From Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen
I never met Henri. I remember reading his books and articles back in the 1980s when I lived in western Canada. I recall thinking of him as a part of the Catholic furniture, someone who was just “there” whenever I took the time to notice. He was a familiar presence in the press. I can remember hearing him on the radio and seeing him in a few television clips. He was that Catholic priest and writer who instead of wearing a collar wore a long knitted scarf and who would come up with a new book every few years. Each new work would receive a lot of attention in both mainstream and Catholic newspapers, back in that pre-internet era. Canadian Catholic journalism was in a very different state of health back then. I remember seeing posters, year after year, telling me that Henri would be giving the keynote address at this or that big conference. All I knew then of Henri Nouwen was the external, public image: a Dutch priest/psychologist, a charismatic and theatrical speaker who lived at L’Arche Daybreak, north of Toronto, and who raced all over the continent giving talks and retreats. He was (more or less) a Canadian celebrity who was also Catholic and who increasingly found audiences beyond the loose perimeters of the Canadian Catholic world. He was a rare thing at that time: an influential priest in the media and not in the crosshairs of controversy. And then there was this thing about him being a spiritual writer who had discovered some deep spiritual meaning at the circus.
Naturally, those limited perceptions changed the moment I began the serious work of preparing for and assembling a radio documentary about him more than a decade after his death. The documentary began with a shaky but memorable encounter. I had barely assembled some initial background material when, at a large Canadian university gathering, a young priest wearing his collar and clearly in some distress positioned himself in front of me at the hors d’oeuvres table. It had just been announced that Michael Higgins and I had been commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to prepare a three-part radio documentary on the life and legacy of Henri Nouwen. Red in the face and evidently struggling for control, the priest wagged a finger at me. “You media always get it wrong. I know what you are going to do. You are going to focus on the rumors and the gossip and distort the truth. You’re all the same!”
I took a deep breath, smiled, and replied: “Well, I’ll try my best not to disappoint you.”
He walked away certain that he had been heard. And I walked away certain that I had been heard. And in a way we are both right. Listening can be like that. In that moment, each of us was listening in a kind of way, listening in order to hear only what we wanted to hear from the other, regardless of the words each of us may have been using. I think he probably heard opportunistic, sensationalist media hack with an agenda. I know I heard fear and repression. This experience of listening without hearing is nothing new in the Christian tradition, and neither is it limited to it. In the final verses of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how Saint Paul struggled to be heard and understood clearly by those around him:
Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.
So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
“‘Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (Acts 28:24-28)
As we entered the final production phase of making the documentary, the phrase “understand with their heart, and turn” worked its way into my memory, like that wonderful German image of der Ohrwurm, or “ear worm,” used to describe those pieces of music that can get stuck in your head. To “understand with their heart and turn” captured for me something elemental about documentary production in general and also something fundamental about Henri. To struggle to understand with the heart and to work hard to find strength within in order to try and turn your life around seems to be a key element of his work, as a writer, as a priest, as a messenger, and as the message himself.
As I listened through the hiss and crackle of archival recordings of his talks and interviews (many of them recorded live and subject to distortion), I heard his remarkable energy and, at times, his exhaustion, the more I tried to understand the heart and mind of this complex and compelling individual.
This chapter is about what happened to me as, in order to understand more about him, I listened intently not only to Henri, but to the often passionate responses of those who knew him and his work intimately.
As a radio producer, when you record an interviewer and an interviewee, you spend hours with headphones clamped over your ears. You occasionally hear things that interviewers sometimes do not catch. You also hear the drone of a plane overhead as it slowly trails off in the distance. You hear the yappy dog barking three streets away. You hear the whine of a leaf-blower in the hands of an enthusiastic gardener in the yard across the fence. That’s when you stop, even if it is at a critical time in the conversation. You remove your headset, sigh, and explain. Then you wait. You listen once more, check the sound meter, flip the still-warm headset over your ears once more, and you start again. A little while later, you hear the rumbling stomach of the interview subject who must have forgotten to have lunch or who maybe had too much lunch. Then you hear a forgotten cellphone as it vibrates in the pocket of whoever it is, this time, who has forgotten to turn it off. You hear the persistent hum of the air conditioning unit in the next room and the mosquito-like buzz of an aging fluorescent tube light above you. Now, there is a basic acoustic law in all audio production: every background sound eventually elbows its way to the front, and stays there. This is why during the production phase of the documentary, I would often move people from room to room and from space to space in order to find a suitable acoustic space where we might complete the interviews devoid of extraneous noises. It also explains why there are such things as radio studios. We used these whenever we could, but we also found that getting people to talk about Henri generally worked best in surroundings familiar to them – living rooms, dens, sitting at a kitchen table, and, of course, a chapel. Each of these spaces became a mobile studio and also a confessional of sorts. More on that in a moment.
