Subsequent to Henri Nouwen’s death, Christopher de Vinck edited a little book with a big message called Nouwen Then: Personal Reflections on Henri, in which numerous of Henri’s friends shared short essays about him. Among the panoramic selections is a piece called “In the Journey, We Need Friends,” written by a special friend of Henri’s indeed, namely, Fred Rogers. Fred is described in the book as a husband, father, grandfather, a graduate of Rollins College with a degree in music composition, an ordained minister, and the creator of the Emmy Award-winning children’s television program on PBS: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred began his reflection by talking about the way Henri used to call him from all over the world, always wanting to know how Fred was. “And he really wanted to know,” Fred added. “He wanted to be connected with all of us in the most essential ways.” Connections, relationships, and friendships meant a great deal to them both; indeed, they were essential. Fred often used that word ‘essential’ to describe Henri: “Henri was in touch—in communion—with the Essential of life. It wasn’t hard to recognize that he was in an enthusiastic relationship with God … in all that he felt and did.”
“Words, words, words,” Fred remembered Henri saying. “They’re everywhere! On billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books….” Henri would say so many words had lost their power, yet words like “I love you” (said from the heart) are still able to “give another person new life, new hope, new courage.”
Even in Henri’s death, Fred seemed to sense Henri continuing to say not only “How are you?” but “I love you,” but only through an earthly silence. “In fact, Henri’s death has confirmed for me the enormous power of silence. Even though most of the world knows Henri best by his words, I’ve come to recognize his deepest respect for the still, small voice among the quiet of eternity. That’s what continues to inspire me.”
Fred was well known for loathing noise and instead apprehending the power of silence. Each morning he would study the Bible by reading the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek and spending a few hours in “committed silence.” Once at a staid PBS Convention he noted in his address that it’s amazing what people will tell you if you have the patience to wait through the silence. Silence gives us ears to hear. He challenged those in public television to do all they could to help their audiences remember what it’s like to be in touch with the transcendent. “Do we have that kind of patience? That kind of faith in the ultimate goodness … sacredness of creation?” He wondered why it’s so uncomfortable to “wait through the silence.” “What do we think the silence will do to us? Could it be that we might be concerned about getting too close to what’s essential?”
Fred was notorious for ending his commencement speeches and public lectures, even at the unlikeliest of places, with a time of silence for people to reflect on those for whom they were most grateful. Like one of Nouwen’s heroes, the great Victorian John Henry Newman, Fred knew that replacing a vague generic gratitude with sincere thoughts of thanks for a particular loved one whose visage fills our mental vision can almost instantaneously bring a lump to our throat and tears to the eyes. Putting a familiar face on and real voice to the notional makes all the difference. Tom Junod describes one such epic occasion:
…[Fred] went onstage to accept Emmy's Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked…and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds…and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
Early each morning Fred would pray for his family and friends by name, including Henri. As work commenced every day, Fred would pray that some of the words he planned to speak would be God’s words. And when he went swimming as part of his morning routine, just before he jumped into the pool he would sing to himself the Taizé “Jubilate Deo,” which Henri had taught him at the table at L’Arche Daybreak. Fred was especially fond of the round “Ubi caritas et amor…Deus ibi est,” translated “Wherever charity and love reside…there is God.”
Interestingly, Fred decided in this homage to Henri to share another table story: the anecdote of once in Boston going with some Roman Catholic friends to Mass but, when the time for the Eucharist came and Fred put his hand out to receive the Communion, the bishop gently, but firmly, put down his hand and simply made the sign of the Cross on his forehead. As the sole non-Roman Catholic there, he was acutely mindful that he was the only one in the room who hadn’t received the host.
Of course Roman Catholics have a rich sacramental theology that’s inextricably tied to their ecclesiology that explains why they don’t serve the Eucharist to their “separated brethren,” and I’m not adjudicating on that complex matter here. It’s relevant, though, to note that the disruption of fellowship—at the Table, of all places—caused Fred concern, in poignant contrast, incidentally, with the audacious fact that Henri always included him in the Mass.
Fred and Henri were kindred spirits, Aristotelian “other selves” whose fellowship went unimpeded by divergent theological traditions. Fred resonated with Henri’s view of God and of Jesus that reflected what Martin Luther King, Jr. often said: “The universe is under control of a loving Purpose.” “God knows how to help us feel welcomed, accepted, loved. Henri knew how too. And now he does it in that great, loving silence of the universe.”
Finally, of course, Fred ended his reflection by encouraging readers to take a moment of silence to reflect on someone who had helped them see beyond the obvious, someone who had encouraged them to grow into a thoughtful person who cares about the essentials of life—perhaps “a person who, like Henri and many of us, longs for deep friendships and reaches out to others in response to that longing—just as our God reached out through Jesus the Christ our Lord.”
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.