Robert A. Jonas "Jesus, Buddha & Henri Nouwen" | 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 society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family.
Today I’m joined by Dr. Robert Jonas, best known to his friends simply as Jonas. Jonas is a psychotherapist, a spiritual guide, an environmental activist, a musician, and a writer whose books I have enjoyed. He’s the founder of The Empty Bell, which is a retreat center for Buddhist-Christian dialogue located in western Massachusetts. Jonas has written a new book, My Dear Far-Nearness: The Holy Trinity as Spiritual Practice. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Jonas, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Robert Jonas: Hi, Karen. Thank you. I’m in Northampton, Massachusetts. You’re up there in Toronto, right?
Karen Pascal: That’s right. For today, that’s where I am, and that’s where you are. That’s so cool. Now, you and your wife, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, have been dear friends of Henri Nouwen. I’m really curious: Where does the theology and spiritual vision expressed in My Dear Far-Nearness: The Holy Trinity as Spiritual Practice, touch the theology and spirituality of Henri Nouwen?
Robert Jonas: Yeah, really good question. I need to say something quickly about my spiritual path, and that is that I grew up Lutheran in Wisconsin and went to Luther College, transferred during the Vietnam War to Dartmouth College, majored in government, then I was a farmer. Then I went to Harvard to get a doctorate in psychology. Then I was a therapist. Then I started The Empty Bell, and now I’m here and I’m married, and I’ve got two kids and grandchildren. So, anything I say comes out of my personal history. You know, these days we all travel so many different paths, and a major path for me was, of course, Henri. I met Henri in 1983, when I was a graduate student at Harvard. And Henri was teaching at Harvard Divinity School. And we became friends, and then we visited with each other.
And he really . . . I was about to leave the Roman Catholic tradition when I met him. I was taking Vipassana Buddhist meditation courses and really appreciating the quietness and the moment-to-moment awakeness of Zen, for example, which I also studied. And so, I was making friends with Henri, and then going to his preaching and his presentations as, sometimes in the same week, I’d be going on a Zen retreat or a Vipassana Buddhist retreat. And so, I was thinking all the time, “What do they have to do with each other?” These traditions come from different parts of the world. Henri’s Dutch, I’m American. Is there any common ground in all these spiritual approaches? So, that wonderment led me to think about the Holy Trinity.
And let me say, first, that my first wonderment about – I like that word wonderment; I don’t use it very much – my first wonderment about East-West dialogue and spirituality in Buddhism and Christianity was when I walked into a taekwondo karate course at Dartmouth College when I was an undergraduate, and the teacher had been trained in [inaudible] meditation. So, I learned for the first time to sit down and be quiet and to listen and to listen inwardly – for what, I wasn’t sure. All I could see as I listened inwardly was what Buddhists call “monkey mind.” I’m thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. I’m nervous. I’m anxious about the future. I’m remembering and regretting the past. And it just seemed like a very shallow way to live. But I sat and I continued to wonder. The teacher had us walk out into Hanover snow in bare feet, and he said, “Warm your feet with chi.”
And I had grown up, as I mentioned, as a Christian. So, I wondered, did Jesus experience chi? What is that? The spirituality of the body? I never heard of that. And what is sitting on a cushion doing nothing? That’s a sin. In the Lutheran tradition, to do nothing is sinful. You could be out there helping people all the time. So, it was a great challenge for me to feel drawn to two traditions, East and West, that seemed so fundamentally different. Well, then, at Harvard, I met Henri. And what I loved about him was that he had psychological depth, and he could quote Maslow and Freud. And yet, he had this incredible magnificence of presence that ignited my memory of Jesus when I was a kid, when my German Lutheran grandmother taught me Ich bin klein. Mein Herz ist rein. Niemand drin wohnen als Jesus allein: I’m small. My heart is pure. No one lives in my heart, but Jesus alone.
And that was an experience of the timeless Jesus that Henri reignited in me, in my twenties, early thirties. And his message about all of us being the beloved was striking. It pierced my heart. I have to use the word striking, it pierced my heart. And so, my friendship with him went on for about the 10 years before he died. And the last year of his life, he lived with us for three months, and he came to The Empty Bell. I had started a retreat center in a separate building in Watertown, Massachusetts. And he would come to our meditations, and I loved it. And he would sometimes do Eucharist there, and I felt that he was all about interpersonal presence.
