'Way of the Heart' conference celebrates Henri Nouwen's ministry

Henri Nouwen in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Society)
Henri Nouwen in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Society)

by Jennifer Vosters

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This summer, the Henri Nouwen Society is hosting an international conference to celebrate one of the 20th century's most significant spiritual leaders.

"Way of the Heart: Exploring the Inner Journey Through the Lens of Henri Nouwen" will take place June 9-11 at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. It will be a "feast" of fellowship and reflection for longtime Nouwen readers and newcomers alike, featuring speeches and seminars by prominent spiritual voices including Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Shane Claiborne, St. Joseph Sr. Sue Mosteller, David Haas, and others.

The conference marks the 20th anniversary of Nouwen's death in 1996.

"We want it to be a transformative experience for people," said Karen Pascal, Henri Nouwen Society executive director, "all in a beautiful, natural setting." Attendees are expected from all over the world including Canada, the U.S., England, and the Netherlands.

As a priest, writer, and theologian, Henri Nouwen began to set himself apart in the 1960s when he came to the United States from the Netherlands to study psychology, hoping to understand the connections between theology, spirituality, and the human psyche. He taught at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, and Yale University, where he and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley became the first Catholic faculty members at the Divinity School. But he was unhappy in the competitive university environment, which often ran counter to his deep conviction of God's gentle, unconditional love.

"Part of his gift was announcing the movement of God," Pascal said. "He saw the movements of God without boundaries, and he wanted to be part of that."

Nouwen marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He traveled to Latin America and back multiple times to learn about the theological and sociopolitical developments there before touring U.S. universities to announce what he'd seen. And after meeting with Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche international community network that welcomes people with disabilities, he retired from teaching to become pastor of the L'Arche Daybreak Community near Toronto in 1986, where he lived until his death. His friendship with a man with profound disabilities became the subject of his last book, Adam: God's Beloved.

Nouwen's 40 books, including his 1992 bestseller The Return of the Prodigal Son, continue to reach readers of all ages in their contemplation of life's joy, pain, and uncertainty while affirming God's universal mercy and redemption.

Rolheiser, author and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, will deliver one of the keynote addresses at the conference. He believes what sets Nouwen apart was his capacity to translate his personal experiences into deep spiritual truths, all with a clear, accessible writing style.

"He brought in a new vocabulary for the faith and invented a language that the rest of us now use," Rolheiser said. "When Nouwen talked, it was like someone talking into your own ear with the language of the heart -- simpler, more direct, talking about his weaknesses but not being exhibitionistic."

Nouwen's lifelong struggle with depression, anxiety, sexuality, and loss -- and the way he translated his suffering into writing -- touches people of different faiths and backgrounds.

"These personal crises -- psychological and emotional -- drove him very deep," said Rolheiser. "He got to know the human heart, and people naturally relate to that."

Mosteller, a colleague and friend of Nouwen's from the L'Arche Daybreak Community, also points to Nouwen's unique capacity to translate his remarkable insight into readable language.

"He was able to articulate the movements of the heart and his experiences, both wonderful and difficult, in a way where I and so many others were able to say, 'He understands me,' " she said.

Nouwen's words attract readers across and outside the Catholic tradition, which Mosteller believes Nouwen would want.

"Young people are not looking for perfect Christians but honest Christians, honest with their own struggles and doubts and shortcomings," Claiborne, cofounder of the Simple Way new monastic community in Philadelphia, said. "Our wounds empower us to connect with others. We're all recovering from something, and that's what Henri Nouwen brings out."

Haas, a composer and author, said his recent songs and book, Welcome, Faithful Presence, was inspired by his engagement with Nouwen's work. He will speak at the conference about incorporating Nouwen's wisdom into Catholic, ecumenical, and interfaith liturgical settings.

"To me, Henri's writings are contemporary 'Gospels' -- documents that speak to the experience of Christ in the Christian community," he said. "Prior to Henri, I do not think anyone truly tapped into the co-mingling of theology, spirituality, and psychology. It set the vision of all his writing and wisdom."

Perhaps Vanier's words best describe Nouwen: a genius fueled by anguish, a wounded healer whose radical trust in God's love changed the way today's believers approach their faith.

"The genius of his choices and words was his effort to care for people," said Mosteller. "What I hope for the conference is that we all follow Henri's example so that we can grow in love."

[Jennifer Vosters is a recent graduate of Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., who originally hails from Milwaukee, Wis.]

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