Henri Nouwen, Peacemaker

[This essay is part of the forthcoming collection, “Creative Minister,” celebrating the life and work of the popular spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen. It will be published in 2006 by Orbis Books. For further information about Henri Nouwen, see: www.henrinouwen.org]
My friend Father Bill O’Donnell tells a surprising story about Henri Nouwen. It was the early-1980s. The Reagan administration was waging a brutal war on the impoverished people of Nicaragua that left tens of thousands dead. In the center of it all stood the right-wing Catholic Cardinal, Obando y Bravo, who bragged about keeping a gun in his desk drawer, ready to be used on any intruder. The Cardinal condemned liberation theology, the base Christian community movement, as well as all those who promoted justice and peace. He embodied the just war theory, the oppressive male hierarchy, and the warmaking church.
Those days, the Managua airport was filled with international activists and church workers trying to offer their solidarity. Father Bill was waiting for his flight back to the U.S. when he noticed the notorious Cardinal standing in the middle of the airport. Beside him stood a tall, thin man, pointing at the Cardinal, yelling at him, and waving his arms in frantic argument, trying to convince the Cardinal to stop siding with the U.S. government and start supporting the Nicaraguan poor. Finally, the stunned Cardinal walked off in a huff. My friend, Fr. Bill, went over to compliment the tall, thin man.
“I’m amazed that you spoke like that to the Cardinal,” Bill said, “Who are you?”
“My name is Henri Nouwen,” the man said, putting out his hand.
Bill was shocked. He had read many of Henri’s pastoral books and never expected such a prophetic performance by one of the leading writers on the spiritual life, much less to meet the great man there in Nicaragua at the height of the contra war. Bill concluded that he had vastly misunderstood Henri Nouwen, just as others have done, and that Henri Nouwen was a true prophet of peace and justice.
“Nobody can be a Christian today without being a peacemaker,” Henri wrote in his book Peacework.(1) “The bombing of Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race that followed have made peacemaking the central task for Christians. There are many other urgent tasks to accomplish: the work of worship, evangelization, healing of church divisions, alleviating worldwide poverty and hunger, and defending human rights. But all of these tasks are closely connected with the task that stands above them all: making peace. Making peace today means giving a future to humanity, making it possible to continue our life together on this planet.”(2)
Few people have understood the full spectrum of Henri Nouwen’s spirituality. “Peacemaking belongs to the heart of our Christian vocation,” Henri wrote. “Peacemaking is a full-time task for all Christians. Peacemaking has become the most urgent of all Christian tasks.”(3). For Henri, the pursuit of disarmament and justice is no longer just a fad from the 1960s or a gimmick for a few disenfranchised church people. It is integral to the life of any authentic Christian.
“What we are called to is a life of peacemaking in which all that we do, say, think, or dream is part of our concern to bring peace to this world,” he explained. “Just as Jesus’ command to love one another cannot be seen as a part-time obligation, but requires our total investment and dedication, so too Jesus’ call to peacemaking is unconditional, unlimited, and uncompromising. None of us is excused! Peacemaking is a full-time vocation that includes each member of God’s people.”(4)
Henri Nouwen was one of the most popular writers in recent decades on the spiritual life, and he was adamantly opposed to war, injustice and nuclear weapons. He was politically aware and socially conscious. He did not limit his spirituality to a private personal relationship with God, but understood it as a social spirituality that sends us out to serve the whole human race with love and compassion. Henri wanted us to explore prayer, silence, solitude, pastoral ministry and spirituality, and to know that we are personally and unconditionally loved by a compassionate God. He also hoped that this sense of our “belovedness” would push us to reach out in love for every human being on the planet as our very own beloved sister and brother, so that one day, war, poverty, injustice and nuclear weapons would be abolished, and all would live in God’s realm of peace.
Henri’s journey is marked by a series of unusual and courageous steps on behalf of peace, justice and disarmament, which I think moved him intellectually and spiritually toward a more universal, compassionate love. In the 1960s, he drove through the night to join Dr. King and the marchers from Selma to Montgomery to denounce racism and segregation. Later, he walked 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. He once led the annual Good Friday “Stations of the Cross” in front of that base. He hosted a weekly mass for the protesters and taught them about the spiritual roots of protest. In the 1980s, he joined hundreds of U.S. citizens as they stood on the border of Nicaragua to protest Reagan’s contra war. He traveled to Guatemala to support the priest who succeeded martyred Father Stanley Rother. He toured the country calling for “solidarity with our crucified sisters and brothers in Central America.” He visited Daniel and Philip Berrigan in jail and supported the Plowshares anti-nuclear movement. He flew to Nevada where he joined Christians protesting at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site. On January 14, 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, he addressed ten thousand people in Washington, D.C., denouncing the impending war.
