Gabrielle Earnshaw "The Making of a Spiritual Classic" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world.
Today, I’m going to bring you a very special interview. I’ve had Gabrielle Earnshaw as a guest on our podcast series many times; often, it’s been to launch a new book. Gabrielle edited three important books in the past four years. She chose the letters for the book of letters called Love, Henri. And then she read all Henri’s writings to find the very best quotes. And this became the daily meditations, You are the Beloved. Most recently, Gabrielle brought to life a series of lectures Henri gave in Boston in 1986, and this became, Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety.
Today, we’re here to talk about a brand-new book, which Gabrielle has written, titled, Henri Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son: The Making of a Spiritual Classic. Who could be a better writer for this book than the archivist who has focused on Henri’s life for more than 20 years? Gabrielle, you managed to uncover the particular state of Henri’s soul, out of which this beloved classic was birthed. I find it fascinating, insightful, challenging, and it’s a beautifully written book. In its many insights, I honestly think it’s one of the best biographies of Henri Nouwen that I have read. In your introduction, you tell the story of Henri Nouwen on his 60th birthday, being born as a clown. Why did you start with this image?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Thank you very much, Karen, for that beautiful introduction and a really good first question.
When Henri Nouwen was turning 60, it was also the year that his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was released into the world. So, it seemed like there was some sort of energy around his 60th year. But then on top of that, L’Arche Daybreak, which many of your listeners will know was Henri Nouwen’s home for the last 10 years of his life, the community there offered him the most beautiful and wonderful birthday celebration, and it involved having Henri Nouwen get into a sack of sorts. They dressed him up as a clown, and then they asked him to get into a sack. And Henri Nouwen, being who Henri Nouwen was, he got right into this act, and he started birthing himself as a clown.
And that was the idea that he was, on his 60th birthday, to become the clown. That clown was somebody or something that Henri was quite attracted to all his life. He even has a book called Clowning in Rome. There are other photographs in the archives with him in clown outfits. So, it really suited him. It suits his childlike nature. But what I loved about it, as a first image, is that what Daybreak was doing was trying to give him the image of being reborn. You know, his birthday was a chance to start the year fresh as a 60-year-old.
And to me, The Return of the Prodigal Son was a birthing experience as well – the creation of The Return of the Prodigal Son. And when I was doing the research, I realized it took nine years. And that seemed quite remarkable, because as we know, babies take nine months to grow in the womb. And here we have this wonderful synchronicity, where his book takes nine years to be born in 1992. And so, the clown metaphor was impossible to resist. And that’s where we started. And it’s a vivid metaphor for his rebirth that he tells in The Return of the Prodigal Son. You know, the book is many things. But one thing it is, it’s a book about transformation. It’s a book about one person’s journey into the heart of himself. Many of the aspects of the journey were external to him. They took place in multiple countries and at different chronological times. Really, this was a journey into himself. And then he comes out nine years later as transformed. And so, it seemed like a great way to start the book.
Karen Pascal: Forgive me for interrupting you. It’s funny, because what occurred to me was, I sort of want to know where the inception began. And it’s interesting, because I know it began, in a sense, seeing this picture. But I can imagine, growing up in the Netherlands as he did, he would’ve seen Rembrandt’s painting. I’m sure he would’ve seen it. Although maybe not. No. He wouldn’t have seen it, because it would’ve been in Russia. Anyway, where did the inception of this, where did this get birthed in Henri?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: I think in some ways your observation is really astute, because many people might have seen the poster of The Return of the Prodigal Son on the back of an office door, and completely ignored it. Not even registered it. But Henri Nouwen registered it. And there were many reasons why, and one of them might be like, you’ve just suggested, is that he was already primed to be noticing art by Rembrandt. And there would’ve been a familiarity. He might not have seen this particular painting – in fact, we know he hadn’t seen it in person, because it does hang in the Hermitage in in St. Petersburg. But if he had seen a Dutch master like Rembrandt on this poster, he probably would’ve done a double-take. He would’ve noticed it maybe in a way that people who aren’t born in Holland wouldn’t.