He was all about belovedness in the “I-thou” dimension, something that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber really highlighted as an important, fundamental aspect of spiritual life. I-thou is when someone says to us, “I love you,” or we say to someone, “I love you.” That was Henri’s territory: that Jesus was living in the “I love you” territory.
And so, I began to wonder: If there is such a thing as a common, universal spiritual life, how could it bridge the apparent differences between East and West? Henri was not incredibly comfortable with Zen meditation; when I had Zen teachers come to speak and so on, he enjoyed the conversations, but he was a little nervous, usually.
And so, the Holy Trinity happened to me in a new way when I read Raimundo Panikkar, who was a theologian whose mother was a Roman Catholic, and whose father was Hindu. Raimundo Panikkar thought – actually, it wasn’t a thought; it was an experience – that the Holy Trinity is three dimensions of ourselves, of who we are.
So, when we read in Genesis that we are made in the image and likeness of God, well, of course, who is God for Christians? God is a Trinitarian presence. God is a perichoresis, a dance-around of love, according to the theologians who met to formulate the Nicene creed: a dance-around of love. But, if we are made in that image, then what is that? That’s confusing. We’re made in the image of the Trinity? That would mean – Raimundo Panikkar’s idea was – that each of the so-called persons of the Trinity hypostasis (which was the Greek), that each person of the Trinity is a dimension of our own awareness.
So, to understand the first person, who is beyond all conceptualization, the Creator cannot be encapsulated by any formulation of words or images. And if we are to understand the mystery of the Creator, we must be in touch with the mystery of who we are.
And if we are to understand the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, then we must be in that dimension of the I-thou love that Jesus manifested to everyone.
And if we are to understand the third person of the Trinity, then we must be in touch with that. We use the word ego. Well, the third person would be like the “we-go.” The third person of the Trinity is the communitarian, our draw to communitarian life, loving each other in community, being the beloved community, as Martin Luther King described it, being the beloved community. So, there’s the first person is mystery. The second person is the I-thou relationship dimension. And the third person is community building, and the joy and the awakening of being in a beloved community. So, there you have the first, second, third persons of the Trinity. And that’s what my new book is about. I finally get to that point.
Karen Pascal: You’ve told me an awful lot. That’s amazing. One of the things I found in the book, and it reminded me so much of Henri: You mention at some point in the book that your plumb line is Jesus Christ. And I’ve often described that of Henri, because I found that with Henri, it was like he had a pendulum that could swing one way or the other, but it always came back to that center line in him of a relationship with Jesus. He was very clear on that. It’s interesting, because I can’t help but ask: Can a person be both a Christian and a Buddhist? I’m curious.
Robert Jonas: Yes.
Karen Pascal: I probably might have struggled a bit with that, but tell me why you think that’s possible.
Robert Jonas: Well, first of all, I should mention a wonderful book that came out a few years ago by Paul Knitter, who’s a theologian, and it’s called Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian. And Paul Knitter had been a Roman Catholic all his life, and he married a Buddhist woman, who had, I think she had been a nun. I can’t remember her name. But, in his struggle to realize if there is a common ground between Buddhism and Christianity, he made that statement: Without Buddha, I could not be a Christian.
And so, here’s what it is for me: When you and I, Karen, are talking to each other in relationship, and I say, “I love you,” notice what happens to awareness. There’s a focus to our awareness. “I love you.” You’re standing – well, we’re on the telephone, so there are no eyes involved right now. Our eyes are somewhere else. But if two people are looking at one another, eye-to-eye and one person says, “I love you,” there’s a focused awareness.
But then also think that the other person is not physically there. And we’re just in our rooms and we’re simply breathing and we’re aware of a lot of things, of memories. And we see what’s happening in the room. There’s visual stuff, there’s worries and anxieties, and all these things are coming through this space of awareness without a focus, because there’s no one right there.
