Henri Nouwen’s Letters on the Spiritual Life: A Review

Four years after the Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen died9781101906354, Gabrielle Earnshaw began archiving his correspondence. Now, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death, she has collected some of these letters and released them as Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life (not to be confused with the essential oils company “Love Henri,” which I just learned about while writing this).

These letters span about twenty-two years of Nouwen’s life, from 1973, when he was teaching at Yale Divinity School, to his death in 1996 when he was pastor to the L’Arche community near Toronto. Each is prefaced with a brief intro that explains who the recipient was and the occasion of writing. Together, they depict a man who took friendship and his role as a pastor seriously, who cared deeply for people and wanted them to draw close to God. For example, he wrote this at the end of a letter evaluating a student’s paper:

By becoming one with us, God revealed himself as God to us. Thus the experience of our humanity as a forgiven weakness leads us to the heart of God’s love for us and to the center of His forgiving presence in our life. Therefore I think that your story is the story with which you can come to know God’s story better, and it is His story that makes our story worth living. (41)

While he wrote many books, he regarded his ministry of being present to people as the heart of his calling:

When I think about my life and my work, I think about it more as a way of being present to people with all I have. I have always tried to respond as honestly as I possibly could to the needs and concerns of the people who became part of my life, and I have tried to respond with whatever my own life has taught me. … I do not remember ever having to sit down “to write a book.” The publications that you know are more a result of speaking with people, sharing my own life with them and trying to give words to what often remains hidden under the threshold of our consciousness. (72)

As I read this book I learned much about the value of friendship, the need for vulnerability, and the nature of spiritual direction. These are letters from a man who reflected deeply on the spiritual life and who was deliberate about pointing his friends to the love of God in Christ. While he had many struggles of his own throughout his life—and these also come out in the letters—he always seemed to make time to help a friend in need. In fact, he wanted to use his own struggles to help others by being open about them. In this way, he thought, they would be “a source of consolation and healing.”

I was also struck by the value of archival work (my mind went in this direction in part because my wife trained as an archivist). I’m thankful to Gabrielle Earnshaw (and Sue Mosteller, Henri Nouwen’s literary executrix) for taking the time and effort to select and introduce these letters. They have given readers a wonderful gift.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book.