Robert Ellsberg "Holiness in this Day & Age" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. This week I want to introduce you to one of Henri Nouwen’s good friends and an editor of several of Henri’s books, Robert Ellsberg. Today, Robert is the editor in chief of Orbis Books. He’s written many books on the saints. He’s a bit of a Saint watcher, the official name for someone like that is a Hagiographer, but Robert Ellsberg does not deliver plaster saints and in his latest book, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives delivers saints that as Thomas Merton would say, demonstrate that holiness is really a matter of being fully human. And he looks for the living gospel that is written in their lives.
Robert Ellsberg, you have authored seven books and been the editor on many more, at least a dozen more. You were the managing editor of the Catholic Worker, and you were a good and honest friend to Henri Nouwen in his lifetime and to all of us who carry forward his legacy. What was the criteria you used to choose the people you have featured in this new book, A Living Gospel?
Robert Ellsberg: Well, I’ve written a number of books over the last 20 years where I looked at a range of lives that really inspired me, many of them drawn from the list of official or canonical saints. But I strayed way outside the usual boundaries there to include people that maybe lots of people might think to include on a list of potential saints, like Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, but also artists and writers. The first book I did was called All Saints and I included a reflection for every day of the year. And I was writing that while our friend Henri was still with us. And he became very, very fascinated by what I was doing and kept asking me to send him selections from the book. And I think that I totally won him over when I included an essay on Van Gogh in my list of saints and amazingly he just took the initiative of sending a beautiful endorsement for the book to the publisher when I hadn’t even finished writing it. And that turned out to be quite providential because then he died shortly after, very suddenly, unexpectedly before the book was finished. And so I actually included an entry on Henri in the book itself. So he is the only person who actually endorsed the book, who was also included in my list of people I called saints, “witnesses and prophets for our time.” So I was not really claiming that all these people necessarily be canonized, but they are people who, to me, kind of challenged and opened our eyes or our hearts to what it might look like to really live an authentic life, a questing life for more, to be more alive, to be more loving, to be more courageous in response to the needs of our time.
So that led to a whole series of books I’ve done on saints. But when it finally came to this new book, A Living Gospel, I wanted to step away from perhaps, focusing on the biographies. Well, that is to say, to focus on individuals as much as to think about what I’m trying to say about holiness, which is that it’s not this kind of checklist of achievements or accomplishments in the spiritual or the moral life but it’s a quality that’s expressed in the whole journey of a life in which the failures and the stumbling and the just very human kind of qualities that we can all identify with are as much a part of the whole story of what makes somebody a holy or a saintly person as the great legacy that they have left behind.
So in the book, I do focus on several stories and they’re not necessarily people I think will be named official saints, but people who in particular illustrate or demonstrate that idea I’m kind of trying to get across about how holiness or the spiritual life is expressed in the whole journey of a life in the biography or what I call the living gospel that’s reflected in a life of a person who’s trying to be a disciple, a follower of Christ. And these are all people who have intersected with my life in significant ways whether I knew them or not, beginning with Dorothy Day whom I worked with for five years at The Catholic Worker – the last five years of her life and whose influence and work and legacy have been very much intertwined with my life ever since.
Thomas Merton, who along with Dorothy Day, was one of the four people for Americans that Pope Francis singled out when he came and spoke to a joint session of Congress several years ago. The third is her friend Henri Nouwen who I knew for 20 years before he died and whose life and legacy again has turned out to be quite an important part of my life since then as his publisher, including many postumous books and serving for some years as one of the trustees of his literary estate. Flannery O’Connor the Catholic writer, novelist whose letters, which were published posthumously, had a big influence on me. And in fact was a catalyst when I decided to become a Catholic many years ago. Charles de Foucauld whose effort to imitate the hidden life of Jesus living as a hermit in north Africa inspired several communities of the Little Brothers, the Little Sisters of Jesus who again, had a big influence on me. He’s actually been beatified, so he’s on his way to becoming an official saint. And then I look at women saints in general. We could talk about that later. But those are the individuals that I focus on. But otherwise it’s all kind of bracketed by my own kind of reflections on what we learn from looking at lives like this, looking at how the gospel is expressed in a concrete life with the idea that that helps us consider and look at our own lives in a different light as a kind of gospel in the making.
