Friday, January 1, 2010


Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri Nouwen by Michael Ford, 1999.

Henri Nouwen, with Thomas Merton, were the first 20th century Catholic writers on Christian Spirituality to be widely read among non-Catholics. (And each of them was criticized for 'never having an unpublished thought.' 'Like Merton', says this biographer, [Nouwen] seemed to feel that, unless he was writing things, he wasn't fully experiencing them. There was a gravitation in both men towards writing too much.'). Many evangelicals, after reading some of Nouwen's books, didn't know they were exposing their minds to the spiritual theology of a Roman Catholic! 'It was possible for him to speak in the morning to a group of left-wing Catholic liberation theologians, lead a lunch-time seminar with Nonconformists, and in the afternoon exhort members of the Religious Right'.

Henri Nouwen broke new ground in other respects as well: he (with ethicist Margaret Farley) was the first Roman Catholic appointment to the Protestant faculty at Yale University. As a scholar in the fields of psychology and theology he had little appetite for statistical research or a critical analysis of biblical texts, respectively. He regarded biblical criticism as inimical to a 'doxological life' of true obedience. A lot of scholarly talk might 'stimulate the curious mind' but doesn't 'stir the listening heart'.

Nouwen believed that it was from the wounded places in himself that he could touch the wounded places in others. He certainly was a troubled - even tormented - man. He would often phone for help or encouragement to friends anywhere in the world at odd hours of the day or night. (He often spent more on phone bills than on rent). He said with great honesty to a friend: 'You might think I'm famous and don't need others... But actually I need you more...' He would complain that his friends didn't care enough about him. In many ways he tested friendships: 'the deprived part of Henri needing to know that he was loved unconditionally...' He 'became a pious conservative' for much of his adult life, 'frightened of making a stand on social issues because he wanted to be friends with the right, the left and the middle'. (Yet he was sometimes criticized by conservative Catholics for sharing the eucharist with all-comers, and 'could happily receive the sacrament from an Anglican woman priest...').

Some of his friends offered interesting counsel: Mother Teresa, after hearing him for ten minutes simply said: 'Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord, and never doing anything which you know is wrong... you will be fine!'

So what was his problem? It was many-faceted - a complex mix of nature/nurture factors. He longed all his life for affirmation and affection from his father. His mother believed it was wrong to give too much love-through-touch to her son (though she read, avidly, everything he published). He knew he was gay from the age of six, but couldn't tell anyone except a small trusted circle of friends later in his life. To those with a homosexual orientation who asked his advice, he recommended celibacy as a vocation; but although he didn't expect most gay people to be celibate he did expect them to be in a relationship - a covenant relationship - as he would expect of heterosexuals. (His own clerical formation was messed up because 'holiness' was equated with keeping the flesh in check: 'They were to shower in light robes so they never saw each other fully naked; they slept with their arms crossed on their chests above the bed-covers. The body was not to be trusted').

Michael Ford describes Nouwen as 'adolescent' all his life, repressing his sexuality because the Catholic Church offered no way for him to resolve those complexities. And sometimes - especially during his years at Harvard - he 'seemed to take a particularly hardline approach with students towards homosexuality... Some claim he was ruthlessly unsympathetic to a number of gay men... teaching them [that] homosexuality was an evil state of being'. Nouwen's frenetic activity, Ford suggests, was also one of his ways of coping with his struggles in this area. Another was to ask his therapist to hug him non-sexually - sometimes for a long time, and occasionally this reduced Henri to uncontrolled sobbing. After he saw the movie 'Maurice', based on E M Forster's novel about homosexuality between the classes of English society, a friend who was with him wrote: 'As we were driving back... we had to stop on the highway because he was sobbing uncontrollably. He was just terrified. His whole body was shaking. He was so caught up with the story and the dilemma the two main characters were living, because it was his. All I could do was hold him and let him cry. He was really in pieces.'

Finally, a couple of paragraphs from The Genesee Diary which reflect his amazing honesty:

'I have always had a strange desire to be different... I wanted to say, write or do something 'different' or 'special' that would be noticed and talked about. For a person with a rich fantasy life' [for example Nouwen had a lifelong fascination with the circus and its clowns, and also the life and art of Van Gogh] 'this is not too difficult and easily leads to the desired 'success'... You can even preach the Gospel in such a way that people are made to believe that nobody had thought of that before. In all these situations you end up with applause because you did something sensational, because you were "different".

'In recent years I have become increasingly aware of the dangerous possibility of making the Word of God sensational. Just as people can watch spellbound a circus artist tumbling through the air in a phosphorized costume, so they can listen to a preacher who uses the Word of God to draw attention to himself.'

(His friend Jean Vanier wrote: 'Aristotle said that if you are not loved, you seek admiration, and you saw with Henri that double movement: the sense of not being loved and the feeling of loneliness - and a terrific need for admiration...').

I have been enriched by Henri Nouwen's writing for several decades, but reading this biography left me feeling so sad...

(For other reviews etc. see )

Rowland Croucher

January 1, 2010