16. Sep, 2016

Passionately desiring to belong – to be loved – himself, Nouwen longed for all people, irrespective of their different backgrounds, capabilities and commitments, to accept the fact of their belongingness, to grow in their awareness of their need for one another and for God, and to return to a vision of unity Christologically shaped.

My doctoral thesis, Finding One Another in Christ (in Lambeth Palace Library) argues for a retrieval of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s approach to ecumenism, which is centred on Christ, undergirded with insights gained by an in-depth study of psychology, and nourished by compassion, deeply personal, yet, at the same time, profoundly universal in scope, that is: ecumenism as the Christian response to a Gospel imperative.

Although fellowship and friendship, especially following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), have been enabled – without which paths towards unity can never hope to get anywhere – ecumenical efforts have been successful only in part. Throughout the thesis it is argued that Nouwen’s understanding of ecumenism is, and a case is built up that the retrieval of such an understanding could reinvigorate, if not reshape, contemporary ecumenism, which is ‘ripe for reform and renewal’.[1]

I begin by tracing the awakening of Nouwen’s consciousness to ecumenical possibilities in his life and writing, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council. As Vatican II addressed aspects of aggiornamento, Nouwen was quick to seize the opportunity of integrating spirituality and psychology, in both his charismatic teaching and prolific writing, all provoking the most extraordinary turn around in his response to non-Roman Catholics, from his early conviction that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church to an inclusivity that reached out beyond Christians of every denomination to embrace all human beings.

I then examine the contribution pastoral psychology made to Nouwen’s ministry, in order to understand why and how Nouwen took the steps he did towards ecumenism. I explore Nouwen’s research into the work of Anton T. Boisen, his studies in pastoral psychology at Nijmegen and at the Menninger Foundation, which were to facilitate him greatly in his ecumenical ministry, the impact of pastoral psychology on Nouwen’s teaching at Notre Dame (inviting Protestant speakers) and Yale (communicating RC and non-RC alike), as he started his ecumenical ministry, all in the light of the gospel. His integration of spirituality and psychology facilitated his ability to connect at a deep level with persons of widely varied backgrounds. His insights into the human person – self-revealing without being exhibitionist – enabled him to keep his ministry on a vitally inter-personal level and, thereby, he gained a greater awareness of the potentialities that may be encountered in ecumenism which is pastorally effective and theologically sound, ‘reincarnating God’s love, mercy, and justice in the world’[2] in which the minister is both wounded and healing.

The life and work of four pivotal mentors, is considered, whose influence on Nouwen was intense and long lasting, particularly in the crucial importance they attached to living compassionate lives (the significance of which, until now, has remained understudied) and to investigate the synthesis which Nouwen made of their influences, especially with regard to his understanding of ecumenism: Merton, van Gogh, Vanier, and Rembrandt, each anticipating Nouwen’s work of retrieving ‘an authentically Christian vision of the world,’ and enabling certain theological concepts to emerge as they did so, writing, catalysing, centring, and nurturing Nouwen’s outreach to others in compassionate dialogue, friendship and community.

I come to the theological heart of the thesis, analysing the role compassion plays in Nouwen’s inter-personal relationships. A close theological reading of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life is followed by systematic reflection. Throughout Compassion it is argued that compassion goes against the grain, turning Christians completely around, requiring no less than a total conversion of heart and mind. A radical removal of denominational barriers that prevent true discipleship may be perceived as possible and desirable. I draw attention to the paramount importance of community, of the acceptance of difference, of friendship, and of hospitality. I also demonstrate that Nouwen’s type of ecumenism, which emerges from a personal level of ministry, is grounded in something that transcends church politics and has a much bigger context than simply ecumenical theology.

I look afresh at Nouwen’s years in L’Arche, perceiving ecumenism being nourished by such compassion. Very little attention has been paid to his ecumenical life or work there, nourished by compassion. In the light of this period, which was critical for Nouwen in sharing his life with people with and without learning difficulties, it is debated whether for Nouwen – and many others – the ecumenical life invites not so much the embrace of an elaborate theology as a commitment to living, working, playing and praying together – all tested means in the Christian tradition for cultivating a wider and deeper love in relation to the world, a move towards the realisation of a holistic and transforming way of life, recognising the presence of God in all people, in all places, and at all times.

The final chapter places Nouwen’s striving for unity within the wider horizon of ecumenism in the late twentieth century. As it does so, it focuses not so much on the apocalyptic/eschatological hope that all are one but rather the ‘now’, on the state of ecumenism now, the crucial present of necessary incompleteness, of striving, of tension, and the possibility that, ultimately, all will be one, upon which all ecumenical endeavours hinge.