So, I think there is that. I think that he was also a person who had a very, very fine sense of art, and appreciated art, and had an eye for art. His parents, actually, when they were first married, they spent their honeymoon in Paris, and at the time Marc Chagall was selling his watercolors, before he was famous. And his parents had actually picked up a Chagall. So, Henri Nouwen lived in a home with an original piece of art by Marc Chagall for a very long time. So, he was tuned into art, and that really did help him, I think, see the poster in a way that maybe others might have just walked by it and not seen it.
Karen Pascal: You know, your book is really about the making of a classic. It acknowledges, and I think millions of readers acknowledge, that The Return of the Prodigal Son is a spiritual classic. One critic said that the book was really written for sinners. What did you think of that kind of a comment about it?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Oh, I think it’s perfect. I think what they mean, or how I understand that way of describing Henri Nouwen’s book, is that there’s a way that Henri Nouwen gives us back an image of God that is so different from the one that many of us grew up with. And so, a lot of people carry around a lot of shame and guilt and the sense of being a sinner. And there’s this sense that God is going to punish them or that God has already punished them. There is this God, an image of God, that is quite harsh and paternalistic and punishing. And what I think Henri Nouwen does, through the artwork of Rembrandt, is he gives us a new image of God. He gives us an image of God that is welcoming, unconditionally loving, extravagantly loving.
And I think if a person holds a sense in themselves, holds this maybe even very hidden aspect of themselves that feels like they’re a sinner, that somehow, they’ve let God down, this book can transform that. And it has. And I think that that’s really one of the reasons why this is a book that people just keep reading all these years later, because Henri Nouwen – I don’t know, it’s like he repaints our image of God. And then, we can hold that image in our minds and in our hearts: that the God that I love loves me, too. And no matter what I’ve done, no matter what I’ve left undone, no matter who I love or who I don’t love, God loves me all the time through that.
And that’s a very important gift. And he does it not in a way that is – many readers of Henri Nouwen will know his approach to this kind of thing is very gentle. I think you even use the word, sometimes, that it’s “through the back door.” And he gets to us through the back door, because maybe some people don’t even realize how much of a “sinner” they characterize themselves as. Maybe they don’t realize that what’s holding them back, why they have this sort of heavy heart, may be because of an internalized vision of God that is punishing and sees them as a sinner.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because I think mixed into that is something that Henri understands and gives, I know to me, this incredible sense of the self-rejection that is hidden within us. And in all of that, he kind of peels that away. And obviously, The Return of the Prodigal Son brings you into a sense of what it truly is to be loved.
Gabrielle, I love the fact that you take us through so many parts of Henri’s life and that helps us understand, in a sense, the fertile ground out of which this book comes. I want to read a quote, because where you start is with the family. And I love what Henri writes: “You see,” he explained in his retreats, “My father accomplished his goals late in life by becoming a successful professor of law. And based on his background, this rise to fame was quite unusual in his day. My dad was very bright and able to function well in the world of competition. And I, as the older son in our family, seemed to be programmed to believe that I had to be at least as good as my dad. Thus began a lifelong competition with respect to our careers and to those other subjects as well.”
I love that insight. Tell me about the family that formed Henri.
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Well, I think sometimes I refer to the Nouwen family, and I hope the remaining Nouwen family will not take this the wrong way, but I think of them as racehorses. I think of them as very, very sort of like keenly intellectual and well-muscled. And they sort of take life very seriously, and work at it like a racehorse would: They would get their health and their strength as tight as possible. And that’s how I sort of see the Nouwen family. They were a loving family, very loving. They had the two parents; Maria Nouwen and Laurent Nouwen had Henri and then Paul, in short succession.
