A Theology of the Heart: The Life and Writings of Henri Nouwen

January 1, 1970

A Theology of the Heart: The Life and Writings of Henri Nouwen

Written and facilitated by Jeff Imbach

St. Francis Xavier University offers this 12-week, non-credit course by distance education [print based] in the winter term (January to April). Limited enrolment accepted.


This course is an intense, practical introduction to the rich legacy of Henri Nouwen’s life and writings. Through the course assignments, interactions, and responses, the students will be given opportunity to interact intimately with the wide range of Henri’s literary output, to allow these important themes to intersect with their own life experience, and to develop a creative response to the material covered.

It is the course writer’s deep desire that Henri’s honest commitment to the spiritual journey will resonate deeply in the souls of the students, and that his writings will encourage them to search for and claim the unique themes of their own spiritual development.


By the end of this course the learner will be able to:

Articulate an overall appreciation for the scope and depth of Henri Nouwen’s writing.

Identify and discuss many of the main themes of Henri s writings.

Identify the main periods of Henri’s life and their impact on his writing.

Appreciate the ongoing struggle between Henri’s own life and his desire for spiritual faithfulness.

Articulate something of the unique pattern of their own spiritual path.

Experience a deep sense of wonder at God’s ability to use us in our weakness.

Be more confident to share their true humanity as part of their spiritual journey.

Deepen their own walk of faith as a Beloved Child.

Use some specific piece of Henri’s writings in a ministry context.


There will be three required textbooks for this course beyond the readings that are provided in the manual. All three are in paperback reprint editions. These three books provide a unique introduction to Henri’s literary and spiritual vision.

Reaching Out provides a mature statement of the foundations of his whole life and ministry. In three beautiful movements: from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer, Henri captures the movements that became the movements of his own journey. All his life he struggled to allow his loneliness to become a fruitful solitude. His wide-ranging ability to relate to people of various spiritual traditions, his commitment to justice and to being in community with people with mental disabilities are wonderful examples of what he meant by creating a safe place for the stranger in the movement from hostility to hospitality. And finally, his whole life was committed to moving from his illusions about love and fame and acceptability into the heart of the Father’s love for him.

The Genesee Diary is a very poignant story of his own process of moving out of his illusions and petty jealousies and hurts into a more stable understanding of himself and of the world in which he lived. His friends sometimes humourously commented that he came to the community of L’Arche to find a home and it took a community of people to keep him together! But it was an honest and prayerful struggle. None of his books elucidate that struggle better than The Genesee Diary.

Return of the Prodigal Son provides a magnificent culmination to his spiritual journey and vision. In being arrested by Rembrandt’s painting of a derelict man embraced in the warm robes of a blind and welcoming father, Nouwen began to see himself as the Beloved child of God too. He was able to come with one sandal off and ragged clothes from all of the illusions of a famous and productive life and simply tuck his face like a young child into the Father’s bosom and rest there as the Beloved. Then he was able to look at the elder brother and see his own resentments and jealousies reflected in the tightened face of the elder brother who couldn’t celebrate. Finally, he was invited to become the father, blinding welcoming people and embracing them with love that is without expectation.


MODULE ONE: Introduction and Early Popularity

Lesson 1.1 Henri’s early years. This lesson will familiarize the learner with the major shaping events of Henri’s early life. It will take the learner through to Henri’s development as a popular lecturer up until his first writings including Intimacy, and The Wounded Healer.

Lesson 1.2 A Reformer with a devoted heart. This lesson will delve into the creative way in which Henri began to rethink important issues of pastoral theology. It will include readings from Creative Ministry, Out of Solitude, and Aging.

MODULE TWO: A Restless Heart

Lesson 2.1 A Journey in Prayer. This lesson will be an intensive look at the beginnings of Henri’s writings on prayer which is crucial to Henri’s development and impact. It will include readings from With Open Hands, Genesee Diary, and The Way of the Heart.

Lesson 2.2 A Journey to Compassion. This lesson will develop the important theme of compassion and justice which continually influenced Henri’s journey and ultimately shaped his decision to move to L’Arche Daybreak. It will include readings and interactions from his books: Compassion. Gracias!, and Love in a Fearful Land.

