Henri J.M. Nouwen. Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Ed., Gabrielle Earnshaw. New York: Convergent, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, an author, a professor, and one who worked with the developmentally-delayed. I first heard of him when I read his book, The Wounded Healer, over ten years ago. Nouwen talked in that book about ministering to others from a place of brokenness. A compelling story in that book concerned Henri’s attempts to minister to a lonely, depressed farmer who was in the hospital. Even though nobody else was there for that farmer, Henri assured that farmer that he cared and was there for him.
Henri Nouwen’s sensitivity, compassion, insight, brokenness, vulnerability, and love for Jesus shine in Love, Henri, which is a collection of Henri Nouwen’s letters to people. Henri writes to people who come to him with their problems, such as estrangement, loneliness, marital breakdown, disaffection with the church, loss, and feelings of rejection. Henri encourages them to take refuge in God’s love, and he sometimes offers practical ways for them to do that. Nouwen also shares in his letters what went on in his own life: his feelings of alienation within academia, what he learned from his prolonged experience among the poor in Latin America, how celibacy and loneliness bring him closer to God, and his attempts to recover from a serious accident. Moreover, Nouwen offers theological thoughts, about such topics as the importance of the church, the virgin Mary, how many people hunger to hear about Jesus, whether the Eucharist should be exclusive or inclusive, and the question of whether those who do not know of Jesus explicitly can be in relationship with Jesus.
There were thoughts in the book that I particularly appreciated. Nouwen talked about how we become more aware of our flaws and the complexity of our motivations as we grow older. He made the intriguing observation that when he was in academia he wrote a lot about poverty, but when he was working with the poor he wrote a lot about God. A statement that he makes more than once in this book is that Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), not “Blessed are those who help the poor.” For Nouwen, God is found among the poor. Nouwen wrote to a man who was writing a book about a surly theologian whose books touched many, encouraging the man not to beat himself up if the theologian did not like him. To a man who was struggling to forgive his son, Henri exhorted him to ground himself in God’s love, so that he can be welcoming if his son were to make contact. Nouwen offered another person advice about reconciliation and how to navigate the social interactions involved in that. Nouwen also corrected a common misunderstanding of The Wounded Healer, which I myself shared: Nouwen disavowed the idea that he was saying that people should try to minister to others when their personal wounds are fresh, for that could be counter-productive.
There are famous names that come up in this book. Nouwen wrote to Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) when Mr. Rogers was depressed after a negative review. When Senator Mark Hatfield was subjected to an ethics investigation, Nouwen encouraged him to read the Russian mystics for strength.
The subject of Nouwen’s same-sex attraction came up to this book. In some letters, Nouwen says that he struggles against it, mainly because he wants to remain celibate and to find his satisfaction in Jesus. Later in the book, when it came to other people’s same-sex attraction, Nouwen seemed open and accepting.
Love, Henri is a refreshing book to read, on account of its compassionate tone and its insights.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Blogging for Books. My review is honest!