Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Journey to L’Arche and finding the Heart of God
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Peace,” edited by John Dear in 1998. It is an interview in 1988, by Arthur Boers, published in The Other Side Magazine.
Considering all the books you’ve written and all the places you’ve been, did you ever wonder if you were being obedient to God’s will?
When I was asked to come to Yale, my bishop said I could go for a few years; I stayed ten. Meanwhile, I became an associate professor, then a tenured, full professor. I was doing well on the level of my ambitions, and I am ambitious in a certain sense. But I began to question whether I was really doing God’s will. Was I being obedient? Was I the priest I wanted to be? Was I really looking for God, and not for my own success and career? After all, you can become successful talking about God—but that can be a trap. You can be praised for your sermons on humility! I felt needed to get back to basics.
How did you respond to the questions?
I prayed: “God, You know what I should do. Let me know, and I will follow You. I will go anywhere You want. But You have to be very clear about it.” I liked being at Yale. I like teaching, but I knew it wasn’t for life. During my time at Yale, my spiritual life wasn’t deep. I wasn’t praying much. I was lonely and needy. I didn’t have much inner peace.
In 1981 I suddenly had this feeling that I wanted to go to Latin America and work with the poor. I’d been there many summers and felt I should go. I resigned from Yale, and people questioned if I was doing the wise thing. I didn’t have much support.
So you tried to find a vocation in Latin America?
But I quickly realized that wasn’t my vocation at all. God had not called me there. I was driven there. At some level I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something for the poor. I felt guilty for having been in academic settings.
While in Latin America, I spent a lot of time with liberation theologians—especially Gustavo Gutierrez. He didn’t encourage me to stay there. He said, “Maybe they need you more at the university to talk about Latin America. Do reverse mission to the First World from the Third World. You have the gift of the word, and you can write. Perhaps that’s what you should do instead of being busy in a parish.”
More deeply, I felt it hard to be there. People were good to me, welcoming. But being in Latin America didn’t seem to be my vocation. It wasn’t God’s call. Meanwhile, Harvard had asked me to join its faculty. So though I left Latin America, I was unclear about where I was headed.
When you returned to North America, you were active on behalf of Central America issues.
Right before I joined the Harvard faculty, I visited Nicaragua. I was so impressed by what I saw, and I was so convinced of the dangers of military intervention that I felt I had to go back to the US and speak about the situation. So a tour all over the country was set up for me. I spoke about the spiritual struggles of the people in Central America and called churches to think about that. It was spiritual work—not political. Though my message had political implications, I was calling Christians to consciousness.
When I finished this tour, I was exhausted. Not just tired. My soul was somewhat broken. It was as if someone was saying to me, “Are you trying to save the world? Where is your heart in all this? Who holds you safe?” I felt I was losing my soul and that God was not supporting me.
What did you do?
I was so exhausted that I asked Jean Vanier if I could visit his community. I went to L’Arche in France and collapsed for six or seven weeks. Then I realized that this community felt like home. The people were radically different. They said, “Henri, why don’t you come and waste time? Why don’t you just pray? You don’t have to do anything. We are so glad to see you not doing things.” Finally, people were caring for me.
I also realized that handicapped people didn’t love or care for me because I write books or take trips. They don’t know that. If they express love, it comes from God. When I came to L’Arche, my whole life was tired. But God said, “I love you. I want you to hold you.” Finally God had the chance to really hug me and lay divine hands onto my heart through this community.
Did you then decide to join L’Arche?
Though I felt a lot better, that’s as far as I went at that time. I returned to Harvard. I tried to talk about Latin America, but discovered that everyone had an enormous need to talk about prayer and contemplation. They asked me about the inner life, the spiritual life, ministry. Even though I was integrating a lot of the Latin American dimension, I was focusing on the life of the spirit. I loved it.
But at the same time, I had the feeling that Harvard was not where God wanted me. It’s too much podium, too much publicity, too public. Too many people came to listen. Plus Harvard is intensely competitive. It’s not an intimate place. It’s a place of intellectual battle. On the one hand, I loved being there. I made some beautiful friends. But, at the same time, I didn’t feel it was a safe place where I could deepen my spiritual life.
I had to pray more. I had to be more quiet. I had to be in community. So I resigned from Harvard, not knowing where to go. Except that I had a connection with Vanier and his community. So I went to L’Arche for a year; I wasn’t saying I would stay.
