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Priest-author's letters a collection to be treasured

By Brian T. Olszewski
Posted: 6/16/2017

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This is the cover of "Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life" by Henri J. M. Nouwen, edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. The book is reviewed by Brian T. Olszewski. (CNS)

"Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life" by Henri J. M. Nouwen, edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. Convergent (New York, 2016). 351 pp., $24.

Even for those of generations in which "letters" mean messages sent in an electronic medium, often quickly read and deleted, it can be endearing to pull from an envelope a piece of copy handwritten or typed decades ago and to feel what the recipient may have felt in reading the sender's words.

When the writer of those letters is Father Henri Nouwen, today's reader will -- depending upon the topics and the people Father Nouwen addressed -- experience the faith, struggles, compassion, pastoral outreach and, most of all, love that defined this renowned priest's life.

"Love, Henri" is comprised of letters written between 1973 and 1996 and culled from correspondence donated to the Nouwen archives. The letters, used with permission of the recipients, are grouped into three parts, each, according to editor Gabrielle Earnshaw, representing "significant themes" in the Dutch-born priest's life.

As acclaimed as he was as priest, professor, psychologist and writer, Father Nouwen was not immune to many of the things about which people wrote to him, e.g., broken relationships, rejection, finding intimacy, death of loved ones, vulnerability, depression, crises of faith and discernment of vocation.

Thus, the content of his letters are not the words of textbooks and lecture notes, but rather words of the heart. Whether it is to a wife whose husband has been unfaithful to her, or to the late U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, charged with ethics violations, or to a priest struggling with his vocation, Father Nouwen replies in a pastoral manner, combining prayerful encouragement with supportive, loving words. Throughout, the underlying message is always, "You are loved by God."

Within the letters, there are simple sentences that offer much about which to think and pray, e.g.:

-- "I need many conversions to be able to be what I am called to be."

-- "Celibacy is not easy, but it is a small price for the gift it offers."

-- "America is such a world in need of Jesus."

In 1995, as part of his spiritual direction for Joan Kroc, philanthropist and wife of Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's hamburger chain, Father Nouwen provided "A Reflection on Unconditional Love." Readers will find practical spiritual guidance in it, too: "Always be kind, open to listen, willing to talk and generous in forgiving, but never at the cost of losing your freedom as a child of God" and "Be very patient. What seems impossible one year might be quite possible the next."

Each letter is preceded by a short explanation about the person or people to whom Father Nouwen is writing and why. This context is an asset in understanding the gist of the exchanges.

Those who have read Father Nouwen and/or have read about him will be familiar with the themes and tone of his work. For them, these letters will solidify their view of him.

Those who are unfamiliar with the priest-author might find this book an awkward introduction. For a better understanding of the man, they would do well to start elsewhere in getting to know him, e.g., Father Nouwen's "Seeds of Hope" and "Jesus: A Gospel," or "Henri Nouwen: His Life and Vision" by Michael O'Laughlin. After reading those or other works, "Love, Henri" will make an impact.

Whether warranted or not, "treasury" is often used to describe a volume of stories. While not described as such, treasury is a fitting descriptor for "Love, Henri."

In her introduction, Earnshaw notes "each letter in this volume tells a story." As they imagine the envelopes in which the letters arrived and the paper on which they were written, readers will find Father Nouwen's words in these letters are, in fact, responses to their own stories. They should be treasured.

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Olszewski has written for and edited diocesan publications for more than 40 years.