When Jutta Ayer was born in Germany in the late 1930s, a young boy in neighboring Holland was on the point of feeling called to the priesthood, a vocation that would flower into a hugely influential ministry as an international spiritual writer.
His name was Henri J. M. Nouwen, but it would be several decades before he and Jutta would become close friends after she attended the first course that he taught at Harvard Divinity School.
It is now 40 years since they first met.
Jutta says the prolific author of such books as The Wounded Healer, Reaching Out, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Adam: God’s Beloved transformed her life, even encouraging a “Wounded Healer”–style ministry of her own after her marriage ended and she was confronted with the painful experience of a divorce.
A former healthcare chaplain, Jutta is a long-standing member of the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Marblehead, Massachusetts. And at the age of 85, she is still offering pastoral care to people who are sick or going through difficult times.
“I know deeply how I have experienced and received great gifts from the other person just from being present,” she says. “Our life is mostly passion. One is born at a time in history, and what happens around us affects us and forms us. All our choices in life have consequences. It is our faith and the love of our God which so often comes to us from and through other people.
“I believe it is only from the heart that one can minister to and with another who suffers. While very young, I learned how broken we are and how broken the world is as a whole. Experiencing loss as a child was the beginning of who I became and who I am today. I lived all my experiences deeply. Whether it was joy or pain, I became realistic, not living in denial or trying to escape.”
The Holy Eucharist lies at the heart of Jutta’s spiritual life. She also attends a weekly group at her church where members read and reflect on the following Sunday’s Gospel, sharing their thoughts on how it speaks to them in their lives today. In church, she regularly reads the Scripture, psalm, and the Sunday prayers. At home, she has her own spiritual practices such as early morning prayers, meditation, reading the works of spiritual writers—and daily journaling. She is on her 55th spiritual diary. “I like to live my life through my right hand. I discover through writing what is really going on in myself. I believe that everyone of us is born with many different gifts within and, at different times along one’s journey, our God-given gifts surface.”
An ecumenical pilgrim whose journey has embraced Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism, Jutta is an inspirational person whose faith, integrity, and compassion are cloaked in humility and prayer. Although we have never met, we have exchanged emails for several years after Jutta provided the cover picture for my last book on Nouwen, Lonely Mystic. Her words always lift the heart.
“Henri Nouwen’s writings, teachings, and his living, which I was so very blessed to be able to witness, have influenced me greatly. I have gifted many of his books because I believe his message is very important for today.”
Jutta was born in Wurzen, a medium-sized city in Sachsen (Saxony), between Leipzig and Dresden. Like Henri Nouwen, she was a firstborn child and became close to her maternal grandparents. “My maternal grandmother and her father were both people who prayed. I believe they were the relatives who instilled in me a sense of God and faith when I was very young.”
She remembers the Second World War, when pupils had to run home from school as soon as the alarms sounded. They had to do their schoolwork by candlelight and spend most nights in the cellars. With her father at the front, times were tough, and food was scarce.
Wurzen experienced several US air raids with over 40 fatalities. Thirteen flying fortresses inadvertently dropped 85 high-explosive bombs on the city.
Once the war was over, Jutta remembers how her mother had to take items of value to the black market where silver was traded for potatoes. “When one has no food to eat, material items—whatever their value—lose their meaning.”
Germany was divided up by the Allies: America, the UK, France, and Russia. East Germany was occupied by the Russians, who stayed for 40 years. In 1955, before the Berlin Wall was constructed, Jutta’s family escaped without possessions to the Western part of Germany via Berlin, living for three weeks in a refugee camp. They later settled in southern Germany.
At a gathering of work friends, Jutta met an American whom she married in 1960 in Germany. With her parents’ blessing, they crossed the Atlantic and settled in Rockford, Illinois, where her husband got a job as an engineer. English wasn’t among her linguistic skills, so she attended evening classes and took a dictionary to supermarkets. Only Russian and Latin had been taught at her school. By the time she was 30, Jutta had “three wonderful children,” Peter, James, and Elizabeth.
Jutta’s family joined St. Andrew’s when, in 1979, they moved from Illinois to the east coast. But not long after settling in Marblehead, her life became “very pain-filled.” Her husband left and the process of divorce took two years to settle. “Driving to our three children’s schools to tell them of their father’s decision was the hardest and most painful task I ever had to do. Being part of the church leadership as a member of the vestry felt like our loving God was opening a new door for me and putting me on a new path. The love of God that came to me from others kept me moving forward step by step.”
