I don’t typically jump up and get excited about reading biographies. Maybe I’m still scarred from my school days or maybe I just haven’t read any truly excellent biographies. They always seem to me to end up “and then so-and-so did this, then this happened, then so-and-so met what’s-his-name and they went there.” The word dry comes to mind. I don’t know, I just usually can’t quite get into them. Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit by Kevin Burns was thankfully not like any biography I’ve ever read.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Henri Nouwen prior to reading this biography which is one reason why I decided to give it a go. I knew he was a big name in Christian spirituality and was around the time of Vatican II. I had read a few excerpts of his works here and there and recall being impressed by his depth and ability to find say something very meaningful in only a few simple words.
Kevin Burns was able to elevate the genre of biography for me. Rather than recapping the story of Nouwen’s life, Burns found a way to almost paint his life with words. The book is very aptly named: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit. I do walk away from this book with facts about who Nouwen was and what his life consisted of. But more importantly I feel as though I have been offered a glimpse of the spirit of Nouwen, which is really the whole point of his life. To put it another way:
As his brother [Laurent] says, “I see the way we look at Henri today, and a lot of people who read his books today that do not know him from a personal side. They create another person, generally a very nice person, a wise person. They do not realize that he paid dearly for what he wrote” (107).
I’m sure it was tempting for Burns to “create” this nice, wise person as the central focus of his biography. However, through diligence, patience and an incredible amount of time, it appears to me that he managed to tell Henri’s story while including the reader in some of Henri’s more difficult moments and struggles. In many ways the hardships which Henri weathered are the source of some of his most genius works and contributions in Christian spirituality.
Of course, it is impossible to tell the story of someone’s life in a book. Kevin Burns freely admits that and explains in his introduction
The book in…your hands offers a composite portrait of Henri Nouwen…This portrait is assembled from observations by a small but close group of people who knew him well, and from my own reading of his books…I try, though, to capture something of the spirit and intensity of his life, recognizing the impossibility of trying to capture in words the entirety of any person’s life journey (xii-xiii).
In my opinion, Burns has done an excellent job in his efforts to share the spirit of Henri with us.