So, the two brothers were only about a year apart. And then there was a big gap of about 15 years, and then they had two other children, Laurent and Laurien, who also have about a year between them. So, in fact, there were four children, but there was an age gap between the first set and the second set. And in that time, Henri Nouwen did grow up. He was a youngster during the Second World War, which was [when] Germany invaded Holland. But I think what we can draw some insight from that is that the Nouwen family were not that adversely affected by this, by the war and by the invasion. And that means that they had some sort of privilege that other Netherlanders didn’t, Dutch people didn’t.
So, they wouldn’t describe themselves as wealthy, but I think in some ways, we could say that they were middle-upper class, or upper class. They did have – I had the wonderful experience of being taken around to Henri Nouwen’s homes, the homes that he lived in in his lifetime, by his brother Laurent, and they were quite beautiful, large, stately homes. And they often did have – in fact, not often, they always had – someone to help with the children and help with. . . a nanny of sorts. So, they were quite a wealthy, privileged family, very well-educated. Many members of Henri Nouwen’s family had joined religious orders. And there was this closeness, but also, the strong expectations for each child to make the most of themselves.
And I think that’s what Henri is referring to there, that his father did the same thing. He essentially moved from one station in life to another, through his own hard work. And so that was the example that was set for Henri and his siblings. Maria Nouwen was very. . . Henri describes her as pious, and other people that I’ve spoken to over the years agree that she was a pious woman, but also very warm. One person, a close friend of Henri’s, Peter Noust, described when she walked into the room, the warmth in the room just went up. She just had that kind of energy around her. So, that gives you somewhat of a sense of the family.
Karen Pascal: It’s beautiful to know, because obviously the heart of that painting, which Henri explores in The Return of the Prodigal Son, really a very pivotal part of it is the relationship that he has with his own father, and then his insights into who he is within that painting. I also really appreciate in this new book that you’ve written, that you give me an understanding of the intellectual formation of Henri. There’s a terrific insight in this, the role of Anton Boisen. Can you help me understand this? I know, for example, you often remind me: “Don’t forget Henri was a psychologist.” Take me into that and tell me how that becomes something important within this book.
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Yeah, I probably make the point even, maybe even underscore it too much. We can’t really make too much of the influence of Anton Boisen on Henri Nouwen. Anton Boisen is not a household word, not a household name at all. And even to this day, Boisen is not well known. He was an American, he is credited with founding the clinical pastoral education movement. And he was born in 1896. So, that kind of gives you a sense of, you know, he was just born on the cusp of the, at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. And essentially, there’s a lot to be said about Boisen, and any biographer has to get a good grasp of Boisen if they want to understand Henri Nouwen. But let’s just say that the biggest impact is a methodology that Boisen started was looking at living, human documents.
So, up until that point, psychologists were. . . well, actually, let me go back a bit. I think the point I want to make is that Boisen, in his work to help people who were having mental health crises, he developed a methodology in which you learned and paid very close attention to the person’s own story. So, the chaplain or the person who was trying to assist this person would listen to their story. And from that, listen to how the person described their own illness. And so, I think people familiar with Henri Nouwen will recognize a seed there. I mean, Henri Nouwen took the biography of people and himself very seriously. So, The Return of the Prodigal Son is actually an exploration of his own story. How does he understand his own story? How does he tell his own story?
So, we start off like you’ve just alluded to: He has a very strong father that he feels in competition with, and then his story shifts through. . . And that’s why we’re fascinated with this book, because we see how he goes from being a person feeling a lot of rejection from his father and competition with his father, to being someone who develops a really close bond with his father, and then goes on to being able to claim his own fatherhood. So, the influence of Boisen, that’s one key factor, is that he helped Henri Nouwen see the value in the stories that we tell each other. The other thing about Boisen is that Boisen, himself, had psychotic episodes. So, he was a mental health practitioner who suffered from mental health problems himself.
