I wish I could say I met Henri Nouwen, the late author and Catholic priest, in person. But even though he and I never chatted, I did encounter him in a personal, serendipitous way.
A publisher had invited me to dive into a lifetime of Nouwen’s lecture notes and sermon transcripts and personal jottings—that much I already expected from my trip to the Kelly Library at the University of Toronto. As a pastor and writer I had long imbibed Nouwen’s insights about spiritual growth and ministry in tumultuous times. Now my task was to spend days amid the file boxes and drawers of notes, article drafts, and sermons to see if a book could be posthumously compiled and edited.
During my research, the voice of a sometimes jarringly honest spiritual struggler emerged from the scrawled and typed pages in the archives. I was, in a way, following Nouwen himself as he explored a person who lived and preceded us: he experienced an encounter with Rembrandt while meditating on the late painter’s Return of the Prodigal Son, a time of reflection that led to one of Nouwen’s most profound books.
And from my trip I did distill a book: Turn My Mourning into Dancing, a slim volume whose relevance has only seemed to increase over two decades worth of accumulated losses and global crises. The release of a new edition all these years later has brought the story behind the book to mind. But the occasion also has me reliving the more life-affecting part of my visit to Nouwen’s world.
For another publishing friend, John Mogabgab, editor at the time of the journal Weavings and Henri’s assistant during Nouwen’s Yale Divinity School years, urged me to stay at Daybreak, where Henri spent his final years as pastor, an easy bus ride from the big city.
Days, then, would have me in the archives, and evenings at the Daybreak community. And it was in those meals and conversations and worship services that Nouwen’s documents not only began to take the shape of a book, but also came to emerge before me as something vivid and living in a personal and enduring way.
Nouwen often observed how in many ways he had finally “found” himself when he became Daybreak’s chaplain. His friends could observe the eventual difference in him—a deeper calm, a less-frenetic drive, something inside him settled. Not that he didn’t still struggle, not that he avoided emotional crises altogether.
Nouwen often observed how in many ways he had finally “found” himself when he became Daybreak’s chaplain.
But Nouwen reflected, in words that framed the first pages of the book that was coming together, “When I came to Daybreak, the community of ministry to disabled people where I have been pastor, I was experiencing a great deal of personal pain.”
His years in academia, his travels among the poor in Central America, and later, his speaking around the world had left him drained. “Rather than providing an escape from my own inner conflicts,” he recounted, “my scurrying from speaking engagement to speaking engagement only intensified my inner turmoil. But when I arrived [at Daybreak], I witnessed the enormous suffering of the mentally and physically handicapped persons living here. I came gradually to see my painful problems in a new light.”
And now I could see why: I’d share a meal each evening in one of the houses—group homes of eight to ten—scattered in the outskirts of the city, eating dinner with the “core members” and their assistants. I even stayed in the Cedars, a combination retreat house and library that Nouwen once used for a writing sabbatical.
And I could see what Nouwen saw: “Among these people,” he continued, “most of whom cannot read, many of whom cannot care for themselves, among men and women rejected by a world that values only the whole and bright and healthy, I saw people learning how to make the connection between human suffering and God’s suffering. They helped me to see how the way through suffering is not to deny it, but to live fully in the midst of it.”
I saw people learning how to make the connection between human suffering and God’s suffering.
Visiting Daybreak, I had a more vivid sense of what he meant; time in the community allowed me to drink in the kind of atmosphere Nouwen helped create—one of humility and compassion and joy—the atmosphere that in turn ministered to him, that helped him experience Christ’s healing for his own life. “The poor in spirit are given for our conversion,” one of Nouwen’s interviewers quoted him in a magazine article.
Nouwen held that conviction so strongly that when he was invited to lecture he insisted on bringing along one or more “core members” of the community, believing their life and joy would speak as powerfully as anything he might say.
At dinner one evening at one of the houses, I met Bill van Buren, one of the core members who had gone along with Nouwen on speaking engagements. He was lively, slurred in speech, and forever changed by having accompanied his chaplain and friend.
When I attended the community’s Eucharist, led by Wendy, an Anglican priest, the singing by the core members was little out of rhythm, the words too much for them sometimes. But there was no question: this was community, a gathered, unvarnished joy. Not long after the service began, a 50-year-old man clomped in, assisted with a cane. “I made it,” he announced with triumph, an expansive smile spreading across his face.
And indeed, joy was the keynote of the service. In her sermon, Wendy spoke of the “great joy” she had experienced in her household at Daybreak. It was not hard to see why Nouwen would effervesce when talking about what he had discovered there.
It was not hard to see why Nouwen would effervesce when talking about what he had discovered there.
Another day, I attended the community’s Taizé service. David, who I met the night before at dinner at the Green House, recognized me. While we waited for the service to begin, he got up from where he was sitting, walked across the room to sit with me, his new acquaintance, perhaps wanting to make sure I felt welcomed. “Hi, Tim,” he said, simply, and I put my arm around him, an uncharacteristic gesture for me to offer someone I’d just met. And he put his head on my shoulder. I felt honored and welcomed.
Still, I could imagine the assistants, facing physically arduous moments caring for those whose bodies don’t always work predictably, wondering about their call here. Might they not sometimes ask themselves, “Why am I giving my life to these people the wider world often forgets?” I thought of Nouwen asking questions like that.
And I thought of my own longing some days for recognition. But, I wrote in my journal, “today I have been practicing the discipline of thanking God for my obscurity. Why do I waste an ounce of dissatisfaction on not finding more notoriety?”
Today I have been practicing the discipline of thanking God for my obscurity.
So it is that I recall Henri Nouwen, erstwhile ivy-league professor, a priest used to elite circles and privilege, finding a peace and hope here that had eluded him.
I’m glad I could organize some of his notes from the archives into a book, but I am also grateful for how I met Nouwen at Daybreak. There I saw a slightly stooped man with a Dutch accent giving of himself, allowing himself to be nourished by people who don’t loom large on the world’s stage but who count in the larger scheme of God’s spreading reign.
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Ruth Johnston says
I just want to thank you for this essay. It spoke to me deeply and inspired a long journaling session for my own introspection. The question of how to let go of the need for notoriety, and unhook from the restlessness that comes from a desire for constant stimulation, producing, and living off of feelings of accomplishment, struck a chord in me. Thank you for the insight you’ve shared.
Timothy Jones says
Wonderfully said, Ruth! Thank you for this report on your journaling and your own reflection after reading the article. I’m grateful.
Rebecca “Honey” Davis says
As always, after reading one of your offerings, I feel enlightened and inspired to dip my toes a little deeper in spiritual searching without fear of being overwhelmed. Thank you.
Timothy Jones says
Thank you, Honey. Such a great word you share, that I know will be an encouragement to others, as well.
Thank you, Tim. You continue to channel God’s grace to me even from afar.
Timothy Jones says
Thanks, Debbie! God bless you in your significant ministries at Trinity Cathedral!