The Spirituality of Henri Nouwen: Q&A with Gabrielle Earnshaw

Gabrielle Earnshaw (photo provided) Gabrielle Earnshaw (photo provided)

Gabrielle Earnshaw is founding curator of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Center at the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College, a position she held for 16 years. She oversees the collected writings of the late Catholic priest and spiritual writer who spent many years living with the mentally disabled at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto. She also serves as an archival consultant and as a scholar/researcher for the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust and directs the Henri Nouwen Oral History Program. Ms. Earnshaw is co-editor of Turning the Wheel: Henri Nouwen and Our Search for God and editor of a forthcoming book of daily meditations by Henri Nouwen.

Ms. Earnshaw recently edited the new book Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Convergent Books). In this collection of more than 200 unpublished letters, Father Nouwen seeks to shed light on the sacred longings of the human heart.

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On Sept. 6, I interviewed Ms. Earnshaw by email about the new book.

You were the founding archivist of the Henri Nouwen Archives. How did you get this job and what did it entail?

I was hired in 2000, four years after Henri’s death, on a six-month contract to catalogue Henri’s papers and create a finding guide. I hadn’t heard of Henri Nouwen but was interested in the job because of my familiarity with Jean Vanier and L’Arche. I crammed for the interview over a weekend, and emerged three days later thinking I knew all I needed to know about him! The interview went well and as a final step in the hiring process I went to L’Arche Daybreak to meet Sue Mosteller, Henri’s good friend and literary executrix.

I began with a professional distance that archivists are trained to have, but, very quickly, had a similar response to many other people—“How does this man know the map of my heart?” He became my spiritual guide and an immensely important person in my life.

How did you come to know Father Nouwen?

I first got to know Henri through his papers. More than half a football field in length, they span his lifetime and include correspondence, drafts of his books and articles, his teaching notes, administrative files as well the minutiae of his life: his passport applications, a postcard collection, credit card statements and more. You get to know someone intimately when you are going through their archival records! Henri preserved every aspect of his life with great care ...and this made my work preserving his archival legacy relatively easy.

By the end of his life he had more than 16,000 letters in his filing cabinets! It took a decade to catalogue these letters. As I worked through the files I learned of his enormous impact on a broad spectrum of humanity, many of whom wrote to him echoing my own experience: “How do you know me so well?”

Another way I have come to know Henri is through his friends. Sue Mosteller has worked side by side with me for all these years, infusing me with her passion and dedication to continue Henri’s ministry. She inspired me to try and build a “Living Archives” at St. Michael’s—a new model for archival collections within an academic setting—meaning, to keep the archives “alive” through continued collecting (like letters, oral history interviews) and to offer classes, workshops, conferences that are inspired by the archives and in turn feed into it.

Another important person is his brother Laurent Nouwen. During my sabbatical in 2011-2012, I spent three months getting to know Henri’s home country, his family and his Dutch friends. I spent many hours in conversation with Laurent learning about Henri’s life in Holland.

The collection of letters that you edited is titled Love, Henri. Where did you get this name and what does it mean?

I think it is because if I were to summarize Henri in one word, it would be love. He wrote about love, he talked about love, he gave all he had to live in a loving way. Everything, when you get down to it, including his book The Prodigal Son, is in some way or another about love— especially God’s love (or as Henri puts “the first love”).

It is a risky title because it can be read as saccharine, which would be a mistake. As readers will see, Henri is not a sweet, slight, “feel good” thinker. As Brené Brown, who wrote the introduction, put it, he can be “fierce.” He gave everything he had to his “adventure with God.” He followed spiritual disciplines and made choices that led to anguish, loneliness and hardship. In his letters, he asks the same of his correspondents. He asks them to walk the “narrow road;” to be faithful to choices made, wait when it would be easier to run, pray when it would be easier to do, love when we’d rather hate, move into pain instead of away from it, be present instead of distracted, etc. His letters are as challenging as they are comforting.

So, what does this title mean? I think it means that Henri is your spiritual friend who listens carefully to your pain and is not scandalized by it. He stays with you, a faithful presence, calling you to see your pain and suffering as thresholds to love—love of God, love of others and of yourself. He is a friend of the heart.

Who is your audience for this book?

The book is meant for anyone wrestling with the big questions: Who am I? Who is God? How do I be “good?” What is the meaning of my life? It is also a book for people who need a wise and compassionate friend to help them find their way through a difficult relationship, decision or passage of life. I think it is the kind of book that can be given to a friend when words escape us. It will be a book that people come back and dip into when they need it.

This book is also for people who have given up on religion. It is for young people, living in a “disposable” culture, wondering if religion has any relevance. Life is filled with paradox and people need a religion that can hold it. This is the Christianity that Henri Nouwen puts forward. I have been reading through all of Henri’s works recently in chronological order and came across this quote about a mature religion in his first book Intimacy, which he published in 1969: “A mature religious man is very close to the agnostic, and often we have difficulty in deciding which name expresses our state of mind: agnostic or searching believer. Perhaps they are closer than we tend to think.”

