I suspect the title of this essay may raise eyebrows. Labeling Henri Nouwen, one of the most influential spiritual writers of the past century, a mystic is not likely to fuel any argument. But to call such a well-known Catholic an evangelical may be an altogether different story.
The terms evangelical and mystic do not seem to fit naturally together. Mysticism is still very much an alien concept to the average Protestant, let alone evangelical. To make sense of the pairing of these concepts requires us to open each of them up if they are to fit someone of Henri Nouwen’s stature. He is too large a figure to be forced into our small categorical boxes.
Evangelicalism is far from monolithic and cannot be defined in an exclusive manner. Historically, the term first appeared as a label for a group of sixteenth-century Catholics who were determined to recover a more biblical form of Christianity. Luther, Calvin, and other European reformers of the day adopted the same label. In more modern times, evangelicals have generally come to be known as serious believers who stick to the biblical fundamentals of their faith. The term has, of course, evolved since then, as new evangelicals, post-evangelicals, progressive evangelicals, ecumenical evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals, and, yes, Catholic evangelicals all find their home within this movement. The common thread woven through all of them is their shared commitment to the evangel or good news. This is the core of being an evangelical: a foundational focus on the gospel of Christ and a strong emphasis on evangelism and conversion.
This is why I feel free to identify Henri Nouwen as an evangelical. Theologically he was neither liberal nor conservative. And he cannot be considered evangelical in the institutional sense of the word. Yet I hasten to suggest that Nouwen was every bit an evangelical when it came to his Christ-centered spiritual calling. The gospel was no doubt uppermost in his conviction and ministry.
01. Nouwen, the Gospel Preacher
Nobody can read Nouwen’s books such as Letters to Marc about Jesus and Making All Things New and not be impressed by how crystal clear his understanding of the gospel message and the nature of our life in the Spirit was. He wrote, “It has become clearer to me than ever that my personal relationship with Jesus is the heart of my existence.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, Letters to Marc About Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 7.He recognized his vocation as that of preaching Christ’s gospel to all who would listen. “To speak about Jesus and his divine work of salvation,” Nouwen insisted, “shouldn’t be a burden or a heavy obligation.” Genuinely, he believed that “what we have received is so . . . rich that we cannot hold it to ourselves but feel compelled to bring it to every human being we meet.”Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 5.
Michael O’Laughlin suggested that Nouwen “brought evangelical excitement to Catholics and . . . depth of Catholic sacramentality . . . to his Protestant listeners.” As Nouwen’s former teaching assistant at Harvard, O’Laughlin recalled how Nouwen struck him as one of those “evangelical preachers who know how to . . . get people excited about following Jesus . . . like something straight out of the revival tent.”Gerald S. Twomey and Claude Pomerlau, eds. Remembering Henri (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 6–5. Nouwen did proclaim Jesus boldly and rather unashamedly at Harvard—something deemed by many insiders of the university as a politically incorrect move. When Nouwen later sensed constraints on being able to continue to do this, he chose not to compromise what he believed to be his primary calling. Instead, he left the Ivy League school without any regrets. How can you get more evangelically minded than that?
But there’s more to Nouwen than his evangelical fervor; there’s definitely a mystical side to him that is palpable in both his life and his writings.