Obituaries: The Rev Henri Nouwens
Walsh, Brendan, The Independent (London, England)
Henri Nouwen's British publisher, Morag Reeve, spoke to him on the telephone several times during the last weeks of his life. His latest book was being prepared for press and, as always, Nouwen wanted to discuss a final polish to his text and suggest some changes to the jacket design. It was characteristic of his spirituality, and one of the reasons why his books were so popular and influential, that it was grounded in a care for getting the simple everyday things right as well as the great eternal truths.
Nouwen died in his native Netherlands of a second heart attack while in hospital recovering from his first. He was 64, and about to start work on a Dutch television film based on Rembrandt's painting The Prodigal Son, the subject of one of Nouwen's most popular books. Though he was widely read in Europe, especially in Britain, it was in the United States - where Nouwen came in 1964 as a young priest to study and teach - that he established his reputation as an engaging and insightful spiritual writer with a devoted following amongst Christians of all traditions.
Before the Second Vatican Council, that extraordinary mid-1960s upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church, liturgy and theology were regarded by most Catholics as the exclusive concern of a priestly caste. The Mass was something one watched rather than participated in; theology was something one expected those properly equipped for the task to do on one's behalf. And in spite of good, popular Catholic books on holiness and prayer being widely available, spirituality, too, remained largely the preserve of professionals - priests, monks and nuns. After the Council, a large market for popular religious writing was created by a newly curious Catholic laity. Nouwen had all the ingredients to satisfy its demands: a sympathetic understanding of the ancient spiritual traditions, a doctorate in psychology, and a gift for popular writing. Americans, in particular, loved him. Works like Reaching Out (1975), The Genesee Diary (1976) and The Wounded Healer (1979) became best-sellers, and remain in print. Nouwen's childhood in the Netherlands had been clouded by the Nazi occupation. He remembered little of those early years: "classmates laughing at me because I was cross-eyed, my first communion, the beginning of the war and my parents crying". Later, he reflected on the most difficult question every modern Christian has to face: Why did the millions of religious people not invade the camps and tear down the gas chambers and ovens that were being built to annihilate the Jewish people? Why did those who pray, sing hymns and go to church not resist the powers of evil so visible in their own land? Nouwen was to write over 30 books on spirituality, healing and ministry, drawing cleverly on the major intellectual preoccupations of the day, whether therapy and "personal growth", radical politics, Eastern religion, ecology, or feminism. But running through them all was a concern to integrate spirituality with social commitment. His spirituality was always intensely personal - he mined his own experiences exhaustively in his work - but never a purely private affair. For Nouwen the significance of Jesus was that he brought together personal healing and fulfilment with a passion for social justice: His appearance in our midst made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human so- ciety are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross. Incorrigibly restless and inquisitive, he interrupted his time as a lecturer at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard with spells as a Trappist monk and as a missionary in the slums in Lima, Peru. Though he learnt much from his experiences in each, neither the monastery nor the barrios …
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Publication information: Article title: Obituaries: The Rev Henri Nouwens. Contributors: Walsh, Brendan - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 5, 1996. Page number: 18. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.