Still Dancing - Henri Nouwen in L’Arche - 20 Years After His Death

"A friend of Henri’s once quipped that Henri wrote the same book forty times. I would say his books might have something in common with dance. There may indeed be only so many steps – but it’s possible to put those steps together in endless combinations and create entirely new and magical movements. Whatever the combination, when Henri invited us to dance, it was always about the movement of the human heart."

By Carl MacMillan

Excerpts

"Henri lived at Daybreak for what would be the last decade of his life – from 1986 until his death in 1996… L’Arche is a place where many of Henri’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities were utterly apparent, yet Henri found home at Daybreak – I believe in a way that was very good for him. At Daybreak, people came to love Henri not because he was Henri Nouwen, the famous spiritual writer, but simply because he was Henri."

"Henri shared three lessons that he was learning in L’Arche: 1. Being is more important than doing. 2. The life of the heart is greater than the life of the mind. 3.

Doing things together is more important than doing things alone. They are three big steps in the dance of the spiritual life, and we are still learning the combinations.

Henri would encourage us to keep dancing, together."

Like many assistants coming to L’Arche in the late ‘80s, I had heard of Henri Nouwen. I had even read a couple of his books, The Wounded Healer and Reaching Out. I had liked them well enough, but I was not exactly a Nouwen fan, and Henri was not a key reason why I came to L’Arche. My brother Tom is a man with a profound intellectual disability. Thanks to him, I have known people with intellectual disabilities for most of my life. Still, I never heard of L’Arche until I began working as an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities in Boston in the early ‘80s. Someone had given me a book about L’Arche, but my first take on it was that L’Arche seemed pretty far out, and I paid little attention to it. Eventually, I decided to go to graduate school to learn how to bring new models for community living into the mainstream. During my studies, I lived in a group home, taking the occasional shift in exchange for room and board. That’s when L’Arche started to look more interesting to me. I began to read books by Jean Vanier. For one of them, Henri had written the foreword. He wrote, “Men and women who can dance and sing only with great difficulty teach us what it means to celebrate life. Men and women who by many are not considered fully human teach us what being human is all about.” I first read those passages nearly thirty years ago, and they still resonate with me today. Henri had captured in just a few pages a remarkably positive and fresh view of people with intellectual disabilities. Perhaps I was a bit of a Nouwen fan after all. When I completed my studies, I decided to take a year to live in L’Arche. In September of 1988, I arrived at Daybreak to be an assistant in one of the homes.  In that first month, Henri invited me and Anne Marie Pickard, one of the core members I lived with, to accompany him on a trip to a nearby university where he was giving a lecture. It was a special anniversary for the school, and many alumni and donors were in the audience along with hundreds of students and faculty members. Every seat was full. Anne Marie and I had been seated to one side of the stage with Henri and the president of the university. Henri gave a very engaging lecture in three parts. In between each part, he invited everyone in the audience to sing a simple chant. Toward the end of the third part, Henri said, “And now I want to introduce Carl MacMillan, a member of the L’Arche Daybreak community, to share with you first-hand about day-to-day life in a L’Arche home.” Henri had given me absolutely no warning. He welcomed me to the lectern, sat down, and I talked. I cannot remember a word of what I said that night – but I absolutely remember feeling that Henri had more confidence in me than I had in myself. While Henri would sometimes drive me crazy in the years to come, he also had a unique capacity to pull out of me something that I didn’t quite know was there.


Dancing with Linda

Henri liked working in threes. We see these triads in his talks and his books: in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, in Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, Ecstasy, in The Return of the Prodigal Son: the Younger Son, the Elder Son and the Father. Henri was a brilliant teacher and he knew very well how to package information in three steps that could help us to imagine what he was trying to communicate. My own reflection is that those three steps became a sort of waltz for many of us, one that we could dance with Henri. A friend of Henri’s once quipped that Henri wrote the same book forty times. I would say his books might have something in common with dance. There may indeed be only so many steps – but it’s possible to put those steps together in endless combinations and create entirely new and magical movements. Whatever the combination, when Henri invited us to dance, it was always about the movement of the human heart.

Henri lived at Daybreak for what would be the last decade of his life – from 1986 until his death in 1996. L’Arche is about welcoming difference – and while L’Arche has welcomed many people who might be described as “challenging”, Henri brought new meaning to the word. Often people come to L’Arche to help as assistants when they are young adults, fresh from university. For any new assistant, L’Arche can mean a very big adjustment. For Henri, who came at the age of 54, it was a wildly courageous act.  Henri was a very gifted priest, teacher, and writer – but he had very few practical skills. He did not know how to cook anything. The operation of a washing machine was, to Henri, an absolute mystery. When David Harmon, a long-time core member at Daybreak, was interviewed by Mary Hynes for the CBC Radio program “Tapestry”, she asked him, “What is it that you most remember about Henri Nouwen?” After a perfectly timed pause, David replied, “He was a crazy driver.” L’Arche is a place where many of Henri’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities were utterly apparent, yet Henri found home at Daybreak – I believe in a way that was very good for him. At Daybreak, people came to love Henri not because he was Henri Nouwen, the famous spiritual writer, but simply because he was Henri.


Henri and Bill

 Bill Van Buren, a Daybreak core member who died in 2009, travelled with Henri often, giving talks and retreats with him across the United States and Canada. With the help of friends, Bill had put together a life story book full of photographs and stories. A big part of the book is comprised of letters from family members and friends. Bill had a letter from Henri in his book. It is a long and very personal letter, but I will share this excerpt:

[Bill] You are a man with many sorrows and many joys, a man who laughs a lot and cries a lot, and sometimes your tears and smiles are there together. God has been very close to you in these years that I have known you and I really believe that God has sent you to me to help me in my journey.

Now we are both becoming a little older and we both feel it. That is why you keep saying, “When I die first, Henri will be upset, and when Henri dies first, I will be upset. Maybe we should die together.” So with this little joke you remind me and yourself that we both will die one day but we are friends for life and that God who brought us together will keep us together.

So I am really grateful that you are making this book and I can’t tell you how much I love you and how important you are in my life. I am sure there will be many beautiful times ahead for us in which we can grow in our friendship and share in our joys and sorrows.

You are a very special man and a very beautiful friend. Be sure that I want to be a good friend to you.

With love,
Henri

Henri did know how to write a letter. He wrote thousands of them. In October, a new book, the first collection of Henri’s letters to be published, will be released by Random House. Entitled Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, the collection was assembled by Gabrielle Earnshaw, the founding archivist of the Henri Nouwen Archives. She selected 204 personal letters for this first volume from the over 3000 letters in the Archives. In June, Gabrielle gave a spell-binding presentation at the Way of the Heart Conference, organized by the Henri Nouwen Society to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death. The conference was an amazing gathering in terms of the diversity of people and ministries it drew together. There were theologians and spiritual leaders to be sure – but there were also peace-makers, psychologists, musicians, environmentalists, writers, caregivers, teachers, filmmakers, and people from many others disciplines. One of Henri’s great gifts was the way he encouraged all of us to delve deeply and courageously into whatever vocation or relationship or mission where we felt called. The journey itself would inspire spiritual meaning – as Henri’s writing continues to do today.


Laurent Nouwen with Gabrielle Earnshaw at the Nouwen Conference, June 2016

While he was with us, Henri shared three lessons that he was learning in L’Arche:

  • 1. Being is more important than doing.
  • 2. The life of the heart is greater than the life of the mind.
  • 3. Doing things together is more important than doing things alone.

They are three big steps in the dance of the spiritual life, and we are still learning the combinations. Henri would encourage us to keep dancing, together.


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