And so, it’s really this idea that you can, that it’s through our wounds, through our suffering, through our own difficulties and struggles, that we can be a source of healing for other people. And, you know, Henri Nouwen wrote the book, The Wounded Healer, that traces right back to Boisen. Boisen wrote an autobiography that at the time actually made it to the New York Times bestseller list, because he was speaking about his own illness with a lot of insight. And so, I believe it became a model for how Henri Nouwen then started writing about his own life. I think it was a direct, there’s a direct model there of how to use your own life to be a source of healing for others.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because literally in the midst of this journey of writing this book, Henri himself has a major breakdown, and it’s there that the depth of the insights that are in the pages of this book really happen. A good, good friend of ours, Sue Mosteller, Sister Sue Mosteller – you and I are both great fans of Sue – but Sue played a really important role for Henri, in a sense, pushing him forward in the midst of this painful time in his life, into a profound insight that really, in a sense, completes the book. Tell us a bit about that part of the book.
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Sure. I think this might be the part of the book that a lot of people will find the most revelatory or new, I think, because Sue Mosteller’s role in Henri Nouwen’s life. . . I mean, he wrote about her, he references her, we know that he left his literary papers to her. There can’t be anything that indicates someone’s trust in another [more] than that. But the letters that I was able to find in the archives that Sue wrote to Henri during this time of breakdown that you just alluded to, they’re so beautiful, for one thing. They’re so supportive of Henri and what he’s living. And she walks with him every step of the way. And these letters we’re publishing here for the first time (thank you to the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust for that), they reveal, like you just said, the absolute crucial role that she played in helping him through this major depression that he was going through, to reclaim himself and reclaim his place at Daybreak. But she also was his primary reader of the draft of The Return of the Prodigal Son. And she read the very earliest draft and she read the very latest draft. And each time, she would write these very insightful letters back to him, with the most important feature being the encouragement for him to claim the fatherhood. And he alludes to this in the book. He doesn’t allude, he speaks to it directly in his book.
So, we knew it already, but these letters really show how important Sue was and how frequently she had to say it. He really did have a resistance to stepping into the role of the father. And I think we can all relate to that. That’s another [reason] why this book is so popular. I think is that we can relate to that: Somebody gives us some great advice and we can recognize, “Oh, yeah, that’s really important. That’s, that’s something I should try to integrate into my life.” But we can’t; we’re simply not ready. And part of this book is just to show how long this transformation actually took, and that there was a lot of going back and forth. Henri relates to the younger son, then he relates to the older son and he goes back and forth between them until finally, he is able with Sue’s help to become the father. Or at least to try.
Karen Pascal: You know, Gabrielle, one of the things that I love about the book you have written, and I want to be clear: Here we are talking about Henri’s insights, and of course, your book, which is about the making of a spiritual masterpiece, tells a lot about these parts and pieces. But I love the insights that you bring to it. You place it in a time period. You talk about the zeitgeist of the time. And one of the things you’ve helped me see with clarity is this wonderful Henri Nouwen, a person who lived very present to the times he was in. And I find that fascinating to know about him. I also find it fascinating that you very daringly take a look at where do you think he was going? What you, as an archivist, kind of see as kind of footprints, where he was as this book comes out, et cetera, and where he is in his thinking.
I’d love to hear a little bit about that, but I want to encourage people. Here we are listening to these insights about Henri. I want to tell you; this book is wonderful. You must read it, and it’s going to be fun for you to read it, because we’re just skimming the surface here. Gabrielle goes into great insights within it. So, I really want to encourage you to go there.
But tell me a little bit about, in a sense, what you were seeing Henri, where he was coming to at that point, at nine years, when the book gets published. What’s happening in him then?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: So, the year 1992, for me, that’s the big year, because that’s the year that the book came out. So, I wanted to know as much as I could about that year. And not only what was happening politically, socially, culturally, pop culturally, but also what was going on in his own life. And what, by 1992, nine years after he saw the poster in 1983, where was he? What was going on? And was he . . . the last chapter is called Living the Painting. And I actually really enjoyed writing that chapter, because did he live it? Was he able? You know, some people will say that Henri Nouwen wrote the same book over and over again, and never actually lived it.
