Nouwen, Henri

Nouwen's Symphony of Movements

Worthy Of Note

Nouwen's Symphony Of Movements
By Bob Hulteen

When I told friends I was rereading Henri Nouwen's books as part of a tribute to him, I not only was loaned books, I was also treated to poignant stories about how he had touched people's lives. He seemed ever-so-slightly to change people on contact.

A psychologist by vocation, Nouwen was a leader in the movement to bring spirituality back to his profession. For decades, the field of psychology had retreated from religious devotion, usually even blaming it (all too often rightly) for increasing psychological unhealth. Nouwen saw another path, and he chose it.

Nouwen, as prolific as he was insightful, really does not have a seminal work. Instead, each book is a steppingstone for the journey. His greatest contributions, in my opinion, are centered on a deep psychological reinterpretation of the Golden Rule: Nouwen sees health in the act of loving God and others as ourselves. These three foci of love form his holy triad.

In Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975), Nouwen identifies personal movement from loneliness to solitude (our relationship to ourselves); from hostility to hospitality (our relationship to others); and from illusion to prayer (our relationship to God). The often painful paths toward wholeness come in these movements.

Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Ave Maria Press, 1974) is his attempt to expand on the first movement. In this small and meaningful offering, Nouwen encapsulates his commitment to action and contemplation. In the tension of these two elements of the life of faith, Nouwen creates home, and invites us in to share.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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The Deepest Questions of Life and Death

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.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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An Extensive Presence

IT WAS A WONDERFUL sunny Sunday morning in June 1996. In high spirits our group left the Franciscan monastery at Rama, in central Bosnia, to drive to the small mountain village of Podhum. In the afternoon, Father Ivo, our host, drove us higher into the mountains to visit the site of the original village church, which had been built over 20 years by people who carried each piece of material up the mountainside.

They were delighted to complete the building in 1991, only to have it destroyed two years later. We were warned not to stray anywhere off the path, as the whole property was heavily mined. We stood in the shell of the once-beautiful building and observed a bullet hole by the head of Jesus in the mural behind the altar.

Father Ivo took us into the parish house. It, too, was entirely destroyed. In the former library, books and scores for music lay crumpled on the floor, having been ground underfoot. We were about to pass on when one of our group saw, almost hidden, a book, with a familiar author-Henri Nouwen.

Henri's work in the village of Podhum, miles from any significant road, in central Bosnia, at the site of a desecrated church! The title of the book was Jesus: Sense of My Life, which wasn't familiar to us. With the permission of our hosts, we brought the book home to share with Henri.

Henri was very moved to hear this story, receive the book, and see photographs of the place where it had been found. It turned out that the book was a translation of Letters to Marc About Jesus. Henri didn't know it had been translated into Croatian.

He called me early in the morning the day after he received my letter, in which I had raised with him the possibility of his visiting Bosnia. Henri told me that he had a Dutch friend who does work in Bosnia, who had suggested that he visit the country. Henri said that this new nudge might cause him to reconsider the possibility of going there.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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A Heart's Desire

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Safe in God's Heart

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