Christo-centric, undergirded with in-depth lessons learnt from psychology, deeply personal yet profoundly universal in scope, Nouwen’s striving for unity, crossing boundaries of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice that only Catholics in full communion with the Church should be allowed to receive – indeed, reaching into our Lord’s prayer that we might all be one – gestures towards a compelling praxis, which has the potential for enlivening ecumenical practices.

The importance of the thesis, therefore, lies in the fact that it presents the first detailed and purposed study of Nouwen’s approach to ecumenism, filling lacunae in the extant published literature about both Nouwen and ecumenism. It also emphasises the significance of both psychological insight and compassion in Nouwen’s creative perception of ecumenism, matters hitherto not appreciated in the published secondary literature on Nouwen.

The thesis contends that, in Nouwen’s life and writing, ecumenism is nothing less than a way of life, a crucial response to the vocation to live as a Christian, with important lessons that have significant implications for the future of the Christian church. 

by Fr Luke Penkett

[1] Avis, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole? London and New York, NY: Continuum, 2010, vii.

[2] Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2009, 80.

13. Sep, 2016

Not long after Henri’s death I received an e-mail from a colleague quoting “the gay theologian Henri Nouwen.”

This is what Henri feared, that his many insights into life and the spiritual life in particular would be seen through a narrow lens, and thus too readily dismissed by Christians suspicious of sexuality and homosexuality.

One who, in one of his earliest books, wrote of the minister—by which he meant every Christian—as “the wounded healer,” later wrote in a journal of self-addressed “spiritual imperatives” that was released on the day of his death:

People will constantly try to hook your wounded self. They will point out your needs, your character defects, your limitations and sins. That is how they attempt to dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.

--The Inner Voice of Love, p 99

When I began leading workshops and retreats on Henri’s life and writings as a way of handling my grief at his death, I did not readily talk about this side of Henri because he did not do so himself.  But by the time Michael Ford interviewed me for his outstanding “portrait” of Henri, Wounded Prophet, it was clear that he already knew and was dealing sensitively with this hidden aspect.

Yet when I ran an article by Michael about Nouwen’s “hidden legacy” in a quarterly magazine I edited, I received an irate letter from a reader—a pastor—who took me to task for “outing” Henri. I replied pastorally to her, explaining that his homosexuality was already public, and that the article was intended as homage, not exposé.

The L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto invited me to write a chapter on Henri’s sexuality for Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen. I wish now I had made their request clear in the chapter, lest readers think I had initiated the theme. Members of his community believed I would handle the issue sensitively rather than sensationally.  And indeed, I suggested in the article that Henri’s emotional upheaval was more about his hunger for “a particular friendship” than simple sexual desire.

I recounted a conversation I had with Henri in a Toronto diner about his Uncle Anton’s death. Also a celibate priest, Henri said those gathered for his burial were sad, but not overly so. “When I die,” Henri confessed, “I would like to have someone at my grave whose life is radically altered by my death.”

Readers and reviewers alike have often puzzled over the great anguish in Henri’s writings, and a few have even suggested that a celibate life as a gay man could not be the only cause of his angst. There must be something deeper, more buried, they say.

They miss the point that being gay in the Roman Catholic Church (and indeed any church of Henri’s generation) and being gay in a homophobic world, is the larger issue. When your worth is questioned in every relevant church statement and repeatedly by those in pulpits, pews, and polling places, there is a greater, deeper wound to the soul that is hard to bear.

For Henri, I believe, this provided him a “wound with a view” to the wounds of others, the reason why he was drawn to the outsiders of our church and of our world, just as Jesus was.

An irony is that three things that drew me to Henri in 1973 readily revealed this. One was an essay, distributed to Henri’s spirituality class, by Ashley Montagu, who attended to the gravely disfigured so-called “elephant man” long before the story was popularized on stage and screen. Another was an essay written by Henri himself, “The Self-Availability of the Homosexual,” about gay peoples’ need to be ourselves in all settings for our spiritual and psychological health. And the third was a tape of his first lecture for the course on loneliness, something he struggled with in most of his writings.

These three things drew me to drop a church patristics course to take Henri’s class, the notes of which became Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, which he considered, of all his books, the closest to his personal Christian experience. And it began a friendship which lasted till his death on September 21, 1996, and bears fruit in my own life and writings to this day.


Chris Glaser is the author of Henri’s Mantle, 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

He writes a free weekly blog, Progressive Christian Reflections, at http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

[Here is the link for the book title on Amazon:]


5. Sep, 2016

Henri Nouwen often reads sad, lonely, and anguished. But that belies the fact that, in real life, he was also a lot of fun.

When I tell personal stories about him or show videotapes of his presentations, participants in my Nouwen seminars and retreats are delighted to be in touch with his playful side. Even his most heartfelt presentations were filled with humor and buoyancy, as he danced around, arms waving and hands gesturing wildly, eyes protruding and neck stretching to make a point, straining with every fiber of his being to reach an audience with spiritually profound insights.