That space without a focus and without being attached to anything, without being attached to memory or looking forward into the future, or worry, without being attached to any object. There’s awareness itself as we’re simply sitting here. That awareness itself, to me, is divine awareness. Divine awareness is free of attachment to any object of awareness. And that’s how I describe it in the book. And this idea is, you know, goes back to Meister Eckhart. You can find it in Aristotle, in Aquinas, and many other theologians that I explored on the way to writing the book. And maybe here’s a good point to mention that I created a new website called My Dear Far-Nearness. It’s www my dear far-nearness, dash between the far and the near, mydearfar-nearness dot org. And there I introduce 18 Christian mystics back to Cassian and, well, Christian sort-of, Plotinus and others, and then forward through Meister Eckhart and St. Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and others, and Henri. And there on the website, you’ll find a brief description of theologians who emphasize the mystery that we are, the interpersonal belovedness that we are, and the beloved community that we are – all three.
Each one is a different mode of awareness. We adjust our awareness. And so, the Buddhist practice helped me to be more in touch with what I as a Christian call the great, limitless mystery of God’s presence. Without any focus, without attachment to anything. In the Jewish tradition, folks there would use a name for that God that is limitless, total mystery. And we’re dwelling in that presence, in that name they use is einsof. We don’t have a specific name for God who is limitless mystery. We have to say it out in a string of words.
So, Henri for me is an exemplar of the second person of the Trinity, the beloved “I love you” dimension. Interpersonal love is a divine dimension of awareness. But it’s different than the more kind of Buddhistic, Meister Eckhart-y, first person of total mystery. And also different from our communitarian awareness when we’re with others, you know, love community. And that’s why I started the Empty Bell community, is people learning to love one another in the presence of God. So, those are the three.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because the title, My Dear Far-Nearness, honestly, just puts question marks all over my head. It’s nice, the way you follow it up. You say the Holy Trinity as a spiritual practice. So, maybe we should dip into that. How do you go into spiritual practice? You take time to unwrap your perspective of the Holy Trinity, the Godhead three in one, you speak of each one. And then I think it’d be interesting for people to hear how that works itself into a spiritual practice.
Robert Jonas: That’s a good question. Let me first answer your first, what you first noticed.
Karen Pascal: The title?
Robert Jonas: The name, My Dear Far-Nearness. I received that name from Marguerite Porete, who was a Christian mystic, and died in 1310. And I love her work. Most folks don’t know that this woman inspired Meister Eckhart. Everybody knows about Meister Eckhart, but Marguerite Porete, she was incredible. And that was her name for God: “my dear far-nearness,” because God is both near and far. God is within us, but not entirely within us; God is everywhere.
And I make a big point of this in the book, that God has no location. When I grew up Lutheran, God was up in the sky somewhere. God was separate, and God created me as separate. But no, I follow the inspiration of people like Scottus Eriugena, who is, you know, a Scottish theologian, and he said we are created from within God. We aren’t created separate from God.
That changes everything. If we are within God, God’s not somewhere else, then wow! That’s a complete transformation of awareness. And so, I bring in the first dimension of being awake, not doing anything, not focusing, simply being awake and alive. Everything that passes through monkey mind, as Buddhists would say, everything that’s passing through is passing through in the presence of my dear far-nearness. And so, that’s a spiritual practice.
But yet, for example, I just came back from the hospital with Margaret, my wife, and Margaret had her second hip replacement. And we were in Boston. And so, it was a spiritual practice for me for a week to pretty much let go of all my work and be with her. She had to, of course, let go of all her work. She’s doing great climate change work. So, it was a practice for me to love her in the interpersonal dimension, the “I love you” dimension in so many ways, in saying that to her occasionally: “I love you.” And her saying that to me, in the midst of pain and some fear about the surgery and all that kind of stuff.
And yet, there were also innumerable moments where I was called to be present, simply present. Not a lot of I-thou interactions or exchanges or anything, simply being awake. And one of the things I’ve learned to be awake to is, well, there’s anxiety and fear, but there’s also, in interpersonal relationships, simply irritation and annoyance. Things come up. And that’s a practice for me in the first dimension – that I simply, without being attached, I watch and feel the irritation come through my body and the annoyance come through my body and let it go. Just let it go. That is essential Zen practice, and yet it’s Christian, why not?
