Henri J. M. Nouwen was a Catholic priest and bestselling author who wrestled with his own homosexuality. He died 16 years ago today on Sept. 21, 1996.
Nouwen (1932-1996) remains one of the most popular and influential modern spiritual writers. He wrote more than 40 books, including The Wounded Healer, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and The Inner Voice of Love.
Known as a “gay celibate, he probably would have had mixed feelings about being included in this series on LGBT Saints. Nouwen never directly discussed his gay sexual orientation in his published writings, but he confided his conflict over it in private journals and conversations. These are documented in his outstanding and honest 2002 biography Wounded Prophet by Michael Ford. Despite his loneliness and same-sex attractions, there is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy.
His personal struggle with his sexual orientation may have added depth to his writing. “The greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection,” he said.
Although Nouwen is not an officially recognized saint, his “spirituality of the heart” has touched millions of readers. Nouwen’s books have sold more than 2 million copies in over 22 languages. He emphasized relationships and social justice with core values of solitude, community and compassion.
Nouwen was born in Holland on Jan. 24, 1932. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1957 and went on to study psychology. He taught at several theological institutes in his homeland and in the United States, including the divinity schools at Harvard and Yale.
In 1985 he began service in Toronto, Canada, as the priest at the L’Arche Daybreak Community, where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. It became Nouwen’s home until his sudden death in 1996 at age 64. He died from a heart attack while traveling to Russia to do a documentary.
The video below shows Nouwen speaking on "Being the Beloved" at the Crystal Cathedral in California in 1992. The newest book about him is the 2012 biography “Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen” by Michael Higgins, Nouwen’s official biographer.
The icon of Nouwen at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. During his lifetime Nouwen commissioned Lentz to make an icon for him that symbolized the act of offering his own sexuality and affection to Christ.
|Christ the Bridegroom|
by Robert Lentz
Lentz’s icon / portrait the top of this post shows Nouwen in an open-handed pose. It calls to mind a prayer written by Nouwen in The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life:
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
Nouwen gave the gift of his spiritual vision to generations of readers. He encouraged each individual to find their own mission in life with words such as these from "The Wounded Healer":
“When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian.”
Henri Nouwen Society
Chris Glaser on Henri Nouwen’s sexuality (Huffington Post)
Henri Nouwen, on Andrew Sullivan and the “Blessing” of Homosexuality (Queering the Church)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.
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