The Wisdom of Henri Nouwen: A Lenten Reflection

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By Kevin Burns

In his book The Road to Character David Brooks presents a series of character-building biographical essays about difficult lives, confident that as readers, consciously or unconsciously, we tend “to bend our lives to mimic theirs.” He includes the famous and the political, as well as the examples of Dorothy Day and St. Augustine. Brooks doesn’t include Henri Nouwen, though, in this survey of exemplary lives that illustrate the slow formation of deep inner character. Nouwen would certainly be in good company in that book. Robert Ellsberg, meanwhile, has never been reticent about reminding readers about Henri Nouwen, the wounded healer who felt a constant “restlessness and anxiety about his place in world.” Ellsberg edited several of Nouwen’s books and includes him in The Saints’ Guide to Happiness. “We have to look not only at Nouwen’s achievements and glories but also at the time of his suffering and pain. They were all part of a story that ultimately bore a message of grace,” writes Ellsberg. (North Point Press, 2003, p. 131)

I see Henri Nouwen as a Lenten figure who reminds me of that familiar yet always unique journey that I try to follow each year, from the excesses of Mardi Gras to the silence and austerity of the Triduum, culminating in the great celebration of light that is Easter. It’s a familiar journey because this is the way the liturgical clock ticks. And it’s a unique journey because, as Nouwen reminds me, each of us must rediscover its meaning every time those ashes are applied. Each time it is both familiar and different. As Christian Wiman reminds me in his meditative book, My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), “Faith is not faith in some state beyond change. Faith is faith in change.” (p. 104)

In 1996, Nouwen celebrated what would be his final Easter at L’Arche Daybreak (he died 5 months later), and noted in his journal: “As we received the Body and Blood of Jesus, I was struck by the real quality of the paschal mystery. We are the people of the resurrection, living our lives with great vision that transforms us as we are living it.” (Our Second Birth, Crossroad, 1998, p. 150)

On March 16th at 7:00 p.m. at St Basil’s Church here in Ottawa, I’m joining Father Corbin Eddy to reflect on each of these books in a Lenten presentation about character, faith journeys, and Henri Nouwen, that inspiring traveller on the road to character, and the focus of my book Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit, published by Franciscan Media and distributed in Canada by Novalis. Maybe you’d like to join us?

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