Robert Ellsberg "Editing Henri Nouwen" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Our goal at the Society is to share the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen with audiences right around the world. Today, I want to introduce you to an award-winning writer and the publisher of Orbis Books, Robert Ellsberg. Robert was a longtime friend of Henri Nouwen. He worked closely with Henri as his editor in the years before he died. Robert Ellsberg brings unique insights into Nouwen, both as a writer and as a friend. Robert you’re the publisher of Orbis – obviously it’s a very big job and you’ve been doing it for 30 years. Is it?
Robert Ellsberg: Been there for 31 years.
Karen: 31 years. What is so striking to me is you’re also such an accomplished author, a wonderful author. I have enjoyed the books that I have seen. You’re a beautiful writer. How do you balance those two worlds? How do you balance the world of being the publisher, making all those decisions and editing and your own career as a writer?
Robert: Well, I guess it helps that there’s a synergy between the program of Orbis Books and the kind of writing I do. As a matter of fact, the first big book I did, which was called All Saints, was published in 1997. I originally came up with the idea as something I wanted to find another author to do. I thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have a book of saints, contemporary saints. It would combine traditional well-known figures, but also holy figures from our time, men and women of all different types. And I thought, ‘But who could I find to write a book like that?’ You know, it was kind of a big project. And one of my colleagues said, ‘Why don’t you do it yourself?’ And I just was sort of waiting for someone to give me that invitation or permission to think that I actually had something on my own to say. Because as an editor you’re always on the other side of the desk and working with other people’s writing. So the idea that I had something on my own to say … it came very much out of the same impulses in history that led me to Orbis Books in the first place. So it’s always been kind of hand in hand.
Karen: I know, because I happen to love All Saints. I read it very regularly. I can’t tell you I read it every single day, but I’m never disappointed. It’s a wonderful book. I love the crispness of your writing, the eloquence and then you add to that. I’m constantly marveling how that book got made. There’s just so much in it. What was it in you that had this passion to know all these characters, you’re quite the storyteller?
Robert: Well, a particular kind of story. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of people that I admired, not because of their great worldly achievements, but because of their human qualities, because of their spiritual and moral qualities. I guess all my life everything that I’ve learned or has been important to me has been in relationship or in dialogue with those kinds of lives. Some people that I met or people that I read or people from history, and I look back even, all through school and graduate school, every paper I ever wrote was some kind of effort to try to grapple with some kind of great mind or great heart. So I had been storing up this kind of reservoir and a lot of it goes back to the years that I spent with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker in the late seventies.
And there, I was really exposed to the whole communion of saints. Holy people that Dorothy Day would talk about, like contemporaries and friends not just historical figures. And she really relished their human qualities. And she took very seriously their historical context and how they tried to live out their faith in a heroic way in response to the questions and challenges of their time. So I went through that experience of a Catholic Worker that was not just exposing me to the saints, but to great writers like Dostoevsky and Pascal and Camus and peace activists and people like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez and Franz Jagerstatter. And then I went to Latin America and I was exposed to the kind of church of Romero and the Latin American martyrs.
And then I went to graduate school and I learned a lot more about church history and the mystics, women mystics. And then I came to Orbis and working for the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, which is the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. I learned more about the world church. All of that came together in this very distinctive collection of holy lives. I don’t think anybody else would have come up with quite that same list, but they were all people that really spoke to me in some way about the challenge of being faithful and really being human in a deep way in our time.
Karen: Now of course, something that would be really of interest to me was the fact that in the pages of All Saints, I found Henri Nouwen. I’d love to know how you found Henri Nouwen in the first place. And obviously he was an important person in your life and you were an important person in his life. I’d love to know about that.
