Sr. Sue Mosteller "Henri & Adam" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world.
Our very special guest today is Sister Sue Mosteller. Recently Sister Sue was awarded the Order of Canada. This is the top honor for Canadians. The citation reads: “For her dedication to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and for her decades of work as a leader of L’Arche.”
Sue is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, but I know her best as the executrix of Henri Nouwen’s literary estate. Henri and Sue were good friends, a friendship that was built in the last 10 years of Henri Nouwen’s life when they were both living and serving at the L’Arche Daybreak community north of Toronto. I asked Sister Sue what her favorite Nouwen book is and she chose “Adam: God’s Beloved.” I invite you to listen to our conversation and you’ll learn why this book is such a profound revelation of God’s character.
I am so glad to have an opportunity to talk with you, Sue, you are one of my heroes. I have known you for many, many years and loved you, dearly. You’re a wonderful, wonderful person. When I said, Sue, what book should we talk about you said “Adam: God’s Beloved.“ And really, Adam: God’s Beloved tells the story of Henri coming to L’Arche and what was going on. And it’s rich; it’s really an incredible book. Tell us a little bit about the relationship. What was Henri thrown into when he arrived at L’Arche? What was he asked to do?
Sr. Sue Mosteller: We asked him to help us make connections for the core members with the various churches and the synagogues and so on because we knew that we couldn’t. Our business was really to take care of people and we couldn’t find the way to do this. And also, nobody knew how. And so we just said maybe you could visit the churches around here. We have people in the Presbyterian church, the Anglican church, the Catholic church, and so on and talk to the pastors and so on. So Henri began to do that and then to invite them for worship. And they would come and lead a worship service. On Friday night we always had a worship service and he connected us with a couple of different Christian community churches. And he also lined us up with a little synagogue. And he connected with the father of the woman in the Islamic tradition, who was a teacher, a high school teacher, and just very, very steeped in the Hindu scriptures and so on. And so we began to invite these people to come and to talk to us about their tradition. And Henri would always talk to us beforehand. Saying, you have a tradition, you love your tradition, it’s so important to you, but be open because other people, God has called in different ways and God is bigger than one church. God can be God for people of all different backgrounds and traditions. And so let’s see how our diversity becomes a real gift for us. So it was like a whole education for the first couple of years. And we met all these beautiful people and our people were able to go.
And then one of the Jewish fellows, his father was 84 years old and had always wanted his son to make his Bar Mitzvah, but had never been accepted because he was handicapped. And this little synagogue said no, we’ll help him and we’ll bring him along. And so Henri was helping him and going, they went together with the father and he prepared. And then they invited all of us, the whole community of Daybreak, which by that time was about 60 or 70 people. And we all went for the Bar Mitzvah celebration, and they just stopped after every 10 minutes to say, we have to stop and explain to our Christian brothers and sisters, what we’re doing. So this ceremony went on and on, and then we were all invited for lunch and so on, but really just bringing us together in hope and in joy and in celebration. So this is what we asked him to do, and that’s what he did.
And he also celebrated the Eucharist every day for whoever wanted to go. And sometimes it was a very small group and sometimes it was larger. And then on Sundays, he participated in the local Catholic church and he celebrated there. So that we weren’t sort of having our own church. We wanted to be connected with the churches in Richmond Hill.
Karen: Well, it’s interesting because Henri was a Catholic priest, but there was such a bigness, such a largeness, such a welcome there to everyone. And I think we see that in the books. And I think in the books he’s written what I find is they are so Christocentric, they are, that’s in the center, but they’re so welcoming. They don’t have these big lines up of you’re in or you’re out or whatever. And I think it’s because really for Henri, he was just finding out the truth of how much God loved him. And then he just wanted to be sure he passed that on to others. But he faced an enormous challenge when he came. I mean, he arrived as I recall with truckloads of supplies, shall we say all his belongings, all his books, everything. And actually he was about to be put up in a little tiny room. And what did you do with this man who had, you know, he was a man of the world. What, what did you do with him?
