Descending with the mind into the heart

Henri Nouwen may be the gentlest writer imaginable, a nurturer of the inner person. His writing, like the prayer he advocates, “descends with the mind into the heart,” to borrow from Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse. Nouwen’s more devotional writings offer his readers a hand in the painful self-discovery he and fellow Catholic writer Thomas Merton advocate.

Merton’s writing influenced Nouwen’s understanding of his own vocation as a Catholic priest and writer. One may also often sense Merton in Nouwen’s thinking, but rarely in his feeling. Much of Merton’s best writing has a critical and prophetic bent, while most of Nouwen’s writing is pastoral. Even his more theoretical writing is mostly written to benefit pastors in their work. In most of Nouwen’s devotional writing, the mind is present but subservient to the heart, and it is rarely engaged in extraordinary service. We find mind enough, though, to make the descent into the heart.

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A friend gave me Seeds of Hope: a Henri Nouwen Reader, which served as my introduction to Nouwen. Editor Robert Durback worked closely with Nouwen in preparing the first edition, and the second edition was published shortly after Nouwen’s death in 1996 as a kind of early memorial. Durback draws from many of Nouwen’s best writings, some of which have not been reprinted since their first publications in obscure church periodicals. The second edition is short – 213 pages – but its size seems to suit a writing style that has the feel of a pleasant and unassuming pastoral call.

Durback arranges Nouwen’s writings topically, and one of the best chapters is “Advent: Waiting.” Most of this chapter involves Elizabeth and Mary’s actions and patience as the seed – John and Jesus, respectively – grew within them. Nouwen concludes:

People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something else.

The months Elizabeth and Mary were alone together reminds me of the most difficult months of an identity crisis, when I had to begin to understand a patience in hope. Nouwen and a handful of other writers seemed to wait with me, offering me the lessons and the mercy their own struggles taught them.


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