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Henri Nouwen and His Much-Needed Sabbatical

Posted by Guest Blogger on 11/14/16 7:00 AM

Henri Nouwen sought refuge for work and prayer. Image: pexels

He was on sabbatical in France, in L’Arche,” explains Sr. Sue Mosteller, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and also the team at Daybreak. “I said ‘What are you doing next year?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I have no idea, but I know I’m not going back to Harvard.’”

Henri Nouwen the priest-writer-professor had had enough of that final hyphen.He was disillusioned by university culture. “One of the saddest aspects of the lives of many students is that they always feel pressured.… Books written to be savored slowly are read hastily to fulfill requirements, paintings made to be seen with a contemplative eye are taken in as part of a necessary art appreciation course, and music composed to be enjoyed at leisure is listened to in order to identify a period or style. Thus, colleges and universities meant to be places for quiet learning have become places of fierce competition, in which the rewards go to those who produce the most and the best.”

It was with these thoughts about leaving the competitive world of Ivy League academia behind that he continued to listen to what Sue Mosteller had to say.

So I began to tell him about Daybreak and what we were planning. I said, “Well, we always say we are going to talk about spirituality here, and it’s complicated and wonderful and terrible,” I said. “We do have this dream that we can become a community that is a really solid spiritual base with solid theology, and not kooky theology.” He was so interested and was so alive during that conversation.

After a ten-day initial visit to Daybreak, Henri made a decision about the invitation in Joe Egan’s letter. He would enter daily life in a L’Arche community at a time when the organization had accumulated more than twenty years of adaptation and development following Jean Vanier’s first attempt at building community with people living with disabilities. Starting with that single foyer in 1964, by the time Henri joined the Daybreak community in Ontario, L’Arche was already operating in sixteen countries.

By comparison, today L’Arche has a hundred and forty-nine communities in thirty-eight countries around the world. Each is built on the same approach that Jean Vanier initiated in 1964 with Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux: to create a welcoming home (a foyer or hearth) for people (known as “core members”) with intellectual and developmental disabilities in order that they might live together in small family communities.

Core members live with assistants, who are not specialists but often people who are young and from around the world who seek this model of community life. As Vanier said about L’Arche in a recent newspaper interview, “I wanted to build a community and not an institution.” When Henri entered daily life in a L’Arche community, he was experiencing the accumulation of more than twenty years of adaptation and development of Vanier’s ideas about inclusive and transformational community building.

Henri felt finally ready to make the break with Harvard and academic life. He moved to Daybreak, the first Canadian L’Arche community, founded in 1969, in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a forty-minute drive north of Toronto. Arriving there in 1986 to work as its pastor, Henri would report to Joe Egan, the director, and work closely with Sue Mosteller.

Henri began his Daybreak years in the first and largest L’Arche community in Canada. The Daybreak he arrived at was very different from the Daybreak of today. In 1986 it was a collection of fourteen scattered homes split between Richmond Hill and Toronto.

After driving north and turning off the busy north-south highway, Henri would enter the large rural campus in Richmond Hill that is enclosed within rough-hewn and wind-worn wooden fences. He might have thought at first that he was moving in to a farm, especially with the tall barn that housed the carpentry shop—the Woodery.

He would have to look carefully to see the two original foyers, or homes, and the workshops dotted throughout the property behind trees in this rolling stretch of grassy land about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Today there are eight foyers. Then, in addition to the two on the rural site, there were more foyers in the town of Richmond Hill, and also in Toronto. Urban or rural, each foyer was (and is today) home to a mixed group of five to seven core members and assistants.

In the 1990s, Daybreak Richmond Hill and L’Arche Toronto became two separate entities, but when Henri first arrived they were one and the same. In Richmond Hill, then as today, there is an obvious center to the place: the Meeting Hall, for day programs and larger gatherings. In 1986, the chapel was in Toronto and more than a decade later, in Richmond Hill, a new angular wood-framed chapel with its steeply sloping roof was built beside a small pond. This was a chapel that Henri would never use.

Nathan Ball began working at Daybreak around the same time as Henri. He says it was a death in the family that brought him to L’Arche. A recent graduate from the University of Waterloo, Nathan had returned to live with his family in western Canada when, unexpectedly, his youngest brother became ill and died.

For more on Henri Nouwen, click here!

He had lived with several disabilities, particularly in the later part of his life and around the same time I met a wise elder from the L’Arche community who said to me, “If you want to understand more about what you have lived with your brother, why don’t you consider spending time in L’Arche?” So I did, and I never left.

To walk into a L’Arche event or home can be challenging if you have not spent much time in the company of people with intellectual or developmental difficulties. Nathan Ball summarizes what Henri would have seen when he walked into any of the Daybreak homes. You’d knock on the door just like you would to go to any home. Someone would open the door and welcome you in. If you were there to stay for a few hours you would experience warm and very normal, everyday relationships between people with disabilities and young assistants.

Cooking, cleaning, sharing their meals together, talking, laughing, conflicts. One of the initial challenges for Henri would be language, in the sense that it takes time for a newcomer to be able to interpret clearly what people are saying. Some disabilities make it difficult for people to move their vocal or facial muscles. Listening from a pastoral perspective had always been easy for Henri, but this would be quite a different and intense hearing test for him.

Ball explains that he met Henri the previous winter in Trosly-Breuil and was not especially confident about this famous author’s ability to adjust to life in a L’Arche community. “Henri had a fair bit of difficulty managing, I would say living, in the physical world. He was awkward. He didn’t know how to cook. He fumbled. He was much more at ease in the world of ideas and intellect and I say in the world of the heart, in the world of compassion and of caring and of teaching. So the day-to-day life of the L’Arche community was very confusing for him at times.”

Henri often confused his colleagues in return, as Sue Mosteller experienced: He’d be telling me about this book that he read, very excited about the concepts and the thoughts and everything, and I’m saying “Yes! Yes!” and “Oh, that’s so good!”

Then he’d leave quickly because he was always going to something else, and then all day long I’d be grinding with this thing in my head, inside myself, saying “Oh yeah, well that fits with that. Oh yeah.” Then the next day I’d say, “You know about that book, I wanted to say…” and he’d say “Huh?” He was gone from there and on to something else now and he’d say, “I want to tell you all about this other person I met who had this to say and now let’s talk about that.” So I could never catch up.

Kevin Burns taught theater arts in a British high school before moving to Canada. He taught in the drama department of the University of Alberta and then became a radio producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was also an editor for Novalis, specializing in spirituality, religion, and theology. His most recent book is Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media).


Henri Nouwen His Life and Spirit by Kevin Burns

Topics: retreat, Contemplation, Henri Nouwen