Robert: Well, going backward, how did he end up in my book is kind of interesting because I was working on this book in the last few years of his life and he took a great interest in it. And I was surprised by what a great interest and I mean, in retrospect, now I can see he was kind of himself looking for a new vocabulary for how to write about spiritual life. And I think he was very fascinated by the fact that I was doing that through lives and very diverse eclectic lives. Because here, after all his spiritual hero is Vincent Van Gogh, a very, very non-conventional religious artist. I mean his original human impulses were to want to spread the gospel, to be a minister, a missionary of some kind and he kind of flunked out of that program and turned to art instead. But trying through the vocabulary of color and drawing and shapes and lines to communicate something about a compassionate view of the world and of the kind of presence of grace and divinity in the natural world and in the lives of people who struggle and cope with loneliness and depression and longing of various kinds. And so I think one of the things that really endeared my book to Henri was that I included Van Gogh as one of my saints, prophets, and witnesses for our time. So I was sending Henri batches of this as I was working on it. And he surprised me unbidden, by sending a letter to the publisher, which was Crossroad Publishing; a long letter of endorsement of the book. I mean, he hadn’t been asked. Ordinarily, you write a book and then you send it out for endorsements.
So the book wasn’t even finished yet and he wrote this long letter to Crossroad; a beautiful letter about the book. And I thought it’s an amazing thing for him to just have that impulse to do that. And as it turned out, remarkable also, because then he ended up dying before the book was done. So I never had the opportunity to ask him for an endorsement, there it was. And so he died just as I was finishing the book and I then ended up writing a little entry about him. I thought he’s not the kind of person who’s likely to be canonized, I wouldn’t say become an official Saint, but he’s the kind of holy person that interests me; a flawed person in many ways, a struggling person, but a person who represented a spirituality of pilgrimage, of being on a journey, of questing. And I think that that’s true. Maybe a lot of saints, we tend to think of them as this kind of finished product by the time they founded a religious congregation or something like that. But then there are these people like Henri — or Thomas Merton would be another example– whose spirituality is expressed on the road, is on a journey and it continued throughout his life. And in a way, you feel that journey continues and that you’re part of that journey. He accompanies you in your own journey. So it made sense for me to put him in the book. But it made him, uniquely, the only person who’s in my book who also endorsed the book.
Karen: Take me back. How did you guys meet in the first place? He really met you as a very young man. And one thing that impresses me about you, Robert, [is that] people who met you early on got that there was something really special. I mean, what was Dorothy Day doing naming you to be, what was it Editor in Chief of …?
Robert: It’s called Managing Editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper. Well, I came to The Catholic Worker in 1975 when I was 19. I dropped out of college. I only expected to take a year off and The Catholic Worker wasn’t my actual destination. But that’s a long story. I ended up going there for what I thought would be a few weeks, and that stretched on for five years. And it was during that time that I met Henri. As you said, I’d only been there for a few months and Dorothy asked me if I would be the Managing Editor of the paper. So, I was 20 at that point, I wasn’t a Catholic, I had no experience editing a paper or doing much of anything else. So it is a mystery to me in my life somehow that I feel that whether people saw something in me or they drew something out of me or they imparted some kind of gift. When you look into the story of Elijah kind of taking his cloak and putting it over the man who will be his follower, Elisha. I had the benefit of a lot of great mentors who in different ways befriended me and gave me somehow some kind of little share of their spirit.
And in this case I met Henri more or less accidentally. My sister was an undergraduate at Yale at the time. And she was friendly with a lot of people who were involved in peace work, who were friends with Henri, who was teaching at Harvard — excuse me, Yale divinity school. So I was visiting her and she said, ‘Would you like to meet Henry Nouwen?’ I’d heard of him, and he’d written some books on counseling and spiritual life, but he wasn’t the famous writer that he became later on. And I wouldn’t have necessarily thought that there was something that set him apart, especially from anybody else at Yale divinity school. I hadn’t read his books. But I said, sure. So she introduced me to him and we immediately hit it off.
