Henri Nouwen, Elizabeth Seton, and the Painful Price of Love

Elizabeth Seton and Henri Nouwen arrived at the same conclusion about what God asks of us: to give ourselves away in love.

An eighteen-century mother of five struggling with the exigencies of young widowhood would seem to have little in common with a twentieth-century priest wrestling with his sexual orientation. And on the surface, they do not. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was born Episcopalian in a young country where Catholicism had little influence; one hundred and fifty years later, Fr. Henri Nouwen emigrated to America to teach at one of the nation’s most prestigious Catholic universities. As a woman, Elizabeth was forever barred from the experience of presiding over the Mass; as a man and a priest, Nouwen could never know what it was like to bring new life into the world. By the time Elizabeth died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-six, she was famous for founding the Sisters of Charity, the first woman’s religious order native to the United States; prior to Nouwen’s massive heart attack at sixty-four, he had been living for a decade among profoundly disabled people in a L’Arche community called “Daybreak.”

Yet on another level, the two of them were kindred spirits, and I’m convinced they would have formed a rich friendship had they occupied this earth at the same time. Both were highly sensitive, passionate people who met God early on—Elizabeth was having ecstatic experiences of God’s presence in nature by the time she was a young teenager, and Nouwen felt an overpowering call to the priesthood when he was only eight. Both were extremely gifted. Elizabeth, in spite of the paternalistic assumptions about female inferiority that characterized her times, was much respected by the men who engaged her in spiritual conversation or debate—including bishops. Nouwen, despite his exuberant, childlike nature, taught some of the most popular psychology classes ever offered at Harvard. And both of them—perhaps because they were such sensitive, passionate, intelligent people—peered deeply into the Abyss and saw that human life is fragile and love comes wrapped in layers of worry and sorrow.

Thus, their moments of utter darkness. Elizabeth’s existential crisis occurred in late adolescence. She’d lost her mother when she was still a toddler, acquiring a stepmother who rejected her. Lonely and worn down by the constant marital strife between her beloved but bull-headed father and his bitter, unhappy wife, she worried about her younger half-siblings—how they would ever find a safe harbor in the midst of the familial chaos. More, she grieved intensely over the deaths of young relatives and friends via accident, tuberculosis and yellow fever. One night, the burden of life became too much for her. Her physician father kept the opiate laudanum among his medical supplies. Young as she was, Elizabeth was well aware that laudanum was addictive and an overdose could be fatal. Yet on this particularly melancholic evening, she contemplated drinking from the “little bottle” and ending it all.

Later, she was horrified at how close she’d come to suicide. She blamed this moment on “wretched reasoning”: if a completely loving God had created her and if she was so utterly miserable, then how could he ever condemn her for taking her own life? The chill breath of the grave that had blown over her that night, however, frightened her; no longer could she risk giving full reign to her emotions. Amid the “praise and thanks of excessive joy” she felt at having been pulled back from the brink, she determined to live from then on in calm detachment. She would anchor herself completely in God and control her passions like a Greek Stoic.

Nouwen struggled with bouts of depression throughout his life, but his own existential crisis did not strike until middle age. Ironically, it occurred after he finally found the unconditionally loving community he’d been seeking for decades. Despite his status as a Harvard professor and his growing influence as a spiritual writer and speaker, he never felt at home in the intensely competitive milieu of academia. The more achievements he added to his curriculum vitae, the lonelier he was. Thus, when he was invited to become the chaplain for L’Arche Daybreak, he accepted with both eagerness and trepidation. Perhaps this simpler world is where he would finally find a home for his aching heart. At some level, he knew that the impressive reputation he’d built over so many years had become a terrible spiritual burden for him.

At Daybreak, he was assigned to care for Adam, a young man who could not speak, was nearly blind, and was unable to feed, dress, or bathe himself. Becoming Adam’s assistant proved to be one of the hardest things Nouwen—so used to overflowing classrooms and stacks of fan letters from admirers—had ever attempted. He was forced to confront his own impatience and restlessness. His precious writing hours were being devoured by these onerous caregiving duties that required him to totally focus on the needs of someone besides himself. What was he doing here?

In time, however, Daybreak began to work its quiet magic. Most of the people Nouwen lived with could not even read, much less admire his books. To them, he was just “Henri.” He felt himself beginning to open up in a way he’d never dared before. But then came a major blow: the loss of one of his most cherished friendships, a loss he blamed on himself and his seemingly insatiable neediness. His subsequent breakdown was so serious that he wound up in a psychiatric hospital for many months. He, too, considered suicide. But in the midst of this long nightmare, he began to see that he was undergoing an amazing spiritual transformation.

Later, he reluctantly agreed to publish the journal he kept during this difficult interlude; he called it The Inner Voice of Love. Addressing himself, he says, “As long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. . . . [But] the situation that brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering.” He sees that one indicator of the astonishing depth of Christ’s love for us was that he willingly shared in our common human suffering. “His pain was the pain.”

These two who might have been such good friends—Elizabeth Seton and Henri Nouwen—ultimately came to the same conclusion about what God is asking of us: to give ourselves away in love, despite the grief that will inevitably follow. After the death of her oldest daughter, Elizabeth once more found herself hovering on the brink of despair, even to the point of doubting the authenticity of her own faith. But thanks to the good counsel of a wise priest friend, she was able to open her heart to the overwhelming sorrow and thus finally abandon the pain-denying stoicism she’d adopted as a troubled teenager. Nouwen stopped hiding his wounded soul behind a bookcase full of spiritual best-sellers. Elizabeth kept loving vigil at the deathbeds of the people she cherished most in this world; Nouwen presided over the funeral of the young man who showed him how Christ gave and received love, the profoundly disabled but radiant Adam. Neither ever again succumbed to the despair that had once beckoned so alluringly.

Nouwen describes the abundant joy that came to be his once love overcame fear:

“Those you have deeply loved become part of you. . . . as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.”

In quiet but triumphant words, Elizabeth Ann Seton exults in the peaceful assurance she has gained through suffering for love’s sake:

“Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, hope supports it on the other, experience says it must be and love says let it be.”

PAULA HUSTON, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, is the author of two novels and eight nonfiction titles. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. She taught writing and literature at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and creative nonfiction for the Master of Fine Arts program at Seattle Pacific University. A wife, mother, and grandmother, she is an oblate (lay member), of a Camaldolese Benedictine monastic community in Big Sur, California. Her latest book, a history of that community, is called The Hermits of Big Sur.

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