Companioning Henri

Bricks at

Leu Gardens

February 2011

I've been studying Henri Nouwen for a course in my graduate program these last eight weeks, and it's been a great way to bring the program to a close. (I have just one course left -- a capstone thesis project -- before graduating in May.) I say it's a great way to bring this program in spiritual formation to a close because Henri, for me, embodies the essence of lived spirituality. He's been a great mentor and soul friend to me throughout the years through his books, and I know I am just one of thousands who feel this exact same way about his writings.

I'm not one to often enjoy reading books about a person. Biographies are much less interesting to me than memoirs or autobiography because biographies often feel so clinical, theoretical, detached, and fact-based. This is why, conversely, I love Henri Nouwen's books so much: though he wrote about the subject of spirituality throughout his life, he almost always wrote from the vulnerable vantage point and context of his own experiences. Most of his books are like reading memoir.

I say that I don't much enjoy reading about a person, but I will concede that one of the books written about Henri that I'm reading for this course has made an impression on me. If you're going to read a book about Henri Nouwen, perhaps to get a sense of his life in a comprehensive snapshot, I recommend you choose Wounded Prophet. It gets underneath his life and persona in a (for me) surprisingly substantive way and is filled with many first-hand anecdotes from people who knew Henri well. It offers an honest but compassionate look at his whole life.

I love Henri Nouwen's journals most of all. They take me on a journey into his life and heart, and it's a marvel to me that he not only journaled so prolifically but offered them up as windows for others so they could get a glimpse into what it looks like to live honestly and introspectively before God. I feel myself companioning with Henri as he goes when I read his journals, and I often find that his journeys in those pages often mimic and speak to my own journey in some way.

For instance, when I first entered my summer of solitude to study nonviolence and peacemaking in June 2009, Henri's Latin-American journal Gracias! was my very first companion that summer. The first many pages of one of my solitude journals from those summer months is filled with reflections on how the Gracias! journal spoke to me, taught me, and broke my heart for the abundant brokenness and violence in this world. At another point in time, Henri's Genessee Diary also became a true companion in my spiritual life.

I've found my affinity for Henri's journals to have remained true throughout this course I'm taking. Interestingly, my closest book companions during this course weren't even on the book list. I've been reading small portions of Henri's most raw and personal journal, the Inner Voice of Love, most mornings while sitting at my desk, and most evenings before going to sleep I take care to read several entries in another one of his journals, The Road to Daybreak.

The Daybreak journal, in particular, is speaking to right now. It chronicles Henri's journey toward being called to live among a mentally handicapped community, a life choice that ended up marking the last 10 years of his life. This journal is speaking to me as I contemplate my own vocation beyond the bounds of two programs that have equipped me for ministry these past three years and are both coming to a close in the next few months. Henri is companioning with me as I hold my own questions of calling and vocation in my heart before God. He is helping me learn how to do that, and that is especially meaningful to me, as I've not ever asked God about a specific next-step call on my life as intently as I am doing right now.

One thing I noticed today while doing some research for the final integration paper for this course that I found quite encouraging was how much God uses us and teaches us no matter what path we choose to take in life. He always is with us, no matter where we are. I've had this impression before, but it became even stronger today as I read some passages in Wounded Prophet that talked about Henri's struggle to integrate into the handicapped community at Daybreak that first year after he'd answered the call to make his home there. He never seemed to question his call there, but others surely did. For instance, one acquaintance said:

[Henri] told me that he was going to live in a community where people didn't know how famous he was, among those who couldn't read his books. I found that absolutely admirable in one way, but I wondered how natural it was for him to do that and whether he was making an enormous statement about something. The way he talked about it struck me as being rather like a pose or a statement; it didn't seem to come from the heart. I felt that if he really meant this, he wouldn't actually have told anybody. He would have just done it. 

What I find interesting about this is not the question of whether Henri was actually called to that community or not, or whether he had misjudged the purity of his intentions and was led to go there by some wounded or broken place inside himself that needed to do something grandiose and different, rather than a pure calling by God. Rather, what moves me is how much Henri's commitment to the Daybreak community forms a solid place in our minds when we think about his life. After teaching for many years at several Ivy League colleges (Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame), he gave up the academic life to live among this handicapped community, and that is a solid feature in his story when we think of the life of Henri Nouwen.

He went and lived among that community, and when he was there, he was truly there. He stumbled his way through much of it, especially at the beginning, and he struggled at times to balance his life there with the demands of life that his fame brought to him. Yet God used Daybreak and Henri's commitment to living there to form Henri more fully, to love others through Henri, and to teach Henri more about what it means to love and be loved by God and others.

In short, it doesn't really matter whether Henri was right or wrong in his intentions to live there. What matters is that God used it for the betterment of Henri and others, period.

This takes some of the pressure off me to find "just the right answer" to my question of specific calling after graduation. It helps me to settle in and trust that God is with me and forming me and using my life, no matter where in the world I am. He may lead me to a specific place once I leave these graduate and equipping programs, or he may simply use me wherever I am, in whatever I'm doing.

There's something simple and pure in that notion . . . one for which I give thanks.