Henri Nouwen was a good friend to many people and a close friend to a number of special individuals. As well, he is considered by many as their spiritual guide even today. To a select few, Nouwen was both a friend to those he guided and a guide to those he befriended. There were also those who looked to Nouwen as their spiritual mentor. Indeed he did not just serve as a friend and guide to many: he mentored specific people in specific ways as well.
People were drawn to Henri Nouwen for the wealth of wisdom and experience he possessed. For his part, Nouwen was only too willing and eager to share his insights and gifts with those seeking him out for spiritual help. It was in his very nature to always seek to bring out the best in people. Somehow people picked up that bent of his that is why they came to him wanting to learn.
“How can I help you get to where you are going?” was exactly the kind of question Henri Nouwen would ask the individuals to whom he ministered. His aim was always that people might be freed to be who they were called to be. Herein lies the heart of a real guide and mentor, one of selfless giving for the others’ sake. It is said that a good mentor releases the mentoree to be his or her own person, empowering them to live out their true identity and calling. Nouwen lived such characteristic well for he was definitely not after advancing his own agenda. On the contrary, he was always committed to empowering others.
Henri Nouwen’s mentoring style rested firmly on the foundation of relationship. Spiritual theologian James Houston affirms this vital foundation by emphasizing that “spiritual mentors matter most when the spiritual life is centered upon spiritual friendships.” To Joe Vorstermans, who spent ten years working with Nouwen at L’Arche Daybreak, Nouwen was definitely a mentor-friend with whom he experienced a genuinely nurturing and caring relationship that he never once felt toward his earthly father. When asked to identify Nouwen’s influence upon him as a mentor, it is Nouwen’s fearlessness that first came to his mind. As he recounted, “Henri unhesitatingly moved into my life and the risks he took only resulted in my own growth and development as a person.”
Many others testified of Nouwen’s lingering relational influence via his ministry of mentoring. Parker Palmer, the famed educator, wrote this short piece in his journal in loving memory of Henri Nouwen, his mentor and friend: “Henri’s spirit continues to call me … to more openness and vulnerability, more shared humanity and mutual healing, even—and perhaps especially—when the subject is so difficult that words seem to fail.” In depicting Nouwen’s overall mentoring impact, author Ron Rolheiser could not have phrased it better:
By sharing his own struggles, he mentored us all, helping us to pray while not knowing how to pray, to rest while feeling restless, to be at peace while tempted, to feel safe while still anxious, to be surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, and to love while still in doubt.
Henri Nouwen was not just a mentor; he was a mentor-friend. As a mentor-friend, he offered wise guidance necessary to direct others to their own chosen path. On many occasions, Nouwen likewise functioned as a sensitive, discerning spiritual director. This final role is what we will tackle and focus on next—Nouwen as a spiritual director.