Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Henri Nouwen and the Sacred Heart

Henri Nouwen is one of the most widely appreciated Catholic writers of the 20th century – and not just among Catholics.  So, what has Nouwen brought to the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart?  Now, of course, Henri Nouwen is, for some Catholics, a red rag to a bull – rather like Teilhard. And this is not the place to go into the case for and against.  Here we just want to explore  how his writings can help promote a  broader understanding of the  Heart of Jesus. For me his writings have deepened my own devotion and I regard him as having made an significant contribution to fostering the kind  of ‘spirituality of the heart’ which is so necessary in  the dark, greedy and violent world in which we live.   A world that needs the light of Christ’s heart to illuminate and teach us that without love the world will be consumed by pride, greed, anger and the other deadly sins.

The theme of the heart runs throughout Nouwen’s  writings, although reference to the Sacred Heart actually came quite late – in the mid-1980s.  In  his book (published in 1981), The Way of the Heart : Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, for example, he explores what we, in the modern world can learn from the Desert Fathers.  His conclusion is beautifully simple:  we need to cultivate silence in our lives and endeavour to live lives of unceasing prayer.  What noisy world needs is love: and that means we have to find silence in our lives.  Silence is our great defence against the noise of the world.

I read The Way of the Heart  a few weeks ago on the London underground and reflected on the ‘suicidal journey’ which Nouwen believed the world was heading.  As I was reading the section dealing with silence and the importance of finding silence in our hearts and in our lives I looked around and observed that most people were listening to their mobile devices.  Ours is a world that is full of noise and in which silence is believed to be as a threat or a problem we can fix by a bit of technology: so we can have music wherever we go.   The lack of silence is, I have come to realize is really killing us slowly and most certainly.  What the Desert Fathers appreciated was that human beings have a deep and profound need for silence.  Because, it is only in silence can we hear God.  Perhaps the unspiritual and Godless lives people lead is because they have little or no opportunity to have silence.  We live in a world in which communication just means endless streams of words and noise:  in fact, which live in an age of mass in-communication!  We live in a world which has little or no time for silence, and therefore little time or space for prayer.

The Desert Fathers, Nouwen argues, believed that we had to live a life on unceasing prayer.  This unceasing prayer was the prayer of the heart.  Real prayer , he observes, comes from the silence in the very core of our being: real prayer comes from the heart. It is the silence of our hearts we meet God. and hear His word. It is in our hearts where God’s Spirit dwells.  And our hearts are ‘the source of all physical , emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies’.  So for Nouwen, our lives have to be centred on our hearts.  Quoting Macarius the Great, Nouwen observes that the chief task of  a monk is to ‘ enter into his heart’.  If our hearts are to speak to the heart of God, we must know our own  hearts. We must enter into the silence of our heart: for it is there we will find the kingdom of God.

This means, says Nouwen, that our prayer life must be about an absolute surrender to the mystery of God.  And this is why the ‘prayer of  the heart’ is so important as a way of entering into our hearts and into the heart of God: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God , have  mercy on me , a sinner.’

For the Desert Fathers this simple and unceasing prayer was a powerful way of finding the silence than enables us to enter into our heart and thence into the heart of God. Through this ‘prayer of the heart’ we can stand in the presence of the Living God.  Nouwen has much to say about this form of prayer, but this passage in particular caught my attention as it resonates very strongly with Teilhard’s sense of the Sacred Heart.

When we say to people, ‘I will pray for you’, we make a very important commitment.  The sad thing is that this remark often remains nothing but  a well – meant expression of concern.  But when we learn to descend with our mind into our heart, then all those who have become part of our lives are led into the healing presence of God and touched by him in the center of our being.  We are speaking here about a mystery for which words are inadequate. It is the mystery that the heart, which is the centre of our being , is transformed by God into his own heart, a heart large enough to embrace the entire universe.  Through prayer we can carry in our heart  all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.  The Way of the Heart, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1981: 87


Reading this I am drawn to the icon of the Sacred Heart.  As we reflect on the centre of the icon, I feel that the icon captures this sense of the heart of God as transformative: it is large enough to embrace the entire universe! And yet, it is small enough to become our home.


Given the place of the heart in Nouwen’s writings, it is surprising that it took him quite a while before he turned to the Sacred Heart, per se.  How this came about is quite interesting – because his rediscovery of the Sacred Heart began with an icon. As he notes in Heart Speaks to Heart:

“. . . It all began with an icon Robert Lentz  OFM, had made for me portraying John the Evangelist leaning against Jesus’ breast in the heavenly Jerusalem. Called ‘The Bridegroom’, the icon best expresses my own desire to develop a more intimate relationship with Jesus.”


Thus his journey towards the Sacred Heart began with an icon of the beloved apostle, John.


He had copies of the icon made and gave one of them to the mother of Jean Vanier – the founder of ‘L’Arche.’ .  Pauline Vanier – ( left)  – loved the icon and also had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart.   However, Nouwen admitted that he never felt any desire to pray to the Sacred Heart as he associated it with ‘ Nineteenth –century piety and the statues in which that piety was expressed had kept me away from the devotion that for many people had been very nurturing. (Heart Speaks to Heart. p 11 Kindle edition).  Despite her belief that he should write something about the Sacred Heart, Nouwen confessed that he was not inspired so to do!  But Madame Vanier  (Read about this formidable woman HERE) was persistent with her request that he write about the Sacred Heart. Reading about Pauline Vanier, I can quite understand how difficult it must have been to ignore her suggestion!  She was a remarkable women. Her mother's spiritual  director had been Fr. Almire Pichon, SJ - who had also been the spiritual director of St Therese of Lisieux!  (READ about here) From Fr. Pichon her mother had learnt the value of devotion to the Sacred Heart, and Pauline Vanier, like her mother, was to have an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart. ( And she no doubt passed this on to her son, Jean Vanier  - for whom the heart has a central place in his writings.)  With the encouragement of this woman who had a deep love of the heart of Jesus, Nouwen  eventually gave in to her request - which she believed came from God. In due course he felt that he was ready to get down to it as he celebrated Holy Week  with Trappists in Holland, Manitoba - and the result was subsequently published 1985.


His original plan was to get down to reading a selection of books suggested  by Annice Callahan  RSCJ, which he never actually got around to reading!  One book did move him, Pedro Arrupe’s SJ.  In Him Alone is Our Hope.  This particular book ‘moved’ him deeply and ‘stirred up a  new desire to enter more fully into the mystery of God’s love as lived out in the passion and resurrection of Jesus.’ (Looking through the blog I am surprised that I have not discussed Arrupe’s book on the Sacred Heart! It is indeed an inspiring book and I will return to it again.)

The impact of Arrupe’s book seems to have changed his focus: Madame Vanier’s suggestion that he write about the Sacred Heart now appeared to be more of  an invitation to ‘let the heart of Jesus touch my own heart deeply’, and furthermore to ‘be healed; by the experience of writing.  He came to realize  that  he had ‘come to pray ‘ and  let his wounds become ‘one with the wounds of my crucified and risen Lord.’



Heart Speaks to Heart is the account of that rediscovery of the Sacred Heart and should be read by all who wish to ‘enter more fully into the mystery  God’s love’.  GO here.




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