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The Holy Inefficiency of Henri Nouwen

A better symbol of the Incarnation, I can hardly imagine.
1996This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Once when I was dining with a group of writers, the conversation turned to letters we get from readers. Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson mentioned an intense young man who had been seeking spiritual direction from both of them. They responded as best they could, answering questions by mail and recommending books on spirituality. Foster had just learned that the same inquirer had also contacted Henri Nouwen. "You won't believe what Nouwen did," he said. "He invited this stranger to live with him for a month so he could mentor him in person."

Most writers jealously protect their schedules and privacy. Nouwen, who died of a heart attack this past September, broke down such barriers of professionalism. His entire life, in fact, displayed a "holy inefficiency."

Trained in Holland as a psychologist and a theologian, Nouwen spent his early years achieving. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, averaged more than a book a year, and traveled widely as a conference speaker. He had a resume to die for—which was the problem, exactly. The pressing schedule and relentless competition were suffocating his own spiritual life.

Nouwen went to South America for six months, scouting a new role for himself as a missionary in the Third World. A hectic speaking schedule on his return to the United States only made things worse. Finally, Nouwen fell into the arms of the L'Arche community in France, a home for the seriously disabled. He felt so nourished by them that he agreed to become priest in residence at a similar home in Toronto called Daybreak. There, Nouwen spent his last ten years, still writing and traveling to speak here and there, but always returning to the haven of Daybreak.

I once visited Nouwen, sharing lunch with him in ...

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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