During that year, I did a lot of thinking. I prayed, “God, what do You want me to do?” But I wasn’t doing much. I was just being there—listening and feeling what the world was doing. Then I got a beautiful letter from the Daybreak community in Canada calling me to be their priest. They said, “We have something to offer you, and we have something to receive from you.” It was the first time in my whole life I felt called to anything. All the other times, I had made a lot of initiatives. But this time I felt God was calling me. I wondered if this letter was the answer to my prayer.
In your book Gracias! You mention your niece being born with Down’s Syndrome. Did this influence your decision to come to L’Arche?
Her condition was a very real experience for me, but it didn’t make me interested in working with mentally handicapped people. My desire to go to L’Arche was much more part of a spiritual journey. In fact, I discovered mentally handicapped people only in the context on my spiritual search. I just wanted to find a place where I could live the spiritual life more radically and with more integrity.
Isn’t that Jean Vanier’s story as well?
Yes, Vanier was never interested in mentally handicapped people per se. He was interested in the poor for the sake of his own salvation. He wanted to bind himself to the poor. He happened to be in France where his spiritual director Thomas Philippe lived. Thomas, a Dominican priest, was a chaplain for mentally handicapped people. He said to Jean, “Maybe it would be good if you could take some people out of the institution and live with them.” For Jean, the fact that they were mentally handicapped people was secondary. They could have been prisoners or drug addicts.
In being here I have discovered what a gift mentally handicapped people are and how wonderful relationships with them are. But only now am I coming to see that. It wasn’t what brought me here.
Why is L’Arche so special?
L’Arche has its own unique tone. It’s not an institution. It’s not a group home. It’s a spiritual community where handicapped people are in the center. L’Arche exists not to help the mentally handicapped get “normal,” but to help them share their spiritual gifts with the world. The poor of spirit are given to us for our conversion. In their poverty, the mentally handicapped reveal God to us and hold us close to the Gospel. That’s a vision we have to nurture and deepen. I’m just beginning to discover it. I’m no expert on it. Nobody really is. But we live it very tenderly.
What is your role here?
I try to live my vocation as a priest in this community. I am not a chaplain. A prison has a chaplain. The army has a chaplain. I am not the director. I am a member of the community, first of all. Then I am the priest here, ministering to an ecumenical group. I’m responsible for the spiritual life here. My particular vocation is to call people to prayer, to be sensitive to needs, and to do some spiritual formation.
Do you feel like you fit in?
I feel God sent me here. What’s so amazing is that I don’t know anything about mentally handicapped people. Second, I have never lived in a community before. Third, I was called here to that which I was least prepared for. No lecturing—nobody wants to hear lectures. Writing is practically impossible here. This is a hard place, because it asks a lot of a person’s soul. Yet I have never felt so clearly called, and I never felt so clearly the paradox of being called where they don’t need all that I have. I feel God wanted me to just come and discover what mentally handicapped people, the broken people, the poor in spirit—poor is a better word than handicapped—were going to teach me.
But why do you think God wanted you here?
To teach me what the seminary and theology didn’t: how to love God and how to discover the presence of God in my own heart. This was a gift to me. The poor also taught me to be willing to receive from others. People are not looking at me as somebody who does things by himself. I still get invitation to speak all over the world but I have to say no. My community says it’s more important to stay here instead of flying all over. It’s more important to spend an evening with someone who can’t speak or do anything than speak to thousands of people. God wants me here to be obedient to a more hidden way.
What are you learning?
One of the beautiful lessons this community has taught me is that if I do go and lecture, I take one of the handicapped people with me. I can stay close that way.
With our new house of prayer here, we have more time to pray than usual. The community suggests that I stay in touch with the “first love.” Those words, “first love,” are important to me. God loves us with a first love. John says, “Love one another, because I first loved you.” The love of people is beautiful, but it’s a reflection—a refraction, actually—of God’s first love.
The second love—whether it’s friends, men, women, or community—cannot fulfill my heart. But I can be grateful for that love if I am deeply rooted in the first love. It means an enormous loneliness at times, a recognition that no human being is going to fulfill your heart, and you’re really alone. But that is a good aloneness. Because that’s where God speaks to you. That’s a loneliness you have to nurture, instead of trying to get over it.
Have you experienced any “dark nights of the soul” here?
Last summer, my inner struggle became intense. I realized I needed to deepen my spiritual life. Also, being among handicapped people, I discovered my own handicaps—particularly with regard to issues of affection and friendship. I didn’t know what God wanted me to do in terms of my need for more intimacy than the community was able to give.
All of this was too deep to consider while living here. So I had to leave for a bit. The community supported my decision. I lived basically as a hermit. I did a lot of writing and had some good spiritual direction. I was able to work on important questions. Do I really give my whole heart to God or do I still want all these goodies? Can I really let go? Can I really die to a lot of stuff that seems to be so important?
