An Interview With Father Henri Nouwen
An Interview With Father Henri Nouwen
By: ALICIA VON STAMWITZ Liguorian, October 1992
Henri Nouwen is a Dutch priest who has lived in North America since 1971. He is an internationally acclaimed speaker, and spiritual writer with over thirty published books, including The Wounded Healer, Genesee Diary, and, most recently, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Formerly a professor at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, Nouwen has been pastor of Daybreak, a Canadian L’Arche Community, since 1986. L’Arche is an international network of over ninety communities in twenty-two Countries where the mentally handicapped and their assistants live together in the spirit of the Gospel. In this interview, Father Nouwen talks about his life at Daybreak, offers advice on prayer, and comments on the future of the North American Church.
Q. What prompted you to leave your academic career of twenty years to live with the developmentally handicapped?
NOUWEN: When I was teaching, I didn’t feel I had a home, a place where I truly belonged. I loved to teach, I loved my students, but I wanted to find a community. I prayed: “Lord, show me where you want me to go. I will go wanted wherever you call me – but please be clear.”
In 1984, Jean Vanier invited me me to visit L’Arche community in Trosly, France. He didn’t say “We need a priest” or “We could use you.” He said, “Maybe our community can offer you a home.” I visited several times, then resigned from Harvard and went to live with the community for a year. I loved it! I didn’t have much to do. I wasn’t pastor or anything. I was just a friend of the Community. After that, Daybreak invited me to be their priest and make my home with them.
Q. What impressed you most about L’Arche?
NOUWEN: I had a deep experience of God’s love for me there. The members—mentally handicapped people who are marginal in society and not useful in an economic sense—welcomed me into their lives. And I was loved, not because of what s doing but because of who I was.
But community life is not easy for somebody like me, who is used to living by himself and doing what he wants. It’s a demanding life, and you quickly get in touch with your own handicaps and weaknesses. At first I had a hard time. I actually left the community for four months. Even today, it’s not easy. But I’m more convinced that I’m called to this life. I feel the problems I have are meant to purify me, not make me question whether I should be here.
Q. What have you learned from your time with handicapped people?
NOUWEN: The most important thing I’ve come to believe in is that people with mental handicaps have a unique mission to bring God’s blessing to the World. The beatitudes say, “Blessed are the poor”. They don’t say, “Blessed are those who care for the poor.” I’m learning that the blessing is located in our poor people, in people who are weak; they are the ones we should stay close to, not because they need us but because we need to receive from them the blessing.
L’Arche is not a service institution or a group home. It is a community that exists to reveal God’s love. Our people are given to the world to tell others about peace and forgiveness and celebration, to make them aware that in the midst of their brokenness, there is joy; in the midst of their wounded nature, there is healing.
Q. How do you bring this blessing of the poor to the world?
NOUWEN: When visitors come to Daybreak for spiritual retreats, our handicapped members participate. In the beginning, visitors may come to see me, but they quickly discover the members of our community. They come with a lot of hurt and anguish in their lives; they come for healing. I speak of God’s love and grace and redemption and freedom, but when I say “in the context of this community,” it is heard differently. To be with people so obviously broken, so obviously handicapped, and here to discover real joy and peace—that makes the Word of God come alive.
I also take our handicapped members on trips and lectures with me. We stand before the audience together, we stumble and make mistakes, but we are not afraid because we know we are sent out together to proclaim life and love. People to whom we visit often do not remember what I said, but they remember we came together. People forget ideas; they don’t forget the real presence.
Q. How long do you plan to stay at Daybreak?
NOUWEN: I am here permanently. I wrote to my bishop, the Archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, and explained that I wanted not just permission to stay longer, but a mission. He met me at the Trosly L’Arche community and we spent a few days together . . . I wanted him to get to know L’Arche, to understand what I was doing there. Afterward he said, “I understand now, Henri. You have found a home for your self.”
Last December, Jean Vanier visited with two other L’Arche leaders to review my first five years here. They interviewed assistants and handicapped members. People could say whatever they wanted and I could say whatever I wanted. They wrote a report and we had a celebration. It was a wonderful experience of affirmation and also of challenge. There are areas I have to work on. I had some questions and some struggles, but it was an enormously important time for me. Afterward I was able to say, “This is my home. I’m ready to make another commitment to stay here.” It’s been six years now, and I really feel I belong.
Q. What areas of your life are you “working on”?
NOUWEN: I am working on three things: on being a prayerful person; on staying close to the handicapped; and on my writing. These are my constant concerns. First of all, I don’t pray enough, but I pray more now. Every morning at six o’clock have a half hour of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament. I pray with others too.
Secondly, live, work, and travel with handicapped people, so I can stay close to them. But since I am often busy with many things, it’s a constant struggle to keep the handicapped members of our community in the center of my life.
Finally, my writing has developed drastically in the last few years. The Return of the Prodigal Son just came out. It’s the most important thing I’ve done, and my most mature book. It came out of my emotional and spiritual journey during the four months I was gone from Daybreak because of depression. I’m working now on a book called The Life of the Beloved, which will be publish in October  by Crossroad. Someday I would love to write about Vincent van Gogh—his paintings and letters continue to inspire me very much. But it remains hard to find the time and inner rest to write.
