hero default image
Prolific spiritual author Henri Nouwen often reads sad, lonely, and anguished. But that
belies the fact that, in real life, he was also a lot of fun.
When I tell personal stories about him or show videotapes of his presentations, participants in my Nouwen seminars and retreats are delighted to be in touch with his playful side.
Even his most heartfelt presentations were filled with humor and buoyancy, as he danced around, arms waving and hands gesturing wildly, eyes protruding and neck stretching to make a point, straining with every fiber of his being to reach an audience with spiritually profound insights.
When I first studied with him at Yale Divinity School in 1973, he arranged a Jesuitturned-clown to serve as an artist-in-residence for two weeks.
The mime interrupted our class one session and Henri grinned, amused like a kid and puzzled, “Oh, so you’d like to take over the lecture?”
The mime took Henri’s place at the lectern, and without saying a word, imitated his body language and gestures and facial expressions with such accuracy and detail that we laughed aloud and had fun at Henri’s expense.
In an early book, Clowning in Rome, Henri described spiritual leaders as the bumbling, stumbling clowns of the circus, hoping to teach others by our own awkward fumbling in the spiritual life. We are not the “virtuosi” he wrote, not the masters of the trapeze or the lion tamers or the skilled riders of horses, zebras, and elephants.
“They are like us,” we say of circus clowns as we witness their very human antics. Henri felt that ministers (by which he meant every Christian) serve best when we offer our vulnerabilities, our own woundedness, to others, as in another early work in which he depicts the minister as The Wounded Healer.
I describe Henri’s books as a series of “wounds with a view,” sometimes raw expositions of his own pain, challenges, loneliness, and yearning for the spiritual life. That’s why he touches his readers so deeply.
And that’s why he was drawn to the poor and marginalized of the world, whether those living in poverty in Latin America, people with disabilities of the L’Arche community, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, or spiritually impoverished seminarians and churchgoers.
All of these had something to teach Henri—and us—about the spiritual life. Each group also had something to teach Henri about play and simple pleasures. The spiritual mentor who once wrote of ministers as clowns rather than virtuosi came full circle toward the end of his life when he met and traveled briefly with The Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a European circus.
In the video, Angels over the Net, Henri is clearly having fun gazing in wonder as they perform double and triple jumps high above their net. He himself skips toward the circus with a child with Down syndrome, and together they playfully bounce on the circus net.
When he tried to explain his newfound wish to be a trapeze artist, his Dutch accent and his earlier extended stays at a Trappist monastery prompted hearers to think he wanted to become a Trappist rather than a trapeze performer!
Though Henri taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he found his final home with people with developmental disabilities, who had little idea of his accomplishments but who loved him just for being with them. They brought out his playful side, the fun of living in the moment.
And for Henri, living in the moment was touching eternal life here and now.
Dive into more of Henri Nouwen’s teachings by registering for An Open Receptive Place: Henri Nouwen’s Spirituality, this September.
Rev. Chris Glaser will be leading the online virtual CTS Spiritual Formation retreat, An Open Receptive Place: Henri Nouwen’s Spirituality September 17-20 this year.
Chris is the author of a dozen books, including Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on
Nouwen’s Legacy (2002).
He writes a free weekly blog, Progressive Christian Reflections. Visit his website for his bio and books: www.chrisglaser.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.