Remembering Henri Nouwen on his 20th Anniversary

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By Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director

Henri Nouwen devotees everywhere will recall this day 20 years ago: It was when we heard the news that this spiritual thinker par excellence had died.

I remember it clearly myself. I was at a conference of Catholic communicators in Toronto when the news came out. A wave of sadness washed over the crowd. Not only was Nouwen a popular writer; for some in the group he was a personal friend as he had lived the last 10 years of his life in nearby Richmond Hill, home of the l’Arche community of Daybreak.

A thought recently posted on the Henri Nouwen Society web site recalls the heart of his message to spiritual seekers everywhere:

“We can only win our lives when we remain faithful to the truth that every little part of us, yes, every hair, is completely safe in the divine embrace of our Lord. To say it differently: When we keep living a spiritual life, we have nothing to be afraid of.”

He was full of such gems. Another:

“The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now.”

His writing was balm for our souls, helping us to forgive ourselves and recognize God’s lasting embrace of ourselves. He has walked many thousands of modern Christians through their own dark nights of the soul by examining his own.

Nouwen’s life and teaching encompassed a message of hope for all those on a spiritual journey, but especially for Christians. He lived a life of radical yearning for God; he expressed this life in a vast volume of writing (almost 18,000 letters are in his personal archives), plus 39 books, many of them best-sellers.

Of course, his life was not just one of self-examination. Many volumes have been written since his death in 1996 about his work and its lasting impact on Christian spiritual life.

Most recently, Ottawa writer Kevin Burns returned to a theme that has had a lasting impact on his own life, writing Henry Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media, available in Canada through Novalis). It is a concise but admiring look at Nouwen.

We also have Genius Born of Anguish, co-authored by Burns and Michael W. Higgins and published a couple of years ago in anticipation of this 20th anniversary. As a companion volume to CBC Radio’s program of the same name, this biography will captivate you with a fascinating exploration of the life of a deeply spiritual and compassionate man.

Both books act as an introduction to the man and his work. But don’t stop there. Explore other books written about him. More fundamentally, read his own work. An excellent place to start would be Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, and The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, or his masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons.

You will be comforted, challenged, captivated and inspired. Nouwen did that to us all his life, and continues to do so even after death.

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