(In March, 2005, Orbis Books will publish a new book by the late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, called “Peacework.” Parts of the book were published in John Dear’s compilation, “The Road to Peace.” Below is the foreword written by John Dear to the new book.)
Henri Nouwen is one of the most popular spiritual writers of our time. Before his death in 1996, he published a series of small, accessible books on the spiritual life, prayer, solitude, the Eucharist and death which have inspired millions of readers. In many ways, the focus of his writings exemplified the church’s new focus on Jesus and the scriptures after Vatican II.
But what intrigues me most about Henri is that he struggled on a personal level to live these writings, to make the connection between his grand spiritual vision and daily, gritty reality, to put the Gospel into practice in his own life and so in the world. This struggle was painful for Henri, as it is for everyone. It meant taking risks, moving on, and seeking God’s place for him in the world. A Dutch priest and psychologist, he became a popular author and speaker, as well as a favorite professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. But then, at the height of his career, he walked away from the academic world. After exploring the possibility of life as a Trappist monk and a missionary in Latin America, he moved to Toronto and joined the L’Arche Daybreak community to serve people who are severely disabled. Henri tried to engage the world by living and applying Gospel values. For me, that rare application makes all the difference toward a more authentic spirituality and spiritual life.
Henri Nouwen faced the world of pain and violence without blinking. He looked it in the eye and offered it a word of love, healing and peace, which at first glance might appear to be sentimental, but was actually rooted in a firm social, political spirituality. He knew that as a follower of Jesus, he had to seek first God’s reign of peace and justice, and that his spiritual writings had to reflect all the aspects of God’s reign, not just for personal salvation, but for social and global transformation. It is this wide viewpoint that makes Henri’s writing unique. While many others may promote a private, comfortable, bourgeois spirituality that enjoys a privileged place as God’s personal “beloved,” Henri knew that all people on earth are God’s beloved and that to be faithful to this belovedness means standing in solidarity with the world’s suffering poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the enemy, that we love not only our neighbors as ourselves, but that we love even our enemies, from the people of Vietnam and Nicaragua to Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are many books on spirituality, many spiritual writers and teachers, and many ways to pursue the so-called “spiritual life.” But as a Jesuit trying to work for peace and justice over the last 25 years, I find that most miss the mark because they do not address the global crises of war, nuclear weapons, U.S. imperialism, widespread poverty, hunger, AIDS and the threat of environmental destruction. These so-called “political issues” are matters of life and death, which means they are first and foremost spiritual matters. That is why Jesus dedicated himself so passionately to justice for the poor and a vision of God’s reign of peace on earth, and gave his life to the formation of a community of peacemakers who would confront institutionalized, imperial injustice head on as he did. Publicly resisting evil and making peace in the world are at the heart of every authentic spirituality.
Unfortunately, few of us make this critical connection between the spiritual life, prayer and discipleship on the one hand, and war, poverty and nuclear weapons, on the other hand. Most of us disconnect our private spiritual experience with “the real world” of business, electoral politics, bombing raids, national self-interest and militarism. Perhaps we do not want to cause trouble, divide our congregations or be denounced as unpatriotic. Yet, without realizing it, our passivity and silence in the face of global violence renounces the prophetic witness of the nonviolent Jesus and, in doing that, we align ourselves not with God’s reign of justice and peace, but with the established status quo of war and its trail of blood and tears. It’s as if in order to write or speak about prayer and spirituality today, we have to ignore the U.S. bombing raids on Fallujah or the U.S. military aid for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians or the ongoing spending for the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos while the budgets for schools, jobs, homes, food and healthcare are slashed. The culture tells us that these issues, painful as they may be, do not concern the spiritual life, our private prayer, the Eucharist, the bishops, and parish life. There is no connection between our spiritual life and the horrors we read about in the morning paper, so we are told.
With this book, Henri insists that there is a connection. He links his personal experience of God, his insights into pastoral psychology, and his understanding of Christian discipleship with not only the poor and the broken around us, but with the global injustices of our times from U.S. bombing raids to the ultimate form of terrorism, the U.S. willingness to use nuclear weapons again upon other human beings. So Henri speaks out against war, violence and nuclear weapons because this is the natural development of any spiritual seeker.
In the 1960s, Henri drove to Selma to join the scary, disruptive march against racism and segregation with Dr. King, and then returned later to walk with the thousands at Dr. King’s funeral. In the 1970s, he spoke at anti-war rallies and kept vigil for peace at a Trident submarine base in Connecticut. In the 1980s, he journeyed to the war zones of Nicaragua and Guatemala, toured the country speaking against Reagan’s contra war and the nuclear arms race, and joined protesters at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site. On January 14, 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Henri addressed 10,000 people in Washington, D.C., denouncing the impending war and calling Christians to take a stand for peace. “I have become more aware than ever,” he wrote me shortly afterwards, “of how hard it is to proclaim radically the peace of Jesus in a world that so quickly gravitates to violent solutions of its problems.”
Henri knew that the spiritual life summoned him to work for peace, that if he was to fulfill his vocation to be a beloved son of God, he had to be a peacemaker, a voice for peace in a world of war. In the early 1990s, when I was in prison for an anti-nuclear demonstration, Henri wrote long supportive letters telling me that he too was trying to stand for peace, that he consciously saw his work at L’Arche as a witness against war and nuclear weapons, that he wanted to be part of the growing movement for nonviolence and disarmament, which was why he supported groups like Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Sojourners and the Catholic Worker. He even wrote to me about the possibility of risking arrest and imprisonment himself in order to make clear his nonviolent resistance to U.S. wars and weaponry. I think Henri’s willingness to stand for peace and justice is still widely misunderstood, if not deliberately ignored. For me, however, this stand makes a crucial difference. That’s what gives his writing integrity–his personal grounding among the poor and the marginalized, his real solidarity with the movements for justice and peace, and his public stand against the U.S. government’s many wars.