Sr. Sue: So he told us, “I’m coming on this day,” and we said, fine, we’ll be ready for you. And so first of all a moving van drove in the driveway and then 24 cars and all his friends drove from I guess, New Haven or someplace in Connecticut. And they all drove with him and they all wanted to see where he was going and see Daybreak and he expected them all to stay for dinner. They arrived about three o’clock. Again, this was this little potato patch up in Richmond Hill and this group arrived and just knocked us off our feet. And we were scrambling like everything. And he said, I brought all my belongings because I don’t need them anymore so you can have them.
So we had a moving van full of furniture and so on. It was really, really funny. And so that was his arrival. And then the people all went back and we settled in and Henri had a little room in the basement of one of the homes where people with disabilities lived and he had an office and it was down at another building and so on. So he got himself settled in and we had a little house at the back of the property where a farm family had lived. And so they had just moved and we put all the furniture in that house and furnished the whole house with Henri’s furnishing.
Karen: Now you didn’t just let the great Henri Nouwen, writer, professor, whatever… you assigned him a job right off the bat that would become life changing for him. Tell me a little bit about that.
Sr. Sue: He came and settled in and Joe Egan was the Director at that time of Daybreak. And Joe was a real, really, he could read people quite well, I think. And we knew that Henri had just enormous gifts and everything. And we knew that he had a million friends and Joe was very discreet in wanting to get him rooted in the community. And that’s why he said, “He doesn’t have to live in the home forever, but he needs to live in the home so that, like other assistants who come, his formation in L’Arche is in the home and it isn’t by us telling him about it.” And so they invited him to live in the home where he lived with the people, he had his meals with them. They had their little community meetings at which he was expected to attend and so on.
And then Joe asked him if he would give a certain number of hours in the home, just with the people, helping with the routines. Again, to get into the life of the community to really be formed in L’Arche. And this is who we are and what we do and how we live. And Henri was very agreeable to that. And he said it doesn’t have to go on forever, but it’s what we would call a formation period. So he asked Henri to help with Adam’s routine in the morning. And Henri explains that quite well in the book about what happened to him when he was asked that, because Adam was very, very handicapped. He was a man who couldn’t walk on his own, he couldn’t speak. And everything needed to be done for him, really. He needed help with dressing and bathing and getting ready for bed and eating. And so it was a huge shift for Henri to move from teaching and being at the front of the classroom to sitting with Adam and waiting for him to take the next spoonful of food. Henri was, he was geared to fast motion and one thing to the other and thinking everything through and so on. And this was really – and he was also very, very scared because Adam couldn’t tell him. He said, “I was always afraid that I might hurt him and that he wouldn’t be able to tell me”. And that’s true that Adam had been hurt in the past and wasn’t able to tell people, you know, that something was wrong. So, it was delicate, but the assistants were wonderful, they were all just younger than Henri. And they loved him and they just said, “Call us anytime. We’re here to help you. You don’t have to struggle so much, just call us and we’ll be with you.”
And so that’s what he said: “I was always calling from the room, help me. I don’t know what to do.” But it was the routine that took about two hours to get Adam up in the morning, to get him bathed and get him dressed and get him in his wheelchair and get him his breakfast and then feed him his breakfast and then get him washed up and in his wheelchair and back to his day program took about two hours. And of course, Henri, when his feet hit the floor in the morning, he was ready to go. And he just ran all day from one thing to the other, from one person to the other. And this was like, I don’t know, it was like the stoppage of the Titanic or something. I mean, he just had to stop and wait and it drove him crazy, but it was marvelous because in that, something was happening to Henri which he described so well in the book.
Karen: It’s interesting because in the book, as I read it, you get the feeling of Henri’s – some of Henri’s friends coming, and going, “Why are you wasting your time on this? You are this brilliant mind; you’re this brilliant teacher, you’re this brilliant writer. And here you are caring for somebody who can’t even read one of your books.” But it was, it’s such an interesting book because there’s a great deal of honesty in it. It’s like this book helps me understand how L’Arche was the perfect place for Henri to come at that time in his life. And it was a safe place because in the process of this very hard task for Henri, he in a way, was exposed at a very deep level and began to receive something from Adam. What was going on? Does everybody receive something from somebody with that extreme of disability or what was happening that you could see happening there?