There’s a long, long answer to the very short question.
Karen: It’s a good answer though, because it gives the big arc of the book, a sense of the scope. But what I found was so wonderful in reading it – I just found it so inspiring. It was like you took me into the particulars and in a way, each one became so much more accessible to me. And that was really something, really spoke to my life about the choices we make on a daily basis in the way we conduct the day we’re in. You know, holiness isn’t just being set apart and set away and in a cloister somewhere, it really is about a kind of setting of the direction of our being. I think isn’t it Peterson, who talks about faithfulness – in a long faithfulness in a long direction or something like that. I’m not quoting it properly, but there’s something about the little things that you make choices to live in a certain way. Like with [St.] Thérèse and “The Little Way,” I’ve found that I’ve heard so much about that, but read it here and really appreciated what you wrote. Can I ask you what does the Pope have to say about holiness? What’s there that inspired you?
Robert: The Pope has issued a document on holiness and which I wrote an introduction for that in an edition that we published at Orbis. So I was very taken by that because he doesn’t write about just encouraging us to study the lives of the saints. He makes it clear – that’s one of the points that I’m trying to get across in the book too – which is that holiness is the calling of all Christians. And it doesn’t mean that we’re called to be canonized or have churches named after us but to be holy in our own way. And again, that doesn’t mean to be set apart from all other human beings. It means just fulfilling the destiny or the calling that we receive when we identify ourselves in baptism or later as followers of Jesus that we want to be more like him. We want to learn his ways. We want his way of being to be increasingly reflected in the way we live and the way we make choices and the way we enter into relationships, the way we respond to the needs of our neighbors and our time in history. And so Pope Francis puts a lot of emphasis on everyday holiness. And again when we talk about saints, they can sometimes seem so charismatic or representing such extraordinary accomplishment that we think, well I could never be like that.’ Or we may pray to them or invoke their memory, ask for their help, but we don’t think, ‘well, I could be like that.’ And the Pope talks about that there is a kind of manual for holiness, it’s right there in the gospels, and it’s not a big kind of training program. It’s simply the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, those who mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers. And we can think of the particular saints that kind of exemplify some of those virtues. But we can also think of all kinds of people in our everyday acquaintance or relatives or teachers or neighbors or coworkers that we know who set an example for us and we think, yeah, I wish I could be a little bit more like that. I could be a little more patient. I could be a little more forgiving. I could be more generous. I could . . . and if we just try to do that in small ways that is really the arena of becoming a Saint. Not just standing in the Coliseum facing a lion or something like that, or founding a religious order, or giving away everything to follow Christ but beginning in very small ways.
And that’s why Dorothy Day, for instance, who may, probably will, become an official Saint one day, her cause is in process. Her favorite Saint was St. Thérèse of Lisieux who is of course, a canonized Saint, a very influential, one of the most popular saints of the 20th century. But here’s a nun who left behind this program of holiness that she called The Little Way, which anyone could practice. And it was simply a matter of taking all the everyday little chores and encounters in your life and doing them in a spirit of love and with a consciousness of the presence of God. And if you did that, that could transform ordinary life. All the little frustrations, not just the times when you’re in church or on your knees, but when you’re doing the laundry or where you’re interacting with somebody in a grocery store or you’re in traffic. Wherever you are opportunities to kind of suppress the impulse to be angry or impatient even just to give somebody a smile when you’re not necessarily in a cheerful mood – that kind of generosity.
