September 23 – Henri Nouwen

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), faithful servant

Henri Nouwen was a well-known spiritualist and psychologist whose writings have been available to people in four continents. His teachings have helped seekers to develop authentic paths in providing space for others, for Christ to enter their lives and to make space for themselves.

During my studies at Yale Divinity School I was enrolled as a practical theology major, what we would recognize in Australia as Pastoral Theology. I took my first course taught by Henri in the Spring Semester of 1973. It was called “Ministry as Hospitality.” In that course we students did theological and personal exploration of God’s hospitality to us, how that spoke to our calling to ministry and how we, then, participated in the hospitality of Christ, which was about making space without conditions for others. We were also challenged about being open to the hospitality that we would receive in return. It was a way of recognizing that two people were both strangers in a hospitable space whereby we could offer and receive the gift of the other and no longer be “strangers”.

The hardest part for those of us ministry students out to save the world (or at least those that would eventually be in our pastoral care) was that Henri offered a teaching that challenged our perceived responsibility to change other people.

Instead he wanted us to step back while still being present and to offer others a space in which they could make change. It also meant that we had to be open to being changed by our “guest”.

Henri was a practical teacher. He wanted his students to experience what he was teaching, which included completely new (unfamiliar) ways of being a guest in order to understand how to be a host. One of those experiences was to accompany Henri for a week, in the middle of winter, to Mount Savior, a Benedictine Monastery near Elmira in Western New York State, about 440 km northwest of New York City. Having a fixed idea of what a monastery would look and be like, the first shock was to find that Mount Savior was a fully operational farm with each monk contributing skills that ensured its viability. Interwoven with looking after livestock (and winter work like repairing furniture or re-binding books) was the observance of worship called “vigils”. For a daughter of New England Congregationalism it was a new experience to slide in knee-deep snow down the long hill from the women’s guesthouse for the first vigil of the day, which in February was an hour before dawn. The monks made themselves available for conversations as well as providing spaces of quiet where we could learn to be available for God. Henri was their guest as we were.

Back at Yale Divinity School we would reflect often on that experience and others in learning what it mean to be hospitable in ministry as well as how to do hospitality in ministry. Henri shared with us what it meant to be “useless” for Christ. That is, not becoming trapped by the idea that our ministry to others was valid only if it was “useful” by the standards of contemporary life. This was my first “ministry formation” class—although that language was not used at that time.

Henri was my teacher and later an important friend in the time that followed my years at Yale. His letters to Harry and me during the time of our first child’s illness and death offered love and support and let us know that he felt our pain. Even after he left Yale we would hear from him by letters or through a mutual friend, Virginia (“Enie”) van Dooran, of his continued search for the spaces that would answer his own call to be host and guest in the name of Christ.

It remains important for us to hear Henri’s wisdom, to learn to live in the hospitable space he creates for us in the name of Christ, and to make that space available to others.

Contributed by Meg Herbert