- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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A busy man prays
In 1974 and 1979, Henri Nouwen, a priest then in his forties, made two extended visits, each lasting approximately half a year, to the Trappist Abbey of Genesee, near Rochester, New York. Why a Trappist monastery? One reason is that Nouwen, though ordained a diocesan priest, considered the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (author of the 1948 Seven Storey Mountain and some 60 other books, before his death in 1968) his spiritual mentor. Proof of a lifelong interest in Merton and his spiritual thought can be seen in many of Nouwen’s books, including The Genesee Diary (1976), A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (1981), and Pray to Live: Thomas Merton, Contemplative Critic.
When Nouwen published Pray to Live, in 1972, there were few commentaries on Merton (quite the opposite now); Merton’s unexpurgated journals had not yet been published, nor had his letters and essays. Nouwen turned to Merton because he needed guidance in his prayer life, and Merton was the modern commentator par excellence on prayer, particularly prayer in its most difficult and pure form: contemplation. On more than one occasion, Nouwen said that all Christians are called to become contemplatives, by which he meant “see-ers, men and women who see the coming of God.”
Nouwen felt at midlife that he had failed at prayer. He had not offered sufficient time to his prayer; he had not established the intimacy with God that he desired.
Let us take a closer look at Nouwen, as he was before his experience of Genesee. He was a man who talked too much, primarily because as a professor at Yale Divinity School he had to instruct and advise his students; he also became his students’ friend, and spent time out of class and the office with them. As a priest, moreover, he was always responding to the myriad of people who sought his spiritual counsel. Nouwen also had a penchant for accepting every invitation to lecture that came his way, and there were many. He was rarely alone, he was social to a fault, and he confessed in his diary that he craved approval and fame.
At Genesee Abbey, immersed in the Trappists’ life of ora et labora (prayer and work), Nouwen slowed down. He spoke only when he had to. He followed the monks’ liturgical hours of vigils, lauds, sext, vespers, and compline. Rising at 2:00 a.m. for vigils was not an easy discipline for him. He helped bake bread (and burned himself), he washed raisins, he strained to move huge stones for the building of the abbey chapel. He was not the center of attention. And he absorbed by experience what he had theoretically gleaned from reading Merton: Prayer lies in listening to the “still, small voice of God.” In order to listen, Nouwen had to be silent and still, the two hardest lessons for this man.
One of his main activities was to write in his diary, which would become The Genesee Diary, published after his first stay at the abbey. Robert Frost called writing poetry a “clarification of life.” Nouwen had a similar understanding: “For me writing is a very powerful way of concentrating and of clarifying for myself many thoughts and feelings. Once I put my pen on paper and write for an hour or two, a real sense of peace and harmony comes to me.” What he seems not to have realized yet was that his writing was also prayer, an act of absolute attention. As the 20th-century philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
We know from the abbot at Genesee that Nouwen gave serious thought to entering the monastery permanently, and that the abbot counseled Nouwen that he was not suited for monastic life but rather for an active public one of writing, teaching, preaching, and spiritual direction. Nouwen accepted the evaluation. In fact, at Genesee he was graced with an essential truth: “To live a spiritual life is to live in the presence of God.” While reading a small 17th-century book, The Practice of the Presence of God, by the Carmelite Brother Lawrence, Nouwen was pierced with the insight that to pray, one need not be housed in a church or an oratory, that we all possess within us an oratory of the heart, “wherein to retire from time to time to converse with God in meekness, humility, and love.” Nouwen didn’t have to enter a monastery to pray: God abides with each of us, and we need only turn our attention toward him.
For Nouwen this realization was a tremendous breakthrough. It resonated with his keen awareness of beauty in the world, particularly that extension of beauty—art—that comes from others.
At Genesee Abbey, Nouwen recorded in his diary a talk delivered by a visiting priest from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester. The priest said that to convince someone of the beauty of the 12 stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall for the synagogue of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, one had to show the windows from inside the synagogue. Nouwen was haunted by the idea that beauty could lure people into a gathering place for God-seekers.
From youth, Nouwen possessed an acute aesthetic sensibility, likely inherited from his parents, who, in fact, owned a Chagall painting, purchased before the artist achieved fame. His writings evidenced a love of literary expression. He admired the work of his fellow Dutch countryman Vincent van Gogh. Indeed, paintings especially seemed to imprint themselves upon Nouwen’s mind and soul. In one of his most popular books, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, published in 1987, Nouwen offered meditations on four famous Russian paintings: the Icon of the Holy Trinity (by Andrew Rublev, c. 1425), the Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir (by an anonymous 12th-century Greek), the Icon of the Savior of Zvenigorod (by Rublev), and the Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (15th century, in the manner of the Novgorod School).
