Henri J.M. Nouwen on Togetherness

After twenty years as a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) left academia to serve as a resident priest at a home for the mentally disabled called Daybreak, a part of the L’Arche community. He wrote this tiny book (you could read it in one sitting) during that transition and explores the lessons he felt God was teaching him at that time. The book is one of his most simple and yet powerful. The story in the Epilogue is one of the best parts and I share it with you today.

Writing these reflections was one thing, presenting them in Washington D.C., was quite another. When Bill (Bill Van Buren a resident of Daybreak) and I arrived at the Washington airport we were taken to the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City, a collection of modern, seemingly all-glass high-rise buildings on the same side of the Potomac River as the airport. Both Bill and I were quite impressed by the glittering atmosphere of the hotel. We were both given spacious rooms with double beds, bathrooms with many towels, and cable TV. On the table in Bill’s room there was a basket with fruit and a bottle of wine. Bill loved it. Being a veteran TV watcher, he settled comfortably on his queen-sized bed and checked out all the channels with his remote control box.

But the time for us to bring our good news together came quickly. After a delicious buffet dinner in one of the ballrooms decorated with golden statues and little fountains, Vincent Dwyer introduced me to the audience. At that moment I still did not know what “doing it together” with Bill would mean. I opened by saying that I had not come alone, but was very happy that Bill had come with me. Then I took my handwritten text and began my address. At that moment, I saw that Bill had left his seat, walked up to the podium, and planted himself right behind me. It was clear that he had a much more concrete idea about the meaning of “doing it together” than I. Each time I finished reading a page, he took it away and put it upside down on a small table close by. I felt very much at ease with this and started to feel Bill’s presence as a support. But Bill had more in mind. When I began to speak about the temptation to turn stones into bread as a temptation to be relevant, he interrupted me and said loudly for everyone to hear, “I have heard that before!” He had indeed, and he just wanted the priests and ministers who were listening to know that he knew me quite well and was familiar with my ideas. For me, however, it felt like a gentle loving reminder that my thoughts were not as new as I wanted my audience to believe. Bill’s intervention created a new atmosphere in the ballroom: lighter, easier, and more playful. Somehow Bill had taken away the seriousness of the occasion and had brought to it some homespun normality. As I continued my presentation, I felt more and more that we were indeed doing it together. And it felt good.

When I came to the second part of and was reading the words, “The question most asked by the handicapped people with whom I live was ‘Are you home tonight?'” Bill interrupted me again and said, “That’s right, that is what John Smeltzer always asks.” Again there was something disarming about his remark. Bill knew John Smeltzer very well after living with him in the same house for quite some years. He simply wanted people to know about his friend. It was as if he drew the audience toward us, inviting them into the intimacy of our common life.

After I had finished reading my text and people had shown their appreciation, Bill said to me, “Henri, can I say something now?” My first reaction was “Oh, how am I going to handle this? He might start rambling and create an embarrassing situation,” but then I caught myself in my presumption that he had nothing of importance to say and said to the audience, “Will you please sit down. Bill would like to say a few words to you.” Bill took the microphone and said, with all the difficulties he has in speaking, “Last time, when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smeltzer with him. This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.” That was it, and everyone stood up and gave him a warm applause.

As we walked away from the podium, Bill said to me, “Henri, how did you like my speech?” “Very much,” I answered, “everyone was really happy with what you said.” Bill was delighted. As people gathered for drinks, he felt freer than ever. He went from person to person, introduced himself and asked how they liked the evening and told them all sorts of stories about his life in Daybreak. I did not see him for more than an hour. He was too busy getting to know everybody.

The next morning at breakfast before we left, Bill walked from table to table with his cup of coffee in his hands and said good-bye to all those he knew from the evening before. It was clear to me that he had made many friends and felt very much at home in these, for him, unusual surroundings.

As we flew back together to Toronto, Bill looked up from the word puzzle book that he takes with him wherever he goes and said, “Henri, did you like our trip?” “Oh Yes.” I answered, “it was a wonderful trip, and I am so glad you came with me.” Bill looked at me attentively and then said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?” Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them” (Matthew 18:19). In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed the Jesus who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon hotel in the Crystal City.

As we landed, I said to Bill, “Bill, thanks so much for coming with me. It was a wonderful trip and what we did, we did it together in Jesus’ name.” And I really meant it.

Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus; Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989),

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