HERE IS A RECORD, except for his remaining three weeks on earth, of the last 365 days of one of this century’s most inspiring and fruitful spiritual guides. Here is frenetic activity, keen perception, and a profound, yet evolving, spiritual groundedness in Christian faith.
Readers knowing the work of this exceptional contemporary pastor will be familiar with the author’s “journal format.” He had previously penned records of other transition times in his life, but this testimony is unique in a number of ways.
[pullquote]Does he say anything new? Is this book worth having for reasons other than memorial sentiment? Yes, to both questions.
Nearing the age when many would retire to a less active lifestyle, Nouwen is obviously expecting to live into a new phase of earthly existence. While he refers frequently to extreme fatigue and reasserts views about death and dying there is really no clear indication that this is his “summary statement.” He writes of deep anxieties, but this is not new for him; nor is he morbid about them. Sabbatical Journey represents a life in process. Throughout the year he remains very much alive.
Perhaps the most helpful parts of the book are those suggesting significant changes in Nouwen’s thinking. There are six themes for which this volume serves as the record of an emerging legacy which is still premature to assess objectively.
He was moving from a long-held belief that “outside the (Roman) Catholic faith there is no salvation” to say: “I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not.” He was advancing from an understanding of the church as an institution to a new experience of the church as “community gathered around word and sacrament.” He was growing in the experience of a mysticism grounded in the life of the church to one rooted in the joys and sorrows of the world. He was changing his belief that leadership in both church and society tomorrow would more likely emerge from the margins of power than from centralized locations. In the area of human sexuality, he was shifting from a posture of homophobia to a conviction of strong solidarity with persons of homosexual orientation.
Rather than being a closing statement in the life of one of God’s special contemporary witnesses, this book is an indicator of much ferment taking place among God’s people today. Nouwen is both a reflection of what is happening and a visionary, who with deft pen, creatively sketches contours of future workings of God’s spirit.
His still-surviving 95-year-old Dutch father may yet have the final word. While “somewhat” impressed by his son’s popularity, especially in America, Laurent Nouwen told Henri on one of his last visits to Holland: “People finally will remember you not for your words, ideas, statements, or books, but for what you have done for others, and the spirit in which you did it.”
Note: For those interested in the perpetuation of Nouwen’s legacy, it is possible to become a friend of the Henry Nouwen Society, L’Arche Daybreak, 11339 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, ON, L4C 4X7, or at the Web site, http://webhome.idirect.com/~nouwenhj/index.html
Dr. Wayne A. Holst is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He was a Lutheran pastor, missionary and church executive for 25 years.