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Lecturer reflects on life of influential theologian

| Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Henri Nouwen’s search for meaning led the Catholic priest and theologian to a Trappist monastery, Latin America, and finally, the L’Arche community, Andrea Smith Shappell said in a lecture Tuesday morning. The lecture, which detailed Nouwen’s roles as teacher, searcher and pastor, was part of the Center for Social Concerns’Lecturer  research lecture series.

Smith Shappell, associate director for theological reflection and summer service learning, said her interest in Nouwen began upon reading his works and meeting him while she was an undergraduate student at Notre Dame.

“I then looked forward to his visits to campus when I was working for the Center for Social Concerns in the early years. I also served on the board of the Henri Nouwen Society from 2005 to 2010,” she said.  

After his ordination, Nouwen asked for permission from his archbishop to study psychology, Smith Shappell said, which was an “unusual” request in 1957.

“Many Christians at that time perceived psychology to be an enemy of the faith, largely due to Freud’s influence,” she said. “But Nouwen believed that psychology dealt with issues that were important to the Church, particularly understanding human behavior in order to respond to the pastoral needs of humans.”

Nouwen completed his doctorate in psychology and received a fellowship at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, Smith Shappell said. The clinic was the birthplace of the field of “clinical pastoral education.”

“Nouwen drew upon his experience as a psychologist to bring the knowledge of counseling and human behavior into pastoral ministry. He also adapted the CPE model to serve a wide audience of Christians, from college students to parishioners,” she said.  

Smith Shappell said although Nouwen taught at prestigious institutions, published dozens of books and was a popular speaker, he was restless.

“He continually engaged in a process of discernment, a particular type of theological reflection in making decisions in light of faith,” he said. “For Henri, the continuing question was, what is God calling me to do?”

Nouwen taught at Yale from 1971 to 1981, and during this time he took sabbaticals at the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery in New York.

“Henri taught about solitude and inner freedom, but he struggled with his own compulsions to keep speaking, writing and teaching at a frantic pace. He needed to retreat from life at Yale to address his compulsions in prayer and solitude,” he said. “Nouwen was friends with the Genesee abbot, Dom Bamberger, and made the unusual request to become a temporary member of the monastery. … While at the abbey, Henri discovered the utter necessity of life in community as something he had craved. He reflected that his capacity for intimacy with God was his interrelated with his ability to love and live with other monks.”

After a few months at the monastery, Smith Shappell said, Nouwen became frustrated by the isolation of the abbey.

“Henri decided he wanted to return to Yale to write more and speak less, realizing that none of the problems he brought to the abbey had been resolved, nor would a longer stay help him,” he said.

During his time at Yale, Nouwen developed an interest in Latin America, Smith Shappell said.

“Through contacts with Maryknoll missioners, Henri made plans to spend six months in both Bolivia and Peru in 1981,” she said. ”He felt called to work in Peru, but after a few months, he recognized that he did not fit in, and those that lived with him, the Maryknoll missioners, recognized that as well.

“Henri felt the Maryknoll missioners were intensely individualistic in their struggle for justice and peace. His longing for a community of prayer was not compatible with their lifestyle nor did he agree with their more militaristic strain of liberation theology.”

Although few people have the ability to explore vocation by living in monasteries and traveling to South America, Smith Shappell said, “what we can learn from Henri is to continually listen to God’s call to deepen our attention to prayer and contemplation and to find ways to heed the call to action in response to injustice.”

Nouwen returned to the United States, Smith Shappell said, when he recognized that he was not called to live in Latin America, but inform others what was happening there.

“One way he did this was to join a Witness for Peace delegation, for a trip to the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. Witness for Peace was a movement against the U.S. involvement in the contra-war in Nicaragua in the 1980s,” she said. “Unlike the Vietnam War protests that were held in the United States, people traveled to Nicaragua’s war zones to see firsthand the effects of the war.”

After meeting with women who lost their husbands and sons in the war, Nouwen shared their stories in lectures across the United States.

“He wanted to show that what the U.S. was doing was, in his words, unjust, illegal and immoral,” she said.

Nouwen also proposed the concept of communal reconciliation, Smith Shappell said.

“Henri continually asked forgiveness for the sins that the U.S. government and citizens committed against the women and their country. His experience stretched the understanding of reconciliation: It wasn’t an individual sacrament, but there was need, in a way, to enter into communal reconciliation for social sin,” she said. “He toured the nation talking about this experience and the power of forgiveness. His lens, though, was always one of spirituality — a pastoral response.”

Nouwen did not choose to write or lecture about reconciliation or social sin, but he expressed his concern though his actions, Smith Shappell said.

“Nouwen is not known as a social justice activist, but he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. He protested against nuclear submarines Connecticut, and he toured the country to tell people what was really happening in Nicaragua,” she said.

In the third phase of his life, Nouwen lived in a L’Arche community, Smith Shappell said.

“L’Arche is a movement started by Jean Vanier in France, creating communities of people who have disabilities, who live with assistants. The assistants help them to reach the expression of their full humanity,” she said.

Smith Shappell said Nouwen’s move to the L’Arche community “meant counter-culturally embracing ‘downward mobility,’” a concept that was grounded in his understanding of the Incarnation.

“His experience living with the L’Arche community was the culmination of integrating his theology of downward mobility with his lived experience,” she said. “Downward mobility led Nouwen to a community where the core members did not read his books or know he wrote books.

“The accolades Henri had received as a well-known speaker and author were replaced with a community that appreciated him as a human being, to love and be loved. This was the home — the earthly home — that Henri had been searching for.”

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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

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