I’m not sure when I read my first book by Henri Nouwen, but I had to read more. In many ways this was odd because Henri was a Catholic priest and I an Evangelical pastor. But there was a depth and insight Henri had into our life with Christ that resonated with my spirit in a unique way. Over the years I read more, devouring most of his 40 or so books on the devotional life.
Several years ago, I wrote to Henri and asked his advice on some areas I was struggling with in my walk with the Lord. Within a few weeks He wrote me back, inviting me to spend a week with him in Toronto. I was amazed that this prolific author who had taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard would write me back, much less take the time to invest an entire week with me. Needless to say, I went to Toronto and had a life changing week of learning from Henri and a small group of about 25 others he had invited.
Henri taught me most of all from his example. He taught me the value of downward mobility. Like our Lord, Henri descended into greatness. Though a highly educated man, Henri chose to live in obscurity with a community of severely mentally handicapped people in Toronto. He was their pastor. Each week he spent his time bathing, feeding, and praying with people who couldn’t care for themselves. I vividly recall sitting around a large dinner table of these men and women, feeling very awkward, and watching Henri feel right at home. These men and women did not care how many books Henri had written or where he had taught, they just appreciated Henri because he loved them enough to be present with them.
I think the reason I related to Henri so much is that he and I shared a common struggle. We both tended to base our worth and our identity on our performance. In the midst of that struggle, Henri taught me what Philip Yancey called “a holy inefficiency.” Living with the handicapped instead of teaching at Harvard was inefficient, but it was also holy. Spending each morning in silent prayer in the basement of his house was inefficient, but it was also holy. Henri’s holy inefficiency taught me the value of being rather than doing. He taught me the value of prayer, not as a way to accomplish something for God, but as a way of drawing near to God and allowing Him to love me apart from my performance. Henri taught me that all ministry must flow from that place where I am in communion with God or else it is just another vain attempt to earn my belovedness.
Henri also taught me graciousness. The day before I left Toronto, he invited me into his simple little room where all his earthly belongings were stored. He took my hand and told me that I would always be a part of his community and I could return any time for help or friendship. It sounds so simple, but it was one of the most gracious and sincere things anyone has ever done for me. His graciousness was also demonstrated to me a couple of years later when I wrote him a hard letter after hearing him speak in San Francisco. I felt that he had compromised the truth, and I told him so. Within a few days, Henri’s reply came in the form of another letter. He explained why he said what he said, but more than anything else he was humble and gracious in his reply.
Though I continued to read his books, I never heard from Henri again. On September 21, 1996, Henri died of a sudden heart attack in his native Netherlands. Though I know he was far from perfect and there were many things we would disagree on, I still miss his example of holy inefficiency.
If you would like to read a book or two by Henri, here are a couple of my favorites: “The Return of the Prodigal” and “In the Name of Jesus”.