Clowning in Rome:
Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer and Contemplation

by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Image books, 1979, 110 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

Reading this book is part of my “catch up” exercise with respect to Henri Nouwen’s writings. My sorrow for having missed so much for so long is only assuaged by the insights I am now gaining from this gifted writer.

This little book was born in Rome while Nouwen spent five month there in the late 1970s. The peculiar title, Clowning in Rome, grew out of his observation that Roman clowns played an important role in that city. Nouwen notes that in between what appears to be the “main acts” of life, clowns tell the real and true story of life. They make us laugh and cry, letting us know that they are on our side as they, with us, fumble and stumble through life. Nouwen finds in the image of the clown a powerful image of how Christians can minister effectively in contemporary society.

Indeed, he suggests that the four topics he discusses in this book appear somewhat as clown-like elements – somewhat useless with respect to the main acts taking place all around us. Yet, like the clowns actually telling a real story in the midst of a busy city, so understanding the apparently useless disciplines of solitude, celibacy, prayer and contemplation help us enter into life as it was meant to be. I learned something new in each of the four insightful chapters.

In the first chapter, Solitude and Community, I learned that we enter the experience of solitude not just for personal gain, but to build intimate communities in which we can discern our common vocation together. In Celibacy and the Holy, I discovered that the essence of celibacy is creating a vacancy for God in our lives, something we are all called to do. In Prayer and Thought, I began to think for the first time in my life that it is in fact possible to “pray without ceasing” as we come to see prayer as thinking all our thoughts in the conscious presence of God. In Contemplation and Ministry, I began to understand more profoundly that through contemplation, we can move from opaqueness to transparency in three areas. In nature, as we once again allow nature to minister to us. In time, as we move from chronos to kairos time in which every moment is an opportunity for a change of heart. And in people, as we help others become aware of the love, truth, and beauty they reveal to us.

This may be a small, old book but it is as relevant and powerful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century. Reading it is one thing; applying what you learn will be a life-long process.