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A Retreat With Henri Nouwen:

Reclaiming Our Humanity

Reviewed by Nick Mattiske.

Modern life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Technology needs constant monitoring and our lateral thinking to ensure it does not run away from us. As Thomas Merton suggests in a brief passage quoted in A Retreat with Henri Nouwen, technology is only good when it remains subservient to the needs of human beings. Otherwise human life is devalued and progress becomes progress for its own sake.

Nouwen scholar Robert Durback has built this book around Nouwen’s remedy to modern life: we need to remember that God values us all highly (difficult amidst the clamour of everyday life) and that subsequently we are given a reason to value other people highly too.

After an introductory chapter that summarises Nouwen’s life and provides a helpful overview of his considerable literary output, there follows seven chapters where Durback reproduces Nouwen’s words and then elaborates and meditates on them. The chapters are set out for use in retreat, with prayers and discussion questions, but, as suggested by the publisher, they could just as easily function as group studies or individual devotions, making the book itself more than yet another Nouwen compilation.

Nouwen asks why we are so good at improving technology and so bad at understanding relationships. Relationships were always paramount for Nouwen. He studied psychology to be able to better communicate theology. He produced a truckload of books, but writing was a means of connecting with others, not an academic exercise. Philip Yancey tells in Soul Survivor of how his fellow writers Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson received letters from a young man asking for spiritual advice and duly replied. When Nouwen also received a letter, he responded, typically, by inviting the young man to stay with him for a month.

Our highly technological society hinders our relationships because it says we are unworthy. We are bombarded with messages telling us not that we are good, but that we can be better. In Life of the Beloved—the book quoted most extensively by Durback—Nouwen writes that self-rejection is the greatest challenge in our lives. Low self-esteem and arrogance, which Nouwen personally struggled with, are the two sides of the same coin of fear, a fear of being found wanting by society. But we are all God’s “beloved.” He created us, nurtures us, and sent Christ to die for us. This is an affirmation of our worth to God. And accepting this prompts us to encourage others to accept their worthiness.

But technology encourages us to view worthiness as usefulness. Nouwen’s care of his seriously disabled friend Adam at the l’Arche community of Daybreak helped him to see in Adam worthiness beyond the usefulness of mental or physical prowess. His moving description of what Adam gave to him (as opposed to what he gave to Adam), taken from a speech given at Harvard, illustrates the sense of peace that Nouwen finally found through slowing down and strengthening their relationship.

“Nouwen’s emphasis on our identity as Beloved may sound to some a bit removed from the ‘real world,’” writes Durback. Part of the problem is that we find it difficult to slow down and meditate on the concept. In the midst of all our activity we can only hear the shouting of the world, rather than God’s still small voice.

A Retreat With Henri Nouwen is not a book to be tackled on the run; it needs the opportunity to speak softly. If given that opportunity it can help us to see that rather than being removed from reality, God’s love is right at the centre, among the smoke and mirrors of modern life.

A Retreat With Henri Nouwen: Reclaiming Our Humanity, Robert Durback, DLT ($A21.95).



Extract from Signs of the Times, November 2004 .

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