As we reflected on our experience in Ukraine, I felt a deep desire to stay faithful to the Ukrainian people and to keep choosing not just for the individual poor, who need support, but also for the country that is so clearly marginalized in the family of nations. — Henri Nouwen
In 1993-94, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born priest and spiritual writer, made two trips to recently-independent Ukraine. There he led retreats, observed the resurgence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and connected with local communities working with handicapped adults. These trips were deeply significant to Nouwen, and at the time of his sudden death in 1997 he was planning further visits.
Published now, in the context of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, Nouwen’s reflections take on a new timeliness. This is emphasized in the introduction by Nouwen’s friend, Borys Gudziak, archbishop-metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who was the one who invited Nouwen and accompanied him on his original pilgrimages. Writing from his own journeys in the warzones of Ukraine, Archbishop Gudziak offers a poignant memory of the impact of Nouwen’s friendship and solidarity with Ukraine and about the ongoing effect of those visits.
As he notes, “This modest, seemingly simple book about a visit to a distant land is in fact a subtle tale of how encounter genuinely and radically changes the lives of people.” In addition, a moving afterword by Nouwen’s brother Laurent describes how for 25 years after Henri’s death he continued an outreach of solidarity and service to the people of Ukraine through the Henri Nouwen Foundation.
Three decades ago, I actually discouraged Henri from publishing his Ukraine diary as a book. In my own foreword to this edition, I describe my realization that there was more to this simple book than I had originally perceived. With extraordinary prescience, Nouwen had identified in Ukraine certain spiritual and moral qualities struggling to assert themselves — exactly the qualities, almost 30 years later, that the Ukrainian people have mobilized in their struggle for freedom and independence.
Following their long history of suffering and oppression, he responded to the Ukrainian people’s deep hunger for hope and healing, a need for the life-giving message that he most wanted to share: that we are all “beloved of God,” and that God’s love meets us where we are most hurt, weak, and vulnerable.
These were themes that Nouwen was developing in his last years, especially in his final book, Adam: God’s Beloved, about the lessons he had learned from a deeply handicapped man in the L’Arche Daybreak community where he served as a chaplain. As Laurent insightfully observes, there was a connection between his response to Adam and his attraction to Ukraine — the marginalized “foster child” of a country within the family of Europe: poor, weak, vulnerable, and yet a vessel of God’s love, entrusted with a message and a mission for the wider world.
No doubt, if he had lived, Nouwen would have continued to add to this “Ukraine Diary.” As it is, the story of his pilgrimage from 30 years ago stands as a kind of time capsule, a window on the time when it was written, which at the same time bears a message for our own time. It is, aside from its universal themes of hope, gratitude and the power of friendship, also a message directed to all who cherish Henri’s memory: that we might carry on and extend his relationship with a proud and long-suffering people he had come to love.