Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Henri's Wound with a View

Henri & Chris
Today is the 20th anniversary of Henri Nouwen’s death.

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 happened to be 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.

Though that may be true, 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, politics, and polling places, there is a greater, deeper wound to the soul that is hard to bear.

And like other closeted LGBT people, he was probably plagued by “would they still like me if they knew?” regarding his readers—and he had such a need for affection!

Henri’s conviction that a minister (again, every Christian) was to offer one’s life to others also distressed him, in that he could not offer his struggle publicly, while a few—not me—challenged him to come out for the sake of LGBT Christians.  I didn’t because I believe coming out must always be an individual’s choice.

For Henri, I believe, this provided him a “wound with a view” to the wounds of others, one of the reasons 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.


And earlier version of this post and two others were requested and first appeared on the British publisher Darton, Longman, and Todd’s blog on Henri Nouwen for the 20th anniversary of his death.


Pleases support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"Only Say the Words..."

Tom Wolfe’s new book disputes that language is a product of evolution. In fact, he questions the Big Bang and evolution altogether, although an atheist.

This notion became fodder for my morning walk. It occurred to me that language was indeed an advantageous evolutionary adaptation. Now we could say what we wanted and needed, instead of using brute force or devious machinations to seize it. Negotiation and compromise became possible; feelings and reason could be expressed; and wisdom, a combination of feelings and reason and inspiration, could be transmitted.

In the present American culture and perhaps in other contemporary cultures, it’s a challenge to remember the gift of words when words are used as weapons (weaponized, so to speak) and coming together in compromise is considered weakness. In a society in which so many of us, from our leadership to our electorate, need to be reminded to use our “inside voices,” it’s a challenge to believe words can be solutions rather than salvos.

These thoughts come to me as I also reflect on a recent conversation in the opinion pages of the newspaper about the need or benefit of learning longhand alongside print or type. Some legislators feel “the American way of life” is threatened by educators who believe script is optional, perhaps unnecessary.  While not going that far, a teacher’s letter observed that when students wrote longhand, they expressed themselves more personally. The poem in last week’s post I first wrote in longhand, so I understand that point of view.

Makes me think of the poet Lord Byron’s pen, or quill. He thought of it as an extension of himself.  In seminary, a dorm mate asked to borrow my typewriter, and though I lent it to him, I realized I felt the same way about it. As I told another student, “It was as if he asked to borrow my underwear,” to which the student replied with a laugh, “He did borrow my underwear!”

Henri Nouwen’s books are highly regarded, I believe, because he wrote so personally. And I realize the intimacy of his spiritual writing may have been partly because he wrote all of his books in a graceful longhand, having another transcribe them on a typewriter or computer.

Cursive writing keeps your hand continuously on the paper, unlike printing or typing, so there’s a unity that has both spiritual and sensual elements, like lovemaking.

When I was in high school, another student “marveled” (his word) that I viewed all my writing as a gift from God.  And to this day, I may complete a piece and “marvel” that it came out of “me.” I still believe that it is a gracious gift, this ability to put things in words, and I doubt it comes only from “me” (whatever “me” is), but something that comes from a deeper well, not mine alone.

Words helped us conceive and imagine God, so it’s not by chance that Judaism and Christianity reversed that order, and worshiped a God who called the world into being with mere words (logoi, plural of logos) in the first case and in the second, a God whose Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us.  In Judaism, we learned and lived the words of the mitzvah (duties, good deeds), and in Christianity, the Spirit gave us the words to proclaim God’s activity in the world.

I worry, in myself as a writer, that words are not deeds, though my readers often beg to differ. Like Henri and his many words, I take comfort in the words of John of the Ladder: 
I found some consolation and encouragement in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai. In his chapter on discernment, step 26 of his spiritual ladder, he writes: “If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach” (Reaching Out, 9). 
And these further words of Henri’s: 
When we think about the people who have given us hope and have increased the strength of our soul, we might discover that they were not the advice givers, warners, or moralists, but the few who were able to articulate in words and actions the human condition in which we participate and who encourage us to face the realities of life (Reaching Out, 43).  
To paraphrase one seeking healing from Jesus, “Only say the words and I shall be healed.”


Related post:

Pleases support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Those who donate $100 or more will receive a signed gift copy of my book, Communion of Life: Meditations for the New Millennium.