Sue: Well, certainly I couldn’t see it at the time, but I can reflect back and I have the impression that Henri had been recognized for his very, very – I would say , very acute intelligence and spirituality and his knowledge and his ability to read people. He had been really very, very acknowledged for that all his life and possibly he wasn’t acknowledged at the level of his heart as much. But I think this man was gifted both with a very keen intelligence and a tremendously sensitive heart. And I think that his suffering, which he also describes in the book, his loneliness, his anxieties, those things were related because his heart, I mean he had to be very careful as a priest and a gay man as well. He had to be very careful. And he had to sort of shine where he could shine, but he couldn’t shine at the level of the heart too much and couldn’t expose that. And I have a feeling that this stopping and just with this very, very gentle and quiet and caring and loving man did something that began to reach Henri at the level of his heart and began to help him to explore sort of those desires, not as terrible things that he should be afraid of and run away from, but that he was made to love. And he was lawful. And that the things that he was yearning for, he was receiving from this beautiful, beautiful soul who was there in front of him with so much peace and gentleness and kindness, and just receiving, receiving, and Henri was just pouring himself out for Adam. He would do anything for Adam because of Adam’s loving reception of him. And it was also safe.
Karen: I read this passage in the book that I thought was really wonderful. He said, “He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift wrapped in weakness, but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that being is more important than doing. While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that God’s love is more important than the praise of people. While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that doing things together is more important than doing things alone. Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy, but by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.”
Sr. Sue: That’s the other wonderful thing that Henri was able to put words around that experience that nobody else, I don’t think, could put around. I mean those words are just so telling. And there, you have to read it a couple of times to really get it. And when he said, “Adam was my friend, my teacher, and my guide,” and you just say, well, like this guy didn’t talk. He didn’t, he didn’t do anything. He never led you any place. Yeah, he did. He led Henri right to his heart and to the fact that his heart was beautiful and safe and that he was allowed to love because he was himself beloved.
Karen: You know, it’s interesting. I found myself, I had exactly that reaction when I finished the book, I wanted to go back and start all over again. I felt like it was peeling away at my heart because it was really challenging me in ways that, like Henri, I can be completely caught up in performing and doing things and accomplishing things. And the encounter with Adam was really something that brought him down to the core of, ‘What is this all about? What does it mean to be beloved?’ He wrote, “I was going through the deep human struggle to believe in my belovedness, even when I had nothing to be proud of. Yes, I had left university with its prestige, but this life gave me satisfaction; even brought me admiration. Yes, I was considered good — even a noble person–because I was helping the poor. But now that the last crutch had been taken away, I was challenged to believe that even when I had nothing to show for myself, I was still God’s beloved son.” I find this book just really opens up who Henri is at the heart. And in a sense exposes the very vulnerable core of Henri. I think I see in the book too a wonderful story of Adam, but [also] a wonderful story that allows me to understand how did Henri feel safe enough at L’Arche in a sense to really break and to really go to a very low place and ultimately find that he himself was beloved no matter what. You had a part to play in that Sue. Tell me a bit about that.
Sue: Well, you know, we were friends and so it’s very hard for me to say that I had a part to play because we had met each other, we had shared about things that were important to us, but I was just there. I happened to be there and we were a bit older than most of the people. I would say we had had other experiences. I would say most of the assistants were young people who were coming and many of the core people were young. And so there was this kind of friendship. We were both interested in things of the spiritual nature. And so we were able to talk about that. And Henri supported me a great deal, but I think I was able to support him as well. And so we were allowed to talk these things over when we had a chance to visit and do. And so that’s what happened. I can’t basically say much more because I don’t know. Except that yes, I just wanted to try to encourage him and you could just see that something was happening. You could just see him sort of calming down and becoming more contented to be who he was. And that was really wonderful to watch.