Have you ever been inside a radio studio? They are often shabby, untidy places with fading carpet, threadbare furniture, forgotten coffee mugs, abandoned scripts, and lots of flickering colored lights on the recording equipment. They are also places of mystery where the outside world is not permitted to intrude. It may be snowing outside, with traffic snarled up for blocks, but we are deep in a conversation about the experience of having Henri Nouwen hear your confession. Nothing will interrupt this recall of a moment frozen in time and etched in memory. The impatient producer of a documentary on Iranian oil may be pacing outside, worried about phone lines, but we are winding up a conversation with Henri’s editor who is telling us about the surprising challenges and career-changing insights that came to him as he worked with Henri the author and difficult friend. Then, our hour is up and the studio’s red light goes off, and the interview is felt. What we found was that all of our conversations immediately following the recording sessions were, in fact, continuations of the interview. It was as if, having spent an hour with Henri in memory and reflection, they were not quite ready to let go of him just yet.
There is another surprising detail about the way broadcast media is produced, and it is this: for many people who are being interviewed, whether in the formality of a studio setting or on location somewhere, they focus so intently on the person asking the questions that they often forget about the presence of the other person who is working the equipment. This is a natural response, especially when that person is on the other side of the glass. Strangely, it works the same way when you record on location. I can report on my experience as the “tech” person for all the non-studio interviews. Whenever you play the role of the technician in an intimate interview, you can disappear in a room. It happens. Often. It’s also true that, not being responsible for managing the flow of the conversation, you can listen differently. In addition to listening for those problematic extraneous sounds, when you monitor an interview through a headset and are controlling the recording levels, you also hear tiny openings that suddenly flicker in the middle of an answer. These take the form of a door that the person being interviewed has just opened up into a surprising personal depth and startling vulnerability, often in ways that catch everyone by surprise. Experienced interviewers, like Michael, will always find a way to open that door. That said, sometimes the focus of the interview requires the interviewer to put a “Do not disturb” sign on that particular door and to move on to avoid anecdotal diversions that will never be used.
I used the word confessional earlier to describe interviews, whether in the studio or on location. I learned from this project that to ask people to talk about Henri is to open up all sorts of personal and vulnerable doors. The wonderful, articulate people we interviewed would start off, clear, confident, calm, and very prepared. Then, all of a sudden, we are no longer talking about a third party, Henri. We are talking about their own deep woundedness, their hopes, their uncertainties, their fears, their healing, their difficult journeys. It is no longer Henri’s story that we are pursuing, but their own. We have begun to talk about their own deeply profound spiritual questions. All of a sudden, we are talking about fear, frailty, and loss, and the death of those we love dearly. No longer an abstract discussion with an expert on contemporary spirituality and mental health, this has become an intensely personal conversation about their own life. Talking about Henri taught me much about listening with more than my ears.
To call what we did in our interviews a technique or method does not quite capture the dynamic, but this is how we structured them: Michael and I would map out the expected content and scope for each interview, which we planned to record for an hour. Before we began recording, he would explain to our interviewees that I might come in at the end of the interview with a couple of questions of my own.
Interviews can be stressful, as they make people cautious about saying something stupid or just wrong. Interviews about Henri invariably relate to personal and spiritual experiences and the pursuit of meaning. After forty-five minutes of reflection, the dynamic of the interview has changed, as it is now a relaxed and candid conversation. Then, the previously invisible technician gets to ask his question at what seems to be the end of a formal interview. The effect of this second mini-interview was invariably revelatory, because these new questions, coming from someone who has been invisible up to that point, also come at a moment of highly focused concentration and intimate conversation. These final questions would take us back to some of those doors that were left open during the interview. As the “sound guy” I would also take notes during the interview and flag any potential doors left open along the way and frame my questions around them. For example, in his interview at L’Arche Daybreak, Nathan Ball used the language of swimming and lifesaving a couple of times as he recalled aspects of Henri’s time there. Just saying, “So you were a lifesaver?” opened up new doors about images for living with this often difficult and charismatic individual. “I realized that this image of ‘lifeguard’ wasn’t going to work. That wasn’t something that I could do for fulfill. . . I don’t know if I have a good metaphor.” Talking in a dark, wood-paneled room at Yale’s Thomas More Center, Kerry Robinson spoke about Henri as an expert. When I pointed out that this expertise was also coming from someone who was an ordained priest, she paused and said, “I don’t even know that I’ve given it much thought, that he was a priest. It’s more that he is an exemplary spiritual mystical person that I find compelling.” Ron Rolheiser was surprised when I reported back to him at the end of our interview in a Toronto studio that throughout the interview he kept talking about Henri in the present tense. Henri had been dead for well over a decade. “Then I’m glad, because with a Freudian slip I went in the right direction,” he said with a deep smile. “You know, as Christians we remember the way Paul puts it so graphically in Thessalonians. He says as Christians we don’t believe that those who are living are in any way advantaged or more alive than those who are dead.”
