Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who is best known as the author of 39 books about spirituality. Nouwen studied psychology and theology and has had a profoundly human way of making spirituality come alive for many people, including a large number of evangelical Protestants. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and then Harvard Divinity School. Yet he ended his life as a pastor within the L’Arche Community in Ontario, caring frequently for one disabled man. It is this last part of his story that appeals universally to many who discover him through his writings and story.
In 1990 Henri Nouwen was in Paris during January. As was so often the case he was struggling mightily. His writing was not going well and his mind, as he put it, “was in cramps.” He was frustrated and discouraged. (This was often his experience!) He decided to go to Lourdes in the “off-season” to give his “anxious heart a rest.” He stayed only three days but he kept a small journal, which was published in 2012 as the book, Finding Our Sacred Center (New London, Connecticut: Twenty-third Publications).
I began reading this little journal last evening. It is typical Nouwen; e.g., personal and inspiring in a simple way. He pondered the symbolism of the place he encountered at Lourdes by focusing on things like water, a large stone, the grotto, and the basilica. At each place he reflected on what was going on in his own heart. He takes us along with him in a way that is winsome and never self-promoting.
One thing that immediately jumps out about Nouwen is how he encountered people, paying attention to ordinary folks such as a man who was selling souvenirs or a woman in a coffee shop who insisted that she heat up his pastry.
As I ended yesterday (September 25) I thought about this a good deal. I had met in the afternoon with the steering committee of Christian Churches Together. I was asked to bring a biblical message and share my story about ecumenism. I reflected on Nouwen’s experience when I got home last night. I especially reflected on what I had heard about Pope Francis from one of the members of the committee. A priest at the table, serving as an ecumenist on the committee, shared about celebrating the Mass several times with the new pope while he was in Rome. He told how Pope Francis would insist that he be allowed to bow and pray while he (the priest who shared this story), rather than Francis, consecrated the bread and wine and said the Mass. He was stunned by a pope insisting that he say the Mass not once but again on several different days following. It was if Francis wanted to step back and simply be served by another as a co-worker in the kingdom. We’ve been hearing a lot about this new pope and his humility. I have heard first-person accounts again and again that confirm everything that you have read and heard about him.
It is true that Francis lives in a guest apartment and not the papal apartments. (The priest who shared this stayed in these same guest apartments and thus was around the pope in a simple, daily way. The pope would wait in line to be served his meal just like the guests.) Yet when a young child asked Francis why he did not live in the papal apartment Francis said that it was not because it was too fancy or well-done for him as the pope. Rather, said Francis: “I need to stay among people and be with them a great deal. I am most happy when I am with the people.”
We could learn a lot from Henri Nouwen stopping to talk to ordinary people in Lourdes. We can also learn from Pope Francis when he shows us that the kingdom is about little people, ordinary people, much more than about great ideas. Nouwen was a scholar. Francis is a Jesuit, thus he has a very good mind. These are both men possessed with great thoughts but both serve and desire not to be noticed continually. This is what the kingdom of God really looks like my friends. If your spiritual leader, or pastor, is not following this way of life then something is not right. “The last shall be first . . . [and] the lowest shall be exalted.” Have we forgotten this central truth about ministry? I fear this is especially so among those who led the way in my generation, which is one reason why so many of us love Henri Nouwen, and now Pope Francis, so deeply.