Henri Nouwen and the Journey of Faith

Earlier this year, I heard someone on The Beatles channel point out that the calendar for 2019 matched exactly the calendar for 1974. While for most, this was one more useless piece of trivia, for me it struck a nerve. Nineteen seventy-four was a pivotal year for me, and indeed, for the entire country. The Vietnam war was winding down toward an inglorious defeat. Watergate percolated to the point where the Nixon presidency would end in disgrace. The intensity of the 1960s was winding down, and the “Age of Aquarius” was morphing  as self-help and “new-age” movements began to flower. Rock-and-roll was giving way to disco.

I graduated from college in May, and started to think about the future. Seminary was my immediate goal and by fall I had a full-time teaching gig and had started classes at Fuller Seminary’s first extension campus in the Bay Area. During the summer while I was working in Mt. Hermon, CA my father suddenly died and instead of leaving San Francisco, I stayed at home in order to make sure that my mom was cared for. Moving to Pasadena would have to wait a couple of years.

It was also the year that everything unraveled. Anxiety and depression made their first unwelcome visit to my soul, and the Christianity that I had known no longer made sense. Little did I know that in 1974 I would start a journey that would last for years and bring intellectual and emotional struggle in ways that I could not have foreseen; and that all of my comfortable idolatries would be exposed.

Parallel journeys

Sadly,  much of American evangelicalism at that time rushed headlong into destructive schemes like Bill Gothard’s “Basic Youth Conflicts” as well as a wild-eyed apocalpyticism marked by works like The Late Great Planet Earth. (The book title itself was a knock-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel, The Last Days of the Late Great State of California.) So while many evangelicals of all ages looked for the formulas that would help them navigate an uncertain world, yours truly would watch Gothard lecture to a group of 9,000 fawning evangelicals in Long Beach, CA and think to himself, “Germany, 1933!”

Fortunately, the seeds of something new were beginning to sprout in the work of a small group of evangelicals–Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Archibald Hart, all of whom were influenced by writers as diverse as Paul Tournier, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Thomas Merton, and the many spiritual writers that permeated Christian history. One of those writers that they led me to was the Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen. At the time, Nouwen was teaching at Yale Divinity School and was already known for his work on pastoral care titled The Wounded Healer. 

But, the first book that I discovered was his diary of seven months from June through December, 1974 where he lived in a monastic community in upstate New York, titled The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery.  Ironically, Nouwen wrote at the same time that many pivotal events occurred in my own life, and as I read the entries in the early 1980s, I could remember where I was and what was happening on those same days. It was like Nouwen and I were fellow travelers on similar journeys. And, both of us weren’t fully sure how those journeys would turn out.

Wisdom for the journey of faith

I reread this book every few years, and this year with the calendar for 2019 matching that of 1974, my rereading is especially meaningful. The insights that Nouwen learned through his time of struggling with life as a “temporary monk” at the Abbey of the Genesee are still important for me today. I think you will find them helpful especially because they remind us that we cannot live by human formulas, that God will not be boxed in by our expectations, and that the Christian life can be messy as we try to follow our Lord. At a time when American evangelicalism is in full melt-down, we are challenged to find Christian wisdom that is grounded in the deep and rich traditions of Holy Scripture and the early Christian creeds and confessions.

For example:

“in recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the dangerous possibility of making the Word of God sensational. Just as people can watch spellbound a circus artist tumbling through the air in a phosphorized costume, so they can listen to a preacher who uses the Word of God to draw attention to himself. But a sensational preacher stimulates the senses and leaves the spirit untouched. Instead of being the way to God, his ‘being different’ gets in the way” (Saturday, July 13, 1974, 65-66).

” Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become” (Sunday, June 16, 1974, 36).

“The sentence, ‘When you leave the world to give yourself to God, there is no return’ hits me hard. It is an echo not only of Jesus call to leave everything behind to follow him but also of the many voices of the desert fathers. I am more and more certain that I still have not left the world but keep lingering on its edges. I am plainly and simply scared of the ‘no return,’ and fear that the road of total commitment to God is arduous, painful, and very lonely” (Wednesday, July 10, 1974, 62).