I think his opposition to war and nuclear weapons and his commitment to peace and justice for the poor pushed Henri from Notre Dame and Yale to the Genesee monastery and Peru to Harvard and finally L’Arche Daybreak community. This journey must have been harder than he ever let on. I think he had a conscience, and it bothered him. He knew that the Gospel was a summons to downward mobility, solidarity with the poor and active resistance against injustice. That is why, I believe, when he moved into L’Arche, he spoke of finally finding a home among the disabled. He was loved, he was living in Christian community, he was siding with the weak and the powerless, and from now on, his books and talks emerged from a firmer Gospel foundation. He had moved from power and success in the academic world to the powerlessness of an intentional community life among the poor. Only people who are aware of the world around them, attuned to the sufferings of humanity, and intent on the voice of the Gospel could make such a radical journey.
Henri supported the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, and Sojourners. He was involved in their peace and justice projects, as many of them have told me over the years. He and I corresponded for eight years, and he supported my stand against war, injustice and nuclear weapons. When I went to prison for a Plowshares disarmament action, he wrote lengthy letters of support and sent unpublished manuscripts and gifts. His response stood in sharp contrast to other church workers, priests and theologians. I was especially moved when he wrote that he wanted to connect his life, which he saw as a life of peacemaking, with my work for peace.
His funeral was a revelation for me and his many friends because we saw how his life had touched so many different people. He literally made peace among us. I decided to collect his unpublished writings on peace and justice and put them together in a book, which became, The Road to Peace. Later, I helped with his book, Peacework.
Working on these projects was like being on retreat. Henri encourages my commitment to peace and justice because he keeps pointing me to the spiritual depths underneath the public projects. Here are some of the basic steps of Gospel peacemaking that I learn and relearn from Henri Nouwen.
1. Peacemaking Starts with Prayer
“Prayer is the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit, the core and the content, the basis and the goal of all peacemaking,” Henri wrote.(5) When we sit down to pray, we enter the presence of the God of peace who disarms our hearts, he said. We make our peace with God, and God gives us the gift of peace. That’s where it all starts. If we care about the wars in the world, the rampant poverty, and the madness of nuclear weapons, we should take that care to our prayer, to God, and let God disarm us and transform us that we might be used by God to disarm the world.
Henri wanted everyone to spend a small amount of quality time every day in intimate prayer with the God of peace, just being with God, being loved by God, experiencing the peace of God, so that God would send us forth as instruments of God’s love and peace. He taught that if we root our daily lives in the contemplative experience of being loved by God, we would help spread love around us, and even be able to love our enemies.
“Only those who deeply know that they are loved and rejoice in that love can be true peacemakers,” Henri wrote.(6) “Prayer is the basis of all peacemaking precisely because in prayer we come to the realization that we do not belong to the world in which conflicts and wars take place, but to the One who offers us his peace.”(7) “By allowing ourselves quiet time with God we act on our faith that the peace we want to bring is not the work of our hands or the product of movements we join, but the gift of Christ.”(8)
2. Peacemaking Requires Resistance to Injustice
“As peacemakers, we must resist all the powers of war and destruction and proclaim that peace is the divine gift offered to all who affirm life,” Henri wrote. “Resistance means saying ‘No’ “to all the forces of death, wherever they may be.”(9)
Henri next explained that the practice of daily contemplative prayer eventually leads us to stand up publicly against all that goes against God’s love, including war, poverty and nuclear weapons. Because we have come to know God’s love for us and everyone, we are interiorly motivated to join that disarming love by standing with the poor and oppressed and loving our enemies. The spiritual life leads us to resist the structures and institutions that make war, build nuclear weapons, execute prisoners on death row, keep people poor, and make enormous profits for a handful of corporate billionaires, Henri declared. That is why he marched in Selma, kept vigil at the Trident submarine base, spoke out against the Vietnam war, traveled to the Nevada Desert to witness against the development of nuclear weapons, supported imprisoned Christian peace activists, and addressed ten thousand people on the eve of the first Gulf War–because he was a person of true prayer, who experienced the love of God, and who understood that this grace sends us out to disarm the culture of war. He understood that Jesus gave his life resisting systemic injustice in the Temple, that the early church was a community of nonviolent resistance toward imperial warmaking, and that we too have to engage in the same costly discipleship of nonviolent resistance to institutionalized violence.
