Henri Nouwen’s Life in Letters: A Review of ‘Love, Henri’
Review of 'Love, Henri'

I first met Henri Nouwen 10 years after he died. I was in an undergraduate class on Christian leadership (at a conservative Christian university, no less) and was assigned his book ‘In the Name of Jesus.’ It wasn’t long after that first encounter that we met again through ‘The Wounded Healer’ and then once more in ‘Life of the Beloved.’ And each time we met, I was encouraged and reminded of life’s center.

‘Love, Henri’ is a collection of Nouwen’s personal letters that span from 1973 until six weeks before his death in 1996. And though he’s been dead for twenty years, his voice is still very much alive. Several times in these letters, he gives encouragement to people who have lost loved ones to death and his words are always the same: “real love and real friendship is stronger than death” (pg. 299). He reminds those mourning of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). With Catholicism’s doctrine of the communion of saints serving as a background, Nouwen comforts with the thought that in a mysterious way, it’s good when our loved ones sleep in death because a spiritual connection is opened that would otherwise not be possible. As a non-Catholic, I can’t say I subscribe to the idea but I’d be lying if I said that the thought isn’t a soothing one. It is. And though Nouwen is passed, his words (if not his spirit) live on and continue to speak to us.

This book serves as a sort of piecemeal memoir and there are times when the vulnerability expressed by Nouwen almost makes the reader want to put the book down – as if we’ve stumbled on a diary we know we shouldn’t be reading. But these words call us to continue on, to journey with Henri, to learn how to walk through loneliness, pain, suffering, and death. Though complete on its own, I can imagine this book would be far more enlightening (as a window into Henri’s life) if read in tandem with a biography. But I suppose it all depends on what your purpose is in reading. If you’d like to hear Nouwen’s spiritual advice, this book alone will do. If you’re interested in how he lived his words, taking up a biography in addition would probably help flesh things out.

One of the things that most amazed me about this collection was the number and variety of people that Nouwen personally corresponded with. There are letters originally intended for a US Senator, nuns, fans of Nouwen’s writing, critics of his writing, businessmen, and even Mr. Rogers (Yes. That Mr. Rogers). And though Nouwen addresses countless issues and concerns, his advice is always threaded with grace and love. Even when responding to the ungracious, Nouwen is a model of humility and consideration. This alone provides a much needed refreshment when compared to the way so many communicate, argue, and disagree with one another in our modern, politically and religiously-charged world.

Conservative Christians will probably be more wary of this book than some of his other works since he touches briefly on the issue of homosexuality without condemning it as sin (though he doesn’t laud it either; he doesn’t say much at all about it; though he writes to two homosexual couples). However, there is so much in this book that’s worthwhile for the Christian to mine, regardless of his denominational (or non-denominational) persuasion, I wouldn’t let one or two issues keep me from the wheat that can be found – even if it is amid some chaff. And there is some chaff. Though most of it, for me, was centered around traditionally Catholic doctrine with which I disagree: Marian theology, etc. I approached this book like I approach every other spiritual writer: I test the words according to scripture and throw out that which doesn’t agree. And the fact is, this book contains much with which scripture does agree. From beginning to end, Nouwen sounds the same call as Jesus: care for the poor, justice for the wronged, healing for the sick, and love for all.

Though he might not have always succeeded, this collection of letters helps us to see that Nouwen did strive to live the way of Jesus, the way of love. And in these pages, he calls us to do the same.

“Love is not simply affection or friendship or eros, but true charity and charity is precisely loving our neighbors because of our love for God. Loving our neighbors, as Jesus calls us to do, means to give love without wanting anything in return.” (Page 226).

Disclaimer: I received this book from BloggingForBooks.com in exchange for my honest review.

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