Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Over time I find myself losing Henri Nouwen’s books. Some get lost because I lend them to friends. I forget who and they forget to return them. Others get lost because I read them at a particular stage in life and they get mixed in with other books from that stage. Still others get lost in the sense that I mix Nouwen’s ideas with my own and I forget where I got them. Writing reviews helps me sort out better what Nouwen really said and what I thought about it at the time.
In the second half of his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses on 2 things: explaining Nouwen’s spirituality and describing Nouwen himself.
Spirituality of Imperfection. While the Bible describes sin as a basic human characteristic; a less judgmental pastoral response to sin interprets sin as brokenness. The first observation is a theological statement; the second is an ethical statement that points the sinner to God in the role as Great Physician. Nouwen helped me to find this integration.
“Henri Nouwen’s proclivity for integration represented a major step towards wholeness. On a much deeper analysis, his commitment to pursuing integrity spoke more about his heightened awareness of his fractured human condition than an obsessive drive for perfection. Nouwen’s integrative pursuit of the spiritual life never obviated but instead incorporated facets of psychological, ministerial, and theological imperfections.“(75).
One cannot be whole until one understands one’s self which implies seeing both the good and the bad. Imperfections, which typically hold us back interpersonally and professionally, are hard to look at objectively. Peering at our imperfections from different points of view aids this task of integration and clarifies our vision. We learn more from failure than from success because failure forces us to admit and deal with our brokenness—our imperfections.
Nouwen saw the Eucharist as a symbol reminding us of Christ’s physical brokenness on the cross that helps us to deal with our own brokenness (78). Once again faithful to his Catholic roots, Nouwen viewed the cross as “the compelling symbol of authentic Christian experience”. Without the suffering of Christ, the victory of Christ in resurrection is devoid of meaning (81). Suffering forces us to ask ourselves the tough questions about our own brokenness. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus asks: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 ESV) (86)
“the spiritual journey for Nouwen was never about perfection, but about struggling to live in a deep and meaningful relationship with God that would bear fruit in the lives of others.” (92).
Here we hear an echo of God’s blessing of Abraham:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)
In other words, leave your comfort zone for my sake and I will bless you so that you can bless others. Facing brokenness and imperfection to minister to others quickly leads away from comfort, but also leads towards communion with Christ.
A Perfect Example of Imperfection. Why do we cheer for athletes who overcome physical handicaps to compete and win? For me, the answer is that overcoming physical handicaps is inspiring not only to other special needs individuals but also to those of us who, in spite of having no handicaps, struggle to overcome everyday challenges of inertia and personal limitations.
Hernandez sees Nouwen as a “perfect paradigm of imperfection” for at least 3 reasons. Nouwen was:
- “a restless seeker”,
- “a wounded healer”, and
- “faithful struggler” (95).
As a restless seeker, Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96). He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness. Hernandez writes:
“Nouwen’s penchant for spreading himself thin, along with his obsessive-compulsive behavior and ‘workaholic’ drive, all seemed to conspire in bringing out the unhealthy side of his restless maneuvers.” (98)
Nouwen was ultimately restless seeking after God (99). According to Augustine, our restlessness is planted in us by God himself—its resolution can be found therefore only in God (101).
As a wounded healer, Nouwen used his incompleteness to become a place of hospitality for others. Hernandez observes:
“Only the bruised, wounded minister can powerfully connect with those who are badly wounded” (116).
One of my first ministries, even before I had even thought of seminary, was to victims of breast cancer. My wife, Maryam, was twice afflicted with breast cancer and we both suffered miserably. Not only were we victimized by the disease, we were victimized with depression and the inability of those around us to provide any meaningful support. My sister, Diane, later died needlessly from breast cancer because of similar issues. My wounds gave me knowledge and street credibility for reaching out to others suffering in this same journey. The book, Wounded Healer, was an early exposure to Nouwen which provided comfort even though I scarcely understood what it said.
As a faithful struggler, Nouwen understood implicitly the role of suffering in discipleship (118). Nouwen also understood the role of leadership as providing an example to those around us (119). After Reaching Out, I would have to say that Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is the most cited in my work because it centers on the temptations of Christ. Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptations are to be relevant (turn stone into bread), powerful (become my vassal and rule the world), and spectacular (throw yourself down and prove who you are) (Luke 4:4, 7, 9).
Hernandez pictures Nouwen as faithfully struggling with his demons to become a Christ-figure to modern society. His commitment to celibacy (126) and service to L’Arche (viii) scream authenticity in a world more used to leaning into pain than leaning on Christ. As in Gethsemane where Jesus said:
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)
Nouwen was faithful in turning to God instead of yield to his pain.
May we all learn to follow his example.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-148).
Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-ZJ)