Reading Henri Nouwen Enables me Not to Surrender to Self-loathing

Reading Henri Nouwen Enables me Not to Surrender to Self-loathing 

All the passages below are taken from Robert Durback’s book “The Best of Henri Nouwen,” published in 2003 by Pauline Publications.

Reading Henri Nouwen is not only informative, it is transformative. By telling us his story he invites us to revisit our own stories—especially those areas we may have avoided for fear of the painful memories we may find stored up in our inner attics and closets. Nouwen, by his honesty and directness, reveals to us the healing that can be found by letting in the light of God’s presencewhich exposes not only our vulnerabilities, but also the warmth of God’s love, God’s sustaining compassion and desire to clothe us anew as the Father in the Gospel story so extravagantly outfitted the returning prodigal.

If I were to recommend a single book out of the entire Nouwen collection as a “must” to be read as a companion or follow up to this seven-day retreat, it would be The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom.1 Many, including this reader, would rate The Return of the Prodigal Son as Nouwen’s crowning achievement. But for starters, Inner Voice of Love is doable—a slim volume with pithy reflections in short segments. Both books emerge from a period of deep struggle in Nouwen’s life and complement one another.

The Inner Voice of Love is a collection of “spiritual imperatives,” as Nouwen calls them, sixty-two in all, a rich resource of wisdom. The imperatives are short, incisive, finely honed statements, averaging one to two pages in length. “Silver bullets,” one might call them, aimed to pierce to the core of the human heart. In his introduction Nouwen wisely cautions the reader: “Do not read too many of these imperatives at once! They were written over a long period of time and need to be read that way too. . . . These spiritual imperatives are meant to be like salt for the meal of your life. Too much salt might spoil it, but a little at a time can make it tasty!”

Good advice. This book is best read one segment at a time, offering the reader a theme for reflection for the day. The sixty-two imperatives might well be called:

“Sixty-Two Ways of Reclaiming Your Humanity.”

If there is one word that sums up a distinctive strain running throughout all Nouwen’s writings, it is enablerNouwen is the enabler par excellence. In claiming his self-understanding as God’s Beloved, he enables the reader to claim his or her own self-understanding as God’s Beloved. In seeing the poor, the persecuted, the disabled and the outcasts of society as the Beloved of God, he teaches us to be alert to see in the poor, the persecuted, the disabled and the outcasts of society the Beloved of God. In crying out to God in the midst of fierce inner struggles, he inspires his readers to do the same: not to surrender to defeat or self-loathing, but to cry out to God, who stands ready to lift us up out of our dilemmas, our failures and dead ends. In persistently claiming his humanity Nouwen shows us the way to reclaim our humanity.

Perhaps few have summed up the “Henri Nouwen Effect” as well as Michael O’Laughlin, who served as Nouwen’s teaching assistant during his years at Harvard. Writing in the Christian Spirituality Bulletin, O’Laughlin penetrates to the heart of the quintessential Nouwen, to what really made him tick:

There is. . .a type in Jungian psychology known as the Puer Etemus, the boy who never grows up, and I think that besides being a celebrity, Henri was apuer. It was no accident that he went off and joined the circus, which is every child’s fantasy. Henri’s ability to step free of the careful but monotonous life of mature scholarship and priesthood to live in a world of his own making was very puer-like. I am not saying that Henri did not grow or change. He was always reaching towards new and higher levels of authenticity and expression. I am also in awe of his 18-hour work days. But, deep down, Henri remained a boy, particularly in close friendships. In fact, for me he was a lot like Peter Pan, a figure who appears at your bedside to tell you that you can fly away with him, if only you submit to his enchantment and his charm. Henri left the details and the follow-up to others, to the grown-ups; what he offered us was a unique opportunity to really live the spirit of the gospel, to reach out, to really let go. This puer or “pan” quality Henri had was at the heart of his ability to enchant his friends and readers.2

In these few words O’Laughlin offers a beautiful insight into the rapport Nouwen enjoyed with his readers. As we read his books, we can almost hear Nouwen whispering into our ears: “Do not be content with being grounded all your life! Let me show you how to spread your wings!”

In October, 1980, an honourary doctorate was conferred on Henri Nouwen by Virginia Theological Seminary. Though it expresses in sincere and formal terms the full sweep of the impact of Nouwen’s writings, there is an element of playfulness in the clever references to the titles of his books not entirely foreign to the “Peter Pan” image painted in the paragraph above. The citation reads in part:

For a generation of Christians in search of their lost humanity and a forgotten spirituality, you have found a way out of solitude into creative discipleship and ministry. Few of your contemporaries have managed with such grace and clarity to combine the insights of modern psychology with the ancient truths of biblical religion. As a pastoral theologian your own vital priesthood serves as a living reminder to your colleagues in ministry of the need to help each new generation hear and understand the loving compassion of the Word of God.

Through your books and essays, your published meditations and reflections, you have become one of the most widely read interpreters of the Christian way for seekers and followers in our time. And when you preach and teach the Gospel of God’s renewing love in Christ, your hearers know the power of prophecy, evangelism, and the priestly cure of souls.

Born and bred in the old world, you are now at home in the new. Baptized and ordained by the Catholic Church, you are now at home in many traditions and communities of the Christian family. Though a university scholar and professor, you have discovered the secret of teaching all sorts and conditions of searching souls.3

 We are ready now to explore selected segments of Nouwen’s teachings, in the hope that they will indeed speak to “all sorts and conditions of searching souls.” (27-31)


1. Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

2. “Flying with the Dutchman: A Review of Two Recent Books About Henri Nouwen”, by Michael O’Laughlin, Christian Spirituality Bulletin, Fall/Winter, 1999, pp. 24-25.

3. Also quoted in my first edition of Seeds of Rope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), Introduction, pp. xxxv, xxxvi.  

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