Many people have come to know Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) through his prolific writings on the spiritual life. John Mogabgab came to know him personally—from 1975 to 1980, Dr. Mogabgab served as an assistant to Nouwen. Recently, he edited A Spirituality of Homecoming, the latest in an Upper Room Books series based on Nouwen’s writings.
Dr. Mogabgab is special projects editor at Upper Room Books and the founding editor of Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. He spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.
You knew Henri Nouwen personally. What was the connection?
I met Henri in 1975, when I was at graduate school in Yale’s Religious Studies department and he was teaching pastoral theology at the Divinity School. Our friendship began when I [helped him proofread and edit] a diary based on his time in a Trappist monastery, which was later published as The Genesee Diary. From that initial contact there followed five years at Yale Divinity School where I was his teaching, research and editorial assistant, and our friendship continued after I left Yale in 1980. Henri very generously supported, with his writing and encouragement, the magazine that I started here at the Upper Room, called Weavings.
What was Nouwen like as a person?
Three words that come to my mind: availability, generosity and sensitivity. He was incredibly available to students and to the many other people who came to meet with him. One person, who was not a student, met with him, and Henri said, “You know, I’m not the person you need to talk with. The person you need to talk with is in Hartford. Here, let me give you the keys to my car, and you can drive up there. I will call him right now and arrange for you to see him.” This was a person he’d never met before. Years later, I met that person at a conference, and he said, “That encounter changed my life.”
Henri was extremely generous not only with his time and his presence but with his money. One of the things that he did was to sign over all the royalties for one of his books to Yale Divinity School to underwrite student scholarships.
The word sensitivity comes to mind because on the one hand he was this incredibly well-educated, very sophisticated person, spiritually and psychologically. He was a trained psychologist. And yet at the same time he was very childlike in his capacity to be stunned or fascinated by ordinary things most of us take for granted.
He was also a very high-energy person. He moved through his days swiftly, breathlessly, for most of us trying to keep up with him.
Looking back, how did knowing him affect your spiritual journey?
[Our friendship] is the closest I will ever come to a true, classic master/apprentice relationship. I learned from him by watching how he did it. I learned how to pray by praying with him. I learned how to develop classes on the spiritual life and spiritual life retreats by seeing how he did, and I learned how to lead them by being in his presence as he led them. I watched how he was with someone coming and asking for guidance. I think I learned from him how to write about the spiritual life. And I think I gained from him a vision of the spiritual life, lived out in our ordinary daily human existence. The components of that are simply solitude, time in prayer, community, life with others and practicing the art and discipline of love, and then ministry reflecting that love that God has for us out into the world in various ways.
I understand this book is intended for study during the season of Lent. How does the theme of “homecoming” relate to Lent?
Henri understood Lent to be a time of returning to what he called the center—a time to pay attention to all the things that distract us from our life with God, and carry them into the center of our being—which, in biblical thinking, is the heart. And the heart is also where God dwells with us, Henri says. So Lent is a time to return to the heart and to stand before God in prayer, with a listening heart. A heart open to receive what God has to tell us. I think that’s the connection. It’s not one that we normally make and that’s part of Henri’s freshness in his thinking.
Lent is the time to slow down, to pay attention to how we’re living and whether we’re living from our center, which is our heart. Henri doesn’t think of Lent primarily, in this book, in terms of a penitential time of prayer and fasting, but a time of attentiveness to what it is that gets in the way of our deepening relationship with God. And the core metaphor there is coming home.
Did you draw on one specific set of writings or works of Nouwen’s for this book?
In this particular case, I had the benefit of a series of meditations Henri gave for Lent in 1985 at a parish in Harvard Square. That material constituted the foundation of this book. I had the benefit also of his handwritten notes for those talks, which I obtained from the Henri Nouwen Archives at the University of Toronto. So I had the written, sometimes rather sketchy notes, I had the tapes, and then I had some other material that he wrote, for example, an Ash Wednesday meditation during his Yale years. And I used that material to introduce the Lenten meditations that he delivered at Harvard.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Let me preface my response by saying that I think that the image of homecoming and of being at home is very significant in our time because there are more than 2 million people displaced from their homes worldwide, and I don’t know how many tens of thousands in the U.S. who have lost their homes during the recession. And so it seemed to me that offering the image of home and homecoming as a way of understanding the movement of the spiritual life was timely and important.
This is a quote from Henri Nouwen in the book: “God has made his home in us so that we can make His home our home.” That’s very profound. It’s saying, God wants us to be at home with ourselves, to be able to inhabit our lives, to occupy our lives and live them as the gift that they are. And that God helps in that by taking up residence in our own lives, and then inviting us to come and see what our lives can be like in fellowship with God. That is a very profound invitation that I would love people to embrace.
As a corollary to that, when we realize that God has made a home in our hearts and that Christ dwells with us and in us through the Holy Spirit, then, to quote Henri, “Christ with us, as we are sent out into the whole word, means that we can be anywhere and everywhere and can still remain at home, because we’re already in communion with God.” I think what’s so important about that, in this time of great mobility and great change and instability, [is] the possibility of, in a profound way, being at home wherever we are. [That seems] to me to be extremely important and relevant as a way of understanding what the spiritual life in our time means.
I understand you had some challenges in the process of researching the book. Can you talk about those and how those challenges might have shaped the book?
The tapes were done on, I think, a little cassette tape recorder, probably put on a table near where he was standing, so the quality was extremely uneven and there were significant portions of some of the talks that were almost indecipherable. But as I said, I did have handwritten notes—quite sketchy—for each of the talks, and those combined with my knowledge of his core themes and my great familiarity with his accent, allowed me to see where he was probably headed and how he was going to get there. The second real challenge was how to take essentially six 20-plus page transcriptions and get them down into about 45 pages of text. So there was a great deal of cutting and stitching. But the core . . . reflects accurately what he was saying to the people who gathered there on those evenings for those weeks to hear him speak about following Jesus.