“I am sorry but I have to decline all the other audios. The recording is such that it is not possible to transcribe them.” These were not words I hoped to hear from the transcription service to which I had sent CDs of Henri Nouwen’s 1985 meditations on following Jesus. My plan was simple and would expedite my work as editor of A Spirituality of Homecoming, the next volume in The Henri Nouwen Spirituality Series: The transcription service would translate the admittedly challenging recordings into clean manuscripts that I would then edit with leisurely ease. No such luck.
Thus began months of leaning into my computer, earphones glued to my head, straining to understand Henri’s words as he moved about the large room at St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square, sometimes near and sometimes far from a small cassette recorder with built-in microphone. The room held five hundred people, and it was overflowing with students and townspeople eager to hear the renowned Harvard professor speak about Christian discipleship. To my ears, it sounded as if half the city had squeezed into the parish fellowship hall. People shuffled their feet and rustled notebook paper. The audience erupted in waves of laughter at jokes, inaudible to me, that Henri muttered under his breath. A baby, with evident pleasure, repeatedly punctuated one of Henri’s talks with the words, “Dada, Dada, Dada….” Another time, a woman close to the microphone asked softly, “What did he say?” Her friend responded, “I think it was something about…” and, not able to make out his answer, my mind drifted to the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Jesus is delivering the Beatitudes. Someone toward the rear of the crowd is having trouble hearing the prophet and wants to know what he just said. A companion responds, “Blessed are the cheese makers.”
Yet even though my tidy plan to edit perfectly accurate and cleanly formatted transcriptions of Henri’s talks had been thwarted, and even though my head buzzed with the background noise that shrouded Henri’s words, it was fitting that I should be the one to transcribe these tapes. Indeed, it was a homecoming of the most wonderful kind. Here I was in his presence again, more than three decades after the conclusion of five years as his teaching, research, and editorial assistant at Yale Divinity School. The Dutch-accented voice, so familiar from hours together in classrooms, chapels, retreat centers, and social evenings in his home, rose and fell with characteristic passion as he tried to evoke the challenge and the beauty of following Jesus. The central themes of his presentations, well worn through repeat appearances in books, articles, and lectures, but still fresh with the vital urgency of truly good news. I could easily visualize his large hands reaching out into the air around him as if he might catch and hold before us the wonder of life in the Spirit of God. Yes, it was good to spend this time with Henri.
Homecomings sometimes have a way of moving us from the present to the past and then back once more to the present, but a present now reframed by new meaning. Initially, in the “present” of my editorial work, I was seeking simply to extract from these difficult recordings a publishable manuscript for the Henri Nouwen Spirituality Series. Then, as I entered the soundscape of those Harvard Square tapes, the richness of long past years with Henri drew me back through corridors of memory, and I sensed the presence of gracious Mystery that often seemed to accompany him. All at once I was dwelling in both that invigorating past and a transfigured present. As I felt myself sitting among those in the parish hall listening intently to Henri’s impassioned meditations on Jesus, and felt too the tension in my back as I tried to follow Henri’s words in the midst of the human and technological din, it suddenly became clear that I was actually experiencing the reality Henri was describing. How difficult it is to hear Christ addressing us in the midst of our noisy world! How challenging it is to follow him when so much around us vies for our attention and commitment!
Here I was, earphones plugged in, sitting at the point where past, present, and future converge in the simple words “Come, follow me.”
When did you first hear those words?
How did you respond?