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“[We] read Nouwen…to discover new possibilities in our faith.”
—New Review of Books and Religion
A profound and beautiful collection of intimate writings, Henry J.M. Nouwen’s Letters to Marc About Jesus recalls the author’s correspondences with his teenage nephew, a boy struggling with issues of faith and spirituality in an apathetic age. The much-beloved author of The Wounded Healer and With Open Hands—named alongside such notables as C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton as one of the most important Christian writers of the 20th century—Nouwen writes from the heart in the deeply personal Letters to Marc About Jesus, as he imparts a powerful wisdom born of an unassailable faith.
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Jesus: The Heart of Our Existence
Tuesday, 11th February
My dear Marc,
Well now, I've got round to it at last. It must be a year or so since I promised to write you some letters about the spiritual life. Over the past twelve months you've reminded me frequently of my promise. "When are those letters of yours going to arrive?" It was difficult to get down to it because there always seemed to be something more urgent to attend to. However, if I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential. it's so easy to spend your whole time being preoccupied with urgent matters and never starting to live, really to live.
But is writing letters to you essential? Of course not, at least in the usual sense of the word. Even without any letters from me you have two dear parents, a lovely sister, a caring brother, a comfortable home, good food, a congenial school, and plenty of relaxation. You're well looked after, in good health, and intelligent. At eighteen you've already seen a good deal of the world: France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the United States. You've also got plenty of hobbies--stamp collecting, film, music, Egyptian art--and lots to talk about. You've not only got a very inquiring mind, but you're also very gifted. There's really very little you can't do or can't acquire. So why do you need any letters from me?
When we spoke together about these letters, you said that you really did need them. That need, I think, is partly a consequence of your stay in the United States. When you attended that summer course in Concord, New Hampshire, and saw young men and women asintelligent as yourself genuinely concerned with religion in their lives, it raised some new questions in your mind. You asked yourself, "What do I really believe? What kind of role does the church play in my life? Who is Christ for me? Does the Eucharist make sense to me?" Ali those questions were more or less mixed up together; but it was clear that a new area had been opened up within you and asked for your attention. You might say that in the last year or so a new need has been brought to birth inside you: the need to look in the midst of everything you have and are doing, for the meaning and purpose of your life.
You yourself know that if you keep fit, if nothing goes wrong, if no war breaks out, and so on, then you probably won't have much trouble in becoming a prosperous lawyer or a well-heeled businessman. I haven't forgotten what you said to me in Boston: that you would probably come back to America later on to make a career. When I pointed out that a lot of people in America fail to make it, you replied with considerable self-confidence, "Not the clever ones!" So you're evidently not worried about your financial prospects. Still, you're asking yourself, "Even if I am a big success, so what?"
It may actually be your self-assurance that allows you to raise frankly the question about the meaning of your life. A lot of people have to expend so much energy on overcoming their low opinion of themselves that they seldom get round to asking about the purpose of their existence. And if they do, it is often out of fear.
It's not like that for you. For you the question has a different significance because many problems that other people are intensely aware of are scarcely problems at all for you. Invariably, you sail through your homework and still get high marks for it. You're good at sports, have good friends, and many interests. Everything comes easily for you. That is why, I think, you have room and time to ask yourself questions that to many of your classmates seem irrelevant. Your American experience has given you the confidence to pose these questions quite directly and not bother about what your friends are going to think. In that sense your self-assurance would seem to be an advantage where the development of a spiritual life is concerned. For it is indeed the life of the spirit with which we are dealing here: that is what these letters must be about. Now, if you set out to confront issues that affect the meaning of your life, you can't adopt an approach based purely on reason. Questions about the meaning of your life affect your whole person. They are connected not only with the way you think and act; but also, and even more so, with the way you are a human being, and with the bond between you and everything that is.
Living spiritually is more than living physically, intellectually, or emotionally It embraces all that, but it is larger, deeper, and wider. It concerns the core of your humanity It is possible to lead a very wholesome, emotionally rich, and "sensible" life without being a spiritual person: that is, without knowledge or personal experience of the terrain where the meaning and goal of our human existence are hidden.
The spiritual life has to do with the heart of existence. This is a good word. By heart I do not mean the seat of our feelingsas opposed to the seat of our thoughts; I mean the center of ourbeing, that place where we are most ourselves, where we aremost human, where we are most real. in that sense the heart isthe focus of the spiritual life. I shall have more to say about thatlater on; but here and now I want to make sure you understandthe word 'heart' because for me it is such an important word inthe life of the spirit. There are times when I would like to sub-stitute the expression 'life of the heart' for 'the spiritual life'; butthat smacks of sentimentality, and so I shall stick to the moretraditional 'spiritual' -as long as you realize that 'spiritual' is notthe opposite of physical or emotional or intellectual. I haven'tyet found a good word for the opposite of 'spiritual'; but the'unspiritual' is that which does not affect the heart of our being,that which remains on the surface, or that which belongs to the margins of existence rather than to its core.Letters to Marc About Jesus. Copyright © by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Henri J.M. Nouwen was a world-renowned spiritual guide, counselor, and bestselling author of over forty books that many today consider spiritual classics. He taught at the universities of Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame before becoming the senior pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Canada, a community where men and women with intellectual disabilities and their assistants create a home for one another.
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