By Dan Clendenin

Last month at our public library I was surprised to find a new book by the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996). It’s called Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety (2019). It was a no-brainer to bring it home and read, but I wondered: is this really a new book by Nouwen, who died almost twenty-five years ago, or is it more likely a re-packaging of older material? The answer turned out to be both yes and no.

According to Gabrielle Earnshaw, a historian and the founding archivist of the Henri Nouwen Archives, this “never-before-published book” is based upon six talks that Nouwen gave during Lent at St. Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, back in 1985. Earnshaw transcribed and edited these talks into this genuinely new book.

On the other hand, this new book revisits old and familiar territory. And that’s good news, because some important truths need repeating. Nouwen published forty books that have sold over eight million copies and been translated into thirty languages. One of his editors liked to joke that he kept writing the same book over and over again. In that regard, Following Jesus is no exception.

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In particular, what endeared Nouwen to so many readers was how he wore his heart on his sleeve and made himself so publicly vulnerable. In book after book, beginning with Intimacy in 1969 (fifty years ago this year), Nouwen wrote not about intellectual theories or theological problems, but about personal struggles, like his chronic loneliness, his insatiable need for personal affirmation, his clinical depression, and a nervous breakdown.

This public vulnerability was very deliberate on his part: “I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.” This characteristic openness sometimes makes for painful reading, so much so that another Nouwen friend wryly observed that what was most personal might have been best kept private rather than shared so publicly.

In Following Jesus, for example, Nouwen writes: “When I think about how I live my life, and how others live theirs, I am amazed by how enormously needy I am. I am in need of affection. I am in need of attention. I am in need of affirmation. I am in need of praise. I am in need of influence, power, and success. I sense how strong these needs are in me and how strong they are in others.” Nor is this rhetorical exaggeration, as Michael Ford’s biography of Nouwen makes clear (Wounded Prophet).

When Nouwen delivered the lectures at St. Paul Church in 1985 that became the book Following Jesus, he was struggling. It was a pivotal year. 1985 was the year when he moved from the world of the best and the brightest to the world of the weak. After professorships at Notre Dame (1966–1968), Yale (1971–1981), and then Harvard (1983–1985), he made the most important decision of his life. He left Harvard and moved to Toronto, where for the last eleven years of his life (1985–1996) he served as the residential priest at Daybreak, a home for people with severe physical and mental disabilities that was founded by Jean Vanier.

In the introduction to his little book In the Name of Jesus (1989), Nouwen describes this time of transition. After twenty-five years in the priesthood, and as he was turning fifty, he began to experience “a deep inner threat.” He was praying poorly, living in isolation from others, preoccupied with being relevant, and sensing that his success in academia had placed his soul in peril. “I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for spiritual death.”

But Nouwen never leaves us there, with only our naked, wounded, and broken selves. After having embraced his own neediness, fears, and wounds, and shared them openly with the world, he encourages us to accept that we are nonetheless accepted by Him whose love never fails. This, he insists, is our true and ultimate identity as children of God.

Living among the weak, and “suddenly faced with my naked self,” was the starting point for Nouwen to discover this “true identity” as a child loved by God: “These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self — the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things — and forced me to claim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

During the four years that my family lived in Moscow (1991–1995), we would sometimes take the overnight train to St. Petersburg. There, we visited the Hermitage Museum that houses Rembrandt’s famous painting The Prodigal Son (1666). The painting is enormous (262 X 205 cm), and full of deep, dark reds and browns. In it, the bent over father places his gentle hands upon his kneeling son — with compassion, with tenderness, and without any questions about his many failures.

This painting, of course, is the subject of Nouwen’s single best-selling book, The Return of the Prodigal (1992), and the other theme that he never tired of repeating. What is God like? He is like an earthly father who does anything and everything to bequeath all that is best to his children. He embraces us and welcomes us home, no matter how lost we are. He is strong, affectionate, protective, impeccably safe, and unconditionally loving.

Thus, the old story is made new. It bears repeating, over and over, and never grows tired. In the words of Nouwen’s new book title, in following Jesus, we find our way home.

Dan Clendenin:

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