When I received the 25th anniversary edition of Walk with Jesus in the mail, I was already reading another book by Fr. Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved. Together, these books illuminate Nouwen’s vision of a more loving society in a broken world. They help to explore and explain the spiritual depth that should animate the Christian worldview.
In Walk with Jesus, we see the Christocentric approach of Nouwen immediately. The cross is what allows us to see sorrow and suffering and yet remain hopeful and to not give in to despair. It is “in and through Jesus” and divine love that our world can achieve communion and become one.
In the book, Nouwen reflects on pictures of the Stations of the Cross, drawn by Sr. Helen David. He connects them to the suffering and injustice in the world he knew. Nouwen does not see this suffering as a barrier to communion. Instead by entering into the wounded world and experiencing and empathizing with the suffering of others, we are transformed and unity becomes more possible.
But it is only when we step outside of ourselves and stop clinging to our desire for self-sufficiency and autonomy that this real experience of community becomes possible. We must recognize our own weaknesses, failures, and dependencies to become vulnerable in a way that allows for greater communion.
The broken world he describes is often the product of what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture” and both Francis and Nouwen offer an alternative: the culture of encounter. We are called to say “yes” in a world where sorrow, pain, loss, and suffering remain. We are called to encounter Christ in the poor and vulnerable. We cannot achieve genuine peace and joy by fleeing from reality, but only through encounter.
In Adam: God’s Beloved, Nouwen describes the transformative impact of his time with Adam Arnett, a severely disabled friend who was unable to speak, at the L’Arche Daybreak community. The book is a moving, powerful testament to the dignity and worth of all human persons. The philosophical lessons of personalism are demonstrated in the concrete life of Adam and the people whose lives he changed.
Nouwen describes a world where people are viewed through the prism of how they look, what they have, and what they accomplish. Christians are called to be countercultural and break from this mentality, though it is easy to stumble down these false paths. When we do, we are alienated from God, others, and even ourselves.
Away from the cacophony of modern life and the contemporary culture, in the silent presence of Adam, Nouwen finds contemplative action—he finds love, friendship, belonging, and community. He sees that Adam can give and receive love. This, not the superficial and ephemeral, is the foundation of human flourishing—not individualism, materialism, or sensationalism.
The Kingdom of God is not built on utilitarianism, but on love. Through encounter and the experience of communion, we see that each person is a gift. People are not replaceable parts, but entirely unique and valuable, and their value is most clearly visible in the network of relationships they have with others. If you truly love another person, you know that their dignity and worth is innate. And this opens the door to true communion, the very heart of the Christian faith.
The deepest desires of the human heart are not satisfied by things or acclaim, but communion with God and others, which is possible through divine love. And in both of these books, Nouwen shows us the link between encounter and communion. Only when we tear away the unreal and leave behind discordant values can we experience the love of God, respond to the presence of this love, and in our mutual vulnerability move toward greater unity with others—the very meaning and purpose of life.