Letters on the Spiritual Life
Compilation of Henri Nouwen’s correspondence provides a remarkable insight into the life of this influential figure of 20th century Christianity
By Henri J.M. Nouwen
Published by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 978-1 473 63212 7
Reviewed by Martin Poole
There was a time when the writings of a Roman Catholic priest in love with his church would have to be delivered to a Baptist minister in a plain brown envelope or purchased surreptitiously under the counter. Thankfully those days have passed, otherwise many would be denied the deeply moving literary output of one focussed on deepening “his personal relationship with Jesus”.
Subtitled Letters on the Spiritual Life, this compilation of Henri Nouwen’s correspondence provides a remarkable insight into the life of this influential figure of twentieth century Christianity. Henri wrote 39 books and hundreds of articles on the spiritual life. He was widely in demand as an international speaker, while handling correspondence amounting to 50 letters a week.
Despite these calls on his time he managed to write as a contemplative, assiduously cultivating the inner spiritual life.
Reading this book is rather like listening to a person’s mobile phone conversation unable to hear the other caller. To assist with this information gap, helpful but very brief synopsises are given to introduce each letter. The subjects covered are diverse and include addressing broken relationships, calling to ministry, doctrinal questions, sexuality, danger of burn out, bereavement and even his own near death experience following a serious road accident.
From someone who clearly proclaims “The Bible is the basis of my life, a book I read every day..” Henri applies scripture to many of the issues he addresses. A recurring favourite scripture is the announcement to Jesus at his baptism “You are my beloved; on whom my favour rests”. He believes these words can be ascribed to all who follow Jesus, and a fundamental problem is the failure of believers to accept that they are loved unconditionally and God’s favour truly rests upon them.
Often known as “the wounded healer”, one cannot fail to be drawn to Henri who opens himself so fully, sharing his vulnerability, as he writes to a great variety of correspondents from all denominations and none. He speaks frequently of his own immense fatigue, times of great stress and recurring bouts of deep depression. In one dark moment Henri confesses to a correspondent asking about how to deal with temptation: “My own life is so broken with sin and ambiguities that I do not have the clarity of vision required to answer fully.” It's an echo of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7. I believe it is the recognition that here is one who knows the full heat of the spiritual battle that makes his writing so compelling.
While this collection of letters is hugely insightful I would suggest that any reader new to Nouwen should initially read one of his books and encounter first hand the fruit of Henri’s labour before engaging in the “tried in the fire” source which his letters so clearly reveal.
The Revd Martin Poole (retired Baptist Minister having served churches in Penarth,Godalming and Eastleigh)