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Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life


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Seven million copies of his books in print! This collection of over 100 unpublished letters from the bestselling author of such spiritual classics as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer offers deep spiritual insight into human experience, intimacy, brokeness, and mercy.

Over the course of his life, Henri Nouwen wrote thousands of letters to friends, acquaintances, parishioners, students, and readers of his work all around the world. He corresponded in English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish, and took great care to store and archive the letters decade after decade. He believed that a thoughtful letter written in love could truly change someone's life. Many people looked to Nouwen as a long distance spiritual advisor. 

Love, Henri consists of over a hundred letters that stretch from the earliest years of Henri's career up through his last 10 years at L'Arche Daybreak. Rich in spiritual insights the letters highlight a number themes that emerged in both Henri's work over the years, including vocation, solitude, prayer, suffering, and perseverance in difficult times. These deeply spiritual letters, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, ulimately demonstrate the rich value of communicating with God through others.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101906354
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 683,905
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

HENRI NOUWEN was a Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor, and pastor, who gained international renown as the author of over 30 books on the spiritual life, including such classics as The Wounded Healer, The Inner Voice of Love, and The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen's books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold upwards of seven million copies worldwide, resonating with people across the religious, spiritual, cultural, and political spectrum. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teachers, and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy.

Read an Excerpt

Part I

December 1973–1985

The letters begin in late 1973, just weeks before Henri’s forty-second birthday. By that time Henri had been a priest for sixteen years. He was teaching at Yale Divinity School, and beginning to emerge as a widely read writer on spirituality. The chapter concludes more than a decade later, in 1985, when—now at Harvard Divinity School—he experienced his first stirrings of attraction to L’Arche and the path he would follow for the rest of his life.

Henri’s early life had been one of privilege and opportunity. He had grown up in the Netherlands within a loving and cultured family, traveled extensively, and circulated easily within Holland’s important social and intellectual circles. After his ordination in 1957, he was sent to the University of Nijmegen to study psychology. This was followed by a two-year graduate training program in theology and psychiatric theory at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, where he distinguished himself among the leading minds in the emerging disciplines of pastoral psychology and clinical pastoral education.

The time spent at the Menninger Foundation was Henri’s first extensive stay in the United States and, as he describes it, the place where he grew up:

It was here that my life came into focus. For the first time I was dealt with as someone who also had something to say. For the first time I had to think for myself, and people took what I said critically. There I came in touch with myself as a separate human being.*

He also became aware of wider political events. He learned of the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 and was introduced to the voices of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War and anti–nuclear war protestors in the US peace movement.

His emerging confidence and bold integration of psychology with pastoral care began to draw attention. After completing the certificate program in 1966, he was offered a teaching position in the newly established psychology department at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He accepted, and for two years taught courses there including “Psychology of Religion,” “The Psychology of Personality,” and “Abnormal Psychology.” 

Henri’s ambitions, however, didn’t lie in the United States. He assumed that he would return to Holland and find his place in Dutch society. He left Notre Dame in 1968, returned home and taught first at the Amsterdam Joint Pastoral Institute and then at the Catholic Theological Institute in Utrecht, two new Catholic schools set up to integrate psychology into pastoral education.

Henri became popular with the students, but his “American” teaching style and focus on the methodologies he had learned at the Menninger Foundation put him into conflict with colleagues.* It was the first indication that his home was not in fact, to be in Holland.* He decided to earn a doctorate in theology at the University of Nijmegen, hoping it might add to his credibility, but the tensions only increased.

For his thesis, Henri expanded on research from his time at Menninger. However, his dissertation was found insufficiently theological and he was told to rework it. He tried to submit it for a doctorate in psychology instead, but in that department it was deemed not empirical enough. He became frustrated and restless. An associate from that time describes him as “running out of patience” and feeling like “all was going on in a slow way.”* 

Meanwhile, American interest in Henri’s academic approach was growing. In 1969, he had published his first book, Intimacy: Pastoral Psychological Essays (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1969), based on a series of lectures he gave at Notre Dame on pastoral care. In it, Henri explored a question that would become central to his life: “How can I find a creative and fulfilling intimacy with God and my fellow human beings?” The book resonated with American readers, who saw his question as their own. 