Dorothy Day took that very much to heart. And we think someone like Dorothy Day, the founder of The Catholic Worker who spent all of her life serving the poor, but also was arrested many times for her peace witness or commitment to social justice. And we tend to focus on these kind of heroic things she did and lose sight of the fact that like most people, the majority of her life was spent in very ordinary kinds of ways. And that if you read her diaries, which I actually had the privilege of editing, you see how her spirituality was exercised in just everyday efforts to be more patient, more forgiving, more charitable. And that prepared her then for the occasions when there was a great challenge on the kind of stage of history for her to exercise.
And I think that that’s . . . so you asked about Pope Francis. He is really giving very practical advice. First of all, to set our eyes on holiness and not to think of that as something that’s just for saints or that’s for people who lived long ago, or that’s for nuns or priests or bishops or monks or something but for everybody. And to show how it is expressed in everyday life in ways that may not be recognized by many people at all. But that’s the way it is with the communion of saints that you have the canonized Saints who represent just the sort of tip of the iceberg. But then there’s this great vast invisible majority of the iceberg that’s submerged and that nobody sees except unless you bump into them and that is what the Christian life is all about.
Karen: You know, I feel in this book your invitation, you draw us in to realize that what we have in our lives is the opportunity and is the call for this. One of the quotes here that I like very much with Madeline Delbrêl, is that how we say her name? Madeline Delbrêl and it says – you describe her as they were, “they call themselves ‘missionaries without a boat; not traveling overseas but crossing the borders of faith to bear witness to the gospel in friendship and solidarity.” It’s funny when I read that, I thought, really right now I long for that kind of wholehearted Christian response. Because we are seeing so much of a need to cross borders and have a heart of solidarity with people who have been feeling the injustice that goes over generation upon generation and are now just crying out saying we want it now. And that just reminded me of the sense of crossing over and offering friendship and solidarity and commitment.
Robert: Well one of the lessons that I learned from Henri Nouwen and worked with him on several books, but significantly on his last book, Adam, that he was writing when he died, which he intended as his kind of reflection on the creed, that is to say a statement of his kind of basic belief as a Christian. And as you know, he ended up writing that in a different way than he had intended. Instead of just reflecting on the articles of the creed, he decided to write it in the form of a reflection on the life of Adam, a very severely handicapped adult man that he had cared for in the L’Arche community, who died while he was working on this book. And it’s coincidental that he happened to be named Adam, the name of the kind of original human in the sense he could have been named anything. But he wrote the book in the form of a kind of gospel. The gospel that was written in the life of this very obscure man that a lot of people would have said, well, what was the point of his life? What did he accomplish? He had all this suffering and he died. But he had just tremendous impact on the people who knew him and loved him, including Henri who really considered him a kind of mentor to him in his original time in L’Arche – taught him so many things. And so he tells the story in the form of the gospel, kind of telling about Adam’s mission in the world and his ministry, his passion, and his death, his resurrection in the hearts of those who loved him.
And he says basically, in the book, the message is that to be a Christian is to learn to see your own life in relation to the story that God is telling us, the story of Jesus. And that ties right in with the title of my book, A Living Gospel, which is taken from a line from a Jesuit from the 17th century, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who said that the Holy Spirit writes no more gospels today except in our lives. And he talks about our sufferings, our tears, our joys, our struggles, all of that are the paper and ink with which the Holy Spirit writes a living gospel in our lives. And so learning to be becoming a Christian, not just learning to follow certain kinds of rules or to believe certain things, but to learn to see all the things in our lives in relation to that story of Jesus.
