Friday, September 21, 2012

Henri Nouwen: Priest & author who struggled with his homosexuality

Henri J. M. Nouwen was a Catholic priest and bestselling author who wrestled with his own homosexuality. He died 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.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Henri Nouwen: Priest and author who struggled with his homosexuality

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 Dutch 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. One of the  newest books 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
Research and reflection led Lentz to paint “Christ the Bridegroom” (left) for Nouwen in 1983. It shows Christ being embraced by his beloved disciple, based on an icon from medieval Crete. “Henri used it to come to grips with his own homosexuality,” Lentz explained in my book “Art That Dares,” which includes this icon and the story behind it. “I was told he carried it with him everywhere and it was one of the most precious things in his life.”

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:

Dear God,
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:

“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.” -- from "The Wounded Healer"

“My hope is that the description of God's love in my life will give you the freedom and the courage to discover . . . God's love in yours.” -- from “Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

To watch the rest of the sermon, visit the following YouTube page with links to all 8 parts of Nouwen’s sermon on “Being the Beloved”:

A book “The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles by Henri Nouwen” was published in 2016. It includes Intimacy, A Letter of, Consolation, Letters to Marc About Jesus, The Living Reminder, Making All Things New, Our Greatest Gift, Way of the Heart, and Gracias.

Related links:
Henri Nouwen Society

Henri's Wound with a View” by Chris Glaser

Chris Glaser on Henri Nouwen’s sexuality (Huffington Post)

Henri Nouwen, on Andrew Sullivan and the “Blessing” of Homosexuality (Queering the Church)

Top image credit:
“Henri Nouwen” by Br. Robert Lentz,

Icons of Henri Nouwen, Christ the Bridegroom and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.


Trudie said...

Another superb post. This is one time I won't have to go right to Amazon to buy books, because I already have many of Nouwen's writings. I agree that he is a superb addition to the "Gay Saints" series. I know many people, from many different communities, who draw spiritual nurturing from Henri's powerful writing. However, I had not previously seen Robert Lentz's delightful icon. Thanks again!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Trudie, you are one of many long-time fans of Henri Nouwen. I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

I just added a link to a brand-new post on Nouwen over at Queering the Church. They have some interesting quotes from Nouwen about appreciating Andrew Sullivan for being both openly gay and devoutly Catholic. Nouwen concludes, “There is a huge gap between my internalized homophobia and my increasing conviction that homosexuality is not a curse but a blessing for our society. Andrew Sullivan is starting to help me to bridge this gap.” You can read more at this link:
Henri Nouwen, on Andrew Sullivan and the “Blessing” of Homosexuality (Queering the Church)

Thanks for leaving your enthusiastic comment.

Trudie said...

Thanks for the link to the article in "Queering the Church". Since it mentions Chris Glaser, I wanted to comment that I'm trying to organize a workshop with Chris here in Atlanta on sexual ethics with a specific focus on what is meant by "genuine consent". When it gets focused, I'll share the info.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Trudie, I know that you and I are both fans of Chris Glaser. I want to make sure you saw his recent piece at his blog:

Being an LGBT "has been" isn't so bad after all!

I could really relate to what he wrote because sometimes I feel like a lesbian “has been.” Chris and I were both hot authors in the lesbian/gay spirituality book boom of the 1990s, which now seems so long ago.

I hope that your workshop with him is a big success.

Trudie said...

Yes, Kitt, I follow Chris' "Progressive Christian" blog, too. Today's post is excellent, too!

Br G-M said...

I don't think Henri would be troubled at being listed with the Saints, queer or otherwise.
I met Henri many years ago when I was in a monastery in London. A very gentle man, our conversations hinted at the intimate and a deep aloneness that I think pained him more than a little.
It was an honour to be in the presence of a man both angel and saint.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Brother Graham, you are fortunate to have met Henri Nouwen in person. Thank you for sharing your impressions to enrich our understanding of him. I read his “Wounded Healer” book in seminary and it has been a big influence on my life and ministry.

Anonymous said...

You are right, Dr. Nowen would not only have had "mixed feelings" about how you represent him in this post of yours. In fact, he likely would not have approved of using his name and life in this way in this post. You may actually hear from those representing his interests. This post has been brought to their attention.

Unknown said...

As a protestant pastor of a small independent church, I know I'm probably considered an outsider. But I do respect that Nouwen kept his vow of celibacy. To be honest I have no idea where his feelings of homosexuality came from. But he kept his vow. He did far better than Ray Boltz who left his wife for the gay lifestyle. I've often thought that we equate gay orientation to sin. That's not true. People feel what they feel. If temptation was a sin,then Jesus would have been a sinner. But we know he was tempted in all ways as we are, yet was without sin.