Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Sometimes we read biographies to learn about the lives of interesting people. These biographies normally shine a light into corners of life where we might normally not stray. They substitute in many respects for a castle tour or, perhaps, a dinner invitation that we never received but wished we had.
Other times we read biographies to learn more about the lives of people who have profoundly influenced us. These biographies shine a light into corners of our own lives where we live but incompletely understand. Wil Hernandez’s biography, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, falls squarely in this latter category.
Who was Henri Nouwen?
Nouwen is known as a Roman Catholic priest from the Utrecht, The Netherlands who wrote voluminous numbers of books on the subject of spirituality. The Henri Nouwen society summarizes his life in these words:
“Born in Nijkerk, Holland, on January 24, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”
An open, yet discretely kept, secret among people who knew him was that he struggled with a homosexual orientation but remained celibate in keeping with his priestly vows (126).
For those unfamiliar with L’Arche Daybreak, they are a community devoted to serving “men and women with intellectual disabilities” . Nouwen walked away from a brilliant career in academia, writing, and speaking to serve as the pastor to a community serving those with special needs. For Nouwen, this commitment was “driven by a desire to close the gap between what he wrote and what he lived” (viii).
For me, L’Arche demonstrated Nouwen’s authenticity as a Christian. During my clinical pastoral education, I worked for 3 months in a psychiatric ward and another 3 months in an Alzheimer’s unit. After a hard day in the Alzheimer’s unit one day, I remember reflecting on Nouwen’s commitment—I knew that after a season of service, I would leave the unit and return to a more typical life. Nouwen entered D’Arche, lived, and died there. After learning about L’Arche, I never looked at Nouwen quite the same way.
Hernandez and Nouwen?
What was Hernandez’ contribution to our understanding of Henri Nouwen? In his foreword to the book, fellow Nouwen biographer, Michael J. Christensen, writes:
“Examining Nouwen’s own movements [of the spirit], Hernandez characterizes the spiritual journey as ‘a spirituality of imperfections’. By this he means a relational spirituality of intimacy with God and a faithful wrestling with God that gradually ripens into a mature communion or ‘completeness’ with the Divine; this, rather than a conforming spirituality of moral perfectionism and victory over sin that progressively takes on the characterological likeness to God’s perfect nature.” (x)
Having read much of Nouwen’s works, I can certainly see this quality in Hernandez’s writing and his interpretation of Nouwen. However, what strikes me as most prevalent in Hernandez’ writing is his repeated references to Nouwen’s early and unique contribution being to weave spirituality, psychology, ministry, and theology together in his writing (e.g. xiii). While perhaps prior biographers may have referenced this point, it was new to me and I found it helpful insight in understanding Nouwen and his contribution.
Background and Organization
Wil Hernandez lives and works in Southern California and teaches courses on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen at schools like Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes in 5 chapters divided into 2 parts:
Part 1: The Integrated Journey
ONE: Journey Inward
TWO: Journey Outward
THREE: Journey Upward
Part 2: The Imperfect Journey
FOUR: Spirituality of Imperfection
FIVE: A Perfect Example of Imperfection
These chapters are preceded by a foreword, preface, acknowledgments, list of Nouwen works, and introduction. They are followed by a conclusion and notes. No indices are included.
Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. For example, although I had heard rumors about Nouwen sexual orientation, Hernandez was the first to mention in writing among my readings. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.
In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of the book. In parts 2 and 3, I will look in more depth at Hernandez’ analysis of Nouwen and his writing.
Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.