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The spirituality of vulnerability

The ‘spirituality of ‘vulnerability’ was one of the key themes of a multi-media presentation by  Dr Riaan van der Merwe on the life and work of Henri Nouwen. The Dutch priest’s writings have touched a chord with many people all over the world including Hilary Clinton who said his book The Return of the Prodigal Son was a source of inspiration for her and he was one of the most influential authors in her life.  Dr van der Merwe believes that part of Nouwen’s appeal for people is his ability to show his vulnerability. Not surprisingly a large group turned out last Tuesday 6 Oct for Dr Riaan’s talk in the Arrupe Room in Milltown Park. For those who missed the event you can listen above to the interview that Dr Riaan gave to Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications.

Dr van der Merwe interspersed his lecture with songs and slides illustrating Nouwen’s journey of discovery into the heart of God. He spoke of how Nouwen was acclaimed as a teaching academing for twenty years working in prestigious places including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School. But his life and theology changed forever when he went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill Ontario, Canada.

There his academic credentials counted for very little. They didn’t know anything about his achievements or who he was in the eyes of the world. To them he was just ‘Henry’. So he had to learn a whole new way of communicating with them. In doing so he realised something transformative.  “He learned that being human is not about the mind or what we can think or do. It’s about our heart, the deepest part of ourselves. And ultimately it’s about love.”

Dr Riaan also spoke about Nouwen’s own inner struggles which included trying to reconcile his depression and his sexuality with his faith. After his death it became clear that he was gay but had found it very hard to share this openly or come to terms with it as a Catholic priest in the climate of the time.

Dr van der Merwe is an accredited Pastoral Therapist and Spiritual Director, working with the Center for Christian Spirituality, mostly in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa. The full title of the talk by Dr van der Merwe was “A Multimedia Engagement with the Spirituality of Vulnerable Embodiment of Henri Nouwen. The event was organised by the Spirituality Institute for Research and Education (SpIRE). SpIRE seeks to engage spiritual, cultural, faith-based and heritage resources through education, research, and community services so as to positively contribute to challenges of meaning and purpose facing today’s society and so to raise awareness of spirituality as an applied academic discipline. Michael O’Sullivan, SJ is the Acting-Executive Director.