Karen: You played a very important part in getting this book finished because… let’s skip forward. After 10 years at L’Arche Daybreak, Henri was sent on sabbatical and he was going to have the year off to write and he put this as one of the books he wanted to write. He wanted to tell Adam’s story, Adam: God’s Beloved. So that was one of his writing jobs when he went on sabbatical. Were you surprised he wanted to write a book about this?
Sr. Sue: I was not only surprised, but I was telling him that I didn’t think it was good to do it so soon. I, you know we were grieving. Adam had lived with us for 10 years and this was not long after Adam’s funeral that this happened and Henri was on sabbatical. He was on sabbatical when Adam died. And so it was I guess, challenging for me that he just went ahead anyway and started to write. And as he says in the book, “I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.” He was compelled. And of course, thankfully he did because eight months after Adam died, Henri died suddenly. And so had he not done it, it wouldn’t have been done.
Karen: Well, he hadn’t quite done it. You ended up with this enormous task that the book was there, but not quite finished. What was it like for you? Because there was a deadline coming up in November. Henri died September 21st. There is a publishing deadline in November. And you had been named Henri’s Literary Executrix. It was in your hands. What did you do? How did you do it?
Sr. Sue: Well, the first thing is that when Henri died in September of that year, again it was a surprise. He was in Europe. So it was, it was terrible. I mean, it was really hard because he was on sabbatical. He was far away and we just got news that he had had a heart attack. And then a few days later he had died. And so they called us on this Saturday morning saying that Henri had died and they said, ‘We need the will.” We need something out of the will to see where he wants to be buried or something like that. And so we went to the office and we looked through and we found his will. And as we were going through the will to look for what they were asking us, I saw my name and I thought, oh, that’s nice, Henri left me something. So that was very kind and I didn’t know what it was. So I just went on and everything. Then I forgot about it. And then later when we were going over the will no, then the funeral was happening. They had a funeral in Europe and then they had a funeral in Daybreak. And so at the funeral a lot of people came and so we were meeting them all. And this one man said to me, “I’m from Orbis Books. And did you know that Henri had a contract for this book called Adam and the contract is due in November?” And he said there’s a penalty if it isn’t in. And I said, “Well, I don’t know what to do about that, but I’ll try to find out.” So I went to Joe Egan and Joe Egan said, “Great. That’s your responsibility because you’ve been left his legacy, his written legacy. So you’re responsible to get that book finished.”
Karen: Oh my goodness. What a shock.
Sr. Sue: So this was like, we were burying Henri, we hadn’t even buried him yet. And so I said to Robert, the publisher, I said, you know, I’ve never done this before and I don’t know, I’m, you know…anyway I said, I’ll talk to you after the funeral and we’ll talk about it. So that’s what we did. And he said, if you can possibly finish it, because he said we’ve already started advertising it. We already have people ordering it. And he said it would be a shame not to put it out. So anyway, I took some time from Daybreak and I went, I think to our mother house and just took some very quiet time. It wasn’t simple for me. It wasn’t easy. First of all, because we had just lost Henri and we were still grieving Adam, although we were at a distance from that. But these were two people who really had a big part in my life and so getting into this book was – I just had a lot of feeling and I was trying to get my mind to go, but I kept sort of going under with my own feelings and everything.
This was the challenge for me, just to try to do it well. I had to visit his parents again and we had to talk. They were wonderful and very, very kind. They’re wonderful people. And so I had a lot of support thankfully, which is the gift of Daybreak to me and was able to complete it. And Robert, who is himself an editor, he’s the head of the publishing company, I just said to him, you have to take it from here and make any other changes and I give you permission to do that. So anyway, he and I talked about some of the little details, but basically it was accepted and it went through. So that’s how we did it. But it was a real challenge for me. But I love the book. That’s why when you ask me, there’s no question, it’s my favorite book. It can’t not be because I love both those men.
