13. Sep, 2016

Henri's Wound with a View

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:]