MODULE THREE: Finding Home

Lesson 3.1 The Road to Daybreak. This lesson will investigate the increasingly restless journey of Henri Nouwen, his longing for community, and the transformation that came with his eventual move away from the academic community into a community for people with mental disabilities. It will include readings from Lifesigns, and The Road to Daybreak.

Lesson 3.2 Home and Crisis. This lesson will focus on Henri’s life at L’Arche Daybreak and its impact on his own journey and his writings. There is a great paradox here. Henri felt at home finally. He had a community that loved him for who he is and not for what he had accomplished. But at the same time, Henri’s darkest times came while he was at L’Arche Daybreak. This lesson will look at Henri as a L’Arche assistant through readings in Adam and the impact of “downward mobility” as developed in the book, In the Name of Jesus. It will also look at the crisis of relationship that came at Daybreak through readings in The Inner Voice of Love.

MODULE FOUR: Becoming the Beloved

Lesson 4.1 The Return of the Prodigal Son. This lesson will concentrate on the impact of Henri’s encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. It will focus especially on Henri as the son who comes home and finds that he is the Beloved child of God. Reading will be done primarily in The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Lesson. 4.2 The Eucharist as Metaphor for Life. This lesson will continue with the discussion of Henri’s discovery of being the Beloved. It will look at his understanding of being the older child and coming to be the father. It will look also at The Life of the Beloved and Can You Drink This Cup? as some of his greatest expositions of being the beloved. In these he uses images from the Eucharist to describe our spiritual unfolding.

MODULE FIVE: Death and Dying

Lesson 5.1. One of the great themes of Henri’s last years was the almost prescient notion of his own death, and its impact on his living. His brush with death in a road accident and his exposition of the gift of dying well will be the subject of this lesson. Readings will be given from Beyond the Mirror and Our Greatest Gift.

MODULE SIX: Henri’s Interpreters and Friends

Lesson 6.1 Henri’s Interpreters. This lesson will give room for some discussion of the writings that have been already published about Henri’s life and the impact of his writings. It will uncover some of his own personal struggles as well as see how he has been received and has shaped our spiritual consciousness. Readings will be taken from The Wounded Prophet, Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Legacy of Henri Nouwen, and Soul Survivor.

Lesson 6.2. This lesson will be a chance to let those who were closest to Nouwen speak the final piece. They will include a simple anecdote by Sue Mosteller, a touching piece by a couple who experienced Henri’s pastoral care through some very tough experiences, and finally a statement by both Jean Vanier and Nathan Ball. Readings will be taken from The Only Necessary Thing, and Befriending Life.


This will be a non-credit, 12-week, distance education course offered in the winter term. There are no exams in the course. Participants submit two written assignments, one at mid-term and the final assignment to be submitted the week following the end of the course.


This course does not require on-line participation. Participants receive a course manual containing the introduction to the course, details on assignments, a suggested course timetable, eleven lessons (lecture notes), and copies of required readings (other than required textbooks). Assignments can be submitted by regular post, or as an e-mail attachment in MSWord or WordPerfect, or by fax.


Participants are encouraged to contact the course instructor during designated office hours (toll-free number) or by e-mail. The office staff are available from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Nova Scotia time), Monday to Friday, to help you. You can contact us by e-mail, fax or toll free.


$475; for residents within Canada (contact the Program office if you are applying from outside Canada).


Application fees do not apply to this course. Textbooks will be available for purchase by mail through the University Bookstore if you are unable to purchase them locally.

Participants will receive a certificate upon successful completion of the course.

Please contact the Program Office (diplomainministry@stfx.ca) to receive a registration form or for further details.

To request a registration form or further details, contact

Ministry Programs
Continuing & Distance Education Department
St. Francis Xavier University
P.0. Box 5000
Antigonish, NS.
B2G 2W5

902-867-3319 or Toll free (within Canada): 1-877-867-5562
Fax 902-867-5154
E-mail diplomainministry@stfx.ca

For more information please visit the website.