Karen: Ah, isn’t that something? Well, you know something, you opened it afresh to me and I really enjoyed reading it. I would encourage our listeners to consider if they’ve not read it before to read Adam: God’s Beloved. It’s a beautiful, beautiful little book. So you have written other books. You’re the author of, I have it here, A Place to Hold My Shaky Heart: Reflections for Life in Community. And that was in 1998. You also wrote My Brother, My Sister in 1972. And I had that on my shelf long before I knew you, by the way. And then you wrote this lovely book, Light Through the Crack: Life after Loss. And that was in 2006. You’re a beautiful writer yourself. And you’ve taken on this enormous role of this beautiful literary legacy that Henri entrusted to you. Tell us a little bit about what that looked like for you when you – it was a big burden. You said, “He’s left me something.” He really left you something Sue. Tell us about that.
Sr. Sue: Well I say it was such a surprise and I said, what does it mean? They said, you’re the Literary Executrix. And I said, what does that mean? I had no idea. So again, I was sort of starting from scratch, but I can’t say that it was a horrible task because we had had 10 years of our relationship. And I felt that I knew a lot his mind and his heart. And this Adam work, which I had to do right after his death, it taught, it was hard, but I was aware of this profound relationship that developed between this very, very intelligent, fast moving popular person and this man who sat in his wheelchair silent for his whole life. And I think that Henri’s relationship with Adam and how he describes that in the book tells us so much about who he was and what he wanted to convey in all of his books: his thirst, his deep inner yearning for these things that seem to be outside our grasp, or that seem to be touched with danger. But that somehow this relationship between these two very, very, very different men helped Henri to articulate the movement or the formation or the journey to accepting the yearning and allowing the love that is in front of us to be given to us and receiving it and allowing that to, to somehow give us some of what we need. I don’t know if I’m saying this well at all, but I have to say that reading this book – it’s not something to be read quickly. It needs to be read slowly. And one has to realize that there’s so much going on in Henri’s mind and heart, and he’s processing all of this because he himself can’t understand that something so beautiful could happen to him, that he would be given someone who would teach him about his deepest longing and yearning, and would help him to say yes to have that not always fulfilled, but to rest with what is given.
And so yes, the relationship with Adam was very, very special. And of course, maybe I had an influence on Henri but he had a deep influence on me too. And I don’t articulate those things well. I experience them maybe not to the same depth that Henri does, but I experience the yearning and the things that I have wanted in my life that are, as I say, are touched with danger. So do I go into it or do I not? Do I stay away from it? And for what reason? I think Henri has helped me to live much, much more simply, and to allow myself to experience the ups and downs and to find the wisdom of relationships and the satisfaction of the yearnings in so far as it’s good for me and good for others. So I don’t know, I’m not answering your question too much.
Karen: Oh, no. I just don’t want you to stop. It’s very good. It’s very deep and I’m so grateful for who you are. You’re 87 years old. That gives you a certain prestige. There’s no doubt about it. You’re a woman with a wonderful mind and a wonderful heart and a depth to you. The other thing I know about you and I know I’m probably tiring you out. This’ll maybe be my last question. And it really is. I know you as a prayer warrior and I came across this wonderful line this week, “the raw power of the kingdom is prayer.” And I know that that’s probably got more of your life now than ever, maybe because COVID 19 has prevented going out and doing anything else. Tell me a little bit about prayer and what you are you doing. How do you pray?
Sr. Sue: Hopeless!
Karen: It’s hard, isn’t it?
Sr. Sue: It is hard. It’s a discipline and I’m certainly not an expert, but I am trying to just develop that as part of my life. Solitude, listening, reading inspirational material, accompaniment with things that I want to live and do and pray about. Those are things that I’ve chosen as what I would call disciplines to live the life that I want to live. So in terms of prayer, we have regular prayer in our Congregation which we say; it’s called the Office of the Church and it’s morning and evening prayer. We gather at five o’clock in this house and say that Office together. And I usually say the Morning Prayer myself. But I think just as I’ve approached my old age and my less energy and also I’ve retired from most of my responsibilities I made a decision that I would really try to spend a little more time just quietly. And we have a lovely, tiny little chapel. And so I can go there and give a couple of hours a day, just I think trying to be close to the suffering in the world and trying to pray for people who are suffering. And I have a list of the people I tell God, these are the people that you’ve given me in my life. And so I’m giving them back to you today. And so I pray for people by name, lots of people every day, and groups of people the people who suffer. I pray for those groups.
