genius born of anguish

It is hard not to like Henri Nouwen, particularly as he expresses himself in words. My favourite books are In the Name of Jesus (which is compulsory reading with anyone I mentor) and The Return of the Prodigal Son with his exquisite exegesis of Rembrandt's painting of the most famous of parables. 

So imagine my delight when my friend Charles Hewlett put me onto a series of three radio programmes out of Canada broadcast in January, entitled Genius Born of Anguish. The series is based on a book by the same title, while the radio programmes can be located here. I've listened to the series twice. Allow me to engage with these talks from the perspective of four images associated with Nouwen in them.

the grand canyon (talk #1 from the 32.50min mark)
The Grand Canyon is a wound in the earth and yet as you enter into that wound, a beauty is experienced and a healing force comes from its depths. Likewise there can be 'a deep incision in the surface of our existence which becomes an inexhaustible source of beauty and understanding'. It is from here that Nouwen's ideas on the 'wounded healer' originate. Confess our struggles. Embrace the loneliness. Let them surface and watch how this helps us enter into the struggles of others with greater empathy.

the flashlight (talk #2 from the 22.00min mark)
Nouwen had time as a professor at both Yale and Harvard, the ambition of many before and since. And yet he was dreadfully unhappy in both institutions. He discovered 'an unremitting need for affirmation and affection' which the competitive, celebritous academic world could not requite. 'My whole being seems to be invaded by fear'. He survived by escaping to the Genesee Monastery in upstate New York. His reflections there revealed 'a radical self-knowledge and honesty (that) shines a flashlight into his own soul and lays bare what was there, including its complexity'. Much of his uniqueness as a writer on spirituality lay in his willingness to expose the inner complexity. 'He could be deeply personal without being exhibitionist'. It is as if people began to see their own darkness by the light of his own flashlight exposing his own soul.

the brick wall (talk #2 from the 38.20min mark)
There came a point where it was clear that Nouwen was heading for a breakdown. Fueling this all the time was his own sexuality. He was a gay celibate priest who never 'came out' because the priestly vocation was too precious to him. But the thorn in the flesh remained ... and intensified. His wounds grew deeper. 'God and love seemed further away than ever'. As the founder of L'Arche, Jean Vanier, expresses it, 'Henri was lonely - but also lost'. He hit the brick wall and had a breakdown. At this time (1985) Vanier invited him to the first L'Arche community in France. Nouwen remained in these communities until his death ten years later.

the trapeze artist (talk #3 from the 27.00min mark)
He found a 'new exuberance' within L'Arche, comprising people like the 'gift' of his new friend Adam - who could not speak, could not walk, could not eat by himself, or bathe by himself. It was within this community that Nouwen 'found a home for his restless heart'. He recalls the story of going to the circus as a young lad. On seeing the trapeze artists, he exclaimed to his father, "Now I know what my vocation is, Dad". He spent a summer travelling with the circus, admiring the one on the trapeze who jumps and takes flight. But then he recognises that the real hero is the one who catches. Not the risk-taker, but the one who grabs you. "Into your hands I commit my spirit". He is to take the risk - but he can trust God to catch him. This is how life is lived fully. Risk. Trust.

nice chatting



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