Editing Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen worked with many editors in his life. As it turned out, I was the last. I would not have foreseen this, 10 years before, when I first brought him the news that I had been offered a job at Orbis Books.

"Well," he said, "if someone were to ask me if you would be good for this job, I would say: 'Intellectually, nobody better; a perfect fit.' But, I don't know whether you have the human gifts for that kind of work -- being able to work with people, you know."

I can remember my astonishment. At that point, in 1987, I had known Henri for 10 years. He had played an important role in many turns in my life. And while our relationship had gone through ups and downs, still I was taken aback by his "honesty."

Though I couldn't be certain what he was talking about, my thoughts returned to our first meeting in 1977, when I was managing editor of The Catholic Worker in New York City. At 22, I was not a terribly experienced editor; I was not an experienced anything, for that matter. Henri, in contrast, was a distinguished professor at Yale Divinity School and a writer of some repute. I had not read any of his books. Nevertheless, I asked him if he would like to contribute something to the Worker, and he responded graciously by sending three essays on the subject of community. To be honest, I was not impressed. They struck me as abstract and impersonal--not really the Worker style.

"Thanks," I said, weakly. "Do you have anything else?"

"I've just given you three essays," he replied, understandably miffed. I hastened to assure him that I would be pleased to publish one of his fine essays -- which I did. But he never offered us anything else, and frankly I didn't ask.

Writers tend to be sensitive, quick to remember the negative word that sticks in the mind more vividly than a hundred affirmations. But among writers -- or by any standard, really -- Henri was unusually sensitive and hungry for affirmation. Evidently this memory was still on his mind when I told him my news.

Despite Henri's reservations, I accepted the job at Orbis. Our program at that time was almost exclusively focused on Third World theology, and it seemed unlikely that we would work together. Nevertheless, an opportunity did arise when he agreed to write the accompanying text for a series of Stations of the Cross. Each drawing depicted a scene from the Third World, suggesting the ongoing passion of Christ in the poor. We called it "Walk with Jesus."

For Orbis, this was a considerable coup. Henri, after all, was by now the bestselling writer in the field of spirituality. Still, the project nearly foundered before it began. As I was drawing up a contract I had to broach a delicate topic. I presumed that Henri, who worked with many large publishers, was accustomed to generous advances. Orbis was not in that league. But he was quite reassuring on this point. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Advances don't really matter to me. You make the same amount over time through royalties."

Taking him at his word, I provided for our usual, minimal advance. This elicited a rather frosty reply. "I must say," he wrote, "this is the smallest advance I have ever received. If an advance reflects a publisher's commitment to a book, I have to conclude that Orbis is not terribly committed to my work."

Now I was miffed. I wrote him a rather stern letter, offering to send more money but reminding him of our previous exchange and expressing my disappointment. He apologized immediately, urging me not to give it any further thought. And he was true to his word. From that time on there was never the slightest difference between us.

Henri was now living at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto. It was the latest of many dramatic moves in his life, and there was no reason at that point to assume it would be his final stop. He had always been an exceptionally restless and anxious person, struggling to find his place in the world and to discern where God was calling him. Gradually he came to realize that Daybreak, living in community with handicapped adults, was that place. There his search, his gifts and his needs -- both to give and to receive love -- finally came into harmonious focus.

Walk with Jesus was a notable success, and afterward we stayed in close touch. I became accustomed to hearing his enthusiastic greeting on the phone: "Hello, this is Henri Nouwen!" He was excited about the evolving direction of our program -- away from an exclusive emphasis on Third World theology, to a broader list addressed to a wider audience. But he was interested in all aspects of publishing, including design, paper and binding. He found it all fascinating.

A further test of our relationship came one day when he called to say he had a new manuscript. Another publisher had responded enthusiastically, but if we were interested he would give it to Orbis. It was a journal of his trip to Ukraine. I read the manuscript and wasn't impressed. It had the structure of similar Nouwen journals, but unfortunately very little content. In my opinion, it didn't add up to a book. But what was I to tell him?

Summoning all my hard-won human gifts, I wrote him a long letter, expressing appreciation for all he had shared in this story. Of course another publisher might be glad to publish it, I said, but in all honestly I thought it would make a better magazine article. And then I held my breath, awaiting his reply. When he called he was completely enthusiastic. "Thank you for your honesty!" he said. "I think you are completely right." Whether this marked a turning point in our relationship, I cannot say, but it was soon after this that Henri said he would like to publish an important new book with us -- a book on the Eucharist, or more precisely, what he called the "eucharistic life." "With Burning Hearts" would be structured around the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like those two disciples, we begin the Eucharist by sharing our losses; then we hear the word of God; and then in the breaking of the bread we encounter the risen Lord. It was one of our most successful books, and Henri was delighted.

By this time our work brought us into direct contact for the first time in a number of years. Henri liked to travel with other Daybreak community members, and I could see how relaxed he was in their company. In earlier years our relationship had come under strain, in part because of my resistance to his gaping neediness, his constant desire for affirmation and his frustration that I was not more available as a friend. But this dynamic had changed. He seemed content and at peace with himself. And this was reflected in his writing, as well. Now, when he wrote about community or peacemaking or discipleship, there was nothing abstract or impersonal about it; he wrote about what he had seen and known firsthand.