And I have a miracle list where I want – Jesus says, if you ask in my name, I’ll do it for you. So I say, okay, you said that, so here, I’m asking you, I want a miracle. I want my nephew to talk to his sister, because they’ve been separated for a long time. And I’ve prayed that prayer for quite a number of years. And one day I saw them together and I just about fell over and I asked him, I asked my nephew what happened. He said, I just called her up and said I was sorry. And so he said, it’s so good. We’re back together again. Ah, so I’ve seen when you see an answer like that it’s very encouraging and so I have a whole list and I tell God every day you said it. So I’m saying it.
Karen: That’s wonderful Sue. That is wonderful. We could go on and on. I don’t want to tire you out. I just want to ask one last question. And that is for you this is your favorite book by Henri Nouwen. Is there anything that you would tell people in terms of why they should read it? What will they get from it if they read it?
Sr. Sue: I think anybody that’s thoughtful about living something that isn’t just following the trend of society, probably is looking for material that would inspire them, not only in their minds, but also in their hearts. And I think this is a book. It’s strange because in some ways I want to apologize for Henri who is so confessional in this book. And he sounds like a wimp because he talks about all the things that he struggles with. And he sounds like he was just a wimp, but actually this guy had a lot together and a lot that wasn’t so together. And I think all of us can, in some ways, identify maybe not with the same passion but certainly in our inner and hidden lives that this is a story for all of us.
And I just remind us that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” And most of us take that and say, oh, well then I should run out and help those poor people. And that’s the approach that most people have when they come to L’Arche: ‘I’m coming because I want to help people.’ But the transformation is that every person, even a person like Adam who has absolutely no facility to speak or to move or to act or to do anything relevant, he has the power to touch us and to teach us something. He has a blessing for us. He has a gift for us. And I think this book is one book which describes that in a very, very beautiful way. If we don’t get too caught in sort of the, I don’t know, the way Henri sort of throws everything at us. That’s why it has to be read slowly. And there’s so much in this book that is possible that every person, that man that I a pass on the street whose hair is all over his face and he is sitting there begging, and my tendency is to say, if I give him money, he’ll buy a beer instead of saying this is my brother. And I don’t want to pass him by because he has a gift for me and I have a gift for him. And I hope I can receive that gift and I don’t want him to suffer.
So it’s a deepening of our understanding of these things that I would say we live in our spirit, in our heart, in that place that nobody can operate in and see what’s going on. But there’s so much activity there. There’s so much that we live there. There’s so much desire and heart and love and hope and despair and suffering and pain and wounds. This is all in each one of us. And somehow this book I think helps us to sort of sort that a little bit and to find our path.
Karen: Thank you, Sue. This has been a great treat. I can go on and on and on with you because there’s story upon story, but this has just been good stuff. Good stuff to the spirit. Thank you so much. I also thank Henri that he said, this is going to be the person who will be my executrix of my literary estate. You’ve watched over it well, you started the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust, and you have placed that beautiful literary estate at the Kelly Library in the Henry J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Center. So it’s a treasure that lives on and Henri is loved more today, I think and understood more today probably than he was even in his lifetime.
Sr. Sue: I think so. Yes. Thank you. Thanks Karen.
Karen: Thank you for listening to today’s Now and Then podcast. Sister Sue Mosteller was so honest about the challenges Henri Nouwen faced in his life and honest about her own challenges. I hope this interview has been an encouragement for you.
For more resources related to today’s podcast click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find additional content, including the books we discussed today. As well you’ll find retreats and talks by Sister Sue Mosteller. If you enjoyed this podcast, we hope you’ll give us a thumbs up or a good review, and we hope you’ll share it with others.
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