When I first studied with him at Yale Divinity School in 1973, he arranged a Jesuit-turned-clown to serve as an artist-in-residence for two weeks. The mime interrupted our class one session, and Henri grinned, amused like a kid and puzzled, “Oh, so you’d like to take over the lecture?” The mime took Henri’s place at the lectern, and without saying a word, imitated his body language and gestures and facial expressions with such accuracy and detail that we laughed aloud and had fun at Henri’s expense.

In his book, Clowning in Rome, Henri described spiritual leaders as the bumbling, stumbling clowns of the circus, hoping to teach others by our own awkward fumbling in the spiritual life. We are not the “virtuosi” he wrote, not the masters of the trapeze or the lion tamers or the skilled riders of horses, zebras, and elephants.

“They are like us,” we say of circus clowns as we witness their very human antics.

Henri felt that ministers (by which he meant every Christian) serve best when we offer our vulnerabilities, our own woundedness, to others, as in another early work in which he depicts the minister as The Wounded Healer.

I describe Henri’s books as a series of “wounds with a view,” sometimes raw expositions of his own pain, challenges, loneliness, and yearning for the spiritual life. That’s why he touches his readers so deeply.

And that’s why he was drawn to the poor and marginalized of the world, whether those living in poverty in Latin America, people with disabilities of the L’Arche community, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, or spiritually impoverished seminarians and churchgoers. All of these had something to teach Henri—and us—about the spiritual life. Each group also had something to teach Henri about play and simple pleasures.

The spiritual mentor who once wrote of ministers as clowns rather than virtuosi came full circle toward the end of his life when he met and travelled briefly with The Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a European circus. In the video, Angels over the Net, Henri is clearly having fun gazing in wonder as they perform double and triple jumps high above their net. He himself skips toward the circus with a child with Down syndrome, and together they playfully bounce on the circus net.

When he tried to explain his newfound wish to be a trapeze artist, his Dutch accent and his earlier extended stays at a Trappist monastery prompted hearers to think he wanted to become a Trappist rather than a trapeze performer!

Though Henri taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he found his final home with people with developmental disabilities, who had little idea of his accomplishments but who loved him just for being with them.  They brought out his playful side, the fun of living in the moment.

And for Henri, living in the moment was touching eternal life here and now.


Chris Glaser is the author of Henri’s Mantle, 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

He writes a free weekly blog, Progressive Christian Reflections, at http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

[Here is the link for the book title on Amazon:]


25. Aug, 2016

When Henri Nouwen proposed a course on “The Life and Ministry of Vincent van Gogh” at Yale Divinity School for the spring semester of 1977, his fellow academics were stymied, expressing concern: “But he was an artist.” “Wasn’t he crazy?” “Didn’t he kill himself?”

I took that seminar and it was my last formal course with Henri, though our friendship would continue throughout the rest of his life. We viewed photos and prints of van Gogh’s paintings, read his voluminous Letters to Theo and biographical materials. Limited to a dozen or so students allowed an intimate, conversational format.

Many parallels drew Henri to Vincent. They both preferred using only their first names. They both were from Holland. They shared a compassion for the poor, the outcast, and the underprivileged. They exercised unconventional ministries. Both were problematic as well as prophetic for the church. Either could be intense. And each was extremely lonely.

I had not known that Vincent had begun as a conventional Calvinist minister to the coal miners of the Borinage, and that his ministry scandalized the church because he did not keep a “professional” distance—but descended into the mines with them, chatted with them at their kitchen tables, gave them his possessions, including his own bed to a sick woman.

This led to his dismissal from his pulpit and a long idle period trying to discern, “What next?” He decided to take up painting, hoping that his work would offer the same consolation that the Christian faith once did, even as Henri’s books about our very human challenges consoled his readers.

Unlike Vincent, who only sold two paintings in his lifetime, Henri’s books touched millions, either directly or indirectly through their influence on Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant pastors and lay leaders throughout the world.

Henri’s classes helped countless students discern their true vocations, not just in ministry, but determining what kind of minister they were called to be. For the van Gogh course I wrote a fictional story about a woman in transition, ministered by two versions of van Gogh’s Madame Roulin and Her Baby, which I spent time contemplating, first in Philadelphia and then in New York City.

Writing that story was the most fulfilling paper I produced in all three years of seminary, because it brought together compassion (my required muse) and creativity, as well as my callings as a writer and minister.

I am grateful to Henri and Vincent for their spiritual guidance. Henri loved the paper!


Rev. Chris Glaser is the author of Henri’s Mantle, 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy. He writes a free weekly blog, Progressive Christian Reflections, at http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

[Here is the link for the book title on Amazon:]