You know, Henri had this way also of becoming very excited about meeting a young person that was on the path somehow, who was already on the way, was asking the right kind of questions. And he always thought, ‘Will you be my new best friend?’ or something like that. And so I didn’t know him well enough to know whether that was typical or not, but gosh he was incredibly friendly and giving me books and things and very interested in what I was doing. As I say, I was not especially in awe of him. I did not really know of — he didn’t really have that much of a reputation at the time. I just said, well, I knew he was a writer, I said would you like to write some things for The Catholic Worker sometime? And he said, oh, I’d be most honored to. So he gave me this series of essays that he wrote on community, which is one of the themes that The Catholic Worker is interested in. And they really didn’t interest me all that much I have to say. They seemed kind of abstract to me; they didn’t seem to be written by somebody who had a lot of experience of community at the time. And I was not a very experienced editor and I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that where you sort of invited someone to write for you, and then they send you something and you’re not that happy with it. And I said, “Well, I don’t know if they’re really exactly what we’re looking for. You have any other essays or articles or something?” I don’t know what I thought the impact of that would be, but he was not amused. And I could see right away that it was not the right thing to say. And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not saying we don’t want to use any of them.” Well, maybe one of the articles, it was a series of articles. But so we did publish one of those articles. He never forgot that I don’t think. It’s curious that earlier this year, I was at a conference on Henri Nouwen and I had occasion to go back and read that essay again. And it struck me as being much more profound than I appreciated at the time when I was 20.
In fact, I felt that he was, in that essay, addressing things that were maybe aspects of my own spiritual shadow that I was not able to perceive at the time. There was a lot more to it than I realized, even though maybe it wasn’t really quite right for The Catholic Worker. But it’s funny. So that was in whenever, 1977 or something, 10 years later.
So my relationship goes on with him for a long time, a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns. But when I told him I was coming to Orbis Books, he said, “Well, if anybody were to ask me about whether you’d be good for this job, I would say intellectually perfect fit. I don’t know whether you have the human gifts for this kind of work.” And I was thinking, ‘What is he talking about, my human gifts?’ And immediately my mind went back, he’s still thinking about… Now that doesn’t set him apart from every other author. We all remember the bad review we got, or the discouraging word from some teacher in fifth grade, or something that we want to prove them wrong. But the fact that he cared enough about what some kid said 10 years before, and now he’s remembering that still. But the funny thing is that as I did take the job I didn’t need a letter of recommendation from Henri as it turned out, which I wouldn’t have asked him for.
But I thought, well, he was onto something. There was something true there that being a successful editor is about relationships. And you have to know how to be honest with somebody and straight with them, show them respect but also be sensitive to their feelings and what they’re trying to do and to be a little bit more of a partner, an encouraging kind of a partner with them in their work and not just somebody with a red pencil. So I often felt that there was an important lesson for me there from Henri about gifts. So that’s how I met Henri. It started on that maybe inauspicious note. The fact that it continued for 10 years until I came to Orbis and then another 10 years after I came to Orbis — see he died then 10 years after I took the job. And in that period of time our relationship continued to unfold and develop. And so that by the end, I was working with him on the last book he wrote, Adam. And then went on, my relationship continued, surprisingly, I served for seven years as one of the executors of his literary estate and went on to publish many posthumous books and anthologies and biographies about him in the years after that.
Karen: Can I ask you, what was it like in that ten-year period when Henri was alive and you were actually editing his work? What was it like to work with him as an editor – for you?
Robert: Henri was at L’Arche in those years, and I didn’t see him so often. And in the beginning of his time there I think that we didn’t have very much expectation that we would work together. Orbis– the program of Orbis — was pretty much focused on theologians and writers from the third world. And that of course was an interest of Henri’s, his time that he’d spent there in Latin America. In fact, it was through connections of Henri that I ended up going to the Maryknoll Language School in Bolivia, which is how I was introduced to Orbis Books and ended up getting my job at Maryknoll. So he had a funny connection there.