And that story of Jesus is not just about all the miracles that he performed. It’s also about his loneliness and his stumbling and the misunderstandings that he had to endure and the apparent failures. And all of that is part of the story that God was telling through that and that connected me with when you asked about Pope Francis. And I think one of the things, ideas of his that had a tremendous impact on me when I read it, was when he distinguishes — this was an interview that he gave after he became Pope — between what he calls a laboratory faith or a lab faith in which everything is clear cut and well defined and syllogistic and what he calls a journey faith, a journey faith in which we travel in faith, in uncertainty where we don’t know what’s going to happen where we stumble and make mistakes along the way but where we encounter God, not just through these mathematical principles, but through encountering God along the way, along the path, on the journey. In Dorothy Day, she called the column that she wrote for The Catholic Worker ’On Pilgrimage.’ That idea that their life is a journey. And it’s not just getting to the end that’s the point of the whole thing. The journey itself is the point of the thing, it’s being on the road. It is being open to the unexpected, the detours, the roundabouts, the blocked ways, the traffic jams, the encounters we make, the friends we make, the things that come into our lives and surprise us. All of that was the point of it. And all of the people I write about, Henri, Thomas Merton, Charles de Foucauld, Dorothy Day, they were all people who exemplified that in a way. They didn’t just achieve something -they founded a community and that’s the end of the story. It is this ongoing journey, this ongoing pilgrimage in which they were constantly open to where God was calling them to go farther, to go deeper in ways that they couldn’t see in advance.
Karen: I did a documentary in Holland a number of years ago called Hidden Heroes. I was really eager to understand who had the courage and really asking myself if I would’ve had the courage to be one of the people that faithfully hid Jews that were needing to be hid rather than allowing the Nazis to take them. And I was very struck by the phrase that came up again and again, “the responsibility for the person on our way,” that’s who God’s brought into your life. And you can step aside from all sorts of things, but it’s the person that God’s brought on your way. And that kind of brings together all what you’re talking about.
One of the things that really touched me about the book is you have a really good knowledge of Henri. I mean, I’ve had people ask me before, do you think Henri will be sainted? And I read this in here from you and I go, you really got who Henri was. You write, “He was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation. He was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth. There seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” And that gives me a phenomenal hope because a lot of us are so drawn to Henri’s writing because we go, oh boy, he gets the inside story on me. But there is this call, this phenomenal call and I think you truly get that as well. And I find it fascinating because you also capture the fact that Henri began to realize that his death could be a gift and I think that was an amazing part. Even of this story, you come very, very close to it because obviously your world overlapped with Henri’s because you were publishing the book, Adam, and Henri died before it was totally finished. And I think that’s fascinating. How do you think in a sense, without making plaster saints of people, I think you have this gift for telling stories that really call us into being responsible for the place we are and for the people on our way.
Robert: Well, I hope so. I think there are a lot of people who read about Henri, they’re very moved by his books when they get to know more about him and they say, gosh, he seemed like he’s a very neurotic, needy person. And they, you know that’s because he writes about it. He doesn’t try to hide that or make himself out to be a perfect kind of person. He lays it all there. And especially in the books that are based on his journals, you see that right up to the end. I didn’t see a lot of Henri when he went to L’Arche, but when I did see him he had seemed like he had grown so much, that he had a place where he’d really found a home. And after all this restless searching and going from one place to another, a place where he really felt himself loved and where he learned how to love in a very generous way.
And I thought, gosh, he really kind of worked it all out by the end it seemed like. And then I read his Sabbatical Journey, which he was working on the last year of his life and right before he died. And you see that all the anxieties, all the neurotic kinds of worries and things that he had are there just right to the end. But still, he even writes there that he had begun to see where God was speaking to him, even in those kind of problems or those flaws. And instead of kind of trying to think that my job in life is to get beyond all that, to be completely clear or healed and made whole in some way, that God was welcoming him, calling him with all of his humanity. He didn’t have to become a different person.
But it was always going be there right until the end. But he had this kind of confidence that God was with him and that he was, he was following where God was calling him. And that I think ultimately did give him a deep sense of peace. And so when you read his last writings, you don’t feel like, oh gosh he missed the mark. He never got to be what he was supposed to be. Well, none of us – it’s an illusion to think that our lives are ever finished. That we’re done at some point and that’s what it means to be a Saint, is that some kind of timer goes off, little, bell that kind of the turkey is done or something; take it out of the oven all done ready to serve. No, Henri, why he appeals to me in the company of the people I’ve written about is because he represents that path of holiness that continues right up to the very end, our last breath and those who are faithful to the call of that journey are the ones who really interest me. And that, I think, could say the same thing of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and all of these people that I’m really attracted to.
