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 https://henrinouwen.org/conference/

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.

The crest of the University of St. Michael's College

November 2, 2020

A generous gift from the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust to the University of St. Michael’s College will help make the work of the beloved spiritual writer more accessible to researchers and readers around the world.

The funding will support a 12-month contract for an archivist to process the Henri J. M. Nouwen holdings in the Archival and Manuscript Collection housed in the university’s John M. Kelly Library. A search to fill the position is now under way.

Working with library staff, the archivist will handle the preservation, arrangement, and description of various materials, as well as promote their existence and add them to web-based finding guides. The position holder will also digitize materials so that the wealth of books, letters, promotional and related materials in the collection will be easier to access.

Karen Pascal, who is the Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society, stands next to a portrait of Henri Nouwen alongside St. Michael's President David Sylvester
Karen Pascal, Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society, and St. Michael’s President David Sylvester in a photo taken before the pandemic.

“We have always been grateful for our partnership with St. Michael’s, and this position will help open up Henri to a whole new generation,” says Karen Pascal, who is the Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society. “Henri’s writings touched people’s hearts, and demonstrated that vulnerability is part of leadership. As St. Mike’s works to create new leaders, this is a perfect fit.”

University President and Vice-Chancellor David Sylvester is delighted for the continued partnership the funding acknowledges between the society and St. Michael’s.

“The University recognizes and appreciates that this gift builds on the Nouwen Society’s longstanding support of the collection, and we share the commitment to ensuring the collection is preserved and made available to scholars, students and the wider community,” he says. “We look forward to welcoming the new archivist, and to continuing the conversation about other possible partnerships.”

More than 100 researchers accessed the popular collection last year, and John M. Kelly Library Archivist Simon Rogers notes that the funding from the Nouwen Legacy Trust will help to increase the discoverability of its materials. It may become possible “to surface previously unprocessed materials including photographs, audio-visual archival materials, personal correspondence and oral history recordings,” he says.

“We are excited that we are going to be able to give focused attention to these materials, allowing broader engagement for the larger Nouwen community,” Rogers says, adding that the library archive anticipates new materials, including letters and photos, to be added to the collection soon.

A priest, pastor, professor and writer, Henri Nouwen was born in Holland in 1932. A prolific author, he produced dozens of books of spiritual reflections during his life, with more than seven million copies of his works sold. His writings were varied, reflecting on everything from Rembrandt’s depiction of The Prodigal Son through to Thomas Merton, the topic of aging, and a sabbatical year Nouwen spent living at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. His vast career saw him teach at Harvard and Yale’s divinity schools and live with communities on the margins of society. He spent his final years at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with developmental disabilities, just north of Toronto. He died in 1996.

Sr. Susan Mosteller, C.S.J., who served as executrix of Nouwen’s estate, donated the archival material to the Kelly Library in January, 2000, and the archives were officially opened later that year. With a mandate to collect, preserve, and support archival material on Nouwen, the archives hold more than 16,000 letters, various sound and video recordings, a complete set of his published books—including translations—and a comprehensive collection of articles published by Nouwen between 1957 and 1996.

“Henri died before the explosion of the Internet,” says Pascal. “He was a prolific letter writer and felt letters were part of his ministry. He wrote to all sorts of people. Accessing more of these letters, for example—and making them available to researchers—will teach us so much about him, because there’s still so much to learn.”