So the first book that we worked on was a book of the Stations of the Cross, with a kind of third world theme. They were illustrated by drawings by a nun who looked at Jesus’ passion through the suffering of the poor in Latin America, Asia, Africa. And that was kind of a natural project for Orbis, a natural kind of bridge to the work of Henri Nouwen. And he did that book for us, and it was quite successful. But the Orbis program began to evolve and with it there began to be wider opportunities for us to work together. First, a new addition of his book Gracias, which was about his time in Latin America, largely under the auspices of Maryknoll. So again, that was a good fit. Finally, I guess the first original book he did with us, and I think it was a bit of a test to see how he would do with it. It was a book he wrote on the Eucharist or what he called the Eucharistic life called With Burning Hearts. And it was a big breakthrough for us and he was very happy with the results and it made him think, well, it’s not a necessarily a sacrifice to go with a publisher like Orbis. I mean, he published with many different publishers at the same time, and he would kind of carefully think, who was the right publisher? Of course people were always asking him to do things. And so it was hard to kind of get in the queue on his projects, but he was so happy with that book and I think by the end of his life he was beginning to look at Orbis as one of his primary relationships. So he said he wanted to do a book on the creed, on the Apostles Creed. And I said, okay, great. He said, send me some articles about the creed I’d like to learn more about it. So I looked up some things in the library and sent them and he said, “Oh, this is more complicated than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was just the Apostles Creed was written by the apostles or something.” And I could see he was getting discouraged with the idea. So then something happened, which was the death of Adam, the core member of the L’Arche community that he had been responsible for caring for part of the day in his early time in L’Arche and had been really his bridge into the world of L’Arche. And he’d often given talks about Adam and the impact that he’d left on Henri and on the community. It was as if L’Arche and Adam in particular gave him a much more real and concrete reference point or foundation for so many of the spiritual themes he’d been writing about for years, whether being ministry or intimacy or community or peacemaking things that I’d said that seemed a little abstract when I read them 10 years before now seemed very real. So he said, “I have a new idea for this book. Now bear with me.” And I said, okay, using my, my new human gifts that I acquired after many years. He said it’s still going to be about the creed, but it’s going to be about Adam. And I’m thinking okay, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. You know, it’s a book about the creed, but it’s about Adam.
I said, “Okay, all right, let’s see what that looks like anyway.” So he gets to work on this and began sending me chapters. And I begin to get an idea of it. Surprisingly, the book is written like a gospel almost of the life of Adam. And here’s this man who was mute, who couldn’t walk, who couldn’t express himself, who needed to be cared for all day long. Couldn’t tell you if he was happy or sad, who had seizures all the time, and yet he becomes a figure for Henri to tell the gospel story. So he talks about his early hidden life, then his time in the desert, which was when he was in an institution, and then when he comes to L’Arche and his mission begins.
And again, very interesting to talk about the mission of Adam. But he was conveying the idea that Adam, because of his limitations or disabilities, is able to reveal something very deep about the mission of each of our lives, which is not necessarily to achieve great things. We’re not loved by God, because we did this special thing or not, but we are beloved of God from the beginning. And our mission in life is to take that in and to express our belovedness in whatever is given to us. And Adam did that just as effectively– or more effectively– than many other people. And he certainly had an impact on the people around him, including Henri and in his own passion and death he helped to teach Henri something about approaching his own death without fear.
And it was so interesting that this turned out to be the last book Henri was working on. He died just after turning in the manuscript to me; it was not completely done. He went off then to Amsterdam and he died and the book came out after his death. So I don’t know where it – in a way that book was Henri’s creed. It was kind of a summing up of everything that he’d learned, not just at L’Arche but how L’Arche had given him a vocabulary for expressing everything that had come before that. So it was really the kind of culmination of Henri’s whole journey. And I think it is very significant that that was his final gift, so to speak.
Karen: That’s great. I have had the privilege of hearing you speak a number of times and you have, you’re an eloquent man and a thoughtful man. It’s not just words well put together, but ideas. I’m curious for the times that we live in now, what are the things that you find concerning and what are the things that give you joy?
