This is the first of what promises to be a long stream of letters and other personal papers from the Nouwen estate. During his peripatetic life, Henri Nouwen was a prolific author, at his death having written thirty-nine books and hundreds of articles. Although he was almost constantly on the move, he was also constantly in communication with an ever-growing network of correspondents. He received some sixteen thousand letters, answered virtually all of them, and saved them! The present collection of two-hundred-plus letters, “on the spiritual life,” is introduced, edited, and deftly annotated by Gabrielle Earnshaw, the curator of the Nouwen archives. The letters appear chronologically, beginning in 1973 when Nouwen was a professor at Yale Divinity School, and ending in 1996, shortly before his sudden death at sixty-four.
The letters confirm aspects of Nouwen’s charismatic personality that most readers already knew or suspected: his restless search for a place that would at once make use of his distinctive gifts and at the same time offer him the personal and spiritual support he longed for; his discomfort with the disconnect between how others saw him (thus, the academic positions at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard) and his own sense of vocation (thus, his ultimate commitment to living with the little ones of L’ Arche); his uncanny ability to start and then continue meaningful friendships in all the places his journey took him; his struggle with his own deep longing for intimacy that shadowed some of these same friendships; his willingness to display for the sake of others his vulnerability to hurt and rejection; his fidelity to his ministry as a priest and to the church.
What these letters provide is a sense of how Nouwen himself perceived all these dimensions as they were unfolding in real time. Regarding the shift from academia, he wrote in late 1985 to a former colleague at Notre Dame: “Now I am working with mentally handicapped people! Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard now seem like a long complex route to reach the poor in spirit. I do not regret any part of it. God has been very very good to me.” Regarding his serious emotional breakdown in 1987, he writes to a young man suffering anxiety in August 1990: “You are right when you say that I have gone through a lot myself, but I also want you to know that God has given me an immense amount of joy in my life, and he wants to give you the same.” Regarding troubles in the church, he comments on a book in March 1990: “I miss a spirit of joy and peace in the midst of all the conflicts that are really there, and I am quite overwhelmed by the heavy-handed generalizations with which they speak about the church and the life of the Spirit.”
Perhaps most impressive is the way these letters reveal how direct, clear, and traditional Henri Nouwen was as a spiritual advisor. He does not pussyfoot around with psychological jargon. His training in clinical pastoral education is long past. If he speaks of emotional conditions, it is as one who knows first-hand what they are. But he does not identify the spiritual life with psychic tranquility. He knows it is identification with the suffering of Christ. He does not recommend ways to get better but the way of the cross. The letters are at once profoundly evangelical and steeped in the traditions of classical spirituality.
Writing to a Dutch woman in September 1995, for example, he recommends reading the daily gospel lection, “and simply look with your inner eye at what the story presents. Thus, Jesus can become your companion on your journey.” He urges her to connect her suffering with that of Jesus, so that “you also connect your suffering with the suffering of the whole world. Because Jesus carries the pain of all humanity in his heart.” As for his own prayer, “My own prayer life is quite simple. I simply look at Jesus, and say, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’…when you say that simple prayer often and from your heart, many graces will come to you.”
The letters support, and in no way detract from, the conviction of many readers—as his many friends—that Henri Nouwen is at once a deeply human and profoundly reliable companion on the journey to God.