Henri Nouwen at Yale by Michael Ford

Connecticut was a place Father Henri J. M. Nouwen knew well. The popular spiritual writer spent the 1970s teaching at Yale Divinity School where many of his classroom notes were turned into best-selling paperbacks. He preached in pulpits across the state and held audiences spellbound in its lecture halls. Henri (his preferred title) also went to Electric Boat at Groton where the Trident submarine was being built. He spent one Holy Week there as a witness for peace.

Situated in New Haven, Yale is the third oldest university in the United States. Founded in 1701, the establishment was originally chartered by the state and called the Collegiate School. But a Puritan leader, Cotton Mather, concerned about the growing tolerance of religious dissent at Harvard, encouraged a wealthy British trader, Elihu Yale, to contribute to the new institution. He made a series of donations and the school was renamed in his honor.

The initial curriculum focused on classical studies and an unyielding obedience to orthodox Puritanism. In 1882, four years after the separation of church and state, the Divinity School was founded and became a seminary for men training to be Protestant pastors. That a Roman Catholic priest would one day become one of its most popular professors could hardly have been imagined. But in 1971 Henri and Sister Margaret Farley became the first two full-time Roman Catholic appointments to the Protestant faculty. Henri insisted from the beginning that he would not be forced into contributing the kind of academic articles usually expected of the Yale elite. He would be writing books and papers from his own unique perspective of a clinical psychologist and Catholic priest.

“Henri was not exactly what Yale Divinity School had expected,” Margaret Farley told me when I interviewed her for my biographies Wounded Prophet and Lonely Mystic. “This was a time when spirituality was still suspect among Protestants. His presence here, from the moment he began, was so charismatic that he immediately awakened students in a way that was phenomenal. That sometimes made it difficult for him to relate to his faculty colleagues, and not all of them appreciated him.”

Henri was noted, though, for his intellectual prowess and, in particular, for his vision of ministry grounded in and flowing out of the contemplative life. Although he began teaching the psychology of religion and pastoral psychology, he gradually developed such innovative courses as Ministry and Spirituality, the History of Christian Spirituality, and Prayer and the Spiritual Life. Most influential, though, were seminars on the ministry of Vincent van Gogh through his fellow Dutchman’s paintings and his letters to his brother, Theo: “I experienced connections between Vincent’s struggle and my own, and realized more and more that Vincent was becoming my wounded healer,” said Henri. “He brought me in touch with many of my fears and gave me the courage to go further and deeper in my search for a God who loves.”

In terms of his teaching, Henri’s style of communication honed gesticulation to fine dramatic art. The Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, noted that the “spiritual genius” possessed a peculiar awkwardness that almost became grace. The position of his hands and arms was almost grotesque but somehow, when you put it all together with his words, and the earnestness and passion of his presence, “it became quite beautiful in an astonishing way to watch him talk.” As a teacher in small or large groups, Professor Henri Nouwen commanded attention. There was something about him that was entrancing—and for some it was always at the level of mystery. He tended to get carried away with his subject. The passion bore him aloft and he lost himself in it. He spoke to the hidden places in people’s lives where they felt most vulnerable and least capable, and somehow dignified them. He helped them see that it was precisely there that God wanted to meet them, touch them, and heal them. This was their divinely given, unique gift into their own spiritual life.

Sometimes, however, his material could evoke hostility. The theme of ascetical self-denial, for example, was not easy for students to comprehend and they tended to respond automatically with a psychological set of assumptions. To them, talking about self-denial and then commending it, in the way their mystical teacher did, sounded like a form of self-negation and self-rejection.

Some of those training for ministry at the divinity school were wrestling with issues of self-esteem, so it might have sounded like Henri were asking them to beat up on themselves in a way that was psychologically untenable. Such situations could produce the occasional flare-up in class with students registering a collective anger. If he felt he had been misunderstood, Henri would be patient as he explained his points again and would take time to meet students privately if necessary.

One student, apparently disenchanted with his life, always remembered Henri pulling up his chair in front of him and focusing all his energy face to face so he felt as if he were the only person in the world. The young man had never known such rapt attention. Henri intuited that, through their awkwardness, outbursts, or resistance, the difficult students might in fact be expressing a latent pain. While chatting to a student in his office, a chance remark about all the books Henri had on his bookshelves made him question whether or not the sight of so much learning might be intimidating students, making them feel they would never be able to compete with their professor. So Henri decided to remove all his books and store them elsewhere.

As a grader, Henri was fair and never ruthless. He took the view that it was possible to evaluate work beyond strictly academic criteria. He expected good thinking and would reward that, but he could also see that, even if a paper wasn’t particularly well written, there might still be an important new insight in it. He was also sensitive to the fact that, even though they had struggled with a course, some students might have really “given themselves” to the topic and come to a new place in their own lives. Henri would be keen to recognise that in the grade he gave. He was always looking into the heart and trying to reflect in his assessment the kind of engagement he felt the student was having with the material.

Henri was remarkably accessible to students. When he lived on campus in a student apartment, he left his door unlocked so people would never have to wait outside. In fact, anyone was welcome to enter and enjoy his home whether or not he was there. He invited students to pray with him in his apartment early in the morning and offered an evening Eucharist in the prayer chapel for students of any denomination.

“His writings touched people deeply and they were up-built by them. I don’t think he had any peers in that regard,” said Margaret Farley. “Not all of his works were equally powerful to everyone. He was always working out his own questions, his own search which was, in fact, his own power—maybe the center of the power of his writings. Some books were so much his working-out that they appealed primarily only to people who were working out the same things. These didn’t have the universal appeal that some of his other writings did. But overall I think his corpus is beyond compare.”

The author’s paperbacks began to be consumed by Protestants with a fervor no Catholic writer like him had been read in centuries. The Protestant churches were at a point in their history when they really needed someone like Henri Nouwen. There was something fermenting, said Margaret Farley, and it was related to a hunger for something more than the cerebral, more than preaching—a thirst for ritual as well as for wisdom and guidance with regard to their spiritual lives. Henri was able to speak to all that and he managed it in view of his general power in being able to address anyone but especially Christians. There was nothing parochial in Henri’s Catholicism. He wasn’t churchy but, as a Dutchman writing in simple English, acquired a language for humanity. He was never apologetic but his was never a general spirituality. It was Christocentric and Trinitarian, all of it belonging at the heart of the particularity of Christianity and deepening the Catholic tradition.

Henri didn’t label or speak in ways accessible only to Catholics; indeed, much of the time people didn’t realize that his words had been formulated in a deeply Catholic tradition. They just came across as profoundly Christian. This was how Henri succeeded in transcending denominational barriers. As Margaret Farley interpreted it, Henri Nouwen’s message was: “God is present. God welcomes us. We have a tremendous struggle even to believe that and find our way to God. Along the way we need others who will join us in our journey.” She added that Henri’s personality was almost too powerful for himself at times. But his approach was always aesthetic as well as inspirational and spiritual. “He came at the right time for the churches. It was the dawn of a new openness which Henri brought to a fullness of time.”

Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.


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