I have just finished reading “God’s Beloved”, Michael O’Laughlin’s moving and inspiring biography of Henri Nouwen. O’Laughlin sub-titles the book ‘a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen’, a suitably descriptive comment. The book carefully explores Nouwen and his spirituality and, in so doing, offers a range of insights about the spiritual life.
O’Laughlin spends quite a bit of time exploring Nouwen’s weaknesses in a way that seems supremely appropriate. I can’t imagine that Nouwen would have objected. It seems to me that Nouwen recognised the value of vulnerability, a part of his life especially discovered and emphasised through his involvement in L’Arche. As O’Laughlin comments: “Henri teaches us that we grow in holiness by becoming more completely ourselves and acknowledging our authentic feelings and failures.” (p. 85)
Another important element of Nouwen’s thinking emphasised by O’Laughlin is his engaging with people in a way that reflects Jesus doing precisely the same. O’Laughlin: “Jesus scandalized others when he healed on the Sabbath, and he then explained that human beings were more important than the days of the week. Henri many times went right around the rules as well, as long as a greater truth was served.” (p. 120)
In a similar vein, O’Laughlin separately writes: “The world that Henri saw around him was full of people. Their humanity attracted him, and their need for light and inspiration called out to him, but that was not what made him write so creatively or love so many of them. Instead, Henri Nouwen’s considerable contribution to Christian spirituality was based on a decision, renewed again and again, to be true to himself.” (p. 162)
In short, Nouwen felt himself called to a ministry of care and concern. He simply wanted to share and express God’s love in practical ways. In so doing, he provides a helpful, but challenging, model.