Henri Nouwen longed and sought for deep, abiding friendship everywhere he went. His capacity to connect personally with thousands of friends from various parts of the world is legendary. Amazingly, of the fifteen hundred people he considered as part of his close circle of friends, Nouwen mentioned over six hundred of them by name in the original sabbatical diary he wrote just before he passed away.
For Nouwen, one of the most critical choices we can make in our spiritual life “is our choice of the people with whom we develop close intimate relationships.” Doubtless, he placed paramount importance on spiritual friendship. Much of his energy in life was expended making and sustaining friendships with all kinds of people everywhere. With Aelred of Rievaulx, the gifted Cistercian abbot who penned the classic Spiritual Friendship, Nouwen evidently agreed that “friendship from the divine perspective … springs from God.” As he himself qualified: “Although we speak of ‘making friends,’ friends cannot be made. Friends are free gifts from God.” Both the giver and the receiver mutually share in the gift of spiritual friendship. In the words of David Benner, “it is a gift God gives to us. It is a gift we can give to others.”
In evaluating his inner journey, Nouwen recognized very early his own deep need for “regular contact with a friend who keeps [him] close to Jesus and continues to call [him] to faithfulness.” What Nouwen had in mind is akin to what the Celtic Christians termed anamchara, or “soul friend”—considered an indispensable companion on the spiritual journey. As Charles Ringma affirms, this special type of friendship is meant “to help us support one another in common commitments and in the common journey of life.” Henri Nouwen took such commitments to heart. He always was as concerned—if not more concerned—with other people’s spiritual journey as he was with his own. His initiatives to move into the lives of others were driven by a genuine desire to be a significant part of their journey with God. As L’Arche founder Jean Vanier has keenly observed, “Henri’s cry for friendship and his faithfulness to friendship were particularly evident as he walked with people on their spiritual journeys.” So devoted was Nouwen to those whom he considered to be his friends that his very words echo the depth and breadth of commitment he professed:
I have lived my whole life with the desire to help others in their journey, but I have always realized that I had little else to offer than my own, the journey I am making myself … I have always wanted to be a good shepherd for others, but I have always known, too, that good shepherds lay down their own lives—their pains and joys, their doubts and hopes, their fears and their love—for their friends.
It is evident enough that Nouwen here was not referring to the act of laying down one’s life in a literal fashion. Rather, he meant offering the whole of himself. Nouwen did give of himself to his friends fully without holding anything back. In so doing, he paid a great price, including the experience of getting hurt in the process. He himself had to learn the hard way what he knew and proclaimed all along: “Friends cannot replace God . . . But in their limitations they can be signposts on our journey toward the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” From this perspective, spiritual friendship can rightly be viewed as a gift from above indeed. This was the same quality of gift Henri Nouwen richly extended to many, including his readers.