US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: Genius Born of Anguish

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By Michael W. Higgins and Kevin Burns (Paulist, 2012)

Radio producer Kevin Burns writes that he remembers thinking of best-selling author Henri Nouwen as “part of the Catholic furniture, someone who was just ‘there’ whenever I took time to notice.” Burns’ appreciation for the priest and psychologist grew, however, as he and Nouwen’s official biographer, Michael Higgins, collaborated on a new radio documentary and companion book about Nouwen, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1996 at age 64.

By reconsidering Nouwen’s life and legacy, the authors transport him from the realm of “Catholic furniture” to a space where readers can more fully recognize Nouwen’s gifts, struggles, and distinctive contributions to the field of spirituality.

The book features compelling interviews with nearly two dozen of Nouwen’s friends and colleagues. This all-star supporting cast includes Robert Ellsberg, Margaret Farley, John Garvey, Ron Rolheiser, and Jean Vanier, all of whom impart their memories of Nouwen.

The authors cover plenty of ground in 143 pages, from Nouwen’s formative years in the Netherlands to a fellowship at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas to his time on the faculty at Yale and Harvard. We see Nouwen immerse himself in mission work in Peru, monastic life at the Abbey of the Genesee, community life with L’Arche in France and Canada, and finally, in a delightful and unexpected turn, the life of traveling-circus trapeze artists.

While the pace is quick, the interviews delve into subjects that captivated Nouwen, such as vocation, brokenness, reconciliation, relationship, and belonging. This is an unembellished portrait that acknowledges Nouwen’s brilliance, charisma, and compassion, as well as his feelings of inadequacy, his struggles with his homosexuality, and his loneliness. Both those who are long familiar with Nouwen’s work and those who are new to it will find valuable insights here.

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 3, page 43).