No matter who asks the questions, after an hour of talking about Henri, our interview subjects had entered a place of deep and personal reflection. Henri seems to do that a lot, with people who knew him and with those who met him only through his books. We interviewed broadly in both groups. Not all of them are quoted in this book or in the documentary, but all of them are important because they helped us shape the work. Inevitably, large portions of interviews remain unusual because they take us into a different theme, beyond the parameters of our series. Listening back to these interviews, I confess, I can hear moments where we both managed to miss a particular door as it opened, only for a fraction, right in front of our ears, as it were. Why? Because, no matter how intently an interviewer or producer might try, at that particular moment in the interview, you are actually listening for something else altogether. You are listening for what you would prefer to hear, listening for what you are hoping to hear, rather than what you are actually hearing right in front of you. The heart somehow stops understanding. And sometimes, no matter how long you talk and listen, every door remains firmly closed, locked so tight that you can only move on. To paraphrase Acts, this is when you may well be listening with your ears and understanding with your heart, but you still turn away.
Radio, like words on a page, can put instant pictures in your head and allow you to move Henri through time and across geography: from the Netherlands of his pre-Second World War childhood, his student life and call to the priesthood, to his time in the pomp and circumstance of Rome during the Second Vatican Council, to his arrival in the United States at a volatile time in the struggle for civil rights, and his clinical studies at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas at a turbulent moment in the history of the practice of psychological counseling. With a simple sound effect on radio, like a subheading on a page, we can jump to his short-lived excursions into the violence and oppression of Latin and South America in the troubled 1980s. The sound of a campus bell takes us to the lecture halls of Harvard and Yale. Another kind of bell takes us to the Abbey of Genesee, the place where Jean Vanier says, “You feel, though, he was never silent.” The sound of a local commuter train takes us to the L’Arche community in northern France, where Vanier says Henri found “Something about discovery of meaning to community, to community life, seeing L’Arche also as a vision maybe for the future, for the church.” Birdsong and distant highway traffic take us to L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Canada, where he lived and worked once again with people who are severely challenged, both mentally and physically. Our radio documentary, like this book, tells that biographical story through the interviews that we recorded and clips from excerpts from various radio and television archives. The series also includes a lot of different location sounds and music, which is slightly more difficult to deal with in print, but I am about to try.
We tell a mostly chronological story, one that begins in 1932 in the Netherlands on January 24, the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, who among other things is the patron saint of journalists and writers. We end with Henri Nouwen’s death, alone in a hospital, on September 21, 1996, also in the Netherlands – where this prodigal son had stopped for a visit en route to Russia, where he was to make a documentary film on one of his favorite compatriot artists, Rembrandt. In between these chronological markers, we hear how people remember Henri.
Music plays an important role in this story, and not because of any importance it may have had in Henri’s life. Gabrielle Earnshaw at the Henri Nouwen Archives showed me a single box of cassette tapes, many of which had been sent to Henri. I searched through this mix of commercial and homemade recordings of familiar classical pieces to find clues about Henri and music. Not finding much to work with, I decided to look for music that Henri might have heard wherever he lived. Here are just two examples of connections we make in this series with music and Henri.
I began with a work composed in 1927 by the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (1855-1932), his Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Minor, Opus 100. I like to think of this as a piece of music that the young Henri, book in hand, could well have heard on the “wireless” in one of the various Nouwen households in the Netherlands. The music establishes time and place. It is also music that is unsettled, restless, headed somewhere into and beyond something that sounds like darkness. It’s classical and traditional in form, yet it has a decidedly contemporary edge. Played on acoustic instruments, it is a natural, unprocessed sound. These descriptions also serve as words that capture something of Henri himself: unsettled, restless, headed somewhere into and beyond a certain darkness, someone who is traditional but with a decidedly contemporary edge. This is how a 45-second excerpt from the Andante movement became Henri’s theme.
The second example is surrounded in mystery. Little is known of the life of the English composer John Sheppard. His birth is guesswork, perhaps 1515. The few precise details are that from 1543 to 1548 he was the Informatory Choristarum – the Director of Music – at Magdalen College in Oxford. Then he moved to London to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots, r. 1542-1567). His antiphon, Media vita (“In the midst of life we are in death”) is one of the great vocal compositions in the history of liturgical music. Sheppard sets the Lenten prayer “Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors/Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos” (Holy God, holy and strong, holy and merciful, do not hand us over to the bitter pains of death) to some remarkable, soaring music. Sheppard grabs your attention from his mysteriously quiet opening phrases, which he then fills with dissonant suspensions. Then, on four different occasions in this twenty-five minute piece, he lets the vocal lines glide in an acoustic mix of danger and hope as he embellishes the phrase “Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors/Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.” This is daring music with startling cumulative power. It requires vocalists to fly, confident that despite the risks of such an inherently complicated composition, they will arrive safely at the conclusion of the piece. In music performance there is rarely a safety net.