Karen: I love the fact that on Henri’s deathbed, he was basically saying, tell everybody I’m so grateful. I’m so very, very grateful. And that’s such a freeing gift. That’s a freeing gift to everybody. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything missing does it? I can’t resist getting your take on the present time because you’re a New Yorker. You’ve lived through the pandemic on the front lines of a lot of things happening and we’re all trying to live through it. And I’m curious if you found some wisdom from the masters of social isolation, because I mean, you obviously have studied them. You’ve told their stories in All Saints, et cetera. You’ve talked about the saints that could deal with isolation. What are you learning and what have you found that you can offer to us?
Robert: Yes. Early on, of course, when we, like a lot of people, I was sent home from work to work from home here with my wife. And for months we hardly left our house and had no idea how long this was going to last. In the first week or so it felt a little bit like an adventure, like going camping in your backyard when you’re a kid and you put up a little tent and you bring a flashlight and some Graham crackers and some toys and stuff like that. And you think it’s going to be really great. So at first it was kind of, well, this is interesting, and then it begins to kind of drag on, for week after week and then month after month. And then it raises the question for you, like, well, what am I… is this… just because I’m home does that mean I’m not doing anything? Or my life is kind of in suspended animation and then I began to reflect on a lot of the people, of course, that I’ve written about who either embraced a solitude, or it was imposed on them. They didn’t necessarily choose it. It’s not what they would’ve chosen. And yet who found some kind of resources or wisdom in this experience.
And I thought, well that’s something that I can do to share some of that. And so I began just on Twitter and I invite all your listeners to follow me on Twitter @Robert Ellsberg. But I began writing a series #masters of social isolation. And I did about 20 of them or so, and then I did an article about that for the National Catholic Reporter. And I looked at, for instance one of the things I think that was important for people to kind of understand was that in a time like this we’re not staying at home just to protect ourselves. But that this was a sacrifice that we were making for the welfare of others as well, especially for people on the front lines, working in hospitals and that sort of thing who were so overwhelmed that anything we could do to cooperate with public health in that way was actually a work of mercy. And if we thought of it that way, rather than just, oh gosh I’m stuck here, that might go give us a different way of looking at it. But then I looked at other people, whether someone like some of these people had kind of obviously a vocation or a calling to solitude like Emily Dickinson the poet who hardly ever left her house and yet traveled far. That instead of thinking of the horizons as just being the four walls around us, an opportunity to go inside, or like Henry David Thoreau and Walden and kind of think of this as going on an interior adventure that we might not have chosen for ourselves, like going on a silent retreat or something.
Or then I thought of someone like Father Walter Ciszek. He was a Jesuit priest who had a misadventure that caused him to be arrested in Soviet Russia. And he was in prison for 25 years and how he felt at first when he felt the injustice of his situation and just wanted to pound against the walls. It made him feel terrible like trapped. But when he began to think that wherever he was, was where God wanted him to be at that moment and that there were things that he could do through prayer or reflection, or just his encounters with those fellow prisoners or whatever, that was the place where he had been put there to express his faith in his life. And that transformed a prison into kind of paradise.
So anyway, these are just examples of some of the people that I thought about. Or even like Thomas Merton in his hermitage, that rather than kind of separating him from the world, it, through his correspondence and his reading and reflection, kind of became this opening for him toward a deeper sense of solidarity with the world and its struggles and its sufferings. So now this has been going on for quite a few months. It’s not just like the overnight backyard adventure and sleeping bag and whatever under the stars. And it’s still not over. It’s still kind of struggling to think like, well that there are ethical and moral and spiritual challenges that are being put to us every day through this process that has so interrupted and broken our sense of routine.
