The great anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, used to say that no community should botch its deaths. To not properly attune oneself to the significance of a person’s death is to miss an important blessing.
In the Catholic world, and in the spiritual world in general, a very important person has died. On September 21st, Henri Nouwen, perhaps the foremost spiritual writer of the past quarter century, died in Holland. We should not botch that death and miss a blessing for, as Nouwen himself used to put it, a good person blesses not just with his or her life but also with his or her death. Henri Nouwen has blessed many of us, through his books and through the example of his life. We need now still to be blessed too through his death.
What made him so special? What among so many gifted and sincere spiritual writers makes him stand out?
The first thing, and not an important one, is his life itself. His own life was a laboratory for his books. He lived what he preached, both the virtue and the weakness, and it was that particular combination which helped make him so intriguing.
St. Paul tells us that the only thing we should ever boast about is our own weakness so that the surpassing power of God can shine through us. This describes Nouwen well. He shared with us his weaknesses and the power of God shone through. In an obituary in the Globe and Mail, Carolyn Whitney -Brown, who lived in community with him at L’Arche Daybreak, commented that what made him so special was that he willing shared details of his life in his books that most of us would cringe to admit, much less publish. He had both a rare honesty and a rare depth and this made for a unique combination.
He was a complex man, a soul for whom peace did not come easy. He was too full of both weakness and hope to often have much in the way of simple, quiet rest. He shared both with us, the weakness and the hope, and he wrote in a simple style that went straight to the heart, irrespective of whether one had little formal education or taught theology in a graduate school. And he was honest, disarmingly honest.
In his writings, his weaknesses shone through, but so too did his God. He once shared with us, his readers, that Soren Kierkegaard had touched him so deeply because he had risked sharing his loneliness with the world. That is precisely the way many of us now feel about Henri Nouwen. He risked sharing his loneliness with us.
In one of his works he shares how, when he was a little boy, his mother used to call him aside and say to him: “Henri, I don’t care what you do, as long as you stay close to Christ.” That voice touched him deeply and stayed with him the rest of his life. But, at the same time too, other persons, in various ways, called him aside and told him: “Henri, you are very bright and talented. You can make a brilliant career for yourself.” That voice also touched him deeply and stayed with him and the struggle between those two voices explains a lot in his life. Eventually his mother’s voice, which was always the one that had somewhat the upper hand, scored a more decisive victory. At the peak of his academic career (he was an honoured teacher at Harvard with invitations to speak around the world) he sat in his car and drove away from the academic world and a brilliant career to live the rest of his life among the mentally handicapped.
But it wasn’t without a struggle and that is what he shared with us: “Indeed, how divided my heart has been and still is! I want to love God, but also to make a career. I want to be a good Christian, but also to have my successes as a teacher, preacher, or speaker. I want to be a saint, but also enjoy the sensations of the sinner. I want to be close to Christ but also popular and liked by people. No wonder that living becomes a tiring enterprise. The characteristic of a saint is, to borrow Kierkegaard’s words, ‘To will one thing.’ Well, I will more than one thing, am double hearted, double minded, and have a very divided loyalty.”
All of us can identify with those words but Henri Nouwen had the honesty and courage to write them. In the years before his death, he was slowly getting better at, more and more, throwing himself into God’s arms and letting God help him “will the one thing”. In this, he is an example of how somebody from our generation, with our problems, facing our issues, can, with God’s help, slowly become a saint.