Like many others who read non-fiction, Henri Nouwen’s readers believed they knew him through his literary works. While it’s true that they received glimpses of his personality, the truth is that no one truly knew him by reading his books alone.
In his new book, Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit, Kevin Burns explores the mystery behind the legend and legacy of Nouwen. Through personal interviews of those who were close to Nouwen, including Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche International, Burns reveals a man who was very human. It is precisely through understanding Nouwen’s struggles, weaknesses, and dark night of the soul that we catch a deeper insight into his spirituality and writings.
Likely the most telling aspect of this well-articulated book is the concept of “where biography and autobiography intersect,” as Burns expresses in his Afterword. Nearly everyone who knew Nouwen or read his works were touched by his life and theological depth in very different ways. Perhaps this is an indication of his brilliance – the fact that his writings have become timeless and beloved words of wisdom, revealing God’s mercy to all.
Unlike most biographies, Burns doesn’t exclusively retell the gritty details of Nouwen’s life. Rather, he highlights the experiences that shaped Nouwen as the priest-psychologist-professor he was known to be. He beautifully weaves a very human story, one that every person can grasp on a very personal and transformative level. Perhaps that is why, as Burns describes, we all find ourselves and our stories within the biographies we read.
A telling conclusion to the Afterword reveals the heart and soul of a man who died with much work left undone:
Dear friends, we are called to do a lot of flying. You and I are called to do a lot of triples, and a lot of jumps, taking a lot of risks. Finally, you have to say, ‘Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit,’ and trust, that when it really comes down to it, He will really be there and pull you right up (p. 117).
One of Nouwen’s unfinished works included his fascination with and time spent unraveling the spiritual metaphor of the circus, which is what influenced the above quote. It’s doubtful that he realized his own influence, likely because he struggled so much with his sexual identity, depression, and doubts at times. But it’s precisely because of these struggles that makes Nouwen’s revelations of heart so important, necessary, and profound.
Burns concludes with nine lessons he learned from studying and unveiling Nouwen’s life:
1. Be open to blessing;
2. Be open to the moment;
3. Be open to friends;
4. Be guided;
5. Be useful;6. Be patient;
7. Be aware of your role;
8. Be unfiltered;
9. Be loved (pp. 109-117).
If there’s anything to be gleaned by reading Burns’ book on Nouwen, it’s this: that we are all God’s beloved children, and Nouwen walks with us still, through his life and legacy.
Text Copyright 2016 Jeannie Ewing, all rights reserved.