Jutta had studied gerontology and, with her marriage in crisis at the time, she came across two of Nouwen’s books, Aging and Reaching Out. “They entered my life when I was very open, and ready to read them. At that time, I was most broken, very vulnerable and deeply wounded. Reaching Out became a lifeline for me and, over time, changed my life. It was like a bible for me. Never before had I read an author who touched me so deeply. I felt like I had actually met him through the reading of his books. Since several other people in the parish had experienced losses, I invited them to join me in a weekly loss group. We met for about eight months and later people told me that I had quoted pages of Reaching Out from memory. Everybody’s lives moved forward, so the group stopped meeting.”
Jutta then sensed a calling to study theology. Friends suggested various colleges, but when she heard that Nouwen himself was teaching at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), she lost no time in applying. She met him in person for the first time on April 11, 1983, at HDS where he was giving a public talk. “I had taken my little tape recorder and surprised myself by walking up to the lectern to ask his permission to tape it.”
Nouwen was intently studying his notes. “He never looked at me but said, ‘Yes, of course!’ The presentation was about the gospel of John 15:5: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’
“I was admitted as a special student since I did not know which program I wanted to sign up for. But I got to know Henri Nouwen as my teacher. Students flocked to his lecture hall. He offered an evening of two hours, one structured, the second for discussions, so we could meet him. We sang Taize songs and he introduced us to the Icon of the Holy Trinity. There were times of prayer too.
“I felt an instant bond with Henri as a person and an inspirer of faith. It was as though I had known him a long time. Speaking with him made me feel I was the only person in the world he was listening to. His listening skills were so incredible. Observing him in conversation with another from a distance made it very clear to me that he searched deeply to discover who the other person was. His amazing energy seemed to transform all the space in which he was present, and it spread all to others.
“The course he taught was ‘The Introduction to the Spiritual Life on the Gospel of St. Luke.’ At that time my life was very sad and painful. Even so, I had many good things, even though they were hard to see. At the closure of the semester, I faced signing my divorce papers in my lawyer’s office. It took me four hours. Through it all, I felt like I was held in the palm of God’s hand while living the pain of loss and sorrow.”
Jutta says the grace of God, studying in community, her children, and her church helped her move forward.
She had never felt called to ordained ministry so signed up for the master of theological studies program. After graduating, she happened to walk by a table and noticed a paper about clinical pastoral education, something Nouwen was trained in. She felt such an experience would be nurturing and would enhance her degree, so took a course at St. John’s Hospital in Lowell, Massachusetts. Learning later that the Mary Immaculate healthcare facility in nearby Lawrence was looking for a chaplain, she successfully applied and worked there from May 1989 until she retired in August 2001.
Even before she met Henri, Jutta had been involved in the first L’Arche house in New England at Ipswich, Massachusetts. And she was one of a number of friends who traveled with him to Ontario after he had discerned a vocation to be a pastor at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill.
“My first three days in that community changed my life,” Jutta explains. “I had never been among people who needed others to live their own lives. It was a true education of the heart. Witnessing the loving care of the assistants helping those who cannot live alone became so very important to me. I grew deeper into that community with every visit. Since I love the natural world so very deeply, I offered to design and create a garden on a little hill in front of the chapel. The community was very supportive, and my faith life deepened more and more.
“What I loved in Henri most was the reality that he could be so very helpless with regard to everyday living. This greatly admired man was now surrounded by people unable to read his many books and who only wanted him to be their friend. They all became his greatest teachers, he himself said.”
Henri got to know Jutta’s family. He concelebrated in an Episcopal church both Elizabeth’s and James’s wedding. He was due to help officiate at Peter’s, too, but two weeks before, “God called him home,” as Jutta told me. “I went to Henri’s funeral in Canada heartbroken. Later at All Saints’ tide, I prayed in thanksgiving for his life at his grave.”
With her three children and seven grandchildren—her “young loves”—Jutta says she feels blessed.
“Through many crisis times in my own personal life, I have always had a deep sense of being held by a saving love,” she says. “I give thanks to our loving God for my life. Now I have the great freedom to slow down and focus more on the present moment, to treasure the transience of life, to learn deeper the emotion of loneliness, and to respect always the sacredness of the natural world, God’s creation. I always feel very near to God while in the garden.
“I am a part of all that I have encountered—people, experiences and teachings. Along our journey, we must keep loving, forgiving, and accepting. I can never give enough thanks for all that has been given, is being given, and will be given.” ♦
Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at email@example.com.