Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Book Review: Sabbatical Journey by Henri J.M. Nouwen.

1. Synopsis

This text represents Henri J.M. Nouwen’s diary during his final year. As Nouwen died unexpectedly on September 21, 1996, he did not know it was his final year when he wrote it. Instead, the book grew out of Nouwen’s effort to take a sabbatical during this period. At the outset, Nouwen writes of his objective for the year, as follows: “I have always dreamt about a whole year without appointments, meetings, lectures, travels, letters, and phone calls, a year completely open to let something radically new happen…. Free to think critically, to feel deeply, and to pray as never before.” (p. 3.)

The irony perhaps is that the book is replete with much activity and few prayers. He records myriad encounters with family, friends and acquaintances; he chronicles his many trips, including to Holland and San Diego; and he provides details about his speaking engagements and writings.

As a result, the book did not seem like a prime example of one free from commitments or taking advantage of a relaxing sabbatical. Nevertheless, the curtain is pulled back intermittently to reveal to the reader special insights and revelations about Nouwen. In so doing, the book contains some profound thoughts or reflections interspersed with notes about his activities.

In these thoughts and reflections, Nouwen returns to some familiar themes. He speaks about his gratefulness for the blessing in his life; he writes about his love for the Eucharist as a lifestyle; he explores his inner weaknesses in frankness; and he discusses his ideas about tolerance that borders on universalism. In this regard, Nouwen interestingly writes about the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Nouwen once again demonstrates his skills as a synthesizer and integrator of seeming opposites.

2. Analysis

Nouwen’s ruminations bordering on universalism were striking. For example, Nouwen wrote: “I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not.” (p. 51.) This statement came on the heels of his rejection of the view that a profession of faith in Jesus was required for salvation. (Ibid.)

Nouwen critiqued others’ view of the centrality of a profession of faith in Christ, as follows: “Many of the people I met in Cancun believe that without an explicit personal profession of faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we cannot make it to heaven. They are convinced that God has called us to convert every human being to Jesus.” (Ibid.)

I think these controversial thoughts have to be placed in Nouwen’s broader context or themes of tolerance, love and reconciliation that permeate the book. In other words, Nouwen had reached a point in his journey where he evidently wanted to look for things that reconciled people rather than divided them. Further, Nouwen so focuses on God’s love that he downplays or ignores His justice.

However, while Jesus’ work represents the avenue of reconciliation of sinners with God, it cannot be stripped from its inescapably divisive overtones. While I certainly recognize the surface appeal of this message of universalism, it ultimately cannot stand in the wake of Jesus’ pronouncement that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6), and the similarly exclusionary aspects of Pauline theology.

Nevertheless, Nouwen’s general themes of reconciliation and forgiveness with his own father (and friends) resonated with me. Nouwen had reached a point in his life where he could forgive those who had wronged him as a means to peace and happiness.

3. Response

I chose this journal because I was fascinated with the finality of its context. In other words, the fact that this book came at the end of Nouwen’s life offered the promise of his most fully-formed reflections. In addition, I wanted to search for clues as to what might have contributed to his death or if he had any inklings of the end that awaited him (known in hindsight to the reader).

I was particularly drawn to the entries where Nouwen set aside the busyness of his life and recurrent recording of his many activities to offer his thoughts reacting to, because of, or in spite of, these events. For example, “[H]uman happiness has little to do with money, success, or popularity but everything to do with friendship, love, and a purpose in life.” (p. 56.) Likewise, Nouwen offers: “Why should I ever think or say something that is not love? Why should I ever hold a grudge, feel hatred or jealousy, act suspiciously? Why not always give and forgive, encourage and empower, give thanks and offering praise? Why not?” (p. 73.) These are powerful reflections that stand out from the other sometimes mundane entries (which nevertheless furnish some insight).

Also, I was surprised by Nouwen’s naivete. He spoke wistfully of the United Nations and (understandably) the Pope’s speech to the U.N. (p. 30), but to my perhaps jaundiced eye I found them to be quite naïve. For example, Nouwen writes: “[The U.N.] is one of the few organizations that has the potential for creating peace on our planet and preventing it from being destroyed by human greed and revenge.” (p. 43.)

I gravitated towards much of Nouwen’s discussions of his internal inconsistencies, such as searching for praise for his sermon on humility, as these paradoxes or tensions are familiar in my own journeying experience.