Q. You have written a great deal about the importance of prayer. How do you stay centered and prayerful with all the demands on your time?
NOUWEN: First, let’s start with Jesus’ answer: “Look for the kingdom first and all else will come together.” Life is fragmenting, fragmented. I have a thousands things to do, others do too. We can live our life as if the main question is, “How can keep it together? How do I juggle all the balls? But the real question is, “How can I stay home—interiorly home—while I do these many things?
Beneath our frantic activities, there’s a deep desire to show the world we are worthwhile. We want to prove we are good writers or good business, good parents or good teachers. The world is very competitive and catches us in this frenzy. It wants us to go here, be there, and be part of this or that. Some of these things are fun and good and beautiful, but they can pull you apart.
Jesus says, “Keep your heart on the kingdom first. Keep your heart on God’s love. Keep focused on the fact that you are God’s beloved daughter or son. That’s the truth of who you are. You don’t have to run around world proving you’re lovable. God is your safety and your home. You are well embraced.” Start living the multi-formity of life from this place. If you can hold on to that, it all becomes one. The more you are living in this place, the more you feel you have only one thing to do: to proclaim God’s love.
Q. Practically speaking, how do those of us without structured community life stay focused on the kingdom?
NOUWEN: Through discipline, discipline is the other side of discipleship. If you want to follow Jesus, you have to have discipline. There are three disciplines. First, if you believe you are the beloved of God, you need to spend time listening to his voice—period! You can’t say, “Yes God calls me the beloved, but I have to go out to do something now.” You have to listen to the one who calls you beloved. That has to be affirmed over and over again. That is prayer—listening to the voice of the one who calls you “the beloved.”
How do you pray? Take the gospel of each day and spend ten minutes with it. Read it, and read it again. Walk into the world with the gospel in your heart. The gospel word of the day can become like a painting on the walls. of your inner room, the inner room that is your heart. Today’s reading was “if they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Don’t take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.” You have chances every second to live this Word, but it has to be in you. It can’t just be an idea; it has to sink from the mind into the heart. That’s prayer to let God’s Word speak deep within you and tell you, “You are my beloved. You don’t have to take an eye for an eye. No, no you’re too rich for that.”
The second discipline is to control what you take in every day. When you’re on the bus or subway or in your car, why busy your mind with all the garbage of advertisements? Why fill your mind with television and radio? Somehow you have to decide what your mind will receive. I don’t mean you shouldn’t ever go to movies or watch television, but control what enters your mind and heart. It’s not just a question of pushing bad things out but also a question of holding on to something really good.
It’s good to have a prayer on your lips wherever you go. There are so many moments in life when you are free to pray. When you are waiting for the cashier in the Supermarket, getting mad because he or she doesn’t hurry, say a little prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Take that prayer with you wherever you go. Say it anytime, and then focus your mind and heart on God.
The third discipline is community. Whom do you choose as your companions? Whom do you choose to be friends with, to live with? Are they people who love you, and care for you, and nurture you?
Jesus didn’t live alone. He had Peter, John, and James around him. There were the Twelve and the other disciples. They formed circles of intimacy around Jesus. We too need these circles of intimacy, but it’s a discipline. I choose L’Arche; L’Arche chooses me. I would be dead if I weren’t here. I need people to love me and care for me.
Where are you getting your affection? Who’s touching you? Who’s holding you? Who makes you feel alive? Who says, “You are a beautiful person, you are the beloved of God, don’t forget it”? That’s an important discipline. If you feel loved, you can do a thousand things. If you feel rejected, everything becomes a problem.
Q. Can you recommend a Scripture passage for meditation?
NOUWEN: Yes. There is a Wonderful story in the Gospel of Luke (6:12-26). Jesus went up to the mountain to pray at night; in the morning he came down from the mountain and called his twelve apostles around him. In the afternoon he went out on the plain with them to preach the Good News and heal the sick. He had communion with God first, then he had community, and then he went out to do the work of God. That’s the order of things.
We tend to turn it around. First we do our thing; when we can’t do it alone, we get people to help us; and when that doesn’t work, we pray. Jesus said Communion first, community comes out of that, and out of community, ministry.
Q. You’ve spoken about personal spirituality. Can you offer comments on the spirituality of the North American Church?
NOUWEN: As a general remark, I would say we must move from the moral to the mystical life. The great call for the Church is to not just be concerned about right or wrong behavior, which is moral life, but about communion with God, which is mystical life. In other words, first we must call people to communion with God, to intimacy with God, to a sense of belonging. Most people are lost, confused, alienated. They suffer and struggle immensely in relationships. We have to proclaim loudly and clearly in our actions and in our words that God loves us that we belong to him. That’s a call to the mystical life.
Q. Don’t most Catholics feel mysticism is beyond their reach?
NOUWEN: Mysticism is for all, not just for a few special people. Based or our baptism, all are called to a mystical life, to communion with God. We need to claim that, to taste it and feel it, to trust that the deeper we live this communion, the more our behavior will witness to the truth.
For many, religion has to do with what we are allowed to do and not allowed to do. In the end, that doesn’t bear fruit. The great challenge is to discover that we are truly invited to participate in the divine life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.