Principal architects of our spiritual wisdom: Thomas Merton & Henri Nouwen

Principal architects of our spiritual wisdom: Thomas Merton & Henri NouwenMichael W. Higgins

This the second of two articles on Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen which explore some of the commonalities to be found in their work as spiritual diarists. The focus of this article is Henri Nouwen. Michael W. Higgins is Professor of Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut.

Henri Nouwen's interest in Merton dates back several decades. As the monk-psychiatrist John Eudes Bamberger observes: Henri Nouwen met Merton but once, yet by a sympathy of feeling and perception he has understood the central motivation force of Merton's life: meditation and prayer. He has seen this more truly and profoundly than some who, while claiming to be intimate friends of Merton, have altogether missed the point of his life and work through lack of feeling for his vision of God, humanity, and the cosmos. There is nothing surprising in this fact. True understanding depends not only on intelligence and proximity but above all on the heart.1

Nouwen's approach through the heart seems right for him, but he also approached Merton via his diaries, the consummate record of his daily struggles, joys, aspirations and personal defeats. As Nouwen says: Merton was the reporter of his own inner life. He put his daily feelings and thoughts under the critical eye of the Gospel, and in the depth of solitude he found God and other human beings. This cleansing was necessary before he could detach himself from his preoccupations to touch the world " which was being wrenched apart by racial discrimination, violence, and poverty " with the hand of compassion.2

Nouwen too was a 'reporter of his own inner life' " some forty books and a thousand articles " although only a few were as overtly autobiographical as a diary or journal. He came to understand near the end of his life that the woundedness of others, his own woundedness, were not simply existential realities to be recorded, analyzed, probed and exorcized but rather a summons to intense and authentic living. In an entry written some eight months prior to his death, he wrote:

I am increasingly convinced that it is possible to live the wounds of the past not as gaping abysses that cannot be filled and therefore keep threatening us but as gateways to new life.3

These 'gateways to new life' constitute a spiritual cartography of their own: they define the terrain, the hills and valleys, contours and lineaments, of a psychological and emotional life aching into holiness.

Nouwen's questing spirit can be discovered in his numerous and varied enterprises all designed to further define the geography of the heart. A restless figure, he relentlessly sought meaning, stability and focus in several quarters: in a clinic and psychiatry institute; in a monastery; in a barrio; in a university (four to be precise); and latterly in a L'Arche home.

Throughout it all he knew that the primary transit, the essential journey, was going to be 'from the house of fear to the house of love.'

In our contemporary society, with its emphasis on accomplishment and success, we often live as if being productive is the same as being fruitful. Productivity gives us a certain notoriety and helps take away our fear of being useless. But if we want to live as followers of Jesus, we must come to know that products, successes, and results often belong more to the house of fear than to the house of love.4

Nouwen's long celebrity, his prominence as a retreat giver, keynoter, and lecturer, his enviable commitment to his countless number of friends and admirers, his speaking and publishing schedule (maniacal by most standards), his social activism coupled with a desire for interiority, his graduate students and fellow core members " all these placed enormous pressure on his dwindling time.

While on his final sabbatical he mused on the then status of his endeavours, his inadequacies for coping, and his inevitable aging:

...what to do with our lives between ages sixty and eighty. For me this is an increasingly important question, which is not without anxiety. Over the years I have built up a certain reputation. People think of me as a Catholic priest, a spiritual writer, a member of a community with mentally handicapped people, a lover of God, and a lover of people. It is wonderful to have such a reputation. But lately I find I get caught in it and I experience it as restricting. Without wanting to, I feel a certain pressure within me to keep living up to that reputation and to do, say, and write things that fit the expectations of the Catholic church, L'Arche, my family, my friends, my readers. I'm caught because I'm feeling that there is some kind of an agenda that I must follow in order to be fruitful. But since

I am in my sixties, new thoughts, feelings, emotions, and passions have arisen within me that are not all in line with my previous thoughts, feelings, emotions, and passions. So I find myself asking, 'What is my responsibility to the world around me, and what is my responsibility to myself?

What does it mean to be faithful to my vocation? Does it require that I be consistent with my earlier way of living or thinking, or does it ask for the courage to move in new directions, even when doing so may be disappointing for some people?' I am more and more aware that Jesus died when he was in his early thirties. I have already lived more than thirty years longer than Jesus.

How would Jesus have lived and thought if he had lived that long? I don't know.

But for me, many new questions and concerns emerge at my present age that weren't there in the past. They refer to all the levels of life: community, prayer, friend- ship, intimacy, work, church, God, life and death. How can I be free enough and let the questions emerge without fearing the consequences? I know I am not yet completely free because the fear is still there.5

It was difficult to let go of the fear; it was close to impossible. Earlier " in the late 1980s " Nouwen had experienced clinical depression, found himself levelled by emotional chaos and disabled by self-doubt. In time he would write about this wrenching experience of love and vulnerability in his highly confessional The Inner Voice of Love. He had also alluded to his dark night of the soul in his classic The Return of the Prodigal Son, identifying variously with all the figures of the Rembrandt painting of the Lucan parable. Poised to return home " his sabbatical year would bring him to the Netherlands, reunite him with his father in a special way, effect a type of reconciliation, and to some degree still his anguished soul " Nouwen adumbrates the reconciliation when he focuses on the spiritual quandary and emotional conflict of the elder son of the parable: Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery? It is clear that alone, by myself, I cannot find myself. More daunting than healing myself as the younger son is healing myself as the elder son. Confronted here with the impossibility of self- redemption, I now understand Jesus' words to Nicodemus: 'Do not be surprised when I say: 'You must be born from above.'" Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen. I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights. There is no doubt in my mind about this because I have tried so hard in the past to heal myself from my complaints and failed. . .and failed. . .and failed, until I came to the edge of complete emotional collapse and even physical exhaustion. I can only be healed from above, where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God. 'With God, everything is possible.'6

But it isn't so easy. As Nouwen will continue to record " in journal form, a homily or essay " his peregrinatio or going forth into strange lands, metaphorical and literal, is a genuinely post-modern undertaking in search of spiritual integration, holiness, which is increasingly defined in our time by its tenuousness, fragility, incompleteness, its summons to exploration, its disconcert- ing capacity to destabilize, to surprise, to awaken, to change.

As much in their anguish as in their self- honesty " sometimes searingly forthright "Merton and Nouwen shared corrosive bouts of self-doubt, compassion for the conflicted and the confounded, irrepressible energy, and almost pathological restiveness. They were also surprised by their deaths " Merton's by accidental electrocution in Thailand and Nouwen by heart attack in Holland. In a way the drama of their passing only in part explains our fascination with their lives. After all, it is the drama of their spirituality that compels us to attend.

As the Jesuit Drew Christiansen, Editor in Chief of America, observes: 'what is integrating and unifying for religious people is not some theological framework but their experience of holiness in others and the striving for holiness in their own lives, and through the prism of that holiness the overwhelming holiness of God.'7 By gleaning the holiness of Nouwen and Merton in their numerous writings " and most specifically in their diaries " these two twentieth-century masters of the spiritual life allow us " if only vicariously " into the temple of their respective souls, pioneers extraordinaire of the landscape of the holy.