June 28th to July 4th: Chapter 3 – The Writing Process

Reading: Chapter 3 – The Writing Process

The Prodigal Son manuscript is in my humble opinion, not only your best book so far, but also a classic. It captures something so universal
and profound that it is truly a book for every person. (p. 81)
– Sr. Sue Mosteller to Henri, 1990

Thanks to each of you for another week of fruitful sharing. Now we are ready to move into the heart of Gabrielle’s book, to understand the process Henri used to write what Sr. Sue Mosteller presciently identified as a spiritual classic after reading his draft.

Based on her exhaustive research in the archives and conversations with those directly involved, Gabrielle Earnshaw powerfully conveys that the writing of The Return of the Prodigal Son cannot be separated from the life-changes, emotional and physical trauma and struggles, and painful and affirming personal relationships that occurred over the book’s nine-year gestation. She provides new insight into Henri’s deep depression and recovery that allowed him to find a real home at L’Arche and ultimately resulted in his most influential work. As Henri himself wrote in 1987, “I am sitting in this small room far away from L’Arche trying to live through the experience of being completely lost. . . I want to write about this painting and the story it portrays.” (p. 69)

Gabrielle provides an in-depth look into Henri’s life and writing process during these crucible years, including his struggles and recovery, and the crucial role played by Sr. Sue Mosteller, CSJ — a close friend of Nouwen’s and a distinguished leader of L’Arche who was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019. Highlighting this chapter are several never-before published letters between Henri and Sr. Sue illuminating her influence on Henri’s life and the resulting book. “She was his new ‘father figure,’ but of a very different kind.” (p. 67)

The is so much in this rich chapter for our reflection. As always, we are most interested in whatever thoughts and insights came to your mind from the reading. Here are several excerpts and questions you might choose to consider.

  1. This encounter. . . mediated through pigments and canvas was not just research. It was communication. It was as if the painting created a portal for a relationship that bridged time and space. (p. 64) Gabrielle calls this an encounter between Nouwen and Rembrandt. Was it really? Or was it an encounter between Nouwen and God, with Rembrandt in addition to the pigments and canvas as the mediator? Or was it both?
  2. Sue Mosteller. . . played the key role in his restoration to health. Indeed, much of Nouwen’s later contentment at Daybreak can be traced back to Mosteller. (p. 67) Sue wrote to Henri in 1988, “What I want to say is for you and your life today, where you are. I believe so much that the picture was given to you for your life and perhaps later for your writing. . . You have really “found yourself” more deeply there than anywhere. (p. 69) Henri Nouwen and Sue Mosteller share what Fr. Ron Rolheiser calls Real Friendship. In his book Domestic Monastery Rolheiser writes, “Friendship is more than merely human, though it is wonderfully human. When it is genuine, friendship is nothing less than a participation in the flow of life and love that’s inside of God.” Reflect on the friendship between Henri and Sue, her role as the “compassionate father” in Henri’s life, and how she helped Henri and Nathan to heal their relationship. Share your insights.
  3. In a letter to Daybreak leadership, Henri writes, I am deeply convinced that my writing about the Prodigal Son is for L’Arche and for Daybreak and is only possible because of my being part of this community. (p. 79) Why do you think Henri feels this way? How does he show it?
  4. The new theme that consumed him in 1992 was “being the beloved,” as explored in his book Life of the Beloved, published the same year as The Return. . . (p. 88) Gabrielle calls these still popular works “sister books.” How is theme of being the beloved related to story of the father and his two sons?
  5. The Return of the Prodigal Son shares many characteristics of the publishing zeitgeist of the early 1990s. . . But as much as it tapped into popular themes, (it) was not a runaway bestseller when it first appeared. . . In some ways, (it) was for people who had read the other books and were still hurting, confused, and/or searching for peace.
    (p. 101) How is the The Return of the Prodigal Son different from other books of the time? Why has it retained its relevance for three decades while other seemingly more popular books have been forgotten?

We look forward to hearing whatever you choose to share.

May the Lord give you peace.

P.S. Looking ahead to the final week of our discussion — Gabrielle Earnshaw will be joining us for the final chapter and a look back at the entire book. She will be pleased to answer your questions as well. You won’t want to miss it.

June 21st to 27th: Chapter 2 – Intellectual Antecedents

Reading: Chapter 2 – Intellectual Antecedents

The Rembrandt painting became an icon for Nouwen, a gate through which he could walk into the house of God. But he could only do so because he
had been practicing that kind of seeing for a very long time. (p. 42)

What a wonderful first week of sharing! Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful comments on our reading and your kind exchanges with each other. It is rewarding to learn how Henri’s readers respond to Gabrielle’s insights and to see how that deepens our understanding of Henri and his work.

This week Gabrielle helps us “see” Henri and his spiritual classic in a new way by introducing us to the techniques and disciplines Henri himself practiced to “see” the world and its people. She probes how Henri’s refined ability to enter into a piece of art through the practice of visio divina or “divine seeing” empowered him to place himself into Rembrandt’s painting—first as an observer and then as each of the main characters. The icon to the left is the one that Gabrielle mentions as she begins the chapter.

Henri’s artistic vision was complemented and enhanced by his doctoral studies in psychology where he mastered the approach pioneered by Anton Boisen to see a person as a “living human document” where our life experiences are written. Henri’s profound insights about Rembrandt’s painting and his own journey result from his “divine seeing” of the “living human documents” that he encountered by gazing at Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

We have the opportunity to apply our newfound understanding of how Henri saw the world as we continue our summer discussion together. We are interested in hearing whatever you gained from the reading. Here are some excerpts and questions that might prompt your thinking.

