The priest and writer devoted his life to people who don't easily fit in the idea of a mosaic by most standards, and they became his community in the latter years, a reflection of his lifelong devotion to peace and reconciliation.
On Friday, his devotional thought for the day, distributed by email by the business than handles his estate, had a timeless theme:
"The Mosaic That Shows Us the Face of God"
A mosaic consists of thousands of little stones. Some are blue, some are green, some are yellow, some are gold. When we bring our faces close to the mosaic, we can admire the beauty of each stone. But as we step back from it, we can see that all these little stones reveal to us a beautiful picture, telling a story none of these stones can tell by itself.
That is what our life in community is about. Each of us is like a little stone, but together we reveal the face of God to the world. Nobody can say: "I make God visible." But others who see us together can say: "They make God visible."
Community is where humility and glory touch.
"Bread for the Journey"
Nouwen understood that contemporary life has created the illusion that people are meant to be alone rather than formed and nurtured in community. Individualism is the force driving widespread estrangement, especially in the more affluent cultures like North America and Western Europe.
Elsewhere in "Bread for the Journey," he writes, "We are constantly made to believe that everything we think, say or do is our personal accomplishment, deserving individual attention. But as people who belong to the Communion of the Saints, we know that anything of spiritual value is not the result of individual accomplishments but the fruit of a communal life."
Even intentional secular communities understand that the power for good and creativity of individuals, though limited, is multiplied in concert with others of the same mind.
Nouwen, however, like many others, was focused on life in the context of Christian faith.
"Whatever we know about God and God's love ... is the knowledge that has come to us through the ages from the people of Israel and the prophets, from Jesus and the saints, and from all who have played roles in the formation of our hearts."
Thousands of people travel every year to Ravenna, Italy, to see the extraordinary mosaics from the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era. It is easy to spot a single gleaming tile that's gold or a vivid color, but it is impossible to see the whole, powerful picture without taking in the full sweep of magnificent works of art creating a theme and telling an important story.
All individual elements are important, but in Nouwen's words, most important is "the fruit of our communal life."
Paul the Apostle, in Ephesians 3, uses more vivid language to describe the experience in community:
"I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit - not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength - that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us." (The Common English Bible)