This summer I went on vacation and didn’t bring any books with me.
To be fair, it was just the first week of two. And while I didn’t bring any physical books with me—the first thing I pack whenever I travel—because I was trying to pack as light as possible, I did bring my eight-year-old iPad Mini with a number of unread books on it.
The other reason why I didn’t pack any physical books was because I knew I would go to a family-favourite thrift store that I could count on for some good finds. I was not disappointed. I picked up A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr, The Spirit Of The Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willard, and Love, Henri: Letters On The Spiritual Life, a collection of letters from Henri J. M. Nouwen.
Hemingway and Rohr were great company on the first week of vacation, but Nouwen’s letters carried me through both weeks. Edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw and with a forward by Brené Brown, the collection includes letters written between December 29, 1973 and August 4, 1996—a month and a half before he suddenly passed away. I was gripped from the very first letter, which begins:
Dear Don and Claude,
Happy times, Blessed Christmas and a very good new year. I hope that all the misery in the country and the world in general will deepen your hope for the kingdom of God, will strengthen your eschatological perspective, … make you pray more and love more and make your heart and mind open toward Him who is the Lord of life and who calls us to transcend all human endeavors.1
Many of the letters are addressed to close friends, and previous students that he continued to mentor. Others are responses to complete strangers who asked for spiritual direction. Nouwen often reflects on his current circumstances, usually offering the advice to get away and spend time in prayer. One amusing example of this is when he writes:
Be sure to keep some kind of inner and outer space for yourself. It is very important that you are not always overextended. In the U.S. it seems that every situation quickly becomes urgent or even emergent. But it might be a lack of faith after all. I realize this when I notice the French taking 12-2pm to have leisurely dinner every day! For them everything seems less urgent than a good meal!2
Many people wrote Nouwen in response to his books. They shared their gratitude for how his writing touched them and asked questions for further guidance. Nouwen’s responses were always humble and gracious. This is still the case when responding to disagreement or criticism. I quote for you this letter from September 13, 1988:
Dear Mr. Smith,
Many thanks for your letter in response to Behold the Beauty of the Lord. I really feel sad that you had such a negative response to it. I had hoped that you would have been able to read the book in a way that it would have given you some spiritual nurture.
I am sorry that you felt so irritated by the expressions “God of God” and “Mother of humanity.” Before I published the text I had some very good Orthodox friends with good theological knowledge read it. They made some very helpful remarks which are integrated in the text but not mention the two expressions as not being Orthodox. When I speak about Mary as the Mother of humanity, I simply mean that Mary is our mother and the mother of all people whom Jesus came to save. I obviously do not want to suggest that Mary is the mother of the children of the devil.
Meanwhile, I am very saddened by the angry tone of your letter. I think it is so important that we as Christians try to understand one another and be gentle with one another. If I had received your remarks before publication, I might have been able to phrase some sentences somewhat differently to avoid all possibility misinterpretation. But I also feel that it is important that fellow Christians read it with a heart that is open to be touched by the mystery of God, even when that mystery is expressed in a somewhat different way from what they are used to. Most important of all, we Christians are trying to support each other as we witness for Jesus and his mother.
I will reflect seriously on your remarks and see if, in a future edition, I could make the changes that you indirectly suggest. May the Lord fill your heart with peace and joy and may we both continue to work for deeper unity among us in Christ.
Putting aside the specific issues involved in this letter, I am struck by Nouwen’s ability to sympathetically engage criticism. Throughout the collection of letters he is kind and gentle, and shows a willingness to engage with many who disagree with him. I want to be like that. As I continue to think through different issues with this blog—which I admit I have neglected for the better part of this year—I know that some people will disagree with what I write. I want to be someone who sympathetically engages with people who disagree, and with perspectives that are different from mine. The trouble is that I am a textbook conflict-avoider. But my mind keeps coming back to this particular letter, even weeks after I first read it, because I think it offers a way forward. In it I find two lessons on how to engage disagreement well; two lessons that apply to all of us.
The Need for Humility
The first lesson is the need for humility. I see Nouwen displaying humility in three ways in this short letter. First, he involved the voices of others in the process of writing. Before publishing, he asked for the input of trusted and scholarly friends. He valued their suggestions and integrated their feedback into his work. Second, he writes about mystery. He encourages us to have “a heart that is open to be touched by the mystery of God.” The mystery of God keeps us humble, because we recognize that we are always limited in our perspective and understanding. Third, he vows to reflect seriously on the criticism and see if, in a future edition, he could make appropriate changes. He is open to correction and change. We need to have humility if we are going to engage disagreements well.
The Need for Grace
The second lesson is the need for grace. Nouwen takes issue, not with criticism itself, but with how criticism is communicated. “I am very saddened by the angry tone of your letter,” he writes. “I think it is so important that we as Christians try to understand one another and be gentle with one another.” How much more do we need to hear these words from 1988 in our day and age? In such a polarized and divided world disagreements are unavoidable, but we can choose how we communicate those disagreements. Nouwen admonishes us users of the internet and social media to try and understand one another and be gentle. Our tone matters. We need grace if we are going to engage disagreements well.
Humility & Grace
Humility and grace are fundamental to healthy engagement with criticism and disagreement. We need to be humble: to value input from others, to honour the mystery of God, and to be open to change and correction. This is not easy, so we need grace in order to receive and process feedback. But we also need grace when voicing our critiques and disagreements with others, and in responding to others’ critiques of us: to allow ourselves to try and understand the other person, and to be gentle with our corrections. Is it possible that we can humbly disagree, even with great conviction, without losing the Christ-like characters of grace and love?
Disagreement is not only inevitable, I think it is actually a good thing. Perhaps even essential. But we need to have the right approach to it. With humility and grace, we can engage each other, and maybe even draw closer to one another, instead of further apart. If/when you disagree with things that I share on this blog, I want you to engage me with your criticism. I need to hear from your perspective, just as I think you need to hear mine. But let’s try to engage one another in humility and grace.
In closing, I echo Nouwen’s prayer: May the Lord fill our hearts with peace and joy, and may we all continue to work for deeper unity in Christ.
1 Nouwen, Henri J. M. Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017), 8.
2 Nouwen, Love, Henri, 103.
3 Ibid., 183-4.