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Paul Vallely: Compassion is a two-way process  

17 May 2024

In Mental Health Awareness Week, Paul Vallely finds that threads come together

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen

THE sermon in my parish on Sunday was about a young man with severe autism, whose special gift was his ability to memorise phone numbers and people’s date of birth. He would ring every member of the congregation on the appropriate day to wish them a happy birthday. He continued to do so even after his Evangelical church was sundered by theological disagreement. One day, he rang everyone to announce that he had decided to be baptised, and invited them to the ceremony. It was the start of the healing of the schism.

Mental Health Awareness Week crept up on me sideways this year. Earlier in the day, I had heard a beautifully reflective service on Radio 4, led by the Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, who observed that the Psalmists are no strangers to the desolation of mental-health challenges.

Trauma, depression, and anxiety are the background to more than one third of the Psalter, in which darkness and anguish is vented before God. Prayers that “painted us anew” were offered by the priest and poet Laura Darrall, who, some years ago, got more than three million people to join a worldwide #ItAffectsMe mental-health awareness campaign.

Threads were coming together. Just the day before, we had travelled to the Wesleyan church in Chester to see a dramatisation of the life of the 20th-century Dutch Catholic priest, psychologist, and preacher, Henri Nouwen. The Beloved Son, by Murray Watts (Feature, 26 January), tells the story of how Nouwen abandoned academic acclaim at Yale and Harvard to join a L’Arche community, where people with and without learning disabilities live in communion with one another.

The one-man play is an extraordinary tour de force by the actor Andrew Harrison, by turns deeply poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, which hints that the events of Nouwen’s life may have laid the ground for classics such as The Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. Mr Harrison portrays Nouwen’s troubled relationship with his father, and depicts the emotional crises and bouts of depression surrounding Nouwen’s unrequited love for a man who went on to marry a woman. But he does so with grace and great humour.

Nouwen’s journey through depression finds healing in his ministry to deeply afflicted people — useless in the eyes of the world — who turn the tables by bringing healing, love, and affirmation to him. Compassion — etymologically, “suffering with” — proves to be a two-way process. Particularly memorable is Mr Harrison’s characterisation of a L’Arche resident, Tom, whom Nouwen used to take with him when giving lectures — which Tom, like some Shakespearean Fool, repeatedly interrupted with jokes and sardonic commentary.

It reminded me of the memento mori story, recorded by Suetonius, of the slave who stood behind the victorious Roman general as he made his triumphant progress through the capital and whispered: “Look behind you. Remember you are but a man who must die.”

But it’s more than that. As the screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce puts it in Thea Sharrock’s new uplifting Netflix film The Beautiful Game — about a team of men gathered from the streets to play in the Homeless World Cup — “We don’t save ourselves; we save each other.”

The Beloved Son can be seen in Cambridge and Thorington next month. Tour dates and venues at: murraywatts.co.uk/thebelovedson

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