Sunday, October 9, 2016

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life - Henri J. M. Nouwen

The little I have read by Henri Nouwen was too mystical for my taste, so I chose to read this collection of his letters in hopes that I would come to understand Nouwen more. Spanning decades (1973-1996), this book includes letters to a wide range of recipients, from dear friends to strangers. Nouwen was clearly a gentle, soft-spoken man, given to encouraging and supporting others no matter who they were. He apparently was also a very emotional man, given to introspection and great sensitivity to pain and insecurity. He came across as a very human man. Almost all letters begin with Nouwen’s thanks to the recipient for their correspondence, and he invariably spoke very personally, including when he gave gentle advice. Surprisingly, this well-loved author wrote in one letter that those to whom he ministered influenced him most profoundly; it was not books that had a lasting influence. Repeatedly, he encouraged others to pray. Once he stated his simple intercession list: friends, enemies, your city, your country, and the world, and he advocated gratitude and intercession as gateways to a closer relationship to God. Many wrote of loneliness and depression, and Nouwen cautioned them to listen to the voice of hope, not of despair, and encouraged them to pray for others. He readily acknowledged that depression was his nemesis, so he knew their struggles. A few times, Nouwen responded pointedly to criticism. In one letter, he summarized how the criticism sounded, how it felt, and how the writer would never have written in that vein had they known what he was facing. He replies, in part, “I don’t think I am ready yet to pray with you and Alex together. That feels quite scary to me. I would be too afraid of being told that I am not praying right or not living up to your expectations. So maybe we have to be very, very gentle and patient with each other. Please continue to pray for me and recommend me in the prayers of your community.” He had the ability to speak plainly and yet graciously. Part of his brilliance was in his simplicity. Describing the soul, Nouwen said, “The way I think about the soul is simply as the place where God dwells. . . . My ego, mind, self and DNA are part of my mortal being, and I know that one day I have to let go of that. But my soul is eternal in me, that aspect of me where I am part of God’s life. When I pray, I nurture my soul. When I care for the sick, dying and weak, I nurture my soul, and it is that soul in me that will be held eternally in God’s embrace.” There is much to learn from this book, and it is easy to imagine oneself as the recipient of some of Nouwen’s letters, as he addresses so many situations common to the human condition. I imagine it was impossible not to like him. The one thing I found distracting in the book occurred in introductions to the letters. Often after identifying the addressee, the editor adds notes, such as “He shares his own struggles as well as his insights born of his recent experience that one must go into the pain in order to discover God’s unconditional love.” These short summaries occur so often in the book that it feels anticlimactic to read the letters themselves; the book would have been much improved without those summaries. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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