Robert: The thing that has given me more joy than anything in the last five years has been the witness of Pope Francis. I became a Catholic and after five years at The Catholic Worker and years since then I never thought, am I not a Catholic, or should I not be a Catholic? It seemed so much part of my identity; part of my whole life that I couldn’t define myself otherwise. But I think that really, it was the promise of Pope Francis that made me become a Catholic. It was the imagination of that kind of church that he represents. That is what I thought I was getting myself into. And a lot of time, I was very disappointed in those hopes. My time at Orbis Books, for instance, was constantly clouded by investigations of my authors who were silenced or disciplined or humiliated in various ways because they were trying to find a new vocabulary to express the faith in its relation to issues of religious pluralism or the relation between faith and culture, or prophetic attention to the cry of the poor or whatever. Out of step by and large with the bishops of the United States who showed no interest or support or sympathy for what we were doing.
And yet I kept at it. It always seemed important and real and to reflect my understanding of the gospel. And then Pope Francis came along and it was this springtime, and it felt like a kind of valentine from the Holy Spirit to me. I just get emotional just talking about him. And it’s not as if suddenly aha now, okay now we’re going to shift our program to be all about Francis. The point is that our program was all about Francis before he came along. And it simply now it had this kind of affirmation that we were on the right track I think. Now not everybody agrees, to my surprise, when he’s talking about a church that is focused on its mission and not just inward looking and focused on itself.
And I think that the church had become, as he said, just simply too self-referential and too much concerned with judgment and presenting a face of judgment to the world and to others who didn’t measure up to some idea of the law or orthodoxy. And his emphasis on mercy and love as being the essence of the gospel and the Christian life and that the whole church, everything in the church, should be measured according to that mission. So immediately, of course, we began publishing books by and about Pope Francis. I’ve edited personally several of them now, including most recently a book of his writings on migrants and refugees. That’s coming out this fall. I edited a book of his addresses to young people. I put together a special edition of his letter on holiness that came out recently among many other books we’ve done.
That’s the Francis part of the program. You could look through the whole list and see the Asian theologians that are trying to deal with interreligious dialogue, and the Latin Americans who are dealing with the option for the poor and social justice, the concern for earth and ecology, and a new relation between religion and science and simply an essential concern for the merciful face of God rather than the judging face of God. So I feel very affirmed. I feel this is what I’ve waited for all this time. I see things happening like the canonization of Oscar Romero this Fall; something I take joy in. Probably he would be the patron Saint of Orbis Books. I see the progress in the cause for the canonization of my friend Dorothy Day that is proceeding in which I have again, mysteriously, happened to play a part. I’m one of the three members of the historical commission appointed by the archdiocese to assemble and sign off on the material that will be submitted to Rome for her canonization. So that extension of my relationship that goes back for 40 years continues. I have the satisfaction of the work that I do, the joy that I find in writing about saints and in feeling that is not just something I like to write about, but that it is a concrete contribution that I can make to raising the kind of moral and spiritual literacy. Because people through these lives have a concrete reference point for way of interpreting how to live the gospel in our time in relation to the issues we face.
So all of those things I have: a community of authors and friends that I feel I’m in on this with, that we’re all partners, that I have meaningful important work, that I have affirmation through Pope Francis that this work is blessed and important those are all things that I find joy in.