And I feel that Christ experienced real presence of mind when he was encountered, for example, with the woman who was caught in adultery. He could have responded in all kinds of ways that he had learned in Hebrew scripture. And he could have participated in the stoning of the woman and all, but no, what did he do? He was silent for a moment, and he dropped to the ground and he moved his finger in the dirt. I love that. Because he touched the earth. And that’s what Buddha did when he was enlightened. He touched the earth. And then when he arose, he said, “Okay, the one who is without sin can cast the first stone.”
Oh my God, that was brilliant. And where did it come from? It came out of nowhere, I think. I mean, I might be projecting that, but that’s my sense. He was so awake and alive in a dangerous moment. His life and his ministry were at stake. And he came up with this incredible, brilliant new line, “the one without sin, cast the first stone.” I love that.
Karen Pascal: I love it, too. That is probably one of my very favorite scenes. And as you describe it, I think he comes down to the level that she’s been thrown to and meets her there, is what I would envision. But I don’t know. It’s one of those things that has a kind of visual drama to it. And we always say, “What were you writing in the sand?” And I never thought about you were just touching it. You know, we go back to Genesis 1 for the very beginning of creation in the sense we’ve been formed out of the earth. You know, it’s out of nothing.
Robert Jonas: And Karen, that’s where it connects with my understanding of. . . I have a good friend, I’m making a friend with an astronomer, and we talk about the Big Bang or, as Thomas Berry called it, the Great Flaring Forth. In the moment before Creation appeared, there was nothing, no space and no time. And I think that’s really, really important, that we have a glimpse of that in our own awareness. We can be in a place of nothing. I mean, this is what actually Marguerite Porete said: Become nothing.
What does that mean? It means like being a blank piece of paper where anything can show up. You’re so open that if God appears, or a person, it doesn’t matter, anything that appears, you’re aware of it and you’re open to it. It’s limitless awareness that’s very Zen, but it also appears in so many Christian mystics throughout the ages: being ready for anything, being open to everything.
And out of that comes all the incredible sayings of Jesus like, for example, when he knows he’s going to die, he says to his friends, “I’m in you and you are in me.” He doesn’t separate himself. This is a big teaching in Zen, is not to separate ourselves from others or the world; that we are each a microcosm of the whole. And I love that way of living. It’s a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but to be no one and everyone at the same time, in a sense, is real freedom.
Karen Pascal: Now let me ask you, who did you intend this book for? Who’s the audience? Let’s tell the people that are listening who this is for, and what it offers.
Robert Jonas: Holy cow!
Karen Pascal: I’m particularly into the spiritual practices of the three aspects of the Trinity. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
Robert Jonas: Yeah. I’m very concerned, Karen, with the fact that so many Christian churches are disappearing. My wife is an Episcopal priest, as you know. And I would say here in western Massachusetts, it’s been a pattern now since we’ve lived here, I would say the last 15 years, about one parish a year closes, and it’s happening all over the country. Not in every denomination, but in many of them. Young people are not flocking to the churches anymore, like they did when I was a kid.
Something is happening here, and I think that the Christian path needs a new doorway to be opened. And I think that’s what this is, that God is within us. We are made in the image and likeness of and not being ashamed of “I love you” and “I’m so happy to hear that you love me” and the beloved community, what we can create together in a community of love.
I think the world, I think Christians need this new message about God, and I also think that non-Christians understand this. There are resonances of this Trinitarian awareness in Buddhism, in the trykaya, the Three Teachings. And there are resonances in the, oh gosh, right now I’m forgetting the name. In the Hindu tradition, there’s a Trinity, too. They’re not exactly the same. But I think there’s something universal about this approach that will deepen the life of Christians and also connect Christians with the depths of other faiths.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because you remind me of the number of people we call the “nones,” the ones who, you know, check at the bottom of the page: Are you this, are you that? Are you none of the above? But it’s interesting, because so often they’ll say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” And that’s a big challenge right now for the church, to understand what does that look like. How do I, because the person made in the image of God has what you are saying, has this incredible reality created by God living in them and through them, it is actually a really profound concept you’re sharing.
