Monday, December 21, 2009

Remembering Henri: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen

Edited by Gerald S. Twomey and Claude Pomerleau, Novalis, 176 pages.

“I came to feel that Henri was never able to satisfy himself. When his father was talking with him, you know, did he measure up? Henri had to be good enough for the queen. Now, I think his father was a very concerned and loving person, but the way he expressed love was through performance...But I think that his standard was a little higher than Henri could ever feel that he met, whether he ever met it.”

These astonishing words words come from an astonishing book about the great Henri Nouwen, one of the most effective Catholic teachers of recent memory. His books include the influential The Wounded Healer, Can You Drink This Cup?, and Reaching Out.

Remembering Henri makes clear that there was more to Henri Nouwen than his writings on community, love, and true Christian friendship--on how to truly find Christ in the other. He ate too much chocolate, had a hard time settling down, and he was sometimes needy, controlling, and resentful with his friends.

He could not fit into a monastic life with the Trappists in New York state. Neither could he fit into his professor roles at Yale, Notre Dame, or Harvard. One contributor notes: “He didn't take well to Harvard. He found it rejecting, unspiritual, cold. He felt that people didn't get his gig. He believed that his colleagues and graduate students found him too 'soft.' And in a sense that was true, when you compared Henri to almost any faculty member there.”

Faced with such difficulties, Nouwen didn't always take the spiritually heroic high road: “He became severely depressed, drinking more and more coffee and exhausting himself. He was so exhausted some days that he had to go straight to bed by mid-morning and all the coffee in the world wouldn't make him feel better.”

Nouwen's great strength was his devotion to the Eucharist, something that didn't prevent him from adopting uncommon pastoral practices when confronted by non-Catholics. This developed from his way of thinking theologically: “Henri shifted from the more legalistic, scholastic formulations that he learned from the 'manualist' moral theology training of his seminary years that permitted only Catholics 'in good standing' to receive communion,” one writer notes.

Remembering Henri shows how Nouwen managed to break through all his pain and neuroses to truly live the life that he preached and wrote about in all those books: “Henri longed to expand the view of Eucharist as true viaticum, food for life's journey for a sinful, broken, pilgrim people standing in need of God's freely bestowed, healing grace.”

Remembering Henri effectively tells the story of a complicated person because each chapter is written by a different person, each of whom writes from their personal experience and relationship with Nouwen. In this sense, the book is a kind of communal biography, or an autobiography of the Henri Nouwen Community.

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