These icons inspired Nouwen to pray. At first, he fixed his attention upon the image. Because the images are beautiful, Nouwen needed no prodding to pay attention. He absorbed their beauty and artistry. The images then gradually spoke to his heart. Initially, the experience was aesthetic, but he then realized the source of the icons’ beauty: God. Nouwen writes, “An icon is like a window looking out upon eternity.”
Notice the journey: First, there is an image to focus upon; second, the image speaks to the viewer; third, the image leads to meditation, as gazing upon the image becomes prayer. In the next stage, still beyond Nouwen’s reach, meditation will inexplicably move into contemplation—imageless prayer.
Contemplation is the form of prayer that many people find most difficult—not only to understand but also to do. Most Christians prefer verbal prayer: reading the psalms, reciting the rosary, saying the Our Father and other prayers of the Mass. Meditation entails thinking and visualization, and many people approach it with a phrase from a prayer book or the Bible in mind. The intellect cannot help contemplation, however; in fact, during contemplation, it is temporarily absent. Contemplation is nearly ineffable, but the personal encounters recalled by Nouwen surrounding Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son will help to shed light on the experience.
If The Genesee Diary, so utterly candid and revealing, is considered Nouwen’s breakthrough book, then his The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, published in 1992, four years before his death, is likely his masterpiece, because it eloquently reveals how far he came as a contemplative.
The story begins in 1983, when Nouwen was visiting L’Arche, a community for the handicapped, in Trosly, France. While conversing with a friend, his gaze happened to fall upon a large poster of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. At the time, Nouwen had just returned from a grueling six-week lecturing tour through the United States. He writes,
My heart leapt when I saw it. After my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe. The son-come-home was all I was and all that I wanted to be. For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing, and consoling. Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.
One cannot find a more beautiful “home” than Rembrandt’s circa 1668 creation: Its admixture of light and shadow, with shadow more abundant than light, is inviting, and draws the viewer into the narrative and its mystery. Nouwen was hooked, calling to mind Simone Weil’s assertion that beauty is God’s snare to lure us to him. Nouwen writes of the moment, “I kept staring at the poster and finally stuttered [to his friend], ‘It’s beautiful, more than beautiful . . . it makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time . . . I can’t tell you what I feel as I look at it, but it touches me deeply.’”
The image surely held intense meaning for Rembrandt, too. He was approaching the end of his life when he created it. He had lost his possessions to bankruptcy and most of his family to death, including his beloved son, Titus.
Nouwen didn’t realize at the time how profoundly this painting would change his life. After a while, having only the poster proved insufficient to him; he had to see for himself the original, housed in the Hermitage Museum in Russia. Traveling to Saint Petersburg, Nouwen received permission from the curator to gaze alone for four hours upon the painting, a most unusual accommodation—such is the fruit of fame.
What did Nouwen behold there in Rembrandt’s shadows? We can never know. What we do know is that the painting before which he sat opened him to the mystery of his life and more importantly to the sublimity of God’s love and compassion.
Let us consider Nouwen’s account of the experience. He’s in a room at the Hermitage; he’s sitting in a chair, gazing upon Rembrandt’s painting. He writes,
The painting was exposed in the most favorable way, on a wall that received plenty of natural light through a large nearby window at an 80-degree angle. Sitting there, I realized that the light became fuller and more intense as the afternoon progressed. At four o’clock the sun covered the painting with a new brightness, and the background figures—which had remained quite vague in the early hours—seemed to step out of their dark corners. As the evening drew near, the sunlight grew more crisp and tingling. The embrace of the father and son became stronger and deeper, and the bystanders participated more directly in this mysterious event of reconciliation, forgiveness, and inner healing. Gradually I realized that there were as many paintings of the Prodigal Son as there were changes in the light, and, for a long time, I was held spellbound by the gracious dance of nature and art.
The first line of the next paragraph is telling: “Without my realizing it, more than two hours had gone by when Alexei [the guard] reappeared.” The contemplative experience is a timeless moment. William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, offers four characteristics of the mystical experience: ineffability; a “noetic quality” (that is, a certain state of knowledge); transiency; and passivity. These apply as well to the contemplative experience. For the contemplative, time flies. Or rather, it comes to a stop.
To be lost in beauty, in the beauty created by a man inspired by Christ’s parable and in the beauty of Christ’s words, was a transcendent experience for Nouwen. He was with God Alone, not in any geographical place, but within his soul where God abides, at what Merton (borrowing from a student of Islam, Louis Massignon, who borrowed it from the Sufis) called the pointe vierge. Merton writes in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . . This little point . . . is the pure glory of God in us.”
We can be thankful to Henri Nouwen for offering us beauty through his words and insights, and to Rembrandt for offering us art.
Lecturer and retreat director Robert Waldron is the author of 14 books, including a just-published novella, The Secret Dublin Diary of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2010). His essay is drawn from a talk he gave on October 15 in Gasson Hall as part of the Church in the 21st Century Center’s “Art of Believing” series.