BIOGRAPHY OF HENRI NOUWEN by Michael Ford
The title of this absorbing new biography of Henri Nouwen is fitting. Nouwen was a prophet to millions of people who heard him speak and read his books, but he also was wounded in so many ways.
His life was one of paradox and pain. Nouwen, for example, knew some 1,500 people he counted as personal friends, yet he constantly struggled with intense feelings of loneliness.
BBC producer Michael Ford met Nouwen while interviewing him for a TV program and later took a leave of absence to write this book. Ford says it is not intended as a full-scale biography. Nevertheless, he succeeds brilliantly in shedding light on Nouwen’s inner life, particularly his angst regarding his homosexuality.
Nouwen grew up in Holland. From the time he was a boy, he felt drawn to the priesthood. While his friends favored cowboys and Indians, Nouwen wanted to play the part of a priest saying Mass. By the time he was 8, he had converted the attic into a children’s chapel.
In the seminary, he developed an interest in psychology and in 1964 was named a fellow in the program for religion and psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. After that, he joined the faculty at Notre Dame University.
Nouwen was restless, however, always searching for the right place to fulfill his mission as a witness to God’s love. Over the next two decades, he taught in the divinity schools at Yale and Harvard, became a missionary in Bolivia and Peru and twice lived as a monk at an abbey in New York. In 1986, he made what was to become his most significant career decision when he agreed to serve as pastor for L’Arche Daybreak — in Canada, a community of mentally and physically handicapped people. Ford does only an adequate job of relating this background, however, and leaves a lot for future biographers to study. For example, he says that Nouwen’s parents tried to shield the children from the Nazi terror when Germany invaded Holland, but could not prevent the children “from seeing their Jewish friends and neighbors being led away to the concentration camps.” This naturally begs the question of what effect the Holocaust had on Nouwen, but we learn little more.
Ford is at his best when he probes Nouwen’s emotional turmoil and describes his consuming need for affection, intimacy, and friendship. Nouwen wanted to be the center of attention. He had a network of friends around the world and often called them in the middle of the night to talk about his loneliness. He yearned for intimacy, but felt constrained by his commitment to the celibate priesthood.
Nouwen frequently expressed his need to be physically held. Once, after he gave a speech, an obviously distraught Nouwen returned home and asked one of his friends to simply hold him. “He just clung to me fiercely, and I hugged him tight in return,” the friend recalled.
Nouwen never doubted his vocation. The Eucharist was central to his life, although he was not always in sync with the institutional church. He believed the Eucharist was God’s gift to all people and he offered communion to anyone, not just Catholics.
Ford says it is impossible to “understand the complexity and anguish of the man” without considering his homosexual orientation, something he was aware of from the time he was a boy, but started to come to grips with only in his final years.
At Menninger, he wrestled with his homosexual leanings, which he regarded as a disability, a cross to bear. While Nouwen was at Harvard, he was hard on gay students, telling them that homosexuality was an evil state of being.
In time, he became friends with many homosexuals and was under increasing pressure to go public. Other friends, however, advised him to keep his secret, saying he would lose all credibility as a famous Catholic writer if people knew he was gay.
Before he died in 1996, Nouwen was becoming more vocal in his support of gay men and women, saying they had a “unique vocation in the Christian community.” Ford speculates that had Nouwen lived, his next major book might have been a study of homosexuality.
Nouwen was troubled by the possibility that people would reject him if they knew about his sexual orientation. “This took an enormous emotional, spiritual and physical toll on his life and may have contributed to his early death,” Ford says. There is no indication in the book that Nouwen was anything but celibate.
Other writers generally have avoided the question of Nouwen’s sexual orientation. To his credit, Ford has given us a fuller picture of Nouwen and demonstrated the depth of Nouwen’s anguish about his sexuality and issues of intimacy in general.
Nouwen was extraordinarily generous, giving money to various causes and sending flowers and gifts to his many friends. Sometimes, however, friends backed away because he could be so demanding. When his close friend Nathan Ball, the director of Daybreak, began to pull back from their platonic relationship, Nouwen went into a tailspin and had to seek treatment for an emotional breakdown.
Nouwen was such an effective and beloved author precisely because his books spoke from his own deep pain, Ford says. The title of one of Nouwen’s earliest and best-known books, “The Wounded Healer,” became synonymous with Nouwen’s name.
Ford includes several other themes that illuminate Nouwen’s spirituality: his long love affair with the flying trapeze (he saw it as a metaphor for the spiritual journey), his devotion to the handicapped residents of Daybreak, the constant conflict between his need for solitude and his desire to be in the limelight and his wide appeal to non-Catholic Christians.
This book is not the last word on Henri Nouwen. However, it is an important starting point for anyone who wants to understand this complex and appealing spiritual guide who continues to inspire millions of people with his message that God’s love is often most evident in those who are broken and frail.