness, gentleness. He talks about the soft, still voice that we can only hear, it’s not in the thunder, it’s not in the hurricanes or the earthquakes. It’s the still small voice. And that’s what Henri was listening to. And that’s what he’s inviting us to listen to. That’s what Jesus invites us to listen to. And it’s love, it’s love and love is quiet. It’s not coercive.
Karen: Gabrielle, I just love your enthusiasm. I feel like I’m getting this overflow of what this book is all about. I’m curious. It’s one thing to have edited this together. How did it impact you personally?
Gabrielle: That is a really good question. I’m a very, I would say, I’m in my head a lot. I’m an intellectual, I love ideas. I love thinking. And so Jesus has been problematic for me in my life I guess. Just a bit of background is that I didn’t grow up in a religious household, I grew up in a secular household, and so I didn’t have any religious upbringing or training as a young person. I now attend a United church and I’m very devoted to it, but I have had personally a strained relationship with Jesus, a strained relationship with calling myself a follower of Jesus. I have been much more comfortable speaking about the voice of peace but this book has changed that.
And as you pointed out in the beginning I’ve been apprenticing with Henri Nouwen for over 19 years. And so it’s taken this long for me to actually understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And it’s because of this book. And I think I didn’t realize how many assumptions I had about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and how this book – I wanted to call this book – it wasn’t going to become this title, – but I thought of calling this book Following Jesus: It’s Not What You Think, because it tends to draw for someone like me, it made me aware of how many assumptions that I had about, and not correct assumptions about, what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and how Henri Nouwen just looks at things a little bit differently.
I remember when I edited the book of letters I saw how frequently he would suggest to people that they turn their gaze, they shift their gaze. They look from this to that. So a lot of people would be focusing on – maybe an example would be a lot of us focus on the fear that’s all around us. There’s a lot of things to be afraid of and we can list them without any problem and get ourselves quite worked up in in doing so. I think Henri would say, it’s not that those burning issues don’t matter, they do. But for at least a time of your day, or at least your week, or at least at some point, we shift our gaze away from the fear and we shift it to love. And that’s going to reorient your whole life. That’s a reshaping of your whole life. So that’s one of the themes in the book; following Jesus is moving away from fear and towards love. It’s not moving away from being concerned and being an active participant in life. Henri never is about that. This is never about withdrawal from the world so that we don’t get hurt. That’s not what Henri or Jesus was talking about, but it is that our heart, our interior world, our life is oriented towards love. So if we go and we go to a protest for saving the planet we go there with love in our hearts, not fear and not anger or hatred. And that is a completely different way of being an activist.
I have to say these are my thoughts because Henri doesn’t – Henri is not prescriptive. Henri doesn’t tell us what to do. He just makes suggestions. And he just hopes that we then think about it, hold it in our hearts and find our own way of being a follower of Jesus. So that would be one of, “it’s not what you think.” It’s not just becoming Henri Nouwen or becoming Jesus. That’s not what being a follower of Jesus is. It’s finding our own way of being a follower of Jesus. Each person, each of us has to find our own way of being an agent of peace and compassion and community and how am I going to be in relationship? It doesn’t matter how Henri Nouwen was going to be in relationship, but how am I in relationship knowing what I do now from this book?
You know he has this beautiful way of expressing it, that we’re each tiles and each of us shines in our own way. And if you put all of the tiles together in a grand mosaic, we form the face of God. Each of us doesn’t do it all alone. Henri Nouwen didn’t do it all alone. Jesus didn’t do it all alone. It takes all of us. And so following Jesus doesn’t mean imitating Jesus. It means finding our own way to be a source of peace, a source of love.
Karen: It’s interesting, because you remind me of the truth that in order to get the right answer, you have to ask the right question. And it sounds to me like this book is a gift to us who are saying, how can I do this? How can I be a follower?
Gabrielle, you have been responsible for editing three treasures, three wonderful books. First you took the letters of Henry Nouwen and it was tremendous. If people haven’t read this, Love, Henri, is a wonderful book, the collected letters of Henri Nouwen. Then you gave us, You are the Beloved, which is a real treasure, a daily treasure very best little quotes and pieces of Henri’s writing. But this new Following Jesus book is my favorite. I felt that something in there just hit me deeply and is alive in me as a result of reading it. And it takes me back to my very first reading of a Henri book. Henri was this kind of gift. You read a Henri book and you go, wow, there’s an honesty there, there’s a vulnerability in it. And somehow you feel that Henri had this special gift for reading the heart and you find yourself saying, I feel understood in this. And that’s the great treasure that Henri is to so many. And I think we could all have our little list of favorite books, but I know Following Jesus is going to be on the top of my list. And I thank you for the work you’ve done on it. And I want to encourage everybody that’s listening, this is a book you need to read. This is a treasure. You can go to our website and you’ll see. It’ll take you to our bookstore and you’ll be able to buy the book. And I really encourage you because this is something that should be on your shelves but better still, should be in your hands and in your heart. It’s worth reading.
Thank you, Gabrielle. Thank you for what you bring us. I love your great knowledge of Henri, I rely on it. You are a real treasure. And I just encourage everyone, be sure and get a copy of this.
If you’ve enjoyed the chat well I would encourage you to let us know that this has been interesting for you, look forward to hearing from you. Thanks so much.
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