  1. Nouwen was on the lookout for “glimpses” of God at all times. (p. 35) . . . (H)e didn’t simply see a beautiful painting–he walked through the gate and into the outstretched arms of the father. (p. 38) When and where have you seen “glimpses” of God on your spiritual journey? Is visio divina a prayer technique you use or might be interested in considering? When you are visit an art museum, are you more like Henri or Sue?
  2. Perhaps more suitable than any other definition of who he (Henri) was is the term “artist.” (p. 41) (Be sure to read footnote 37 too.) Gabrielle Earnshaw never met Henri Nouwen. She is sharing her insights after two decades of “living with” Henri’s work and speaking with many people who knew him intimately. Does thinking of Henri as an artist help you better understand him, his work, and his impact on you and other readers?
  3. “When I left I was very thankful that I had had the opportunity to meet this man whose suffering had become a source of creativity.” (p. 47) Gabrielle carefully reflects on Henri’s notes written after his visit with Anton Boisen. Does this give you new insight into Henri, help you to better appreciate the The Return. . . and the impact that book or other Nouwen books may have had on your spiritual journey?
  4. In seven important ways, Nouwen stood on the shoulders of Boisen while writing The Return of the Prodigal Son. (p. 57) Gabrielle briefly describes each of the seven themes where Nouwen built on the work of Boisen. What is your response to Gabrielle’s analysis? Does her assessment help you to better understand Henri and The Return of the Prodigal Son?

You are invited to share whatever is on your heart and mind–your thoughts on the reading, a reply to the questions, or a response to another’s comment. If you are following along silently, you are most welcome here.

May we all be blessed by another week of sharing.

June 14th to 20th: Introduction and Chapter 1 – The Collapse

Reading: Introduction, A Note About Sources, Chapter 1 – The Collapse, November 1983

Nouwen shows us that we too can return home. We have not ruined everything with our bad choices, doubts, or shortcomings.
We can start again. We can be reborn. And our
loving God will run to meet us. (p. 7)

Welcome to each of you. We have a wonderful group of devoted Henri Nouwen readers gathered from across North America, England, Egypt, and Australia for what promises to be a unique discussion. For the first time, we are reading and discussing a book about Henri rather than a book by written by Henri himself. This provides us with the special opportunity at the bottom of this post.

We will be guided by Gabrielle Earnshaw as she contributes to our understanding of Henri and his most popular book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Through Gabrielle’s comprehensive “biography” of this classic spiritual book and her revealing and sensitive biographical sketch of Henri Nouwen, we will see why encountering Rembrandt’s painting and writing his book were life-changing for Nouwen, and for many of his readers as well.

Gabrielle brings her two decades of experience as Henri’s archivist and editor to bear and this week she prepares us to journey along with Henri on his, and our, “return home.” You will be introduced to Henri’s friend Sue Mosteller, CSJ and learn about the Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection that Sue, as Henri’s literary executrix, established in Toronto and that Gabrielle archived and made the definitive source for studying Nouwen’s life and work. In Chapter One, Gabrielle walks us into Nouwen’s world and allows us to see and begin to experience Henri’s loneliness and anguish as she describes his first encounter with Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and considers why it made an immediate and significant impression on him.

You are encouraged to share and discuss whatever came up for you in the readings and to respond to the comments of others. Here are some excerpts and questions that may help to get the discussion going, but please don’t feel bound to them.

  1. (F)reedom. . . is to enter a second childhood as expressed by Jesus. . . It is a movement away from compulsions and addictions to a life. . . in which we forgive others, serve them, and form a new bond of fellowship with them. (p. 6-7) What is your reaction to this definition of freedom in light of our world today?
  2. “Do you love me?” was (Henri’s) primal cry for love and affection. . . that perplexed his parents. In Intimacy, the search for love is equated with the search for home. . . Nouwen is on a quest for home. . . (p. 18) What is your response to this image of home? Aren’t we all on a quest for home?
  3. (W)hat we might consider is that Nouwen experienced a father with a “work-to-earn love” ethos. From his father he learned that worldly success was a means to gaining love. (p. 23) Gabrielle explores the importance of Henri’s relationship with is father in some detail. Does this help you to better understand his journey? How about your own journey and your relationship with your father and God?
  4. Sipe concludes, “Nouwen was the genuine article. He was exactly what he appeared–a priest struggling for integrity, exhausting himself in the service of others.” (p. 30) What insights did you gain about Henri’s search for intimacy, his commitment to celibacy, and his sexuality? Does looking at Henri as a “priest struggling for integrity” affect your understanding of his life and writing?
  5. (H)e began to see that the painting was actually a “large gate” for him to meet the One he had been searching for since he was born–“the God of mercy and compassion.” (p.32) The painting was a “large gate” for Henri. His writing was a “large gate” for me and many others. Does this ring true in your life?

The thoughts and insights many of you share provide the heartbeat for every Henri Nouwen book discussion. We also welcome those following along silently.

Our friends at Paraclete Press have allowed us to post the virtual book launch they held for this book last month. Gabrielle, along with well-known spiritual writer Fr. Ron Rolheiser, were interviewed by Karen Pascal, the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. The event lasts a just over an hour. (Note: The first 3-1/2 minutes are silent with book excerpts and photos of artifacts from the archives. Then the discussion begins.) I encourage you to watch. It’s excellent. (Note: The video will be available this week only.)

For more information and resources, visit the the Paraclete Press book launch page. To purchase additional copies of the book, visit the Paraclete Press website.

We look forward to a great week of sharing.