David CLOUTIER, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, Department of Theology, St. Joseph, MN, 56374.
O'Laughlin, a teaching assistant for Nouwen at Harvard and currently a spiritual director, offers what is essentially a set of reflections on various aspects of Nouwen's personality and his work. This study seeks to explore "some of the less explored aspects of Nouwen's life" (16), as well as offer some perspective on the essential areas of his writings: the centrality of Jesus, the importance of the Eucharist, and the development of spirituality.
The book's successes come sporadically. O'Laughlin spends a fair amount of time, in two separate chapters, using Myers-Briggs personality type analysis in order to respond to certain criticisms of Nouwen's life and work. Nouwen succeeded with so many people and was such a faithful witness, he claims, "not by altering his personality to fit the norms of his faith, nor by being all things to all people, but simply by being his true, NF self" (166). Nouwen is a leader for an age suffused in artificiality and longing for authenticity. In presenting his faith in Jesus or his practice of the Eucharist, O'Laughlin consistently emphasizes the simplicity and directness of Nouwen's writings and practice. Moreover, in his own life, Nouwen moves more and more toward this simplicity and directness in living. Starting off immersed in pastoral psychology and academia (which O'Laughlin portrays as ill-fitting from the start), he first learns from his tutelage by Merton and the Cistercians, and then finally finds his home at L'Arche in the practices of Jean Vanier. The occasional forays into actual biological development through these two eras seem to me to be the most successful portions of the book.
Because Nouwen learned (sometimes painfully) to be true to himself, his message to others is not to become another Henri Nouwen, but to find themselves. As the author confesses, this problem of emulating Nouwen dogged him for a long time, and the book is clearly a meditation not simply on Nouwen, but on the author's own struggle to appropriate and yet not be overwhelmed by his friendship with Nouwen (57, 185). Perhaps because of this, the book's structure is often frustrating, especially to the reader who does not know the details of Nouwen's life or of his personality. Details are presented in a fragmented fashion. Descriptions of Nouwen as a person vary a great deal throughout the book, and so no strong portrait of the man comes through. Sadly, the simplicity so expressed above never actually seems to come to Nouwen's life. The book flatly states that he "worked himself to death" and never seemed to overcome some fundamental spiritual and/or psychological anxieties and complexities, even after entering L'Arche. The problem here is not Nouwen; it is that the format of this book does not help us understand these paradoxes at a deeper level. While it does not claims to be a chronological biography, it is neither a focused meditation on the person of Nouwen. It is rather quite impressionistic, and does not reach a depth that one might desire. It is further marred by oversimplified theological claims about how Nouwen's work assumes "a very Vatican II posture" (171), where Vatican II is simply equated to a spirit that stripped away the extraneous elements of faith. Yet it is claimed that, in his understanding of the Eucharist, "the Eucharist can and should be a vehicle for our own unfolding spiritual and personal experience" (125). What claim could be more antithetical to the non-pietistic and communal understanding of the Eucharist and the Church commended by Vatican II?
However, the book does help the reader enter into the complexities of Henri Nouwen without prematurely resolving them. It helps us understand further why Nouwen's work resonates with so many in our age. The sense of confusion in search of authenticity and the friendly and unguarded directness come through this text as they come through Nouwen's own texts. The author has, as he desires, contributed to an ongoing discussion among the heirs of Nouwen's work about how to appropriate his work and understand the man himself. For those of us who read Nouwen, but are not in this in-house conversation, the book offers smatterings of insight, but not a rich, realized portrait.