Robert Jonas: Yes. But let me add this: It’s not easy.
Karen Pascal: I’m sure it’s not, but you know, in a sense, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit to be with us. We have this rich and deep and wonderful tradition. Tell me a little bit about the spiritual practices that you have related to in the book that might be really of use to others.
Robert Jonas: Let me first say that an easy way into that is, if folks would go to mydearfar-nearness.org, I introduce the Holy Trinity. Then I have spiritual practices: practicing the first person in solitude, practicing the second person in solitude, practicing the third person in solitude. And the next section is practicing the first person in relationships, practicing the second person in relationships, practicing third person in relationships. And each practice is a little different. So, it sounds complex, but once you get into it, it’s just ourselves. It’s very natural.
The reason I think it’s a challenge is because in the first person, to realize that we are mystery, coming from nowhere, as we’re told in scripture and also by the mystics, is that we are so attached to the world. We’re so attached to things. We’re, in fact, we’re so attached to opinions and our own narratives about what the world is, that we get attached to these things, then we defend them. So, we end up in this incredible polarization we have politically in the United States, for example. The people on the right and the people on the left. And the basic mindset of that in awareness is, I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m right and you’re wrong. And that’s what our eyes are looking for, and our ears are listening for all the time. But that is a total adumbration, overshadowing of Christ’s presence. Christ’s presence is, “I’m in you and you’re in me,” with no exceptions. And so, this requires a kind of occasional – I’m not saying everybody should meditate 20 minutes a day – but just to sit down and do nothing and be with your own mind and body and your heart, quietly. I try to do it 20 minutes a day.
I don’t say everybody has to do that, but I have three Empty Bell groups, and each one starts with 20 minutes of silence. And this is what we’re trying to be in contact with: that place of mystery where we don’t know, the classic cloud of unknowing. And also, Thomas Merton’s phrase that he used for that place of being nothing, he called it le point vierge, “the empty place.” And that place is timeless. It is not connected to the linear-time world, which is . . . most of us are living in linear time only, and that’s an overshadowing of Christ’s presence, which is timeless.
Karen Pascal: You mentioned meditation, but I’m going to ask you a really basic question: What’s the difference between meditation and contemplation?
Robert Jonas: Yeah. Oh boy. It’s a big topic, but in the United States, when I was introduced to meditation, that word, it was in the early seventies, with the Trappist monks here. Well, there were other paths, but the Trappist monks here began to be trained in Vipassana meditation. And Trappists are Thomas Merton’s tradition. And they talked about mindfulness. They began to use the Buddhist term “mindfulness.” And mindfulness and meditation now have become incredibly popular in the United States. So, if you go online and Google mindfulness meditation, you’ll find hundreds of teachers, and what they’re all teaching is simply to be present, sit down, do nothing, and be present and trust. Now, in the Buddhist tradition, compassion naturally arises from this practice of meditation, letting all of our attachments go, being free, inwardly free of attachment to our own opinions, for example. And compassion just arises.
I’ve been with the Dalai Lama on three retreats, in India and Italy and Belfast, and each time, he was with a Christian monk, Father Laurence Freeman. Each time, they commented on how difficult it is, how it really requires an actual practice of being silent in meditation to see our attachments and let them go. Well, in Christianity, it turns out we have a meditative experience that goes back to Cassian in the early centuries after Christ. And this is what the Trappist monks started to notice. So, now we have contemplative prayer, we have Contemplation in Action, Richard Rohr. We had Thomas Keating’s approach, Father Laurence Freeman’s approach in the Catholic tradition. These are kinds of meditation, but they’re not Buddhist, they’re Christian in this sense that when we sit in silence and we’re not necessarily praying, we’re simply being aware and awake, and we’re trusting that God’s presence is with us, no matter what comes up.
