Book Review: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit

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.

Book Review: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit reviewed by Kate Taliaferro at dailygraces.netI 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.

The Trouble with Cleaning

There is a problem when you clean something. Before you cleaned the something in question – a window, a sink, a counter, a toilet, a dresser, take your pick – it was dirty. For many things in my house, once it is dirty you can’t tell to what extent it is dirty.

If the dresser is dusty, it’s new status is simply “dusty.” I can’t tell from yesterday to today how many more particles of dust have accumulated. It is just dusty. Same for the windows. With 3 kids and a dog, finger prints and smudges are a given for all of my window under 4 feet tall. With such a large general collection of “window art” shall we call it, I cannot tell from day to day which smudge is new or when exactly the green crayon appeared. Let’s not even talk about the stainless steel faucets in our bathrooms. Actually, let’s just avoid the bathroom entirely.

So you see, there is a problem with cleaning these dirty things that can stay dirty for any number of days without causing stress or tension because it is impossible to tell (or I willingly ignore) the level of dirty/dusty/smudged/smeared/covered in peanut butter and purple crayon.

A recently dirty window that leads to our backyard
A recently dirty window that leads to our backyard

But, of course, you have to clean it. The dresser must be dusted, the windows washed, the faucets cleaned and even the bathrooms, scary as they can be with a 3 year old boy who “stands like Daddy” and little girl in training. It is a wonderful feeling when my home is clean. How marvelous to be able to see out of the windows and to not have to cringe as I wash my hands. With environmental allergies, it is so refreshing to take a deep breath and not sneeze. How nice it is to walk around and not crunch cheerios, puffs, dog food or find Little Mermaid stickers stuck to the bottoms of my shoes.

The was clean but now is dirty again (probably) and needs to be cleaned again to get back to this state only to get dirty again etc etc etc
The was clean but now is dirty again (probably) and needs to be cleaned again to get back to this state only to get dirty again etc etc etc

Alas, the picture I just described only lasts for roughly 15 seconds on a rotating timetable. Just as I finish the windows and move onto the floor, Max, our excitable and self-proclaimed guard dog jumps up and smashes his nose on the window intent on saving the family from the jogger 100 yards up the street. As soon as I’m done sweeping the floor (actually, usually while I’m still sweeping in another area, sometimes only 2 feet away) someone drops something that will make a delightfully messy “crunch” in a matter of minutes. I’ll not trouble you with a description of what happens in the bathrooms, I think you can figure that one out for yourself.

It is a never ending cycle and hardly rewarding since I know that as soon as something is clean it will just be dirty all over again, usually in a matter of minutes. It would be much easier to just leave things dirty, which we all know is not healthy.

It’s also not healthy to neglect our spiritual life. Think about it like this. Your house is your life. The windows represent your spirituality. The cleaner your windows, the more light that can come into your house (the light being God, His grace, mercy, love, guidance, etc.) You can see what areas of your house need refurbishing, what areas are looking good, what areas need to be cleaned and where the dark corners are that require attention. But, when your windows are dirty, it is harder to see the areas of your house that are dirty, dusty, smudged or in need of repair. It is also harder to see those areas that are looking good, that you would want to be proud of and share with others.

Another window analogy, this one is from Fr. Robert Barron. Think about your car windshield. When is dark and you are driving away from a light source, your windshield looks pretty good. You don’t see that bug smudge from the other day or the rain splatter from the morning’s shower. But, when you turn and are driving toward the light, you can see in great detail just how many nicks, dings, smears and dirt spots are all over your windshield. When we are pointing away from God, it is easier to ignore our flaws, our insecurities, our dark corners. When we turn toward God, it is easier to address these areas because we can honestly see them. We also can see how they are obscuring our vision and once we clean them up, we can see even better than before.

The trouble with cleaning is now everything is clean! When everything is clean, you know exactly when it has gotten dirty again. But, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.