InsightOut: Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living

Karen Pascal is the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society (Canada & USA) and the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Her work as a filmmaker includes award-winning documentaries on two spiritual giants of the 20th Century: Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis: Beyond Narnia.

InsightOut: Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living

Photograph of Karen Pascal and David Sylvester, smiling, in front of an illustration of Henri Nouwen on a Kelly Library wall.
Karen Pascal and David Sylvester in the Kelly Library, Feb. 2020

Before taking on the role of executive director at the Henri Nouwen Society, I spent many years as an independent television and film producer.

During the early ’90s, I produced multiple seasons of a current affairs program where topical events were viewed and discussed from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The series featured interesting and varied guests on each episode—newsmakers, authors, artists, businesspeople, environmentalists, activists, politicians, and pundits—a grand menagerie of engaging and articulate individuals.

I quickly acquired the habit of asking each guest what she or he was currently reading. I wanted to know what fuelled them, what fired their passion, their minds, their spirits.

I anticipated their reading selections would be as eclectic as the group itself. However, to my surprise, books by a spiritual writer and priest named Henri Nouwen were mentioned and recommended again and again. Titles such as The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, The Inner Voice of Love, Letters to Marc About Jesus, and Life of the Beloved.

I don’t recall exactly which of Henri’s books I read first—but I do remember the feeling I had when I began reading. It was as if the author was writing about me, as if he was looking into my heart, parsing and describing my life’s experience. My hopes, my hurts, my brokenness.

I was consoled. I was inspired. I was hooked.

A few years after being introduced to his books, I tracked Henri down at his home at L’Arche Daybreak, a community just north of Toronto where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. And when I say I tracked Henri down, that’s exactly what I mean. Henri was an extremely busy man. Besides contributing to the care of core members at Daybreak, Henri continued to write. He traveled extensively. And the growing popularity of his books made him a much sought-after speaker in North America and beyond.

He reluctantly—yet graciously—agreed to allow me to feature him in one of my programs.

Less than two years later, Henri died of a heart attack on his way to do a documentary in Russia on The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Like everyone who knew him, either personally or through his books, I was shocked and heartbroken, but I knew instinctively that Henri’s legacy would live on.

And so it does. Henri Nouwen is more widely known and read today than he was during his own lifetime.

Because of the extraordinary materials and resources offered by the Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives & Research Collection housed in the heart of the University of St. Michael’s College campus, the Henri Nouwen Society has been able to introduce new works of unpublished material to spiritually hungry audiences around the world. We reach nearly 55,000 subscribers every day with Henri’s treasured Daily Meditations. He now commands a massive following on all of our social media platforms, where new and younger audiences are now discovering Henri’s spiritual wisdom and encouragements. 

Not bad for someone who has been dead for 25 years!

Throughout 2021, the Henri Nouwen Society has been celebrating Fr. Nouwen’s life and impact. If you’re already a Nouwen reader, or you just want to learn more about this remarkable man, you won’t want to miss our upcoming special anniversary conference June 4th and 5th called Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living.

Featuring keynote speakers Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking), Dr. C. Vanessa White, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Rev. Marjorie Thompson, Sister Simone Campbell, Dr. Roberto Goizueta Jr., and Dr. Chris Pritchett, you will discover valuable insights and practices to help you live a more gracious, grateful, and meaningful life.

We are delighted to partner with the University of St. Michael’s College for this event, and we are particularly pleased that President David Sylvester will be taking a hands-on role introducing one of our esteemed presenters.

For more information and for tickets, please go to our website at

While you’re there, you can also watch my documentary Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen, narrated by Susan Sarandon. Just click VIDEOS under the RESOURCES tab.

Read other InsightOut posts.