I believe one of the reasons he is still so relevant today—some 20 years since his death—is that he speaks to the 21st century seeker’s soul.

What do you hope readers will take away from the letters in this book?

As much as Henri spoke about love, he spoke about freedom. He was speaking about an inner freedom that is the ultimate state of love and the absence of fear. In this book, through his own lived example, he offers the spiritual vision that true freedom is possible and that love can flourish not in spite of difficulties but because of them.

One of my favorite books by Henri is Can You Drink the Cup? In it he challenges us to “drink” all aspects of our lives—the painful as well as the joyful, the curse as well as the blessing. We see that if we can do this we are free from self-doubt, bitterness and resentment. Our lives can be ones of creativity, compassion and peace. My hope is that readers will become ready and able to take on the challenge of making choices that lead to peace in their personal lives as well as in the larger world. My hope, with the risk of sounding grandiose, is that this book will lead to a revolution of peace!

Father Nouwen lived for many years at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto. What role does that experience play in these letters?

The letters span a twenty-two year period beginning in December of 1973 and concluding in 1996 with Henri’s death. I divided the book based on significant chapters in Henri’s life. Two of the three chapters are about the L’Arche years. Henri was always in search of home, for a place that he belonged. He searched in academia, the barrios of Peru, the front lines of nuclear protests for this place, but ultimately found it when he was 54 years old at L’Arche. L’Arche is about recognizing the gifts of people with mental handicaps. It is about truly living the Gospel message of “Blessed are the poor”—not the people who help the poor but the poor! It is a message of downward mobility—where the last become first. Henri was speaking and writing about these themes long before his move to L’Arche.

What one sees in the letters is how Henri’s pre-L’Arche teachings on weakness, wounds, suffering, vulnerability are put into practice. It was not initially easy. After to moving to L’Arche Henri suffered the worst depression of his life. He wrote to a friend:

There is something about L’Arche that makes us suffer immensely. I never suffered so much and intensely as since I came to Daybreak…. Somehow L’Arche opens up our deepest hungers, our deepest loneliness and our deepest sensitivities. I have never felt so at home and so lonely at the same time. I have never felt so abandoned and so supported at the same time. I never felt such a need for love while being so surrounded by loving people. It seems that L’Arche leads us to the inner place where we most deeply experience our immense desire for communion and at the same time the total impossibility to see that desire fulfilled in the place where we live. In L’Arche – at least for me — the extremes touch each other. Loneliness and joy; depression and ecstasy; communion and alienation ("Letter to Marcus," January 20, 1990).

The depression went on for the better part of a year. His letters during this time are emotional and raw. However, what these letters allow us to see is how he responds to his pain, how he lives it, and ultimately how it becomes the reason he could write The Prodigal Son and say with such conviction: “All I want to say to you is that you are the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God.” He came to this deep knowing of God’s unconditional, merciful love because of L’Arche.

What were some surprises you experienced as you researched Father Nouwen’s previously-unpublished letters for this book?

If there was one surprise for me it was how deep his anguish was. On one day during the selection process I seemed to find every letter he wrote about his anguished loneliness. It was the most difficult day of the project.

However, generally, there is a comforting similarity between the man you meet in his books and the man behind the letters.

On a personal level, what resonates most strongly for you in the life and writing of Father Nouwen?

I think it is the way he lived his life that is most powerful for me. I selected each letter to stand on its own but I also wanted to paint a portrait, a kind of impressionist painting, that shows Henri as a man who struggled to live an authentic life and succeeded. A recurring theme in his life and letters is faithfulness. It is an old-fashioned word in some ways, and might initially be off-putting. Our world doesn’t value faithfulness. It values fresh, new, the latest—but Henri has helped me come to see that living with integrity requires discipline, faithfulness and daily attentiveness to the deeper Mystery of which we are part.

Henri has also taught me the importance of where I put my attention. Many letters talk about “asking the right questions” or “shifting our gaze from this to that.” Henri was a master at unmasking illusions. He liked to describe “the social milieu” and its effect on the spiritual life. He challenges us to be counter-cultural: to seek silence when the world is clamoring for attention, to opt for downward mobility instead of success, and to be true to ourselves even at the risk of unpopularity. God is the still, small voice. We must be attentive to hear it.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Father Henri Nouwen, what would it be?

I have heard that Pope Francis has a copy of Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son on his bedside table, so I assume he is already familiar with Henri Nouwen.

On a recent trip to France, I saw on banners in every Catholic Church copies of Rembrandt’s painting of this parable to announce the Year of Mercy. I believe Pope Francis and Henri Nouwen are kindred spirits. Both believe in the unconditional love of a merciful God.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 6 months ago
He was an awesome Teacher. He is buried in a small Sacred Heart Cemetery just north of Toronto, Ontario. I have visited a few times. May his soul and all of the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. in Christ,
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 6 months ago

Amen.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 year 6 months ago
Fascinating interview, fascinating job, fascinating man. Thank you! I think I know what I'm going to give most all of my friends for Xmas: "love, Henri".

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