Karen: Where are we in this? And it’s funny how we long for the new normal to just become solidified on a horizon so we can say, oh, that’s what it’s going to be like. And I’m sure a lot of people want the new normal to look like the old normal, but I think the reality is it’s going to be, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. And it’s interesting to say, what are the resources for this time? And it really does cause you to dig deep. I also value the fact that in a sense, I think the space that happened for us through this made us all share in the most painful thing to watch George Floyd literally die before our eyes and the response that that has brought worldwide. I know you’ve got a family history and a history yourself of being an advocate for social justice. I’d love to just hear a little bit from you about what your thoughts are right now about this time, about where we are and where we’re headed.
Robert: Well, it’s sort of, we’re living in this kind of apocalyptic time. It’s like out of the Book of Revelation or something with all these four horsemen and the seven seals and all this. Apocalypse doesn’t just mean destruction and the end of the world or something. It really means unveiling. And we’re experiencing a kind of unveiling in which we’re seeing how everything is sort of connected. There’s a concept of intersectionality that some scholars use to show how you can’t really, for instance, separate class and sexual discrimination and racism and all these kinds of things. They’re all connected. But we’re seeing that in so many different ways. And I think that image of George Floyd an African American man under arrest, on his stomach, his hands handcuffed behind him with police sitting on him and one of them literally kneeling on his neck while he’s slowly suffocating saying I can’t breathe. That became such a potent symbol and metaphor, not just for hundreds of years of racial oppression and systemic oppression of African American people in this country but something that so many people around the world could identify with – of a feeling of just having the life pressed out of them by an oppressive and seemingly indifferent system that puts more emphasis on short term profits and greatness than it does on the sacred image of God and living beings. And the way that that is connected with the climate change and the way that the earth is being suffocated with the burning of rainforests and the acidification of the oceans and the expansion of deserts and all of these things. The economic system, the systemic racism, the nuclear threat, I mean, it does make you think that what we are dealing with is not just that we need a different President, or we need a new party, though I’m happy to contribute to that cause and hope it’s not a bad place to begin, but a deep kind of spiritual, moral kind of decentering that we have suffered under in which things are just turned upside down from an order or a way of living that holds promise. And it allows us all to breathe. So it was quite extraordinary that these crises kind of overlapped and in the midst of a pandemic that was on the one hand calling everybody to stay home, there was this arising awakening from the image of George Floyd and then other kinds of similar incidents that simply forced so many people to feel that they had to go out of their homes and to not just party at the beach but to demonstrate, to witness, to call for some really radical change.
It was one of the most on the one hand this great shutdown and on the other hand, this great awakening. And maybe the two were related and it wouldn’t have happened if it had just been in the context of ordinary life. But having everything kind of stopped and for us to be confronting our mortality, the way we are also connected in ways that we take for granted, that perhaps made people more sensitized or aware of the fact that they don’t want to just go back to the way things were before. They want something radically different and radically hopeful.
Karen: In that quiet, I think we could not escape hearing and seeing, being witness to. And I think it brings us to the reality that even the timing of this book — and it is a real treasure — you give the sacred image of God in human beings. And I find where I might feel overwhelmed with what can I do to respond, I’m very touched by the various people that you have chosen to feature in A Living Gospel because it equips me to do what I can, where I am, to the people that are on my way. To be, to see in everyone their belovedness and to stand for their rights in every opportunity I get. I love your book. I urge people to read it. Anything you write, by the way, Robert, is worth reading. It really is. You’re a wonderful writer. So it’s always great fun to open something from you. But I just would encourage people, this book is a treasure. You’ll enjoy it. You’ll find that which will inspire you as to how to live the day you’re in right now. I think it’s got great worth in that area. Thank you, Robert. Thanks so much.
Robert: Thank you. Thank you very much. Always a pleasure talking to you Karen.
Karen: Thank you for taking time to listen. I hope you enjoyed this interview with Robert Ellsberg and you found it as inspiring and moving as I did. If you enjoy today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your family and friends. As well, you’re going to find links in the show notes of our website for any content or resources that were discussed in this episode. There’s even a link to books to get you started in case you are new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks for listening until next time.
In the words of our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!