By Tim Walch
A review of “Ukraine Diary,” by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Orbis Books, 2023, 139 pages, $20.
It’s been more than 25 years since the sudden passing of Father Henri J. M. Nouwen. A gifted writer and theologian, he was beloved by millions of followers of all faiths and traveled the world sharing the value of clinical psychology in the study of Christian spirituality.
He was born in the Netherlands in 1932 and ordained there in 1957. For most of his life, however, he lived and worked in the United States and taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard universities with shorter stints at St. John’s Abbey, the Abbey of the Genesee and the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Among his last journeys were two summer visits to Ukraine in 1993 and 1994. Father Nouwen was invited to visit the country and deliver lectures at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He fell in love with the spirituality and culture of a people just then emerging from the dominance of two generations of Soviet oppression.
During those two summers, he compiled this diary. Today, as we focus so much of our attention and concern on the Ukrainian people, Father Nouwen speaks to us from across a generation. The book begins with a helpful preface from the publisher, Robert Ellsberg, who explains the delay in publication. When Father Nouwen first proposed publishing the diary in 1994, he was rebuffed. Ukraine was not much in the news; who would be interested in such a book? Instead, he published the story of his sojourn in “The New Oxford Review.”
Russia’s callous attack on Ukraine in 2022 brought Father Nouwen’s work back to mind. As Ellsberg observed, this diary was a prescient observation from the past. Henri Nouwen was sending a letter to the future.
In publishing “Ukraine Diary,” Ellsberg was assisted by Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and by Laurent Nouwen, the late priest’s brother. Archbishop Gudziak provides a lengthy and substantive introduction that sets the diary into current events. Laurent Nouwen adds a soulful and personal afterword in the form of a letter to his brother. Together the preface, introduction and afterword enhance Father Nouwen’s reflections on this extraordinary country.
“In this book,” writes Archbishop Gudziak, “the reader will not find a comprehensive analysis of political, social, and cultural developments but rather a heart-to-heart encounter of suffering people with a gentle, rapt observer who was ready to listen carefully to their stories.”
The experience for Father Nouwen was transformative. He could see in the faces and hear in the voices of the Ukrainian people the burden of the past. “I can better understand the centrality of long-suffering in the spirituality of the Ukrainian people,” he wrote shortly after his arrival. “Those qualities of life that we Americans take for granted — happiness, prosperity, freedom — are only aspirations for the Ukrainian people.”
He came to see that the message of Christ could offer hope for a better future, a commodity in short supply in that country. “We have to let people know,” he observed in August 1994, “that we [will] do our utmost to understand their unique situation and base our words of hope on that understanding.”
“After this trip to Ukraine,” he wrote in the last paragraph of his diary, “I know in a new way that the people we met there challenge us to be faithful to our commitment to the poor and to trust through that faithfulness we will find true joy and peace.”
Father Nouwen speaks to us from the past. He asks us to pray for the Ukrainian people and offer them material support in their time of need. He reminds us, above all, to listen. The Lord hears the cry of the poor and Father Nouwen asks us to respond.
(Timothy Walch is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of The Catholic Messenger Board of Directors. He regularly reviews books for the Messenger and other publications and is the author of many books, including “Irish Iowa.”)