Love, Henri: Letters On the Spiritual Life
Author: Henri J. M. Nouwen, edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw
Published: Oct. 04 2016 | Convergent Books
Length: 347 pages
Love, Henri is a collection of correspondence from the late highly respected Catholic priest, professor, and pastor Henri Nouwen. Nouwen came to me highly recommended, but I was still surprised how deeply impactful the content of mere letters could be. These are words of friendship, constructive criticism, sympathy and encouragement sent by Nouwen to address various needs in his friends and acquaintances throughout his life. They touch on seasons of marriage, divorce, death, spiritual dryness, exuberance, and, well, all the depths of joy and sorrow that each of us are confronted with at some point. I filled the pages with ink stains.
Indirectly, these letters form an autobiography of both Nouwen’s internal being and the various places he chose to live and invest his life. The editor’s notes of explanation before each entry aid this biographical aspect immensely.
It takes only a few letters to see that Nouwen had the depth and sharpness of thought of C.S. Lewis (not surprising since he taught at Yale and Harvard), and the all-encompassing awareness of the sacramental life that G.K. Chesterton had, while having a tenderness to the human condition all his own. The advice he offers is so life-giving because it is fearlessly convicting while maintaining the highest compassion. Consider these words to a man writing Henri about his spiritual dryness:
“I also enjoy disagreeing with you when you say: “Naming the demons is the initial and greatest chore.” I don’t think so. The first and most important task we have is to keep our eyes on God and Him alone. We will never overcome the demons by analyzing them, but only by forgetting them in an all-consuming love for God.”
These are rich words birthed out of a willingness to disagree not for the sake of argument but care for the other’s well-being.
Nouwen refuses to write from a pedestal, believing deeply that friendship cannot be its most redemptive without the naked honesty of both parties. Consider Nouwen’s expression of this in a letter to a young man named Mark:
“Jesus’ invitation to “lay down my life for others” has always meant more to me than any physical martyrdom. I have always heard these words as an invitation to make my own life struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears and my joys, my pains, and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”
I don’t agree with every aspect of Nouwen’s worldview (not that I agree with everything Lewis or Chesterton had to say either), but I am sharpened by the way he refocuses on the centrality of Christ no matter the situation. Working out our faith in companionship with spiritual fore bearers like Henri Nouwen is such a valuable part of the fellowship of the saints. I haven’t read Nouwen’s other works to compare them, but I have the sense that letters provide a unique sense of knowing a person. Rather than a merely cerebral experience of learning from someone’s theological views, you pick up some of their traits. I hope Henri rubs off on me.