Love, Henri — The Letters on the Spiritual Life

By: Emma Roorda

Henri Nouwen, in the words of Professor Ken Herfst, is a man who showed the importance of the human “need to love and be loved … in a way that gives genuine hope.” It is because of Nouwen's deep love and passion for God, others, and society that the The Henry Nouwen Society has made it their aim to extend Nouwen’s legacy, helping to broadly share and promote his deeply spiritual writings.

Last Tuesday, October 17, Redeemer’s Religion and Theology Department brilliantly teamed up with the Henry Nouwen Society to present a very moving and dramatic performance based on the archive collection of Nouwen’s personally written letters, accessed by historian Gabrielle Earnshaw.

 Earnshaw, a highly acclaimed archivist, has dedicated the last 16 years of her life to “finding the gold nuggets” of Nouwen’s ideas in order to share them with others. Through dialogue and reflection on her published conglomerative book of Nouwen’s 205 letters, Earnshaw gives light to Henri Nouwen’s main ideologies and theological insights.

 Last week, Redeemer students were able to witness these reflections, paired with a stunningly emotional drama presented by actor Joe Abby-Colborne, who brought the fascinating sentimentality and wisdom of the late Henri Nouwen to new levels. In addition to the insightful presentation, talented pianist and vocalist Krystyna Higgins accompanied the dialogue with her personal musical expression of Nouwen’s letters. The overall result was spectacular.

 Prior to diving headfirst into dramatic readings of the letters, written throughout Nouwen’s 64 years, Earnshaw provided the full auditorium with a concise overview of his life. This was a helpful addition to the drama-focused schedule for the evening, especially for the many young university students in attendance — an age group who would not have been alive at the time Nouwen's writings were originally produced.

Earnshaw briefly explained that Nouwen was a Catholic priest, born and raised in the Netherlands, who, after obtaining a doctoral degree in Holland, officially began his professional career by teaching at various Ivy League schools including Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard University.

Later, he selflessly abandoned his life as a prestigious professor to work alongside a group of physically and mentally handicapped individuals through a program called L’Arche, located in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Throughout his life, Nouwen used both his professional training and unique life experiences to witness to people though emotionally heartfelt writings and intelligent rhetoric.

 Out of the 205 letters that Earnshaw accessed in her research, five specific letters were chosen to be highlighted in the presentation. These letters were those which she thought accurately outlined Nouwen’s main beliefs, lifestyle, and ideologies. Aforementioned, these letters were theatrically presented by Joe Abby-Colborne. The following five excerpts from these spoken letters only begin to give positive testament to Nouwen’s character and compelling life story that, as Earnshaw described, give his readers “new life, inner peace and freedom.”

Letter 1: The Letter to Richard — “The many hours for prayer and meditation, the chance to read, study and write without interruptions […] it all has been very revealing to me and made me aware that being a priest is what I really want to be in an authentic way and that in the deepening and strengthening of that vocation I find real power and joy.”

Letter 2: The Letter to Jim — “The first and most important task we have is to keep our eyes on God and Him alone. We will never overcome the demons by analyzing them, but only by forgetting them in our all-consuming love for God […] demons like to be analyzed, because that keeps our attention directed to them. God wants to be loved. I am more and more convinced that the first commandment indeed needs to be first: to love God with our heart, all our soul, and our entire mind.”

Letter 3: The Letter to Mark — “When I think about my life and my work, I think about it more as a way of being present to people with all I have. I have always felt that the center of our faith is not that God came to take our pains away, but that He came to share them and I have always tried to manifest this divine solidarity by trying to be as present to people in their struggle as possible. It is most important to be with people where joy and pain are experienced and to have them become aware of God’s unlimited love in the midst of our limited abilities to help each other […] To witness for Christ means to me to witness for Him with what I have seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears and touched with my own hands.”

 Letter 4: The Letter to Marcus — “Once I stood looking at the Grand Canyon, and when I saw the billions of years carved in stone in front of me, I felt as if the heaviness of heart left me. Somehow, I felt very small and insignificant at the same time my introspection in my own pain turned to adoration.”

Letter 5: The Letter to Mr. Chisholm — “The book [Return of the Prodigal Son] could have never been written if I had not been part of a community of handicapped people. Although life in that community is not always easy, it continues to be a great source of energy and vision.”

Following the fervent enactment of these five letters, along with the heartfelt corresponding musical numbers, Karen Pascal, director of the Henry Nouwen Society, shared a few final thoughts regarding her appreciation for the fact that Redeemer had chosen to partner with their association.

Not only was this evening an opportunity to share the message of Henri’s collective writings with a wide audience, it was particularly a way through which young university scholars could relate to Nouwen’s works — a chance for the “next generation of seekers” to benefit from his wisdom. One such student, Sydney Sequillion, stated afterward that the performance was “very powerful.” She continued on to say, “I was able to relate to Henri Nouwen in a way that I can't even relate to with my own friends.”

 Johanna Benjamins, Student Body President, found the presentation refreshing: “Nouwen brings a personal and emotional view of faith, which we need more of.”

Throughout the performance, there was an obvious intrigue from Christian students and elders alike, both learning to appreciate the wisdom of this famous educated Christian thinker. The evening's loving, intergenerational atmosphere was one in which Henri Nouwen himself would surely have been pleased to partake. For more information about the Henry Nouwen Society or insight from any of the Henri Nouwen collections, please visit henrinouwen.org.