When I agree to speak to some group, I try to offer a topic that will be acceptable to them. But I also think about my own preparation time and decide that I want to work on something special to me. I recently agreed to a commitment to offer some thoughts about Henri Nouwen. When I made this commitment, I knew I would enjoy it. And I also knew I had some work to do before I was ready. But it would be a labor of love.
I knew Henri Nouwen. I did not know him well---except through his writings---but was an acquaintance. I am sure many folks claimed to be friends with him, but I did not have nearly enough time with him to qualify as a friendship. I heard him speak a few times. I have two or three pictures of the two of us---pictures which I cherish, but which will mean nothing to anyone else. I share this much so that when I write a few times about Nouwen, it will make sense.
Nouwen was born in 1932 in Holland. He was the oldest of four children and certainly the most religious of them. He was Catholic, who felt called to the priesthood. He studied psychology and theology and, eventually, was ordained in 1957. After further studies, he received his doctorate. Nouwen spent some time at the Menniger Clinic in Topeka, KS, where he worked with psychiatric patients in what we now call pastoral counseling. Clearly, Nouwen was equipping himself in both spirituality and psychology, twin themes that are almost always present in his writings.
Nouwen was a restless spirit. In this we are reminded of another spiritual sage of mine, namely, the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. In fact, Nouwen spent a little time at Merton’s monastery in Kentucky, the Abbey of Gethsemani. In effect like Merton, Nouwen was on a double search: for himself and for God. And like Merton, he would suggest you don’t find one without finding the other. And like Merton, Nouwen’s writings are the spiritual trail we can follow as both men pursued this search. I am sure that was part of the appeal of both writers for me.
Nouwen spent time teaching in the finest schools in our country, namely, Yale and Harvard. He spent time traveling abroad and lived with the poor in Peru and Bolivia. He stayed in monasteries on occasion. And he finally and ironically, wound up committing his life to the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, one of a number of care centers begun by Jean Vanier to care for severely handicapped people. In fact, Nouwen was given charge of a young man, Adam, about whom Nouwen wrote much.
One of the most important books from Nouwen for me personally was a journal account of his seven-month stay in a Trappist monastery in NY. The book is called The Genesee Diary, Genesee being the name of the monastery. This book was published in 1976 and was literally his diary of seven months spent there in 1974. I did not yet know Nouwen, but it is interesting to think he was experiencing things and reflecting and writing on them in a way that would affect me less than a decade later.
I am enjoying the chance to go back and re-read The Genesee Diary. Given where I am in life, it is impossible to read it the same way I did the first time. I know so much more---about myself, about life, etc. But I likely know so much less---about myself and things forgotten. This leads to me to say re-reading is perhaps not even that, but rather a fresh reading. I share a few thoughts that strike me now.
The first journal entry is June 2, 1974. I had to laugh when I read Nouwen’s initial words: “Thanks be to God that I am here.” I decided not even to read further. Partly because of reading Nouwen, Merton and others, I learned about monks, monasteries and monasticism. Whenever I go to a monastery, the most sure experience I have is I slow down. Simply walking onto monastic grounds feels holy. Spiritually, I shift down a few gears. I start noticing, appreciating and centering.
I now know why Nouwen would begin the journal that way: “Thanks be to God that I am here.” I am sure the first time I read this book, I never paused at those words. I did not know enough; I was too superficial. I do not claim I am a deep person now, but I have known some deep times. The monastery almost always takes me there again. But I know I am not going to live in a monastery. And neither did Nouwen, which is what makes him different than Merton. Nouwen visited; Merton moved in.
So my question is the same one that drove Nouwen. How can I learn to live and be present to the Spirit so that wherever I am, I can say, “Thanks be to God that I am here.” The best of my own Quaker tradition knows this perspective. Quakers talk about living in the Presence. In that sense it is not a place; it is an experience. And finally, I think that also is true of the monastery. Finally, it is not the place; it is the experience.
Clearly, Nouwen knew at Genesee he was in the place where there was the Presence of the Spirit. At Genesee he would learn what it meant to live in the Presence. And if he learned that well, he could still live in the Presence when he left Genesee. He did learn that. And that is what I am still questing to learn and to live---the Presence of the Spirit.