Not Quite Loving Love, Henri: A Review of Nouwen’s Collected Letters

Not Quite Loving Love, Henri: A Review of Nouwen’s Collected Letters October 27, 2016

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
25 October 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Readers,

Yesterday I finally finished reading my copy of Love, Henri which is a collection of letters written by Henri Nouwen and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Nouwen. His books were particularly popular at my college in the mid aughts. Perhaps its the way he was introduced to me, perhaps it was simply the fact that he was popular amongst my professors and peers. Whatever it was, I came away without an appreciation for Nouwen, nor any real memory of what he wrote in the books I have read. So, when I agreed to review this book, I did so attempting to have an open mind, aware of my biases against Nouwen. And I will admit, I love reading letters (and writing them), so I hoped that I would enjoy this merely for the fact that it was a collection of written correspondence.

The book is broken up into three sections that roughly map onto Nouwen’s time at Yale and Harvard, Nouwen’s beginning transition to L’Arche, and Nouwen’s full transition to L’Arche. The first section was by far my favorite. It chronicled Nouwen discussing the Catholic faith with Quakers and other Protestants, amongst other things. And I will admit that perhaps my favorite part of the book was how fitting the initial title is. Nouwen is clearly a man full of love for his friends. Every letter, particularly those to men and women he knew, gush with love. Anyone who received these letters would certainly feel that the man who wrote them loved them. I will admit, however, that having them all together like this, could give one the sense that Nouwen’s love was rather formulaic. That is, many of the letters to different people sound awfully similar. I will give Nouwen the benefit of the doubt here, however, and assume that his love for people simply manifested itself in the same way to each of them.

There were other parts of the book I did not like quite so much. In construction, I often found it lacking. This is likely just due to what letters they could access. And, as almost always when reading collections of letters like this one, it can sometimes be difficult to fully understand a given letter because we do not have the full context. The editor nearly always included a few introductory lines before each letter, but that was often not enough. This is particularly true of letters dealing with Nouwen’s sexuality and relationships. We often see Nouwen being subtle, making general references to his struggles with his sexuality. However, it often seems as though his correspondent has been more explicit and the letters we read would likely benefit from further explication.

The later letters were not my favorite. It often felt like nearly every other letter included Nouwen sending someone a book (or two) of his. While I’m sure he meant this to be helpful, when presented in letter after letter, it can feel a bit like self-promotion.

Nevertheless, for the fan of Nouwen, this will be an excellent resource. My own issues with the book are precisely that, my own. Many of you reading this (assuming you are doing so because you like Nouwen) will likely find things in his writing that I could not. I look forward to your remarks on it, therefore, so that I may learn to read these letters and Nouwen in general more charitably. But I will say this, Nouwen was clearly a man governed by love, and I pray I may be such a man.


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