This story was originally published in The Crown, Redeemer’s student newspaper, and has been republished with permission.
Henri Nouwen, in the words of Professor Ken Herfst, is a man who showed the importance of the human “need to love and be loved … in a way that gives genuine hope.” It is because of Nouwen’s deep love and passion for God and others that the Henri Nouwen Society has made it their aim to extend Nouwen’s legacy, helping to broadly share and promote his deeply spiritual writings. This past October, Redeemer’s Religion and Theology department teamed up with the Henri Nouwen Society to present a moving and dramatic performance based on the archive collection of Nouwen’s letters, accessed by historian Gabrielle Earnshaw.
Earnshaw, an acclaimed archivist, has dedicated the last 16 years of her life to “finding the gold nuggets” of Nouwen’s ideas in order to share them with others. Through dialogue and reflection, Earnshaw’s book of Nouwen’s 205 letters gives light to Nouwen’s theological insights.
Redeemer students were able to witness these reflections through an emotional drama presented by actor Joe Abbey- Colborne. Talented pianist and vocalist Krystyna Higgins accompanied the dialogue with her personal musical expression of Nouwen’s letters. The overall result was spectacular. Prior to diving headfirst into dramatic readings, Earnshaw provided the full auditorium with a concise overview of Nouwen’s life.
Earnshaw briefly explained that Nouwen was a Catholic priest, born and raised in the Netherlands, who, after obtaining a doctoral degree in Holland, began his career by teaching at various Ivy League schools including Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. Later, he selflessly abandoned his life as a prestigious professor to work alongside a group of physically and mentally handicapped individuals through a program called L’Arche, located in Richmond Hill, Ont. Throughout his life, Nouwen used both his professional training and unique life experiences to witness to people though emotionally heartfelt writings and intelligent rhetoric.
Out of the 205 letters that Earnshaw accessed in her research, five specific letters were chosen to be highlighted in the presentation. These letters were those which she thought best outlined Nouwen’s main beliefs and lifestyle. The following five excerpts from these spoken letters only begin to describe the compelling life story that, as Earnshaw described it, give Nouwen’s audiences “new life, inner peace and freedom.”
Letter 1: The Letter to Richard — “The many hours for prayer and meditation, the chance to read, study and write without interruptions […] it all has been very revealing to me and made me aware that being a priest is what I really want to be in an authentic way and that in the deepening and strengthening of that vocation I find real power and joy.”
Letter 2: The Letter to Jim — “The first and most important task we have is to keep our eyes on God and Him alone. We will never overcome the demons by analyzing them, but only by forgetting them in our all-consuming love for God […] demons like to be analyzed, because that keeps our attention directed to them. God wants to be loved. I am more and more convinced that the first commandment indeed needs to be first: to love God with our heart, all our soul, and our entire mind.”
“Nouwen brings a personal and emotional view of faith which we need more of”
Letter 3: The Letter to Mark — “When I think about my life and my work, I think about it more as a way of being present to people with all I have. I have always felt that the center of our faith is not that God came to take our pains away, but that He came to share them and I have always tried to manifest this divine solidarity by trying to be as present to people in their struggle as possible. It is most important to be with people where joy and pain are experienced and to have them become aware of God’s unlimited love in the midst of our limited abilities to help each other […] To witness for Christ means to me to witness for Him with what I have seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears and touched with my own hands.”
Letter 4: The Letter to Marcus — “Once I stood looking at the Grand Canyon, and when I saw the billions of years carved in stone in front of me, I felt as if the heaviness of heart left me. Somehow, I felt very small and insignificant at the same time my introspection in my own pain turned to adoration.”
Letter 5: The Letter to Mr. Chisholm — “The book [Return of the Prodigal Son] could have never been written if I had not been part of a community of handicapped people. Although life in that community is not always easy, it continues to be a great source of energy and vision.”
Not only was this evening an opportunity to share the message of Nouwen’s collective writings with a wide audience, it was particularly a way through which students could relate to Nouwen’s works — a chance for the next generation to benefit from his wisdom. The evening’s loving, intergenerational atmosphere was one in which Nouwen himself would surely have been pleased to partake.
For more information about the Henri Nouwen Society or insight from any of the Henri Nouwen collections, please visit henrinouwen.org.