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Why You Should Know the Work of Henri Nouwen

Henri-Nouwen

I was 30 years old and navigating the pain of a divorce, trying to imagine how I would even begin to heal or re-build a new life for myself.

For several years, people had been telling me about a wise, gifted Dutch priest named Henri J.M. Nouwen (pronounced “now-ehn”). I decided to acquaint myself with some of his writings, starting with Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

I was not at all prepared for the internal and much-needed upheaval this book created in my life. Passages like this one lept off the page and seemed to speak directly to me:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

As a woman who spent her twenties hiding behind a mask aching to be loved, all the lies I believed about my own worth and identity quickly became exposed. I had a choice to make: continue the numbing and stuffing-down, or begin the deep soul-work that this season of life demanded I finally face.

That is how Henri Nouwen entered my life. 

I am convinced, more than ever, that his wisdom and words are spiritual lessons our world desperately needs to rediscover.

So who was he?

Henri Nouwen was one of the leading Catholic spiritual writers of our time. He was the author of 39 books that sold millions of copies around the world

After seminary and ordination, Nouwen studied psychology. That time eventually led him to spend 20 years in the United States teaching at prestigious schools like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He traveled, wrote, and spoke at lectures and conferences around the world.

For a time, he lived in Peru and Bolivia as he worked with the poor. In 1983, Nouwen resigned from Harvard’s divinity school. He took up residence at L’Arche, a community in France founded by Jean Vanier where people with differing intellectual disabilities live in community together as equals. That experience was profoundly meaningful and healing for Nouwen — he spent the rest of his life in that community. He died in 1996.

Nouwen had an exceptional ability to articulate his own inner experience, which in turn, spoke to and resonated with people all over the globe. His appeal and relationships went far beyond the realm of Catholicism. There was a timeless nature to his writings that impacted people of other religious traditions, as well as people who claimed no faith at all. He had deep, lasting friendships with all different kinds of people.

Because he was so radically honest, Nouwen’s words created a place within his readers for being vulnerable, acknowledging personal struggles, and wrestling with God. He spoke plainly about the many challenges we all face at one time or another: loss, loneliness, despair, sickness, discerning a career or vocation, self-doubt, injustice, dealing with our emotions and desires, wrestling with our sexuality or gender, solitude, and intimacy. And beyond all of these sufferings, he described a “much deeper human darkness: the darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence.”

He was fearless in raising this darkness to the surface, and that’s the key to what makes his writing so helpful. It encourages us to go deeper, and it makes us feel like we are not alone. “I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain,” he wrote. 

What does he have to say to us today?

Nouwen is a beautiful, real, authentic, messy voice telling a story I believe each of us can relate to, wherever life finds us. Regardless of race, gender, spirituality, political affiliation — our world aches for a deeper meaning. 

“We often live as if our happiness depended on having,” he wrote. “But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness, and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness.”

Henri Nouwen’s life and writings offer hope and consolation to the many questions that make life hard and messy. He beckons us to wrestle with God, ask deep questions, and find the sacred hidden in the ordinary.

Regardless of your current relationship to God, the Church, or spirituality, the voice of Henri Nouwen can make you feel at home and understood. His words are gentle and non-judgmental. His own authenticity draws you in — reading his words feels like a conversation where you would share your heart with a close friend over a cup of coffee.

That first initial encounter with Nouwen taught me something about myself I never knew or believed until then: my entire identity is based on being a “beloved” of God. That is the single most important lesson for me as a woman to know — my worth and identity come from the truth that I am God’s beloved one:

First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting embrace.

Henri Nouwen is a spiritual teacher our wounded world needs to re-discover. At one point in Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes, “God says, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ This is a fundamental truth of your identity. This is who you are whether you feel it or not. You belong to God from eternity to eternity. Life is just a little opportunity for you during a few years to say, ‘I love you too.’”

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