I wanted to take that assessment of him and look at it: Is that true? And, you know, what I found is that he actually was living the insights that he was speaking about in the book. And that’s pretty exciting.
In 1992, another book comes out and it’s called Life of the Beloved, which is also a very favorite book by Henri Nouwen. In this book, he’s also addressing this deep sense of self-rejection that a lot of us feel, that he felt, and that’s why he could write about it with such power. So, in 1992, the year that his Return of the Prodigal Son comes out, he’s also publishing Life of the Beloved, which is this core insight that he makes through his journey with the painting, that he is the beloved son of God – that is his main identity.
And when he could claim that, and then he could live from it, that’s when a lot of his life started really taking off, and he really rooted himself into L’Arche Daybreak. And he really dedicated himself to the writing vocation. He felt like he now had something very important to say to the world. And I think this message of, “You are loved. You are beloved. You are God’s beloved” – these became the words that he would speak to whoever would listen. And that really was apparent in 1992. And then, as the book sort of goes onto the bookshelves, his life starts to go in a different direction. I love this part about the book and some people might enjoy it, too, is that we might think that the Rembrandt painting is – he calls it his painting – would become sort of the icon for his life.
But in fact, Henri was always looking for the icon. And the next one he found was a circus troupe, which might just sound very jarring to people who don’t know that. But it happened while he was writing The Return of the Prodigal Son.
In 1991, he saw a trapeze troupe that just took his breath away by their beauty and their physicality, but really, because he was seeing something in them about how his evolving understanding of his relationship was with God. He saw that the flyers and the catchers, that the flyers were like him: He was trying to fly. He was trying to be free. He was seeking to be fully alive. And he could do it, because he’s got the catcher and the catcher is this solid rock that the trapeze troupe relies on. We’ve got all of the fancy flyers, but in fact, it’s the catcher that’s the main, the important one – and that’s God.
And so, this metaphor or this visual representation of how he was understanding and relating to God was really alive in him when he died so unexpectedly at 64 of a heart attack. So, that’s where the painting took him.
And I think, like a lot of our lives, he wouldn’t have gotten to the trapeze troupe and saw what he saw in the trapeze troupe, unless he’d already gone through the painting. So, like our lives, we have to go through certain episodes in order to be ready for the next one. And that’s certainly true in Henri’s life.
Karen Pascal: I love the line that comes out of that, that God really puts into the center of his being. And that is that you trust the catcher. You fly, but you have to trust the catcher will be there for you. And to know God in that kind of a deep way that as you’re flying and risking as, as Henri did, and as he lived very much present in the moment, he had come to learn a new depth of the fact that God could be trusted. It’s interesting, because when you talk about “you are the beloved” that he grasped that, in a sense, that’s been the core of what we as the Henri Nouwen Society say. Basically, our goal is that the very thing, which Henri Nouwen grasped, that he was the beloved child of God, would be something that others understand about themselves. That would be our reason, our raison d’être, really.
I love this book. I want people to get it and read it. I think it’s really a delight. I want to tell you some of the things we have planned for it. There’ll be an opportunity to hear Ron Rolheiser talk about the book. He loved the book, obviously, and wrote a lovely, glowing review on it. In fact, I’ll probably post that, because I’m trying to think if I’ve got it right here. I would read it, but I don’t have it right here. So, I won’t read it, but, but we’ll post that. But there’s going to be a book webinar launch that’s happening on the 12th of May. But if you don’t get to that, definitely you’ll be able to find it and we’ll have a link to it on our website.
I also want to make people aware that as Gabrielle talked about that scene of Henri being birthed as a clown, you can actually see that. And that’s part of the documentary that’s on our website, called Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen. In there, you’ll see this wonderful episode with Henri coming out as a clown. And it’s just delightful.