If a worry comes up, or a regret, or an anger, or a shame, all these things that can come up on a day-to-day basis, hour to hour, moment to moment, we just assume God’s present with us in that experience, because God became human in Jesus, so God knows, and God is with us. That makes contemplation for me, Christian contemplation, a little different from Buddhist meditation, because in Buddhist meditation, you might say, well, there’s Buddha’s presence, but people generally don’t talk that way. It’s as if really no one’s there. And there’s a beauty in that and compassion arises, but it’s not the same as Christian contemplation.
Karen Pascal: There’s a lovely quote I’m just looking at right now in your book, and I’d love to just read it to you and then just get your additional comments. You write: “I’m also reminded of Henri Nouwen’s image of spiritual growth being a furnace of transformation. Sometimes buried experiences of abuse or abandonment can arise, yet another clue that our habits of conscious thinking aren’t necessarily the whole story. We can’t think our way out of suffering or think our way to God.” You wrote that, and it’s interesting, because I can see why you and Henri would be such kindred spirits. So, you are psychologists, but you have that center line of . . . What is this furnace of transformation that God is offering?
Robert Jonas: What my psychological training did for me – I was trained, by the way, at Harvard in psychodynamic approach, which originated with Freud, of course, and then there was Jung and then other adaptations. But the basic idea there is that our self is formed in relationship. We need an ego. So, meditation and contemplation are not meant to disappear the ego. We need an ego to survive. People without an ego suffer a lot, and they don’t have a core self. We need a core self. The way I describe it is, to honor the psychological tradition that has so helped me, as we practice this letting go that I’m describing, in the detachment, we become transparent. Our ego becomes transparent to God’s presence, because we’re not holding back. We’re not trying to make the world into something we want it to be, back to the Garden of Eden. You know, I want that apple. I’m going to take it. I don’t need God.
No! Being transparent means that the presence in me takes over my life. But that requires, that leads us into the furnace transformation, because that means I have to face things like, I grew up in a wonderful family, but it was alcoholic. My parents owned a bar from the time I was eight to when I was 18, and my parents were divorced, two different dads – a daddy and a stepdaddy and my mom. But alcohol was always part of the story, when very often they’d come home at 2:00 AM drunk and there was domestic violence. And I’d be awakened by the shouting and the hitting and the black eyes in the morning, and it was shameful.
But I succeeded in high school. I was the captain of the football team, and then I went to Dartmouth College. Oh my God. How did I do it? Well, I did it because I hid my shame. I hid my shame that I didn’t have a good family life like a lot of other kids. I didn’t have a father. He left our family. My parents were very often alcoholic, and I was ashamed, but that drove me to succeed a lot. So, you know, three graduate degrees. And I thought somehow in my conscious life, I thought I’m going to accomplish a lot, but underneath was this shame and guilt and regret and anger, too. And it was the silence of meditation, and being with some wonderful therapists who helped me see the shame and experience it. And that’s like a furnace of transformation. Face the shame, face the guilt, all the things we could have done and didn’t do, all the people we’ve hurt, that all has to be thrown into the fire if we’re going to be transformed.
Karen Pascal: Jonas, you always bring the good stuff. It’s just such a treat to talk with you. It really is. You’re a treasure and you’ve been such a treasure to the Henri Nouwen Society. You and Margaret, for example – I hope you don’t mind if I share – you’ve made this decision to include the Henri Nouwen Society in your will, just as a way of supporting that the ongoing voice of Henri might continue. And I am so grateful. We are all so grateful. That’s a beautiful gift.
You have been so present to us in so many ways, but I go back, too, to when Henri was in pain and when you were in pain, you folks met the way friends meet. They meet over and come together and become there for each other. And I know that Henri was there for you and Margaret through one of the roughest times of your life. But I also know that you were there for him.
Robert Jonas: Absolutely. Yeah. And it was a mutual discernment of who we are and who do we want to be, that Henri and I did that for each other. And that’s a chapter in the book called Discernment, that as you know, that Michael Christiansen and Rebecca Laird wrote. I wrote the introductory chapter about that experience with Henri, that discernment is sometimes mutual. We do it with friends, we do it with therapists, with spiritual directors. We discern together. We don’t just do it by ourselves.