“Resistance is not action in contrast to prayer, but a true form of prayer,” he observed. “After my own, very limited, experience with war resistance, I even dare to say that for those who resist in the name of the living God, resistance is not only prayer but also liturgy.”(10)
3. Peacemaking Builds Community
“Peacemaking can be a lasting work only when we live and work together,” Henri wrote. “Community is indispensable for a faithful and enduring resistance.”(11) Henri knew from experience with his peace movement friends, and eventually from his life at L’Arche, that life in community not only strengthens us to work for peace, it makes peace among us and becomes a light of peace to the world. If we want to resist the culture of war, like Jesus, Henri argued, we too need to be part of a peacemaking community. If Jesus needed a community and spent so much time forming community while walking the path of nonviolence, we too need community.
The more I consider Henri’s life, the more I realize how brave he was to leave the comfort of his personal successful career in three prestigious universities to join a community comprised primarily of disabled people. From his new life in community, Henri began to invite people working for peace and justice to form or join a community so that they would not be alone. In a small community, such as a Pax Christi group or a local parish peace and justice group, we pray together, share our struggles, study the issues of war and injustice, reclaim our strength, and work publicly for peace and justice. We make friends, hold hands, share our pain, disarm one another and walk forward together as instruments of Christ’s peace. Through such communities, we move from loneliness to friendship and from apathy and indifference to active love for humanity. And in the process, we become more human.
Overtime, Henri developed a vision of a global grassroots network of local peacemaking communities connected by the shared vision of peace. “When I think of this new community, I think about people from all over the world reaching out to each other in total vulnerability. In my mind’s eye, I see a worldwide network of men and women so totally disarmed that they not only have given up the power of weapons but also religious concepts, symbols, and institutions. I see them moving over this world, visiting each other, binding each other’s wounds, confessing their brokenness to each other, and forgiving each other with a simple word, an embrace, a touch, or even a smile. I see them walking alone or together in the most simple clothes, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the lonely, and waiting quietly with the dying. I see them in apartment buildings, farm houses, schools and universities, hospitals and office buildings as quiet witnesses of God’s presence. Wherever they are they bring peace, not as much by what they say or do, but mostly by their connectedness with those others with whom they form a new community of hope.”(12)
4. Peacemaking Requires Serving the Poor
In his booklet, “The Path to Peace,” Henri added a fourth ingredient to his spirituality of peacemaking–receiving the gift of peace from the weak, the broken, the poor, and the marginalized. As he wrote shortly before his death, he received the gift of peace from his severely disabled friend, Adam Arnett. Henri had been assigned to care for Adam, who could not speak, read, write, feed himself or bathe himself. After several months of caring for Adam, Henri began to feel a peace he had never before known. He concluded that the poor share with us the gift of peace, God’s reign of peace, which belongs first and foremost to them, according to the Beatitudes.
“In his silent way Adam keeps telling me, ‘Peace is not primarily about doing. It is first of all the art of being,’” Henri wrote. “I know he is right because after months of being with Adam, I am discovering in myself the beginning of an inner at-homeness that I didn’t know before. I even feel the unusual desire to do a lot less and be a lot more… Adam is gradually teaching me something about the peace that is not of this world. It is a peace not constructed by tough competition, hard thinking, and individual stardom, but rooted in simply being present to each other and working together in harmony, a peace that speaks about the first love of God by which we are all held safe, and a peace that keeps calling us to community in a fellowship of the weak.”(13)
If we want to receive a peace “not of this world,” we must, like Henri, reach out to individual poor, marginalized people and serve them. As we serve and befriend the needy, suffering people around us, as we are healed by God’s presence in them, we learn more and more about the culture’s systematic injustice and the great need for justice. We also experience what John Paul II called “God’s preferential love for the poor” and see the face of Christ in the poor. Through the poor, God makes peace with us.
5. Peacemaking Means Accepting Weakness and Vulnerability
By serving the poor and weak and receiving from them the gift of peace, Henri taught that we learn to accept our own poverty and weakness and discover God’s healing peace. “Where is peace to be found?” Henri asked. “The answer is surprising but clear. In weakness. Few people are telling us this truth, but there is peace to be found in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken, most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. In our weakness, our familiar ways of controlling and manipulating our world are being stripped away and we are forced to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying on our self-sufficiency. Right there, where we are most vulnerable, the peace that is not of this world is mysteriously hidden. When we trust that the God of love has already given the peace we are searching for, we will see this peace breaking through the broken soil of our human condition and we will be able to let it grow fast and even heal the economic and political maladies of our time.”(14)
Peace does not come from domination, power, or violence, but through weakness, humility, vulnerability, weakness and loving service. From Henri’s perspective, if we accept our brokenness and weakness as a gift, we transform it, and discover the spiritual depths of peace and thus can offer palpable peace to those around us.
