Laurent Nouwen Offers Insight into His Brother’s Life and Spirituality

“Henri grew to become more subjective and entered a zone where his personal relationship with the Other—with Jesus and with God—became more existential. He became aware that he personally participated and was part of pain, poverty, and injustice and at the same time was called to be part of the Kingdom.”

Henri Nouwen had the courage to enter a very uncomfortable zone rather than remain at an observer’s safe distance, his younger brother Laurent Nouwen told an audience of some 400 people on June 20 at Oblate School of Theology’s 2017 Summer Institute.

Laurent Nouwen, a prominent attorney in Rotterdam, Holland, has done much to keep his late brother’s work going, launching a ministry in the Ukraine with truckloads of donated items and starting an annual Henri Nouwen Lecture Series in hospitals. He often opens his own home to visit friends of his brother from all over the world.

“Henri grew to become more subjective and entered a zone where his personal relationship with the Other—with Jesus and with God—became more existential. He became aware that he personally participated and was part of pain, poverty, and injustice and at the same time was called to be part of the Kingdom,” the attorney said. “All that he was was not what he objectively was—a priest, professor or writer—but what he subjectively was—in a vivid, dynamic relationship with everyone around.”

Laurent Nouwen used a wagon wheel to illustrate his brother’s understanding of “a life lived from the center,” explaining, “When I move along the rim, I can reach one spoke after another, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once. The hub is the center of all energy and movement,” he explained.

On the rim, he said, we position ourselves in “a fishbowl culture of words, language, and opinions,” but on the rim, we move in a horizontal direction “as chord dancers from a past out of sight to a future equally out of sight.” On the rim, we miss being connected and feel unstable and lost; deep inside, we search for connection with the center of all, beyond time, place, coincidental human relations, words, language, and opinions, he added.

Nouwen said that spiritual living starts from a deep longing for connection so that everything makes sense. “Along the spokes of the wheel, we go downward to the center to be connected, to be religiously related with the presence of our eternity. From that center, all is continuously created and chaos is continuously ordered and seen as good.”

It is from that center that man reflects the image of the creator. From that center, light shines on the face of each of us. When man breaks down that relationship with the center and cannot resist the ambition to be God himself, the kingdom does not receive light from the center. It darkens and the creation is deserted, he explained.

Like Pontius Pilate, Nouwen observed, “we all have a tendency to see (Jesus’) Kingdom as a kingdom outside of this world and at best an event out of reach, to come some day in the future.” Somehow, he pointed out, “the disciples felt betrayed when Jesus did not come down from the cross and establish his Kingdom right there.”

Nouwen explained that if we dare to look toward the center of all, searching in depth, vertically, some way beyond clock time, we may experience that the Kingdom is simultaneously present with our lives. “The Kingdom is not a hereafter, but is present in the ‘herebehind,’” he said. “The voice did not say, ‘You will be my beloved, but you are my beloved,’ and you will be so in eternity. The challenge is to live along the rim in the spiritual light from out of the center.”

Nouwen noted that his brother’s writing on spirituality went parallel with a continuous struggle to change his perspective from the rim of his life to the center of all life. He quoted his brother as saying that, “At Harvard, I was teaching about prayer, but I had no time to pray; I was teaching about solidarity but was living on my own; I was teaching about   spirituality, but all my students were taking my course for better grades; I wanted to live close to my call—we all have to live close to our call. I had a kind of schizophrenia between what I was doing and what I was supposed to live. I couldn’t continue like this; I needed to live as a Christian and not merely to speak about Christianity.” he observed

Henri Nouwen challenged readers to be aware of their own movements on the wheel.     “We can talk about spirituality and we can enjoy doing so; we can read about spirituality and have deep insights; but do we change the course of our personal lives?” his brother asked. “We feel a tension between talking about these things and being authentic. Do we really listen well to our inner voice, to hear that same call to follow? Do we respond to that call, ‘You are my beloved,’ and become fully responsible for restoring God’s kingdom?

“You are responsible to answer that call, to restore God’s kingdom, to restore care and love, to restore justice and compassion,” the attorney said, reminding listeners of the hymn Ubi Caritas, whose theme is that, wherever charity and love are, God is present. He challenged the audience to change the theme to “Where I am charity and love, God is there. Where I am not charity and love, God is absent.”

