Magazine article The Christian Century

Ministry and Friendship

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ministry and Friendship

Article excerpt

In 1974 I went to spend a weekend at Genesee Abbey in upstate New York. When I took my place in the monastery chapel I immediately recognized among the monks in the choir a face that seemed familiar. Surely I had seen this face before.

Later, browsing among books on display in the lobby, I spotted a book by Henri Nouwen, Outside of Solitude, and pointed it out to the nun browsing alongside me. The nun responded: "He's here, you know." And with that the mystery face I had recognized in the choir found a name.

I was excited. Not only had I been reading Nouwen avidly, but I had a whole stack of articles he had written for National Catholic Reporter in the back seat of my car. No wonder I couldn't recognize his face. Gone was the suave look - enhanced by the dark, wavy hair - shown in the newspaper photos. Nouwen the monk came complete with a shaved head!

I didn't get a chance to meet Nouwen until I was just about to leave. Seeing him in the hallway, I went up to him. "You don't know me, but I know you!" He grinned and continued to walk with me. I told him how much I enjoyed his books, as well as the articles he'd been writing for NCR. He seemed very pleased and began to ask me questions about myself. "What is your name? Where are you from? What kind of work do you do?" Soon we were engrossed in conversation as we walked toward my car. I will never forget how Henri treated me, a complete stranger, like an old friend. I was to find out that he treated everyone like that.

We stood by my car talking for at least 15 minutes. He showed special interest in the fact that I had been in a monastery myself for over 13 years and was now a letter carrier, working for the postal service. Inevitably the name of Thomas Merton entered the conversation, and I pointed out that a set of tapes had just been released with talks by Merton originally given to his novices at Gethsemani Abbey. This aroused his interest further. Could I send him information about the tapes? He would see to it that a set was placed in the Yale library. He asked if I could come back for another visit to Genesee.

I sent Nouwen the Merton information and received in return a letter with a beautiful meditation, Henri's reflections on the Advent season. I was very touched by the letter, and by the fact that he had taken the time and trouble to write it. …

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