The Spirit in the Letter: a book review

There was a time I didn’t know who Henri Nouwen was. His name wasn’t bandied about very often in the church I grew up in. I was in my twenties before I discovered him. He had already passed away. I was in a Christian bookstore and saw a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged man with disheveled hair and aviator-framed bifocals. It was a display for a book of remembrances from those touched by Nouwen’s life.

I didn’t buy the book but I got hold of some Nouwen’s other books (they are called legion for they are many). I read Reaching Out, and a couple of his shorter works.  My appreciation for Nouwen continued to grow. Books like The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, Making All Things New, and In the Name of Jesus have stamped themselves on my heart and I return to them each every so often. I’ve appreciated the depth of Nouwen’s spiritual insight, his warm pastoral concern and the vulnerability of his reflections.

NouwenLove, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life reveals a less public and polished Nouwen (the one with the disheveled hair).  This collection of letters, collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, reveal Nouwen at three distinct stages of life. The letters in Part I (December 1973-1985) are from the period where Nouwen taught at Harvard and Yale but felt called away from academia to L’Arche, a community of care sharing life with the profoundly disabled. Part II (1986-1989), has letters from Nouwen’s early days at L’Arche, his interpersonal struggles, and his fight with depression and anxiety.  Part III (1990-1996) contains letters from Nouwen’s final years where he felt freer and more at ease.

There is a big range in these letters. Some of them are addressed to readers or folks whom he led in retreat asking for spiritual life or overcoming struggles. Some letters were to friends whom he has shared life with and confidants he trusts. Some letters were from colleagues and fellow authors with whom he shares an affinity and mutual academic interest who he wished to encourage. Some letters were for people he was planning a retreat or conference with. Nouwen is attentive to each type of recipient. Several times he sent along a copy of one of his books.

I like books of letters and have read several. Letters reveal some of the thinking behind an author’s published works and clarify their ideas. They give us a glimpse of how a person cares for those in their sphere of influence. I really appreciate this collection for the way it reveals Nouwen to me and clarifies his thinking. Some of these letters describe the angst Nouwen felt as he struggled with his sexuality and his desire to remain faithful to his vocation (Nouwen was same-sex attracted but called to the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church). Other letters reveal Nouwen sharpening his thought in conversation with friends, or clarifying his thinking for inquirers.

One gem I unearthed reading this, was his response to Sister Anna Callahan (letter dated October 31, 1988). He clarifies his Wounded Healer concept in response to a paper she wrote, “You write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants[sic].’ This is incorrect. It doesn’t really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds but that we minister best when we have recognized our needs and have attended to our own wounds”(195).

I highly recommend this book for Nouwen fans. Readers of Nouwen will be familiar with many of Nouwen’s ideas, but seeing how he responds to readers who contact them in the midst of their own dark night, or colleagues who are struggling with their vocation, showcase  Nouwen’s pastoral skill and deep love for people. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for my honest review.

The Heretic said to the Pope. . .(a book review)

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papacy, and chose Francis as his papal name, people got excited.  One person who watched with interest was former Dominican Matthew Fox. Fox is the founder of the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality.  He is a long time advocate of environmentalism, the inclusion of women in the priesthood, queer theology and a host of other progressive causes. Because Fox is a lover of the environment and a critic of the institutional church, he is excited by the Pope’s choice of papal name, and some of the things the pope has said and done which signal a different tone than the Vatican ‘business as usual.’ Fox’s Letters to Pope Francis are (as the title suggests) letters to the pope. These epistles both name Fox’s hopes and areas where he thinks that he feels that change needs to come to Catholic church.

Fox has a bit of an axe to grind. The previous two popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) are partially responsible for his teaching being regarded as suspect in the Church and his ultimate dismissal from the Dominican order. So he has a bone to pick with the institutional church and hopes that Francis signals a movement towards reform  of the church.  Some of his criticisms stick, like where he faults the Church for its handling of clergy sexual abuse.  Despite his bald progressive agenda, his hope for Francis papacy is less grand: he hopes that the Vatican would decentralize power and foster greater theological openness and freedom.  So these letters are pleas for change, often referencing Francis’s own words and actions.

If you like books where ex-Catholics lecture the pope, you’ll probably like this book.  I am not Catholic and resonate with some of Fox’s critiques of where the institutional church has run amok, but I am probably closer to the pope in my theological commitments (i.e.  orthodoxy). Fox’s Creation spirituality gets a little weird (or at least a little vague).  I think some of Fox’s criticisms of the Catholic church’s practice are incisive, while others seem the rambling musings of someone embittered by their struggle against church authority.  I found myself moved by some of his arguments but not particularly swayed.

I would give this book three stars. I think that Fox’s history in the Roman Church, and his read of Christian history gives him an interesting perspective on how and where the Church is moving.  I love that Fox calls Francis to commit to Creation care, Justice for the poor, and ecclesiastical reform in the spirit of his namesake.  I also think that Fox named well a lot of people’s frustration with the institutional church; however I don’t buy all his answers about what Francis (and by extension the Catholic church) should do.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book via Speak Easy in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review.