Remembering Henri Nouwen
It was the year I went to Yale Divinity School for my continuing education experience. My friend and colleague, Philip Brockett, wondered how I was consistently able to do things of my choosing for continuing education, things that were good for me. Said I, "If it's good for me, it will be good for the church." In this case my choice was easily justified because my goal was to meet with Henri Nouwen for spiritual direction. So I set off for New Haven, Connecticut with the blessing of my Lincoln, Nebraska congregation.
A friend, Mitch Zeman, was an assistant to Henri and I was counting on him to introduce me to Father Nouwen. There were no specific promises of a meeting but late on my first afternoon at Yale, Mitch took me to the great man's office and introduced us. Nouwen asked me why I was there. I told him I was experienced as a pastoral counselor, but I didn't know much about spiritual direction and wanted to learn. "Say your prayers, go to Chapel every day, come to the Eucharist that I officiate on a daily basis, and don't do anything you know to be consciously wrong." He then asked me if I had read any of the books he had written. I had and named them. He handed me a book he had just finished on desert spirituality. Then he opened his book door and invited me to take any book I didn't already have. The whole meeting took five minutes, at most. He showed me the door with these words, "I'll see you tomorrow at chapel." I asked if I might attend his class on Spiritual Direction. The class was only for his students, he said. The door.
I was furious, taken back, and felt very lost. Had I not been in ministry for more than fifteen years? Had I not been going to church all that time? Had I not been the minister at the Table? Who was he to tell me to go to chapel and to the Eucharist? His words about not doing anything I knew to be consciously wrong were not very helpful either. I fled to the library and wrote in my journal for the next two hours. This was not the experience I expected. I wanted a warm welcome! I wanted to feel good about meeting this man. This was not the meeting with the famous Henri Nouwen I had envisioned.
The next morning I saw Father Nouwen at chapel. Our contact was a mere exchange of glances. In late afternoon, Mitch and I attended the Eucharist. As we walked out, Mitch reminded Henri that he was to be at their apartment at 5:00 p.m. Then we headed home. I was at the Zemans with several other Lincoln, Nebraska friends promptly. The purpose of the occasion was to honor Henri for his new book, Desert Spirituality. When everyone was there, Mary, Mitch's wife, raised her glass high and we toasted Henri. "This is the first book party I have ever been given," he said. That was hard for any of us to believe! He was genuinely touched that this gathering was in his honor. Later Henri turned to me and asked if I'd read any of the books he had given me the day before. I had! We talked! A shift was taking place. In those few moments I sensed that Henri invited me into his life. As we exchanged good nights at the door, he said, "Ralph, my Spiritual Direction class is at 2:30 p.m. every day. You may attend for as long as you are here."
The next day, Henri introduced me to the class. During the week he often asked my reflections on something he presented. I continued to meet him at Chapel and at the Table. We were becoming brothers.
A few years later, Henri came to Lincoln at his own expense to baptize Mitch and Mary Zeman's daughter. He wanted to do it in Lincoln rather than at Yale so that the Zemans could have the presence and support of their home church community and friends for the baptism.
One evening, Henri invited the Zemans, Brockets, and Sturdys (Joyce and me) to meet with him for an evening of conversation about our lives in ministry. I was especially touched that evening by the way Henri opened himself to everyone there and treated each of our friends as treasures. There was no pretense in him. He shared his own life as an open book. He didn't talk about his success at Yale or speak of himself as a book writer of current interest. He talked about his loneliness, his need for friends, his sense of failure in his own ministry, and his struggle to be a faithful servant of Christ. At evening's end he asked for a glass of wine and a loaf of bread. Together we shared in the Lord's Supper.
Later at the Annual Meeting of the Covenant, President Milton Engebretsen asked if I would approach Henri about speaking at our Midwinter Conference. Father Nouwen, Milt said, had declined several previous Mid-Winter invitations from him. I consented gladly and wrote him. His response was so dear. He said he had not the faintest idea of who the Evangelical Covenant was and because he had so many invitations to speak, he turned down most of the ones with whom he had no connection. But, because I was a Covenant Minister, he now knew who we were. He would come!
Midwinter that year was one of great remembrance for all who attended. I have three specific recollections that I want to share. First, Covenant ministers have a habit of not sitting down for presentations. Several walk the isles or walk back and forth behind the chairs. At his first presentation Henri was disturbed by the walking around. He began his talk, then stopped. When the min-isters failed to sit down, he gently, but firmly, said he would wait until the auditorium was quiet. He invited the ministers to either sit down or leave. After that, those who came sat down—on time!
Second, at the conclusion of the Midwinter, Henri and I were talking. President Engebretsen came by and invited Henri to have lunch with him. "My friend, Ralph, is invited also, right?" "Right," responded Milt. We sat down at the table and Henri ordered a glass of wine. Milt declined. Though I had been taught "not to make waves," in a nano-second decision, I joined Henri. I didn't want him to be alone. In full view of the Covenant Ministerium Henri and I had a glass of wine together.
My third special memory was my time with Henri in his room. With bags packed, we sat and talked for a while. He asked: "How did the week go? Were his presentations okay? Had he done for me and for the Covenant what I had hoped?" As I sat with him, I wondered why he was asking me these questions. Surely he knew how rich his message was, how well it had been received, and how pleased I was. As I affirmed this, I realized that he, like I, was filled with his own sense of inadequacy and that, like most of us, he longed for my personal affirmation as a friend. Finally, it was time to go. The bags were packed. Henri wanted to get going and so did I. Silence fell like (Continued next page bottom) a warm blanket in the room. "Pray for me, Ralph," Henri said.
In the years that followed, Henri and I occasionally exchanged letters. They were neither long nor detailed. They were simple reminders that we were thinking of each other. One day, sometime later when I was serving the Livingston, New Jersey Covenant church, the Chairperson, Holly White, told me that Henri was to speak in upstate New York. We decided to go. It had been several years since I had been with Henri. I was excited to go and thrilled to introduce Holly to Henri as one of the travelers on the way.
Some time after that, Holly called me at church. "Your friend, Henri Nouwen, died," she said. I sat stunned and silent. It was too soon. He was too young. There was still so much he had envisioned. There was still so much love to give and to experience. Henri Nouwen, dead! Too sad!
I miss him still. As I write this, I remember my first encounter with him—long before meeting him in person. I was reading The Living Reminder. As I read it, my heart filled with hope. Through the grace of Pastor Nouwen's words I knew I was worthy to be called to my vocation as a pastor. I remember saying to Joyce, "I feel like I have experienced my ordination all over again." Yes, and I breathe it again, "Thanks Henri. It was no mistake we encountered one another." I was blessed by his writing, his authenticity, his life—and I say: Peace to the memory of Henri Nouwen.