Karen Pascal: Now, I know people are going to want to visit your website, and I’ll make sure that they get links to it. And they will probably want to pick up this book, My Dear Far-Nearness: The Holy Trinity as Spiritual Practice. It’s rich, it’s deep and thoughtful and challenging and well worth the read.
I also want to mention you’ve written other books, and one of my very favorites was the first that I picked up. You wrote, and this was for the Modern Spiritual Masters series, you wrote on Henri Nouwen, and it was selected writings with an introduction. And it was interesting, because this book became a bit of a “Bible” to me at the time. I was doing the documentary on Henri, and I found your life story, your kind of putting-together Henri’s story, became really a good narrative for me, and I followed it.
And then here’s kind of an interesting little aspect to this book, Henri Nouwen, this Robert Jonas book. By the way, it’s put out by Orbis.
Robert Jonas: Yeah. Let me add something there, Karen. Two things. One is I’m so grateful to you for the incredible leadership that you have brought to the Henri Nouwen Society because, as you know, I used to be on the board, and there were lots of times when I was on the board that the society wasn’t hardly going anywhere. But look at the beautiful things that you’ve done since you’ve been there, and I’m just very grateful. Thank you.
Karen Pascal: Aw, that’s so sweet of you to say, Jonas. You’re missed. We’d love you back on the board if you want to come back. But do you know, it’s so interesting. There are exciting things happening. I think one of the most exciting things is just that we can use the podcasts to continue to find how Henri is speaking today in the lives of the people that are writing and leading us spiritually today. And you are certainly somebody who brings something new to the table through this very insightful book that you have written, which really captures a lifetime of study that’s been going on for you.
Robert Jonas: Oh, thank you. Better stop now. I’m going to start to cry.
Karen Pascal: Okay. We can’t have tears! I was just going to tell you this great story about the little book of selected writings. It had so impacted me that I gave it to a friend who didn’t know anything about Henri Nouwen. And he was from Holland, but he didn’t know anything about him. And I got a call one day, it was about six months later. He said, “You know that book you gave me? It sat at the side of my bed for about three or four months. And then I read it, and then I read it again, and then I read it again.”
And it was really a path through Henri back to a relationship with God, because he had really walked away in any kind of sense of faith. So, you made some very beautiful choices in here.
Robert Jonas: When I was writing that book, I was living near Cambridge. And I got really stuck in the writing of it, because I started looking at Henri’s— about that time, about 30 – books. And I just got so lost. I don’t know what to do with this. I know so much about Henri and I love everything he said. Well, what I did, I finally got to a place of giving up. Like, I can’t do this. Orbis Books asked me to write it, and what I did is I put a photograph at Henri next to the computer and I just prayed, “Henri, help me decide what you want me to say in this book.” And it really, honestly broke the dam, and then I could write. This is not about me, it’s about Henri. I need to let Henri speak through my book.
Karen Pascal: Yeah, well, he does. He speaks wonderfully through that book. The fellow that really came back into a very powerful relationship with the Lord, he came on our board, and then the two of us decided we’d buy a box of these books – I think it must have been 24 – and we split them and we said, if this had such an impact on you, let’s just send it to a whole bunch of people that don’t know Henri, and see what happens. And so eventually, all the books were gone, but it’s been one of my favorite books.
Robert Jonas: That’s a beautiful story. And you know also, that Shambhala Books, the Buddhist publisher, read that book. He asked me, would I write a book about Henri for Buddhists. And that’s how The Essential Henri Nouwen came out, 10 years later, from Shambhala Books.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s lovely. That’s lovely.
Well, thank you so much for being with us today. This is great. And I promise to our audience there’ll be links to everything that we’ve talked about today. Thank you, Jonas, for being with us.
Robert Jonas: Thank you, Karen, and have a good day.
Karen Pascal: You, too. Bye-bye.
Oh, that was a delight to talk with Robert Jonas. You can hear the depth of friendship that he’s had with Henri, and I think you’re going to get much out of visiting his site. And as well, I do recommend this other book. It’s just called Henri Nouwen: Writings Selected with an Introduction by Robert A. Jonas, and we’ll make sure there’s links to everything.
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