Nouwen asserted that the personal relationship with God is there where we realize care and love in all we do with our lives. “Care and love are not abstracts, but physical exercises, like working in the vineyard, and equally physical is the Kingdom,” Nouwen said. “Can we make God possible by moving from defensive hostility to hospitality, by making an alien our brother, by making the refugee our neighbor, by making the stranger my guest? That’s not easy.”

The younger Nouwen observed that, looking into the eyes of the world, we see a place of everlasting suffering, injustice, and pain. “We can build a wall around ourselves and live our lives in a kind of apartheid. But if we dare look over the wall, we can see that the world is a broken body, severely wounded and bleeding,” he pointed out. “We can turn up the volume of entertainment and consumption, but if we hold silence, we can hear the anxious cry, the thunder of exploding bombs, the wailing of the world. The world can be seen as the darkest place on earth, a place where there is no God and no love and care.”

However, he asserted that the world mirrors us in our own personality because we are a full component of the world. “If we take a good look inside ourselves, into our history and our present, we see a place of suffering, injustice, and pain. We build walls inside ourselves and live within ourselves in apartheid. But if we dare look over the inside wall, we can see our other side: our brokenness, our wounds, and our bleeding. We hear our cries to be understood, to be accepted, to be loved; and yes, we can turn up the volume of our good feelings to silence the cry of our fear, our exploding aggressiveness, and our inside wailing. Inside myself can be the darkest place on earth, a place where there is no God as I have no love and no care.”

Nouwen pointed out that on the rim, we place God’s creative work at the beginning of time, but searching along the spokes of the wheel to the still-present center, we may see that from the center, “energy and spirit come to continue ordering chaos in every moment of our lives. When the center is out of sight, and our vision is limited to the rim alone, we are disconnected and end up as slaves “like a 24/7 Mammon serving the Golden Calf’—the economy.”

Even in our churches, Nouwen asserted, we can lose orientation inwards and change from the vital dialogue with a homeless God in the center to a comfortable, consumer-friendly dialogue with ourselves, redefining God as our future selves. The opposite of love is not hate, but narcissism. The opposite of faith is not atheism, but our self-idolization. Opposites are often dangerously close to each other, he noted.

The younger Nouwen reflected on his brother’s experience with disabled people as pastor of Toronto’s L’Arch Daybreak community, where he was a daily caregiver to Adam, a disabled person, helping him with daily chores, feeding him, washing him, taking him out for walks—all things requiring physical attention.

Nothing Nouwen did would ever take away any of Adam’s disabilities, but in meeting Adam, Henri Nouwen met the embodiment of the cry, “Why have you deserted me?” Laurent Nouwen observed that people often ask God why God has deserted them, but suggested that, listening spiritually, they might hear God asking them why they have deserted God. He said God is the victim of desertion by man, not vice versa. Laurent Nouwen observed that the cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” is embodied all around us. We are inadequate to solve suffering, pain, and injustice,” he said, “but we can see it as an invitation to respond with amor (love) and caritas (care).

Caring for Adam, his brother saw a new light. Unable to say a word and totally dependent on others, he said, “Adam revealed ‘Ubi caritas et amor’ to Henri, and with that the glimpse of the Kingdom.” On the outside, neither Nouwen nor Adam changed, but inside, “Adam changed Henri totally by making visible the very presence of the Other. What changed was the interpretation of their relationship into the understanding ‘ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.’”

While “it’s easy to see L’Arch Daybreak as a place where people with challenges are cared for, a bit isolated from the normal world,” he asserted that  Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Sister Sue Mosteller and all of L’Arch invite us to look again and see that Daybreak is actually a pars toto—a tiny portion—of the whole world and representing the whole world.”

He explained that Adam is present in the millions of poor, in the huge masses of starving people next to us, in the hundreds of homeless in our cities, in the many depressed and burned-out souls. “Yes, the Messiah is all around us, but can we make the transfer from the survival of the fittest, from our greediness and accumulation of wealth, from rapidly depleting our planet, to placing in the center of our existence the invitation by the marginalized, the have-nots, suffering mankind, the wounded planet? Can we change our powerful, frightening state of the union to living the Sermon on the Mount? Can we see and understand that inside of us is a permanent, transformative call to each of us to change from ‘Who cares?’ to ‘We care?’ Responding to the invitation of the Adams in the world may give us a glimpse of the all-inclusive Kingdom,” Nouwen concluded.

By J. Michael Parker