In all those earlier years of my career, I had tried hard to prove to myself and the world that I’m OK. But now God was saying, “I love you even when none of that takes place.” I didn’t know how to believe that God loves me with a first love.
God wants my heart to be totally given to the first love, so that I will really trust God and give everything away. I’m still not able to do that. I say, “Leave your father, leave your mother, leave your brother, leave your sister, leave your possessions, leave your success. Don’t cling to friends. Trust that God will give all you need.” But do I really believe it? Jesus said, “Are you able to drink the cup? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I’m baptized with?” I say I can—sometimes. But when I realize what it means, I start balking.
I’m still in the middle of a journey. It’s not like I have figured it all out and now everything is wonderful. In fact, coming to L’Arche has opened up so much I’m just beginning to discover. There’s so much more to go through. I have an incredible feeling that I’m called to be here, but it’s also the hardest place for me to be.
How long do you think you’ll stay at L’Arche?
The bishop on Utrecht gave me formal permission to be here three years. I obviously hope to stay longer. The church can continue to call me any place, and I have to be obedient. But I have a deep feeling my bishop will be sympathetic to my staying. I personally feel I’m just discovering not only L’Arche but also the world that it represents. And I would probably be more faithful to my vocation and to the church if I could continue living here. But that has to be affirmed by my bishop.
If God has something else in mind, I am convinced it will become clear. I did feel when I came to L’Arche that it was a different thing from going to Harvard or Yale. I never thought about remaining there for life. That was merely a professional identity. Here it’s much more like belonging to a family.
How do you live out your commitment to the world and the issues of your day in this “hidden” calling?
By coming I made a choice, a choice that I had to interiorize. After two years, I’m just getting a glimpse of the real spiritual life. I have to learn every day—not about mentally handicapped people; they’re my friends and they’re part of my life. It’s more learning about God, humility, community, prayer, and being one of God’s broken people. I’m learning to trust that God wants me to be here.
The issues of the world are very important. But I have to learn to approach them from the heart of God. I have to be deeply rooted in God’s heart before I can know how to respond faithfully to these issues.
I know that this community, although very small, has something to say to the world. I don’t feel I have left the world and hidden myself. I have to be careful not to dissipate myself with all sorts of burning issues. I have to trust that by staying home and staying more focused, new connections with the larger world will grow and I will discover how God wants me to respond to them. Maybe by speaking once in a while. Or maybe by inviting people into this community. But my whole way of looking at the world is shifting radically. Not away from it, but more to the heart of it.
So in staying close at home, you see the truths of liberation spirituality?
Yes. I’ve seen that God speaks to us through the poor. And the people I live with here are really poor. Not in an economic way, but they are empty. They don’t have much capacity to analyze things. They’re poor in terms of even their emotions at times. But their heart is open to God. They may be stripped of a lot of human skills, but in their poverty they are open to God. Their heart—and by heart, I mean the center of their being—is so poor in a way that God can dwell there.
I’m more and more convinced, in the deepest sense that God’s preferential option for the poor—a liberation theology concept—is true. But I never expected to see it here. I now realize how much I’m learning and receiving from the poor. The church really needs to hear more and more of that.
One of the most mysterious things is that the poor hold us together. The poor here make us a community; they make us a church. We have people from the Philippines, the United States, Canada. I’m from Holland. We’re from different religious backgrounds. What holds us together as a community is not an idea or a vision. It’s the poor.
In that sense, liberation theology is still very important for me. Maybe not in the way it’s thought of in Latin America. I am with people who are poor in spirit. They teach me that being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind, and doing things together is more important than doing things alone.
What would you say to those of us who are trying to live out the interconnectedness of justice and faith?
You must make the connection between prayer and life. The closer you are to the heart of God, the closer you come to the heart of the world, the closer you come to others. God is a demanding God, but when you give your heart to God, you find your heart’s desires. You will also find your brother and sister right there. We’re called always to action, but that action must not be driven, obsessive, or guilt-ridden. Basically, it’s action that comes out of knowing God’s love. You want to be with the poor because with them you’re not trying to please the world and be accepted.
That’s my big inner struggle: to be so convinced of God’s love that I don’t need all these human affirmations. I want to enjoy being with people and not be anxious over whether they like me or not. I believe if I’m drawn into the heart of God, then I’m free to really care for people without wanting anything in return. Our spirituality should come from living deeply with the poor. A spirituality of being with vulnerable people and of being vulnerable with them—that’s the great journey! (151-159)