“Still, I am deeply convinced that when I allow God to enter into my loneliness, when I allow him to let me know that I am loved far more deeply than I can imagine, only then can I give and receive real friendship…When I can say with Paul, ‘not I live, but Christ lives in me,’ then I no longer need to depend on the attention of others to have a sense of self. Because then I realize that my most important identity is the identity I have received as a grace of God which has made me a participant in the divine life of God himself” (Friday, July 26, 1974, 88).

“Maybe I have been living much too fast, too restlessly, too feverishly, forgetting to pay attention to what is happening here and now, right under my nose. Just as a whole world of beauty can be discovered in one flower, so the great grace of God can be tasted in one small moment. Just as no great travels are necessary to see the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the earthquake, the storm, or the lightning,but in the gentle breeze with which he touches your back” (Tuesday, July 30, 1974, 94-95).

“God cannot be understood; he cannot be grasped by the human mind. The truth escapes our human capacities. The only way to come close to it is by a constant emphasis on the limitations of our human capacities to ‘have’ and ‘hold’ the truth. We can neither explain God nor his presence in history. As soon as we identify God with any specific event or situation, we play God and distort the truth. We can only be faithful in our affirmation that God has not departed us but calls us in the middle of all the unexplainable absurdities of life. It is very important to be aware of this. There is a great and subtle temptation to suggest to myself or others where God is working and where not, where he is resent and when not, but nobody, no Christian, no priest, no monk, has any “special knowledge” about God. God cannot be limited by any human concept or prediction. He is greater than our mind and heart and perfectly free to reveal himself where and when he wants” (Saturday, September 14, 1974, 137).

“We have always struggled to understand how God can be just as well as merciful. Indeed, the mystery of God is that he can be both to the highest degree. But we cannot” (Monday, September 16, 138).

“As long as I am constantly concerned about what I ‘ought’ to say, think, do, or feel, I am still the victim of my surroundings and am not liberated. I am compelled to act in certain ways to live up to my self-created image. But when I can accept my identity from God and allow him to be the center of my life, I am liberated from compulsion and can move without restraints” (Wednesday, December 11, 1974, 203).

Simple but not easy

Reading these words forty-five years later prompts me to remember that understanding the Christian faith is relatively easy, but following our Lord is no simple task. We tend to get that backwards. We want to make understanding the faith far too complex, and living the faith formulaic. No wonder we wind up in the trap that it falls to us to fix ourselves, to fix others, and to fix our country and world. But, the essence of the Christian faith is that we are utterly unable to fix ourselves, fix others, or fix the world. The essential message of Christian faith is one of surrender. We surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and that surrender includes all of our own goals, all of our own agendas, all of our desires to remake the world in our own image. Instead we trust Christ for our salvation and for our very lives. As Henri Nouwen learned, as I am continuing to learn, as countless others have learned our journeys of faith are fraught with struggle and turmoil especially when we confuse following Jesus with the expectations of self and others. At the end of the day, it is all about grace and mercy. We don’t deserve those, but God invites us to them anyway.

As Sue Mosteller, Henri Nouwen’s longtime assistant and close friend, has written, “Henri’s friends always knew that Henri struggled to live up to what he wrote.” In that, he was no different than the rest of us, especially those of us who preach, teach, and serve as pastors. Henri died in 1996, ironically in his native land in the Netherlands while on his way to St. Petersburg, Russia to film a project related to one of his books. Fortunately, his journals, diaries, and books are still available. We still assign his little book on leadership titled In the Name of Jesus at Gordon-Conwell. Forty-five years after his life as a “temporary monk” at the Abbey of the Genesee, his account of those seven months is one that I still turn to when I need reminding that following Jesus does not rest in formulas or efforts to fix things that I don’t like in the church or world around me. It is about following Jesus through the joys, struggles, sorrows, of this world, and realizing that the new heaven and new earth still await.

If you haven’t read The Genesee Diary (Doubleday, 1981), let me invite you to read and reflect on what the Triune God may want to say to you about following him.

 

 

 

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.