As Henri considered his options for the doctorate, he received an invitation from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, to teach pastoral theology. Impatient with the Dutch academic system, he accepted and by August 1971 was on his way back to the United States. He would never live in Holland again.

When Henri arrived at the Protestant, nondenominational Yale, he was one of only two Catholics on the faculty. But he quickly became a popular lecturer, teaching a range of courses on the spiritual life including “Christian Spirituality,” “Pastoral Care and Counseling,” “Prison Ministry,” “Ministry to the Elderly” and “The Life and Works of Thomas Merton.” His writing continued apace. By 1974, he had published three more books, including his best seller The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972).

He enjoyed the vibrant community life at Yale but soon became restless about his vocational path. He was drawn to the contemplative tradition of the fourth-century Desert Mothers and Fathers and was inspired by the monk and writer Thomas Merton. Over the next few years he made two extended stays in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York to explore that calling. 

He also considered a life of action in service to the poor. At the time, Latin America was exploding in violence. Henri was drawn to the plight of the people there and made regular visits to the region. In 1981, after ten good years at Yale, he left his tenured position to become a missionary with the Maryknoll Fathers in a barrio in Lima, Peru.

But neither missionary work nor the life of contemplation proved a good fit. Though he didn’t have the temperament for missionary work, he was an impassioned speaker about the spirituality of peacemaking, and in 1983 he went on a ten-week tour of the United States to speak about the injustice he had witnessed in Nicaragua. And though he didn’t have the aptitude for the cloistered life, his book The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976) was enthusiastically received by many wanting to learn about life in a contemporary monastery.

What was beginning to emerge was that, at his core, Henri was a pastor. Wherever he went, people were drawn to his gifts for ministry and counseling. He began to receive more and more letters asking for help. They came from students, some long graduated, in times of vocational discernment or life-crisis. They came from ministers who had heard him speak and needed support and encouragement. Hundreds of requests for advice came from his rapidly growing reading audience.

In 1983, after being courted by the Harvard Divinity School to rejoin academia, Henri decided to continue with his teaching career on a part-time basis. He would teach one semester a year and continue his work in Latin America for the remaining months. However, Harvard was another bad fit. His personal, pastoral style ran up against the competitive culture of the Divinity School. He wrote of the time: “I had a feeling that Harvard was not where God wanted me to be. It’s too much podium, too much publicity, too public. Too many people came to listen. . . . It’s not an intimate place. It’s a place of intellectual battle.”* He became increasingly lonely and depressed.

In this time of doubt, Henri received an invitation from Jean Vanier, a Canadian who in 1964 had started a community for people with physical and mental disabilities. Vanier invited Henri to visit L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris. Henri visited L’Arche several times between 1982 and 1985, staying for longer intervals each time.

Vanier saw Henri as a deeply spiritual man with many gifts, but also one who needed a home. L’Arche became that home. In July 1985, Henri resigned from Harvard and took up a one-year residency at L’Arche à Trosly beginning in August. He had finally found his vocational path.

* From unpublished interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman, “Concertmaster of Souls,” The Compassionate Listening Project, 1982, 5, in Gene K. Hoffman Fonds, Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection, University of St. Michael’s College.

* Author’s conversation with Petrus George (Piet) van Hooijdonk, October 10, 2011. Van Hooijdonk was Henri’s supervisor and a fellow priest.

* This sentiment that he was too American for a European audience was still prevalent in 1996. In his final journal he recorded the words of a friend after a talk to Czech students: “Some students felt you were too American—too much walking around, gesturing and dramatic expression. We are not used to that here. We are more quiet and sedate.” He continued, “It is interesting for me, a Dutch man living in Canada, to be considered ‘too American.’ They should have said, ‘You are too Henri Nouwen!’ ” (Henri J. M. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year [New York: Crossroad, 1998], 92).

* Author’s conversation with Piet van Hooijdonk, October 10, 2011.

* The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, ed. John Dear (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 153.

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