In Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life is a letter from Henri Nouwen to his friend Fred Rogers (aka “Mister Rogers”). Fred described Henri as one of his heroes, and theirs was a close friendship. Rogers was particularly crestfallen when Henri would die suddenly some years later than this correspondence dated April 25, 1989.
This letter is a response from Henri to Fred having written and sent along an article that had been written about Fred. Although I’m unsure of which article it was, it evidently was quite critical of Fred’s work, and Fred seems to have been deeply bothered by it. Fred’s not known for negativity, but he is known for teaching kids and adults alike how best to manage emotions of all kinds, and he was a man of strong emotions himself. (His middle, and mother’s maiden, name was “McFeely,” for crying out loud!) It was when he hadn’t felt permission as a child to feel anger on a particular occasion that he came to see the importance of making emotions “mentionable and manageable.” At any rate, the occasion of this article stirred hurt feelings in Fred, so much so that he felt compelled to send the article along for Henri’s perusal and feedback. Here’s the bulk of Henri’s reply:
“I read the article you sent me and can very well understand how much that must have hurt you. It must be really painful to be confronted with a total misunderstanding of your mission and your spiritual intentions. It is these little persecutions within the church that hurt the most. I simply hope that you are not too surprised by them. They come and will keep coming precisely when you do something significant for the Kingdom.
“It has always struck me that the real pain comes often from the people from whom we expected real support. It was Jesus’ experience and the experience of all the great visionaries in the Church, and it continues to be the experience of many who are committed to Jesus.
“I don’t think it makes much sense to argue with the writer of this article. He speaks from a very different plane and will not be open to your explanations. Some of the criticisms we simply have to suffer and see as invitations to enter deeper into the heart of Jesus. I won’t send you some of the reviews I get of my books, but some are not very different from the tone of this piece. So I certainly feel a unique solidarity with you. Let us pray for each other, that we remain faithful and not become bitter and that we continue to return to the center where we can find the joy and peace that is not of this world.”
When someone who should have been a friend chooses to be an adversary rather than an advocate, opting to disparage and impugn rather than edify and encourage, a particular kind of pain ensues, something cutting deeper than the garden variety. There’s good reason scripture tells us not to grow weary in well-doing, likely because we’re often sorely tempted to do so. An ally accusing us rather than defending us is one of those times, blindsiding us, and disappointing and dispiriting us in a profound way, inflicting tremendous hurt in the process.
To bless those who curse you, to pray for those who despitefully use you, is no easy task. Apart from God’s enabling grace it’s likely well-nigh impossible. Yet it’s what we’re called as Christians to do, and part of learning to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Fred considered love central to all parenting, all relationships, all learning, but he also recognized love as work. It takes work to learn to love people without conditions, accepting them as they are, and loving them into greater wholeness and health. Even though Fred may have made it look easy, it isn’t, and it wasn’t for him. It takes time and empathy, patience and listening, grace and forgiveness. Fred didn’t underestimate the difficulty involved, but nor did he shy away from the hard work of learning to love as he ought.
Reading Nouwen’s reply, it isn’t hard to see why those two were such kindred spirits. Even when confronted with those who should support us inflicting pain on us instead, launching accusations, foisting misunderstanding, sowing discord, ours is not the prerogative to respond in kind, or in our resultant anger to sin. Henri counsels Fred not to be surprised when such little persecutions come, even from within the church, and to choose to see such occasions as invitations to enter more deeply into the heart of Christ. Remain faithful, resist bitterness, and keep seeking the joy and peace that is not of this world.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote of Charles Dickens that the reason his greatness is often overlooked is because, despite all that’s wrong with this world, Dickens retained an essentially optimistic mentality. Sometimes I wonder if Fred’s buoyant optimism and positive outlook on others, despite our feet of clay and susceptibility to sin, leads some to think of him as provincial and Pollyannaish, rather than the great man he was. Rather than continuing to listen to and learn from him, we’re tempted to write him off and relegate him, like our innocence and toys, to the childhoods we’ve left behind. I’m convinced we do so to our own detriment, in the process underestimating the wise sage and singular individual Rogers was—with the soul of a pastor, the heart of a psychologist, and the mind of a philosopher.
Consider “the courage and resolve of Fred Rogers,” my wife has written, “character traits that enabled his long career but that, regrettably, aren’t often associated with the cultural persona of the man himself. I suspect, though, that this is our failure of imagination—to think that kindness, gentleness, and respect are somehow weak or passive. Or perhaps it’s reflection of the nihilism creep in our culture. The life of Mister Rogers shows that to be truly kind, to be gentle, to demonstrate empathy, and to respect others takes great will. Mockery and cynicism is far easier. But mockery takes a toll; it erodes confidence and trust and wears away the social fabric, a lesson Fred himself learned as a bullied child who had a hard time making friends. He hoped to protect his viewers against such destructive behavior—either enacting it or receiving it. To this end he sought instead to make goodness attractive, ‘to help children become more aware that what is essential in life is invisible to the eye.’”
Nouwen, too, resisted despair and retained hope, later writing in that same collection of letters that he was more and more convinced how important it is that, in the midst of the incredibly depressing events in the Church, and in the world, “we continue to believe and hope, and don’t allow ourselves to be dragged into the darkness that surrounds us on all sides. Somehow we have to keep choosing very consciously to live towards the light, even when sometimes darkness seems to be so much easier to choose….”
Readers might know that Fred had a charming habit of bowing to people, something he often mentioned in college commencement addresses he was invited to give. He described it like this: “What I’ve come to understand is that we who bow are probably—whether we know it or not—acknowledging the presence of the sacred: we’re bowing to the sacred in our neighbor.” We all of us are made in God’s image, but each of us is unique, and there’s also something of the sacred and eternal in each of us. For Fred, bowing was a physical manifestation of this recognition. He believed that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment—our neighbor—we are somehow participating in something holy.
Even, perhaps especially, when our neighbor doesn’t return the honor.
Editor’s note: David Baggett is currently writing a book about Fred Rogers tentatively entitled Why Mister Rogers Bowed.
With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He developed two subsequent books with Walls. The second book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, critiques naturalistic ethics. The third book, The Moral Argument: A History, chronicles the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. It releases October 1, 2019. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Rawlings School of Divinity in Lynchburg, VA.