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Monday, October 01 2007 19:00
“We are the beloved sons and daughters of God.” That was the constant message of my favorite guru, Henri Nouwen.

He believed in God’s love for every person and spent his life communicating this truth as far and wide as he could. I count myself fortunate to have seen him up close as one of his10,000 friends. That number suggests the kind of person he was.

A new video tracing his life and work has once more stirred up in me  appreciation of his teaching. Father Nouwen, a Dutch priest who died in 1996, left behind a legacy of love that continues to inspire the many people who knew him, heard him speak, or read any of his 40 books. Two million copies of those books have been sold in North America alone.

The video, “Journey of the Heart,” is so skillfully made that it brings back Henri as if he were still here. He emerges vividly with his amiable personal traits and also the eccentricities that would often amuse friends and associates.

What best distinguishes this portrait of the man perhaps is the revelation of his personal vulnerability. That God loved him did not come easily: through personal trials, he had to struggle to hold fast to his profound belief in this bedrock truth of his life.

As Robert Jonas, one of his close associates, says in the film, Henri had “one foot in the shadow of self-rejection and one foot in God’s love.” He chose to himself a “wounded healer,” expressing at once his doubts about his own lovability and his faith in the ministry that he believed God had called him to.

Though he taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, Father Nouwen considered the normal academic role to be a bad fit for him. He was restless at all of these institutions, ultimately leaving university life to live in Toronto with people who had developmental disabilities.

Among them, he found his final calling, one that taught him more than he could ever learn from books. These people, damaged in their bodily systems, could not read what Henri wrote, but came to value him for himself as a member of their community.

This master of the spiritual life did not isolate himself from the great issues of his time and place. Far from it – in 1965 Henri marched from Selma to Montgomery with the leaders of the civil rights struggle. Then, after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, he walked behind the slain prophet’s coffin in Atlanta.

He believed in personal intimacy, in friendship, and in hospitality. He saw this latter as a core ministry and was accustomed to inviting all of his students at Harvard and Yale to eat with him and to take part in the Eucharist. One of his teaching assistants has said: “They flocked to him like bees to honey.”

For him it was vital to integrate the spiritual life and the life of ministry. That ideal flowed from his core identity as a priest. His family reported that he saw this as his vocation when still only five years old.

All during his adult life, his family remained vital to him. His mother, especially, remained his inspiration. When she died he felt he had lost the one person who had loved him unconditionally.

Henri Nouwen’s spiritual teaching continues to uplift people who are struggling to discover the truth about themselves and God. Some find inspiration in his conviction that the gifts of life are often hidden in the places within us that most hurt. Speaking and writing from knowledge of his own vulnerability made Henri different from other spiritual leaders.

Henri also believed that, ultimately, we cannot find God, we can only be found by Him. Late in his life, he became fascinated with trapeze artists and saw the performer who catches the person who flies through the air as most like God.

The spiritual dictum quoted at the beginning, “We are the beloved sons and daughters of God,” serves as the best memorial to a man who continues to live on in the hearts of many.

The 60 minute video can be purchased for $24.95 at Daybreak Productions in Canada at 905 884-3454, ext. 234.

Richard Griffin