Gabrielle, as we talk about this book, I would like to know: You did a lot of editing of books, but this is a book you’ve written. This comes from you. It comes from a depth of knowledge that you have grown over the years, and you’re an incredible scholar in the sense of really researching and wanting the truth to be there. What kind of impact has writing this book had on you?
Gabrielle Earnshaw: Oh, wow, Karen, that’s a wonderful question. Thank you for asking me. This book was a very pivotal moment in my life, because I was Henri Nouwen’s archivist for so long, for 16 years, and listening and listening and listening to so many stories. I did a lot of oral history interviews. I read a lot of letters. I have met so many of Henri Nouwen’s friends and family. So, there was nearly two decades of absorbing Henri Nouwen’s life and his ministry and his work and his words and the impact. And so, it was all sort of fermenting in me, I think. And then, when I received that wonderful invitation to edit his letters, I really could not have picked something I would’ve loved to do more than that.
And that was to be able to go through his letters in a very careful way, and really find the letters that I felt would speak most directly to people’s needs right now, using my own heart as the barometer on that. And so, that was really special. And then, I’ve really enjoyed all of the other books that you mentioned at the beginning. And then, there’s this: This was my chance to sort of synthesize everything that I had been hearing all those years, all of the stories, all of the tone, the nuances, the less-perceptible aspects of Henri Nouwen, and to put my mind to these wonderful questions, like, “Did he actually live the painting? He sounds like he’s going to, but did he?” And I got the time and the chance to actually research that, and consider it. So, I really enjoyed that part of it.
I think I might just share how I wrote this book, because in fact, I didn’t write this book. I spoke this book. I was having trouble writing it, and I felt like I had quite a severe case of writer’s block. After a ton of research, I wasn’t able to write. And I heard that Brené Brown has a method of writing, where she invites friends to come over in a formal way to listen to her speak her next book.
And I thought, “Hey, I want to do that. That sounds like what I need.” And so, I gathered three remarkable women, and one of them was Sue Mosteller, to have as my little audience. And a woman, Lindsay Yeskoo and Judith Leckie, who has been on the Nouwen board for a very long time. So, I had these three very wise, wonderful women who listened to me as I tried to speak this book to life. And so, we met over a series of months and I would prepare the chapter for them to hear. And then, that would give me a chance to put something together, and I knew I would have these intelligent ears listening. And that’s the way the book came together. So, it was actually a very pleasurable process and I quite miss it.
Karen Pascal: Yeah. I love that. That’s a great insight. What’s interesting is just this spring, coming up to Lent, our book study group, which anybody can join – it’s online. And they focused on The Return of the Prodigal Son. and Ray Glennon, who leads this book study group, thought it would be wonderful to do a follow-up to that. And they’ve chosen to do this new book, Henri Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son by Gabrielle Earnshaw: The Making of a Spiritual Classic, because there’s so many insights in this that deepen our understanding of Henri, and enrich the actual book. And so, I invite everybody listening: Keep an eye open for this. We’ll give you links to it so that you can, if you are somebody who over the years have loved The Return of the Prodigal Son, this is probably going to be a wonderful opportunity for you to take it into your life and in a unique way, learn really from Gabrielle, great insights into the life of Henri Nouwen.
Gabrielle, you’re always a delight to interview. You’re always fun to talk with, because you’re so full of knowledge of Henri, but you’re also so full of beautiful ideas yourself, and the way you think and the way you write make this book outstanding.
I invite all of you: Go to our website. You’ll find all sorts of links to the things we’ve talked about today. Books that Gabrielle mentioned and, obviously, a link to this book and the opportunity, perhaps, to see Henri born as a clown, if you haven’t already seen that video.
Thank you so much for all you shared with us, Gabrielle.
Until the next time, you’ve been listening to Now and Then, and we are so glad to have you as our audience, and we would invite you to share this podcast with your friends and family. And if you’ve enjoyed it, give it a thumbs-up or a stellar review. Thanks so much. Until next time.
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