Adam – God’s Beloved by Henri Nouwen
This book was Henri Nouwen’s last book and published after his death in 1996 and is the short but moving account of the life Adam Arnatt. Adam lived in the New House within the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto. Founded by Jean Vanier, a Roman Catholic priest, the idea of L’Arche is that severely disabled people live in community as “core” members, surrounded by their helpers and assistants. Adam was a “core” member of his community and was a young man, able to do very little for himself and almost entirely dependent on others for his every need.
Although, as a child, he had been able to do more, a mix up with drugs when he was a young teenager had left him unable to communicate and liable to many fits and seizures every day.
Henri Nouwen can from a respected Dutch family and after ordination as a priest he became an academic in the U.S.A. holding professorships at Notre Dame, then Yale and finally Harvard.
Although very successful in his field, a respected and prolific author, and in demand for seminars and retreats all over the world, Nouwen struggled throughout his life. His relationship with his father, with the Catholic church and with God were all difficult for him and he wrestled with his own deep desire to be loved. Many of his other books (all very easy to read)speak of these struggles.
Whilst his career at Harvard gave him a good income, made him many friends and allowed him to do many of the things that he wished to do, Nouwen remained dissatisfied. Eventually he spent some time at a L’Arche community and France before deciding to give up the academic life and to join Daybreak in Toronto. Here he was asked to live in the New House and to become Adam’s primary carer, a prospect that filled him with considerable dread, not least because he was the most impractical of men. “Don’t worry Henri, we’ll help you” said the other assistants.
For 18 months Nouwen became Adam’s primary carer and they remained friends for 10 years until Adam’s death some 6 months before Nouwen’s own.
There are many remarkable things about this little book, not least the incredible journey of love and support shown by the parents of Adam and his brother Michael as they struggled to bring up their two disabled sons. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is Nouwen’s own journey not just of transformation but discovery of some deep spiritual truths and personal healing through the life of his silent friend.
Adam became to Nouwen not just a friend and a companion but a confessor and spiritual director. A relationship that began with Nouwen questioning why he had to look after this man, ended with Nouwen discovering in and through Adam the very love of Christ. Adam , a gentle soul who demanded nothing of Nouwen, who questioned nothing he did, who wasn’t interested in Nouwen’s status or the demands of the academic world, taught Nouwen what he really needed to know, that was accepted and loved just as he was, for who he was.
What does it mean to be disabled? What is normal? What we discover in this book is that we are all, in some sense, disabled: We all face challenges and difficulties that we cannot cope with alone; We are all dependent on others; We all need to be loved, We all crave God in some way. Adam taught Nouwen to see differently, and he teaches us above all through this book, to understand that God loves each one of us as a whole, healed and complete individual.
Hugh Burgess, 2010
Nouwen, Henri. Adam – God’s Beloved. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997, 2009.