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.
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. He probably would have had mixed feelings about being included in this series on LGBTQ Saints.
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 the Netherlands on Jan. 24, 1932. He was ordained as a Dutch Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Utrecht, Holland, in 1957. Then he went on to study psychology. Nouwen 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.
Henri Nouwen and Christ the Bridegroom
The icon of Nouwen at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBTQ-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.
Research and reflection led Lentz to paint “Christ the Bridegroom” 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 “Art That Dares” by Kittredge Cherry. The chapter on Lentz 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 said.
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.
Henri’ Nouwen’s spiritual vision
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”
Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly. Blessed are those who lay down their lives for their friends.
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.
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.
Links related to Henri Nouwen
“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)
To read this article in Russian, go to:
Генри Нувен: священник, писатель, гомосексуал (www.nuntiare.org)
Top image credit:
“Henri Nouwen” by Br. Robert Lentz, trinitystores.com
Icons of Henri Nouwen, Christ the Bridegroom and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com
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.
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