The Common Good
November-December 1996

The Deepest Questions of Life and Death

by Jim Wallis | November-December 1996

I especially remember one visit among many to Sojourners by Henri Nouwen.

I especially remember one visit among many to Sojourners by Henri Nouwen. On this weekend, Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara was also in town to speak to a large church convention in a downtown hotel. Dom Helder's aides called to say that he felt "uncomfortable" in the big, fancy hotel and wanted to spend the afternoon in a "base community" like Sojourners. We were thrilled, and I hurried across the invisible racial and class boundaries of D.C. to pick him up.

The community quickly gathered, and the next several hours were some of the most memorable in our history-highlighted by the dialogue between Henri and Dom Helder. The Dutch priest from the First World was relentless with questions for the Third World liberation priest.

Henri's hunger and thirst for spiritual truth were never satisfied. For a contemplative writer, Henri was not placid. His mind and heart were always probing, pushing further and further. That afternoon he seemed to sense that there were truths he would never find in the affluent First World, that his search would have to continue among the despised and rejected of the Third World. Later Henri would leave the academic cocoon of Yale to make a pilgrimage to Latin America.

The intensity of his spiritual search is what I will always most remember about Henri. He could spend hours with you-talking, walking, and very often anguishing about the deepest questions of life and faith. He was not a Christian who had it all figured out. On the contrary, Henri wrestled like Jacob with the God he so dearly loved. And that made him wrestle with all of us too.

The shock of his sudden death will linger for some time. But his remarkable legacy will last much longer. Plucked from us too soon, like another contemplative named Merton, Henri Nouwen leaves us with a rich library of spiritual struggle. Through his stream of books, the countless students he touched, the L'Arche members who touched him, and the thousands of people who attended the intimate Eucharists he insisted upon having wherever he was, Henri's spiritual intensity will live on.

We can only give thanks for Henri Nouwen's life and witness, and be grateful that Henri is finally at rest in the arms of the loving God who always pursued him like the hound of heaven.

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