“New life is born in the state of total vulnerability–this is the mystery of love,” Henri wrote. “Power kills. Weakness creates. It creates autonomy, self-awareness, and freedom. It creates openness to give and receive in mutuality. And finally it creates the good ground on which new life can come to full development and maturity.”(15)
“Love,” Henri concluded, “asks for total disarmament.”(16) Love means letting go of violence at every level–personal, interpersonal, communal, national, international and global. As we accept our vulnerability, we learn to trust in the God of peace and love one another. Then the Holy Spirit of peace moves more freely among us, disarming and transforming us and the world around us. This is the way Gospel peacemaking works.
6. Peacemaking Requires Nonviolence
Given his emphasis on prayer, love, and vulnerability, as well as his interest in Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Gandhi, it is not surprising that Henri wrote about nonviolence, and that he spent time with faith groups espousing creative nonviolence, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Sojourners, Pax Christi, The Catholic Worker, and the Plowshares movement. He knew not only the immorality and sinfulness of our culture’s violence, but the importance of practicing and teaching Gospel nonviolence if we are to create a new culture of peace. He wanted us to explore nonviolence in our own lives, to join the global grassroots movements of nonviolence for social change, just as he did, and to understand the life of Jesus as fundamentally a life of perfect, nonviolent love.
“Christian resistance is nonviolent because the peace we want to bring is not of this world,” Henri wrote.(17) “It is brought not by enslaving our enemies, but by converting them; not by showing strength, but by sharing in the confession of a common weakness; not by becoming unapproachable, but by making oneself vulnerable; not by retaliation, but by turning the other cheek; not by violence but by love. Jesus’ way is the way without curses, weapons, violence or power. For him, there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved. And love does not use weapons. Love is not made manifest in power but in powerlessness. Jesus challenges all his followers to take this way, the way of disarmed, nonviolent, powerless resistance.”(18)
7. Peacemaking Demands Racial Justice
When I visited Henri’s archives at Yale University, shortly after his death, to put together the book, The Road to Peace, I discovered his unpublished diary written in Dutch recording his participation in the famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After it was translated and published, many people told me how moved they were by this little journal. I too was moved by Henri’s long drive to Selma, his determination to stand with Dr. King and the African American community in their struggle for racial justice, and the unity he felt with all people.
Henri later wrote that our true identity is to be the beloved sons and daughters of God, and that this spiritual identity determines our ethical and social behavior toward others. Once we recognize that we are all equal children of God, he said, we love everyone equally and nonviolently, regardless of race, creed, gender, age, ability, class or orientation. Physical differences no longer matter. God clearly enjoys human variety, and as God’s children, we also need to learn and enjoy human variety and accept our physical differences as gifts.
Because of his search for an authentic spirituality, Henri publicly opposed racism and segregation, and promoted civil and human rights for all people. He knew that if we are to make peace, we have to overcome the stupidity of prejudice, dismantle the injustice of racism, and create an all-inclusive, welcoming culture. In that spirit, he reached out to everyone. We must do the same.
8. Peacemaking Makes Connections
Henri Nouwen was one of those rare people, like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day or Daniel Berrigan, who makes connections. His spirituality of peace connected everything–our personal lives, our private prayer, the sacraments, the church, our relatives and neighbors, our jobs, the poor, injustice, national politics, war, international concerns, the whole world and the God of love. For Henri, peace is like an umbrella that covers us all and helps us feel safe. The fundamental purpose of pastoral ministry, he taught, is to let people know they are loved, to invite people to live in that love, and to summon people to share that love with everyone they meet and the whole world. This spirituality of peace unites all those who are divided–rich and poor, black and white, women and men, young and old, left and right, the divisions in the church, the divisions in society, and the divisions in the world. It means seeing that whatever we do affects others, that everything has spiritual consequences, that “as we are, so is the world.” Henri wanted us to become whole as individuals, as communities, and as a people. He began to make the connections between the spiritual life, war, racism, poverty and nuclear weapons and to discover what Dr. King call “the interconnectedness of reality.” As he sought to bring together different groups of people, as he saw the underlying connections between the divisions and injustices of the world, he also began to see more and more the common ground and spiritual peace that we share.
