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Birthday of Henri J. M. Nouwen

January 24
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

Henri J.M. Nouwen, the prolific Christian spiritual writer, psychologist, and theologian was born on this day in 1932 in Nijkerk, Holland. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1957. Nouwen taught at Notre Dame (1966 - 1968) before becoming a professor at Yale Divinity School from 1971 - 1981. During this period of his life, he spent seven months at a Trappist monastery where he deepened his prayer life. In 1981, he went to Latin America to live for a year with the poor; there he developed a spirituality of social involvement. Then he returned to the U. S. where he taught theology at Harvard from 1983 to 1985. Nouwen found what he called "true home" as the pastor of Daybreak, a L'Arche community in Toronto that provides a home for mentally and physically handicapped people.

Nouwen wrote, "The spiritual life is a reaching out to our innermost self, to our fellow human beings and to our God." For him, writing was a devotional discipline in which he conveyed his struggles and vulnerabilities as a "wounded healer." Nouwen broke through denominational barriers and found a diverse audience including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodox believers, Jews, and secularists. His interest in peace and social justice was an attempt to tear down the walls between contemplation and action, spirituality and politics. In his ministry as pastor of a community of people with developmental disabilities, Nouwen discovered what he called a new adventure in grace among individuals who were broken in their bodies but had a whole lot of wholeness to share with others.

To Name this Day:

Here is a brief sampler of quotations from his writings to contemplate on his birthday, beginning with one about the importance of celebrating such a day!

Birthdays
"Celebrating a birthday reminds us of the goodness of life, and in this spirit we really need to celebrate people's birthdays every day, by showing gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, and affection. These are ways of saying: 'It's good that you are alive; it's good that you are walking with me on earth. Let's be glad and rejoice. This is the day that God has made for us to be and to be together.' "
— from Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

The Fragility and Beauty of Life
"The beauty and preciousness of life is intimately linked with its fragility and mortality. We can experience that every day — when we take a flower in our hands, when we see a butterfly dance in the air, when we caress a little baby. Fragility and giftedness are both there, and our joy is connected with both."
— from With Burning Hearts

Reverse Mission
"The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the 'normal,' the gay have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made victims God has chosen to be bearers of good news."
— from Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

Remembering Others
"As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives."
— from Bread for the Journey

Don't Judge Others
"In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation."
— from Bread for the Journey

Our Spiritual Parents
"Joy is hidden in sorrow and sorrow in joy. If we try to avoid sorrow at all costs, we may never taste joy, and if we are suspicious of ecstasy, agony can never reach us either. Joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth."
— from Bread for the Journey

The Community of Our Hearts
"The communion of saints is not just a network of connections between people. It is first and foremost the community of our hearts."
— from Bread for the Journey

Imagine a Circle of Love
"Just imagine all the people on this planet holding hands and forming one large circle of love. We say, ' I can't imagine.' But God says, 'That's what I imagine, a whole world not only created but also living in my image.' "
— from Bread for the Journey

Being the Beloved
"As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus' public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, 'You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.' In this core experience, Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he really is.

"There is in each of us an inner voice of Love that says: 'You are the Beloved of God!' I want you to claim your Belovedness. You don't have to get caught in searches that lead nowhere. Neither do you have to become the victim of a manipulative world or get trapped in any kind of addiction. You can choose to reach out now for true inner freedom and find it ever more fully. . . . From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are."
from Spiritual Direction

Our Companions on the Journey
Dear God,
As you draw me ever deeper into your heart,
I discover that my companions on the journey
are women and men
loved by you as fully and as intimately as I am.
In your compassionate heart,
there is a place for all of them.
No one is excluded.
Give me a share in your compassion, dear God
so that your unlimited love may become visible
in the way I love my brothers and sisters.
Amen"
— from With Open Hands

To read more inspiring thoughts from Henri Nouwen, and to practice them in your daily life, sign up for our 40-part e-course, available on-demand so you choose your own start date and frequency, on Practicing Spirituality with Henri J.M. Nouwen.

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Henri J. M. Nouwen