Here are three "refrains" to look out for:
1) Be attentive to where you put your gaze.
Henri is drawing our attention to the importance of being alert to where we put our energy. This form of counsel has several variations; he might gently point out to a person that they might be asking the wrong question, or that they might want to consider thinking about "this" not "that." It also appears in his letters when he writes about where to dwell and the importance of choosing well. He refers frequently to seeing. Generally, he is pointing to attentiveness to how we understand our reality and how we respond to it. Often he is asking a person to flip a thought on its head or to change their perspective. I'd suggest as well that Henri is also helping people to be more gentle and subtle -- to gaze instead of stare, to dwell instead of occupy, to see instead of presume. All these words have a sense of relaxed attention to the other. Here's an example: Henri writes to a Canadian missionary in Africa. He writes: "The question is not what is wrong with the world but what can I do to be a person of peace?" It is a subtle distinction but draws us back to ourselves, back to our center. He is reframing her question. Watch for this pirouette of perspective in many of his letters.
2) What we know is different from what we feel.
Henri was an emotional person. We see in the letters how he begins to notice that knowing what is in the heart is different from what it feels. He advises people to step over emotions when they obscure an inner knowing. In 1986 he wrote to his friend Barb, whose husband and two sons were all in some state of trouble: "Do not allow guilt feelings to take over. Guilt feelings do not come from the Spirit of Jesus. Just live your life day by day and try to say thanks whenever you can. Do not trust your feelings. Trust your knowledge that God loves you… and act according to that knowledge." (Note: this passage also includes Henri's suggestion that she practice the discipline of gratefulness.)
3) We can live generative, creative, and free lives.
Freedom, principally inner freedom, was of central importance to Henri. He strove to be free from compulsions and fear and to life a courageous life of loving deeply. While reading the letters, look out for his masterful way of identifying "traps" that stifle life. He was keen to help people see the ways in which choices they were making hindered a generative, creative, and free life. To a minister he wrote: "I am increasingly convinced of the importance of preaching the Name of the Lord Jesus as the rising Lord, the Lord who overcame the powers of death and came to set us free. The freedom that the Gospel offers is a different freedom from what the world can bring us and it is so important for people today to really come to know and experience this freedom" (September 10, 1986).
What do you think is the overall impact of this book? Henri Nouwen has been much beloved by millions of readers. Will these letters enforce that? Shed new light on his character? Surprise? Delight? How?
All the above! I think readers of the letters will find a satisfying congruency with the Henri Nouwen they know from his books. What comes through so clearly is his core of sincerity. One trusts him because he is willing to be open and honest with his own vulnerability. People who met Henri would often comment on the way he made you feel like you were the only one in the room. These letters have the same quality. One senses his capacity for deep, compassionate listening.
I hope that the overall impact of this book is to inspire people to live more generous, compassionate lives -- not as an act of will, but because their sense of God's loving presence in their lives is so strong they can be a source of love to others. Henri's spiritual vision is one of hope. He saw life as an ongoing process of discovery, revelation, prayer, creativity, and the deepening of relationships. He teaches that life is not all about survival or success; there is an extra dimension to life that gives meaning.
The more I read Henri's letters the more I came to see him as an amazing artist. He was an artist with his life! He placed great value on the spiritual disciplines of solitude, prayer, and community and by the end of his life he had practiced enough to do amazing feats -- to be fearless, forgiving, trusting, loving, and hopeful. He was striving for permanent openness of the heart. I don't want to overstate it, but reading his letters gives us the privilege of seeing the arc of his journey from fear to love. You see him faithfully ripening to maturity and living what he knew in his heart all along.
From your close reading of all these personal letters, what would you say is the source of Henri's love for others? How does he really access the love of God?