ONE of the leitmotifs of Henri Nouwen was that of the “wounded healer”. Pursuing an idea of Carl Jung, he believed very deeply that those who sought to minister pastoral care to another person must remain grounded in their own vulnerability and not objectify those they served. To be effective means to be affected, opened by the encounter and not armoured from it. This all sounded straightforward until I realised that most of us are, to a certain degree, unhealed wounders. Perhaps the transition from one to another is what we call “conversion of life”?
Nouwen was a remarkable man in many ways. He was an internationally acclaimed priest, professor, spiritual director, and author. He published 39 books. He influenced thousands of people’s understanding of the depths and despairs of a Christian life, and he remains one of the giants of Christian spirituality in the second half of the 20th century. I have to admit, though, that I never found his writing very affecting. There was something about it that always felt one or two steps removed from full honesty, leaving me unsatisfied and wondering who this man was beneath the talk of vulnerability.
Luke Penkett’s book has helped me understand Nouwen a little more. He was obviously a man with a deep ache for holiness and a very restless traveller in search of it. He was as needy and incomplete as many of us are. He wanted a regulated and disciplined life of prayer, but lived with uncertainties and insecurities that never allowed him to rest easy in any such life. As Rowan Williams writes in the foreword, “To the end he remains awkward, hungry for intimacy, with an almost childlike transparency to his own unfinished labour with himself.” It is this hunger for depth, in a heart that feels incapable of it for long, that has made him such a helpful guide to so many people.
The argument of this book is that Nouwen’s finest work was focused on compassion and that he was influenced by four key mentors in his thinking on it. Two he met, Thomas Merton and Jean Vanier, and two he didn’t, Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn. Together, these four men’s work had a long and significant impact on Nouwen’s belief that humanity grows into its fullness by compassion, by becoming “downwardly mobile”.
The four chapters each take a look at how and why they were so important to Nouwen. Penkett is insightful and able to show how Nouwen almost came to idolise these men for what they brought to his mind and heart. He stood in awe of the awakened earthiness and contemplative rigour of Merton. He sees the “solidarity, consolation and comfort” of the Holy Spirit in Van Gogh’s letters and art.
Vanier showed him that being alongside the poor brought you alongside God and alongside yourself, engendering a new consciousness that helped to reincarnate God’s love in this world and that recognised the presence of Christ in radically new ways. Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son unveiled the compassion in the heart of God — which is why to be compassionate always feels like a homecoming.
To find that home, a place to be intimate, loved, and safe, was perhaps the spiritual magnet in Nouwen that kept pulling him and yet often saddening him, too. I still feel that his words never quite dare to go where he wishes they would, but I’m grateful to Penkett for helping me read Nouwen better, that is, with more compassion.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Touched by God’s Spirit: How Merton, Van Gogh, Vanier and Rembrandt influenced Henri Nouwen’s heart of compassion
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