Media Vita is the theme we use for Henri’s search for spiritual insight. It introduces the section on Henri’s exploration of the notion of the “flyer” and the “catcher” that was inspired by his encounter with the trapeze artist Rodleigh Stevens. In his Circus Diary, Henri wrote:
I am convinced that I have been sent to the Rodleighs to discover something new about life and death, love and fear, peace and conflict, heaven and hell, something I can’t get to know and write about in any other way. Often I think: “How could I have ever imagined, even a few years ago, that I would sit for a few weeks writing in a camper in the midst of a circus in Germany?” But here I am, and it feels like the only good place to be right now. What tomorrow will bring, I will find out tomorrow. I am happy that I don’t have to know that today.”
Henri never completed the book he planned to write about the Flying Rodleighs. Shortly after learning of Henri’s death, Rodleigh Stevens completed “What A Friend We Had in Henri,” his interpretation of the encounter between trapeze artists and a charismatic priest.
I am still mystified what it was about us which moved him enough to want to write about us. I can only presume that when he saw us working, he was able to put a visual aspect to his deep spiritual feelings. In other words, he could see something in us that he felt within himself and he had made a correlation between the two. We were merely the ingredients he needed to clarify those certain feelings, because I’m sure that it was more than just a boyhood fantasy to perform in a circus as a flier which attracted him to our troupe. When our friendship grew and we opened our homes and lives to him, he was able to live out certain religious aspects of his life through us. We could give him courage as he danced with us dangerously through the air. If we failed, we showed him that he could overcome the fear of failure and climb the ladder with us to try again.
Life as a dangerous dance through the air with the possibility of failure, followed by another “go.” This captures something elemental about Henri’s life and work. In his talks and books, Henri describes people as “flyers” who need the confidence and trust that, when the time comes, they will be welcomed by the Almighty Catcher. Rodleigh’s image “dangerously through the air” is also a way to capture Sheppard’s Media Vita in its expression of that unknowable encounter between life and death: when the flyer is welcomed by the catcher. John Sheppard’s music serves as a kind of theological leitmotif for Henri’s insights into spirituality in each of the three episodes of the documentary. There’s also (agreed, probably only) a slight chance that in the seminary in the Netherlands or while in Rome, Henri might have heard this sixteenth-century gem, even though it is not on any of the cassettes in his archive.
Unlike the challenges that a radio production has, it is much easier for a book to present visual art. We introduce each of the three main chapters with an iconic work from the visual artists who were Henri’s lifelong companions and referred to often in his books and presentations: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh. Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son needs no further explanation here. Vincent van Gogh’s Shoes (1886) captures the restless spirit of Henri’s early life, while The Fall of the Leaves (The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital, 1889), one of van Gogh’s later works, shows someone, alone, surrounded by rich natural growth. It is not difficult to see Henri as that figure, only one foot on an established path.
Listening to Henri surfaced all manner of complementary and sometimes conflicting ideas about the paths of spirituality and mental health, about healing and woundedness, and about the difference between biography and hagiography. Given that the series our documentary was aired in is called Ideas, this brought some relief.
Ideas are not exactly finite things, though. Sometimes, in our interviews, the ideas being expressed were startlingly clear, sometimes confusing, and often still being formed as they were being reached for. Sometimes, like musical fragments, these ideas would be striking though fleeting, and sometimes they would linger long after the interview was over. Sometimes, an idea will just fade over time, slowly, like an old photograph. Sometimes, an idea that has been let go early comes back in disguise. This, then, is not a conventional conclusion, but more of an expression of where Henri Nouwen’s ideas have taken me after listening intently and immersing myself in his work and in the words of all those we spoke to about him.
Listening to Henri I have learned this:
➺ If I really want to listen, I need to invite silence so that I can hear what is being said, not only what I want or expect to hear.
➺ If I really want to listen, I have to slow things down and turn things off, metaphorically, not just literally.
➺ I’ve learned over and over again that somewhere in all of this is the conviction that to recognize a wound is to take a step in the direction of healing it.
➺ I’ve also learned that to listen is another form of prayer.
Not original, perhaps, but I am in good company, as this is also how Henri describes prayer – as a form of real listening. In 1981, he wrote that to listen is to move “from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow God’s guidance.
Working on this project has been both a professional and personal journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, and one that is perhaps as psychological as it is spiritual. No matter how we choose to label such a journey of investigation and exploration, it is one that is best guided by those who have bravely gone before us and who, through their art and their insights, are able to give creative guidance to those of us who are still stumbling on our way. This is what all true artists like Henri Nouwen can do for us. If we are willing to listen to them.