My Year with Henri Excerpt
I’m spending the week in London with Henri. Spur-of-the-moment, we decided to cash in our Airmiles and join my husband, Michael, on a work trip over spring break. I’ve brought with me British biographer Michael Andrew Ford’s book, Wounded Healer: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen. It’s the first biography I’ve read of Henri and, as we walk through the city, I wonder about the places Henri visited, the people he loved here and the strangers he invariably spoke to along the streets of High Holborn and the run-amuck of Piccadilly Circus.
Later this week we will visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was the first cathedral constructed in London, made entirely of wood...
My train of thought is interrupted by our 7-year-old daughter asking to watch ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ on Netflix. I say yes before exhaling an exasperated sigh. How am I going to get through this year with the demands of motherhood clinging to me like linen?
The real question is, How can I relate to Henri, a single man unhindered by the demands of family life? I covet Henri’s freedom. I picture him galavanting through the city and am possessed by jealousy. Just yesterday I had to turn down an invitation to coffee on Shoreditch house roof top, a trendy members-only hotel, with a valuable colleague. If only...
I’m falling down the rabbit hole. I have to give my head a shake. Henri’s single life was not nearly as free as I imagine— I know this full well. As a priest, teacher and devoted friend, he knew the fracture and promise of intimate commitments, perhaps even better than my rigid heart.
These comparisons bear no fruit, Henri reminds me:
“Much sadness and gladness in my life flows directly from my comparing, and most, if not all, of this comparing is useless and a terrible waste of energy.”
He’s not beating around the bush.
Speak to me, wounded healer, speak.
“Wound and blessing have the same root in English and it was precisely woundedness that had been opening people up to [Henri] Nouwen for years... One needs to be able to name our woundedness — then marvellous things can happen.”
I read these words in Wounded Prophet and nod. Why am I nodding? Because I believe it’s true? For someone else, maybe. Can my own woundedness prove a blessing for others? I fear not. I navel-gaze too much, I’m too self-focused to point people home. Someone called me a navel-gazer on the Internet the other day. This confirms all my worst suspicions.
Henri was famously open about his struggles, even as he still lived them. I don’t share Henri’s boldness. Fear lives in me because, despite my best efforts, I still dwell in too much darkness. I act selfishly in my marriage, I’m entitled, I’m quick to anger with my children, I judge others, I’m far too wrapped up in desires for notoriety and success. My shadow side still feels strong, too strong.
A favourite excerpt of mine from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season sums up my feelings well:
“One evening Tallis and I were talking, after teaching a class together. One of the students had been defining God, and everybody agreed that this is impossible. But I said afterwards to Tallis, “We can’t define God, but didn’t God define himself for us, in Jesus Christ?”
He replied, “That’s all very well, as long as you remember Kierkegaard’s saying that Jesus came to us and looked like us and ate like us and talked like us, and the disguise was so perfect that we believed he was just like one of us.”
I hesitate to disagree with either Kierkegaard or Tallis, but this bothered me so much that I blundered on. “But Jesus was us: isn’t that the whole point? Jesus is us; and it’s we who aren’t us, and haven’t been, not since Adam and Eve.”
And I think that’s still true. The second Adam [Jesus] was what the first Adam was meant to be, what we were all meant to be: spontaneous, free, aware, unafraid to love, without hubris: whole. Not as we are, fragmented, inhibited, sunside and darkside in collision instead of collaboration, so that we are afraid of all that we might find in the sinister world of the subconscious, are suspicious of intuition, and close our doors to the knocking of the Spirit.”
It’s spring here and the earth is unfurling. The royal park I’m sitting in is awash with daffodils, their butter tops already a foot tall. Yesterday, we watched a one-winged pelican walking these lawns and wondered aloud how it had lost its other. The bird attracted a crowd. We stared at its enormous beak opening and closing, opening and closing. People pressed closer, closer, iPhones in hand. Watching her, I felt both a pang of grief and wonder. She was beautiful. She was a freak. She could not fly.
We tried to give her room.
I’m sitting in a sandbox writing in London’s St. James Park. I’ve snagged a comfortable rock with a good sight- line on Buckingham Palace and my three children, glancing every few minutes to ensure they’re in my peripheral. I’m 10 minutes into a good flow when a Chinese mother, a few feet away, shouts out in Mandarin: “Move the baby or he’ll get sand in his face.” I follow her gaze to her husband and child, a scoop of sand hanging precariously close to the toddler’s delicate eyes. I don’t understand Mandarin. She’s speaking a universal language.
It only occurs to me now that a priest is a parent: a father. Henri is Fr. Henri Nouwen. Father Henri. A father keeps watch, responds, and protects. These are my children. Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.
Earlier today we watched a barefoot man making enormous bubbles in the sunshine. Madeleine, Thomas and Caleb made a beeline for him and we spent the better part of an hour darting across fields and pathways pop- ping hundreds of glittering orbs. A bucket of soapy water, a stick and a string were all this young man needed to enrapture a crowd of the young and young-at-heart. Let the children come to me.
As I watched him, I found myself wondering: how old are you? How are you free to spend a weekday afternoon blowing bubbles? Who made you so playful? Then a darker thought betrayed me: who gave you permission?
Bubble man was wearing a black t-shirt with a holy Mary silk-screened on the front, her upturned lips ceding consent. Let the children come to me. He had an open, youthful face. Laughed easily. Left a hat out for anyone who felt like tossing a coin in. Never mentioned it though. Neverminded. Minded his bubbles and the children and the grass between his toes. Minded the delicious March sunshine.
© Christina Crook, All Rights Reserved.