On the other side just speaking personally as a citizen of the United States, I am tremendously dismayed by the threat that I feel that Donald Trump poses not just through the policies which he’s enacting, but to see a kind of vulgarity, meanness, moral vacuity, lack of historical consciousness, capacity for empathy enthroned and the object of a kind of cult that is extremely disturbing to me. And I don’t know whether with each new outrage, we seem to be on this downward slope. We ask ourselves, ‘Is this as far as it gets or is it going to keep on going? Is this going to be what is going to provoke some moral uprising and we haven’t gotten there yet?’ And I don’t know whether you get to a point of almost the tipping point where you can’t easily go back to the kind of norms of decency and respect for law and for the constitution and for free press and for a sense of global solidarity or concern for the earth or all these kinds of things. It’s no accident maybe that I find myself personally, and not just me, the world in this kind of crossroad with a Pope Francis on one side, and what is almost like his moral opposite in the United States. So that is a matter of deep distress for me, not just for me, but thinking of the impact this will have on future generations and on the whole fate of the earth. So there’s a feeling of quite a lot being at stake.
Karen: I thank you for sharing both sides of that, the hope and the sorrow and the uncertainty. One last question. I have been aware – well, I’m aware the Pope has, by his admission, said that in his top 10 books to read one of them was Henri Nouwen. And it was the The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Robert: I didn’t know that.
Karen: Yes. He listed 10 books and it’s there. And I thought that was a delight to see. I’m wondering about, in a way, positioning Henri for the age we live in. And I wonder if he can be described as a spiritual master for the age of anxiety. What are your thoughts? Where does Henri fit today? Does he have something for now?
Robert: I think when I was thinking of becoming a Catholic, Henri was one of the first people I spoke to about that. And I didn’t really know how you became a Catholic; is there something you’re supposed to read or something like that. And I thought that he might give me a catechism or something — “Here’s a book on what Catholics believe” or something like that. And instead, he said, “I want you to go home and read the gospel of Mark and then when you’re done with that, then read the gospel of Matthew and then read…” He said, there’s no reason to do this unless it’s part of the way you’re being called to be closer to Jesus. It doesn’t matter what church you belong to. It doesn’t matter what kind of creed you recite. It was all about growing closer to Jesus. And I think that that is actually a kind of timeless message. It’s one of the reasons why Henri has had such an ecumenical appeal. I mean, he was deeply Catholic. He was deeply a priest. The Eucharist, the sacraments, Mary, the saints, all these were very, very important to him. But his emphasis on Jesus was so central that evangelicals and Protestants, ministers of all kinds have found him accessible. I think that he didn’t necessarily find exactly the language to bridge the kind of audiences that he wanted to reach, but he had a very deep sense of how do you make that message of Jesus meaningful to a secular or a non-religious audience as well.
He was already aware, before it became so obvious, that a lot of Christian and religious language was becoming meaningless to the younger generation. And yet the deeper language of intimacy, of communion, of compassion, of love that this was a universal language. And I think he saw how that could bridge a lot of divides and might be a new way of building, of contributing to the spiritual life of our culture. But he had a different message for people in ministry. He had different message for ordinary people, but I think that his efforts to try to use artists like Van Gogh and paintings or reflecting on a painting of Rembrandt, or maybe talking about the circus or other kinds of ways, would help us understand what ultimately the meaning of life was about. And it was not pointing us in a churchy dogmatic spirituality. But interestingly enough the way he was able finally, ultimately, to talk about the creed was by talking about a highly disabled man who died after a difficult life. He said that to be a Christian is to learn somehow to see your own life in relation to the life of Jesus, in relation to the gospel; to see your own story as part of God’s story that God’s telling through Jesus. And I think that in that way, at least as a spiritual teacher he was onto something very deeply in the fact that for him spirituality was not divorced from a concern for the world, in fact deeply compassionate about the cause of peace, about social justice, about the poor in Latin America and elsewhere. And I think that that sensibility and concern would have been something that he would’ve continued to cultivate. So in that sense again, I think that that is part of the spiritual agenda of our time, how those kind of spiritual insights and energies can be mobilized not only to deepen our own intimacy with God, but our intimacy with a wounded world.
Karen: Thank you so much. This has been excellent. I could go on and on. I love chatting with you. I would encourage anyone that’s listening, check out Orbis Books and see how the issues of social justice have found a wonderful place to be shared. Thank you.
Thank you, Karen.
Thank you, Robert.
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