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Writing of pain that he knows

07 April 2017

Henri Nouwen drew on his own weakness, says Jonathan Ewer

Love, Henri: Letters on the spiritual life

Henri J. M. Nouwen

Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor

Hodder & Stoughton £18.99


Church Times Bookshop £17.10


THE editor of this book has divided the correspondence into three sec­tions. Part 1 comprises letters writ­ten from the time when Nouwen returned to the United States to teach. He also spent time in mission­ary service in Peru, then two periods away testing a call to the Trappist life, and then joined Jean Vanier at L’Arche near Paris.

Part 2 consists of letters written while he was based at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Canada, though he was often travelling and spent some months in therapy away from the community.

Part 3 covers the last six years of Nouwen’s life, when he was quite settled at L’Arche Daybreak, and much more at peace with himself. Here he wrote some of his most famous books and found time for interviews on radio and television — and, of course, time to write articles and letters.

Each of the three parts begins with biographical information, and a paragraph before each letter tells the reader a little about the recipient and Nouwen’s relationship with him or her.

Friendship and the love between friends is a feature that is constant throughout the correspondence. Like St Aelred, Nouwen finds the presence of Christ in the love between friends, even when the friendship (or marriage) is under strain and it is difficult to let oneself be loved. A good many of the letters are written out of his own lone­liness, depression, and feelings of worthlessness, which speak to the pain of the person to whom he is writing. His ability to struggle with his demons and find healing enables him to write comforting and even energising words without attempting to explain or justify what God is doing.

Nouwen’s profound conviction of his calling to priesthood and the cent­rality of prayer is evident through­out. His advice is often about the need to set aside time each day, even if you are a United States Senator, to be still and silent and pray. There are useful hints, such as avoiding getting too busy, making clear decisions and sticking to them, and, very frequently, forgiving those who hurt us. His Reflection on Unconditional Love is a powerful distillation of his thought, and Sue Mosteller’s Epilogue is a moving tribute to this good and holy man.

The book is very long and re­petit­ive. A synthesis, about the length of most of Nouwen’s own books, might be useful to give to enquirers.


Fr Jonathan Ewer is a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission.

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