Eventually Henri said that he wanted to write a book about the Apostle's Creed -- a summary of what he believed. He was making plans for a sabbatical year, and this was one of the books he wanted to work on. I responded eagerly, and, at his request, sent him a pile of scholarly articles on the subject. With this he became discouraged. "Wow, this is a lot more complicated than I thought," he said. "I just figured the Apostle's Creed was written by the apostles." I sensed a waning of enthusiasm for the project. Thus, I was not entirely surprised when he called to say he wanted to change the focus of his book. Something important had happened in the meantime: the death of one of the core members of Daybreak, a severely handicapped man named Adam.

"Now hear me out," he said. "It will still be a book about the Creed, but I want to write the book as a biography of Adam."

"Right...." I said cautiously, wondering what on earth he had in mind. I was familiar with the story of Adam, who had played a part in many of Henri's talks and writings. Henri often recounted the story of how, in his initial year at L'Arche, he had been assigned the care of this young man. This involved the laborious daily ritual of bathing, feeding and dressing him each morning. Adam had played an enormous role in Henri's integration into the community -- but more. From this poor, mute man, Henri had learned at the deepest level what it means to be God's beloved. From Adam he had learned that we all have a mission in life, to know God's love and to be a vehicle of that love for others. This had nothing to do with whether we were clever or dull, fit or infirm, beautiful or plain. Working with Adam had been one of the key spiritual experiences in Henri's life.

Now Adam was dead, and Henri wanted to write a book about him. Alright, I thought, he must know what he is doing. But as for this being a "book about the Creed," I hadn't the slightest idea what he was really talking about.

A little time passed and Henri sent me a preliminary draft. Suddenly it became clear. He intended to write Adam's story after the pattern of the Gospels, beginning with Adam's early years, or "hidden life"; his experience in the "desert" of institutionalization; the public life and ministry that began when he arrived at L'Arche; his passion, death and resurrection in the hearts of those who loved him.

At first it seemed peculiar to talk about the public mission of a severely disabled man, who could not perform the basic tasks of caring for himself. And yet Henri perceived that Adam, like Jesus, had a purpose in his life. As was said of Jesus, "'Everyone who touched him was healed.' Each of us who touched Adam has been made whole somewhere."

In August 1996, as his sabbatical was drawing to a close, he came to our home to deliver the final draft in person. Many years before, my wife had worked for him in Cambridge, at a time when he appeared to live on coffee and chocolate. This was now the first time she had seen him since then, and afterward she remarked that he seemed like a different person -- as she put it, "so sane," though she might have used other words, like happy, whole, redeemed in some essential way.

He played with our children, showing fascination for their toys. He spoke with excitement about his plans for the future and his coming 65th birthday. "I've decided that I would like to host a big party for all my publishers!" he said.

I was terribly moved by the evening, and the next day arranged to have a plaque made with the cover of his book "With Burning Hearts," which I sent to him in Toronto. Soon after, I was stunned to receive the news of his death. Everything was a blur. His family held a funeral Mass for him in Holland, and then, graciously, arranged for his body to be sent home for burial among the Daybreak community in Toronto. I flew up for the day and saw him there for the last time in his open casket: a plain pine box, decorated colorfully by the L'Arche residents.

I was numb -- unable to express any thoughts or feelings. But when I returned to work the next day there was an envelope waiting for me in the morning mail, addressed in Henri's unmistakable hand. It was a letter he had written 10 days before his death: "Boy oh boy!" he said. "That is quite a plaque! I wonder if there is a humble enough place to hang it without announcing myself too much." He acknowledged his own gratefulness for our friendship and closed with the words, "I look forward to working with you in the years ahead."

It was the first sign that my relationship with Henri was not over. With the help of Sue Mosteller, Henri's literary executrix, we completed Adam. In a remarkable way, it was indeed an expression of Henri's "creed" -- a culmination of all that he had learned in his years at L'Arche, and of the long journey that had ended there.

In concluding his book, Henri had written of Adam:

Is this when his resurrection began, in the midst of my grief? That is what happened to the mourning Mary of Magdala when she heard a familiar voice calling her by her name. That is what happened for the downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus when a stranger talked to them and their hearts burned within them. ... Mourning turns to dancing, grief turns to joy, despair turns to hope, and fear turns to love. Then hesitantly someone is saying, "He is risen, he is risen indeed."

My role as Henri's editor continued. The output of books by and about him included 10 with Orbis alone, among them a pictorial biography and a new "gift edition" of "With Burning Hearts," illustrated with paintings by the early-Renaissance artist Duccio. Afterward I had a dream in which I sat with Henri and watched as he studied each of these books, one by one, enjoying the design, the layout, the use of artwork and photographs.

I often think back to that conversation about the "human gifts" required in editing. At the time I thought this said more about him than it did about me. But Henri was right. I did have a lot to learn. And over time I came to appreciate what he had been talking about. Dorothy Day had once told me, "Your job, as editor, is to make sure I don't sound like a fool." But editing is about more than wielding a red pencil. There is a spirituality to this work, which is ultimately about relationships.

Henri died just before the publication of my own book, "All Saints." I hastily inserted his story among my reflections on "saints, prophets, and witnesses for our time." Over the years that I knew Henri, there were long stretches when I would have hesitated to include him in a calendar of saints. But by the time he died it was easy for me to imagine him in that cloud of witnesses; his life was so clearly a story marked by grace, conversion and steady growth in the spiritual life. Through the broken pieces of his own complex humanity he managed to reveal an aspect of the divine image.

Henri taught me the meaning of "human gifts," and he is still teaching me.

Robert Ellsberg is editor-in-chief of Orbis Books. A longer version of this essay will appear in "Remembering Henri," edited by Gerry Twomey and Claude Pomerleau (Orbis Books).