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Flower's Tears


I had just read a quote from landscape artist Thomas Cole: “Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”

A woman on public radio announced Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata, #15.

Then I heard something drop. I looked up from my tablet and realized the bouquet of flowers in front of me was losing petals. The before-dawn early morning was so quiet I could hear a petal fall.

This prompted me to compose this poem: 
A flower’s tears
are the dewdrops
that drip, orb by orb,
as sun rises.
A flower’s tears
are the raindrops
that stream, string by string,
as storms rage.
A flower’s tears
are the petals
that drop, one by one,
as life renews.
I was sitting at our dining room table, a very solid oak sturdy-legged altar that once served as Wade’s grandfather’s butcher block. Long before we met, Wade had painstakingly sanded (and sanded) and refinished this table that seats four and can be extended by way of built-in leaves for eight  just as comfortably. On all five windows of the pentagonal room hang patterned stained-glass, framed in various shapes in wood whose peeling white trim contrasted with the colors of their homes that no longer stand.

The morning I write this, I rose so early that my usual place for morning prayers was too dark to read, so I chose this alternate sanctuary.

And then I read: “Henri taught me that the characteristics I had identified with religion are just the outer circle. What really matters is a fundamental attitude of seeking to do something that is valuable to yourself and to the world.” Henri Nouwen’s nephew Marc van Campen wrote this in Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen.

Moved by awe at this magical moment, I thanked God that life is filled with such opportunities to experience the world “as if for the first time” and then to express that mystery in writing, in art, in service.

“Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”


A post for the 15th anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday: 9/11: When We Were One

Donations to this blog ministry may be given by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Toxic Dumps


Sorry to disappoint fellow environmentalists, but the toxic dumps I write about today would not be of interest to environmental protection agencies, but they would be of interest to departments of the interior—yours and mine.

Sorting through papers to be sent to my archive, I happened onto one that sent me into a downward spiral emotionally and spiritually. To leech the toxins from my system that evening, I had to watch an episode of The Waltons, which fortunately still plays on a cable channel. And I had to write a response that I stapled onto the document, a response I never got to write because, at the time, I had to defend myself orally, having not been given it before its presentation.

And of course, now I get to conclude my “therapy” by writing this post!

It is small comfort to know that anyone who does anything worthwhile is bound, from time to time, to receive a response calculated to destroy your character and reputation, and call into question your integrity. And it doesn’t help “knowing” that often such responses represent a troubled personality or a misperception of reality of an individual or a cohort.

That I found it amidst hundreds of notes, letters, and e-mails thanking me for my writings and ministry might only imply that I “fooled” everyone else!

Off the top of my head, I can list at least half-a-dozen “bombshells” that archivists will find in my papers, and I can only hope to God that they can contextualize complaints as I at least try to do, though such toxic dumps can temporarily poison me.

I admit I did consider shredding the paper, but I have tried to be above board and inclusive in my self-documentation. Given that it must exist somewhere else, too, I felt it better to attach a brief response.

I’m not delusional enough to think that any researcher would want to wade through my files of “too much information,” but I do fancy a student might someday want to write a paper on what it was like be a gay Christian activist over the past four decades. Even more important, many if not most of the communications are outpourings of the lives of a broad spectrum of LGBT people of faith and their family members, their friends, and their advocates.

The irony is that I am minutely aware of my “character defects, limitations, and sins,” in the words of Henri Nouwen, alluding to his own. What seems contradictory is that those who have endured my shortcomings the most have been the most forgiving, while those who have endured my limitations the least make the most of them!

But I am also aware of my intentions, and to have them misunderstood wounds me, going back to a couple of childhood incidents I described in my autobiographical Uncommon Calling. I suggested in that first book that I believe that being misunderstood is a common fear for us all.

My original title for Uncommon Calling was A Profile in Grace. But fear that that title would be misunderstood—as if claiming I was gracious—my editor and I looked about for another. What I intended was that we all live by grace, God’s grace, and I felt blessed by that grace.

I also concluded in that book that perfection is not the goal of the spiritual life; rather, integrity is. And integrity is a never-ending process, as “new occasions teach new duties,” in the words of the old hymn.

Another little irony is that the person who wrote the toxic piece is presently a Facebook friend.



Pleases support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Those who donate $100 or more will receive a signed gift copy of my book, Communion of Life: Meditations for the New Millennium.

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.