Henri challenged us to make connections, to understand our basic inter-connectedness with one another and creation itself, to see the various issues of injustice as forms of violence against the human family and to spend our remaining days on earth sharing the wisdom of peace so that one day we might all live in a new realm of nonviolence.
9. Peacemaking Leads to Gratitude
“If there is any word that should characterize the life of peacemakers, it is ‘gratitude,’” Henri wrote. “True peacemakers are grateful people who constantly recognize and celebrate the peace of God within and among them.(19)
If we are going to spend the rest of our lives resisting war, poverty and nuclear weapons, Henri taught, and not give in to despair because of our apparent ineffectiveness, we have to count our blessings. We have to celebrate life. We have to be grateful for the simple gifts–being alive, being healthy, being loved by God and others, being called to love and serve others. Henri urged people to practice gratitude as a daily discipline so that instead of being cynical, bitter, mean, resentful or violent, we are grateful. If we are grateful to God and others, peace will blossom within us. It will spread around us. It will work among us to lead those around us from pain, anger, despair and violence to know the peace of gratitude.
Henri’s last act modeled this teaching of peace. After his massive heart attack in the Netherlands, he said to a friend, just a few days before he died, “Tell everyone I am grateful.” His reaction was not anger, resentment, or bitterness. His first reaction and last message was gratitude. It showed how seriously he practiced the peacemaking he taught. These words were also a gift to all those who knew him because it brought us to the same peace Henri knew.
“When the sounds of gratitude are heard, the sounds of war fall silent,” Henri wrote. “People will look at each other and tears will come to their eyes when they realize that once they spent all their time and energy to build a hell in which they could burn each other. Then the missiles will rust away in their silos, the submarines will decay, and the bombers will be put in museums to remind children that once there were savage times. This is the vision of peacemakers.”(20)
10. Peacemakers Follow Jesus
The road to peace begins and ends with Jesus, Henri insisted. Jesus embodies peace, makes peace, shares peace and blesses those who make peace. As his followers, Henri wrote, we try to become more and more like Jesus, which means we too try to embody peace, create peace, and share peace. We do that by staying focused on Jesus, getting to know Jesus in our prayer, studying his life in the Gospel, and carrying on the good works of love and healing that he started.
“Keep your eyes on the Prince of Peace,” Henri wrote, “the one who doesn’t cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, and rule with great power; the one who says, ‘blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for justice.’ See the one who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; the one who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; the one who dies alone, rejected, and despised. Keep your eyes on him who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and who is rejected with the rejected. That one, Jesus, is the source of all peace.”(21)
If we keep our eyes on Jesus, Henri taught, we will follow him on the path of nonviolence, even if he goes “where we would rather not go,” to the cross and beyond into the new life of resurrection. Along the way, we will do the deeds of peace that Jesus did, say the words of peace that Jesus said, and learn to love as Jesus loved, with his same all-embracing, universal, compassionate love.
The teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Henri wrote “have become the key words for our lives as Christians today.”(22) If we want a more mature spirituality and authenticity, we have to fulfill this blessing, take a stand against the culture of war, love our enemies, and become peacemakers. That is the path before us.
Henri Nouwen walked that path of peace as he journeyed from academia to L’Arche, from his own inner anguish and pain to peace and freedom. We too can make that journey toward inner peace and public peacemaking by following Jesus on the path of nonviolence and compassion, by practicing contemplative peace and gratitude, by resisting war and nuclear weapons, and by sharing our lives with those in need, including the enemies of our government.
If we dare walk the road to peace, from the inner journey of the spiritual life to the public work for justice and disarmament, one day we too will feel immense gratitude, like Henri, as our journey comes to an end and Jesus welcomes us home into the house of peace.
1. Peacework, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 16.
2. Peacework, 15-16.
3. Peacework, 22-23.
4. Peacework, 16-17.
5. Peacework, 25.
6. Peacework, 36.
7. Peacework, 37.
8. Peacework, 44.
9. Peacework, 50.
10. Peacework, 88.
11. Peacework, 97.
12. Peacework, 110-111.
13. Finding My Way Home, (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001), 66, 77.
14. Finding My Way Home, 81, 82, 84.
15. Seeds of Hope, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997), 74.
16. Seeds of Hope, 73.
17. Peacework, 93.
18. Peacework, 93-94.
19. Peacework, 115.
20. Peacework, 120.
21. Finding My Way Home, 80-81.
22. Peacework, 123.