Henri Nouwen tried to live a life of peace, to promote the vision of peace, and to teach the way of peace. In the early 1980s, while many feared that Reagan would launch nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, Henri wrote this meditation as his contribution to the Church and the peace movement, so that those marching and advocating for peace would root their actions in the heart of peace, in Jesus who is the face of the God of peace and in his Holy Spirit of peace. He did not address the political landscape as much as the inner spiritual landscape. He thought that the only way to help pull humanity back from the brink of global destruction was through our inner conversion of heart and subsequent social, political, and economic transformation. After finishing an initial draft, he traveled the country speaking to large audiences about the gospel imperative to work for peace and resist U.S. wars. After several visits to Latin America, including the warzones of Nicaragua and Guatemala, he returned to the manuscript, revised it and renamed it, Peacework.
Parts of this manuscript were published in a small church journal. After reading those articles, I wrote Henri urging him to write more about peace and disarmament. He thanked me, and encouraged my own efforts against war. After Henri’s sudden death in 1996, I gathered his available writings on peace and justice and published them in The Road to Peace, including much of this manuscript. Since then, however, we discovered a further chapter on community and his final conclusion.
Given the tumultuous years since the horrific September 11, 2001, attacks, the time has come to publish Henri’s original book on its own, even though it was written some 20 years ago. I think Henri would want his readers to take this book to heart and try his suggestions. If he were alive, Henri might add other ingredients to his spirituality of peacemaking. A few years after moving to L’Arche, he wrote a little booklet titled, “The Path of Peace,” where he continued to grapple with the spirituality of peace. There, he adds a further ingredient–receiving the gift of peace from the weak, the broken, the poor, and the marginalized–based on his experience with Adam, a severely disabled friend. The poor teach us about the sufferings and injustices of the world, Henri explained, but most of all, they share with us the gift of peace, God’s reign of peace, which has been given first of all to them, according to the Beatitudes. That booklet, included in the collection, Finding My Way Home, could be read along with this meditation to round out Henri’s spirituality of peacemaking.
In these difficult times of fear, anxiety, division, poverty, war, and terrorism, Henri’s message of peace is needed more than ever. He writes about the house of fear, which is a good definition for the world today, and calls us to leave the house of fear and journey toward the house of love and peace. He invites us to work for peace through prayer, resistance, and community. Although his spirituality of peace might be dismissed by the culture of war as impractical, naïve, and idealistic, Henri writes from a biblical perspective. He speaks to us from God’s vision of peace for the world, and thus write about God’s condemnation of our wars, corporate greed, violence and nuclear weapons. As a spiritual seeker and guide, Henri knew that God is a God of peace and therefore that God wants us to “beat our swords into plowshares” and “study war no more.” He saw that Jesus walked the path of peace and wanted his disciples to become peacemakers like him.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God,” Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount. These words “have become the key words for our lives as Christians today,” Henri writes boldly in his conclusion. If we want to grow into a mature spirituality and become authentic disciples of Jesus, we have to take a stand against the culture of war and become peacemakers, he explains, regardless of what others tell us. “To live a life in the Spirit of Christ today,” Henri concludes, means “to choose for a way of being in the world that in no way pays service to the forces of destruction.”
Peacemaking begins with contemplative prayer, Henri insists. We have to pray to the God of peace for the gift of peace, and beg God to disarm our hearts and the world. Next, peacemaking requires public, active resistance to war and the forces of war. That means speaking out publicly against war and injustice and saying “No!” to our government’s bombing raids and nuclear arsenal. It means breaking through the culture’s apathy, complicity and silence while thousands die from our violence, from our bombs or our refusal to share our resources. As we resist the forces of death, Henri writes, we also celebrate the precious gift of life and the peace that already dwells among us in Christ. Finally, peacemaking involves creating and joining a community of peace where we find a true spiritual home even as we take a stand against the culture of war and injustice. In community, we pray together, share our struggles together, stand against the culture of war together, reclaim our strength together, proclaim the good news of peace together, and discover together what it means to live in faith and hope.
Taken together, these simple ingredients lead us not only to a personal experience of Christ’s peace, but to join the grassroots movements of nonviolence and disarmament for the abolition of war, poverty, violence and nuclear weapons, and to help the church fulfill its vocation to be a voice and an instrument for Christ’s peace in the world. I hope that Henri’s readers will ponder these meditations, take his suggestions to heart, reclaim the wisdom of peace with all its social and political implications, and most importantly, undertake bold new steps for peace as Henri did by publicly speaking out against war, demonstrating against nuclear weapons, and joining the movements of nonviolent resistance to imperial injustice. As Henri’s life shows, if we dare take a new step on the spiritual journey in search of the God of peace and enter the fray as a presence and a voice for peace, our spirituality will deepen and our lives will bear good fruit.
If we practice the Gospel spirituality of peace and nonviolence, as Henri teaches, we will discover that we are indeed God’s beloved sons and daughters.
That blessing of Christ’s peace is what the spiritual life is all about.