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.

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


  1. Thanks, Chris. I have often wondered. I had often wished and hoped. I know it would have made a very positive difference had i known that the pastor who gave me The Wounded Healer instead of spending more time with me---had he known or said he suspected that Henri Nouwen was writing from more similar view to mine. as it was, i benefitted greatly, i think, from that reading----but, oh, man---i cannot imagine how different things would have been if i had known about Henri at that time or if he'd come out then. But, your explanation here----i receive. I accept. I understand. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Chuck. Yes, though many of us "read between the lines," but one shouldn't have to guess. I learned after his death that he had wanted to come out with his book Inner Voice, about unrequited love, but his publisher persuaded him it would speak to more people if he left the specifics ambiguous. Thanks, as always, for writing!

  2. Thank you. Henri Nouwen's writings gave hope for healing through the most devastating periods when the "foundations of the whole soul of my being were shaken to pieces beneath me", as I have since said. At odds within me, two "passions", one of which had to be kept meticulously secreted in terror of anyone even getting a hint . . . that I was homosexual. The other, I tried to avoid until I had explored, and exhausted, every possible reason not to pursue - ministry. It meant, for me, leaving ministry many years ago to claim that liberation from oppression which I am yet convinced is the core of 'good news'.

    The 'Journey' continues even now at my age, 72. I suppose I may have wondered. What mattered with the clarifying discernment of truth-speaking goodliness procreated in brokenness, wounding that dared to trust. Recently, I have been listening again to videos of both Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier. Those "troubling waters" that are the "healing waters".

    Gordon Hill

    1. Thank you, Gordon, for offering your story here. I am grateful, as will be other readers. I'm glad that Henri and Jean Vanier are still helpful in your life, as they are also in mine. And I'm glad Henri was helpful in your earlier struggles. Thanks again!

  3. Henri was the man I met in the early to mid seventies when I was about 8 years old or so and I was realizing that my family was a dysfunctional mess with no hope of improving. He saw my sadness and spent a little time with me, and although I rejected God in those days Henri did inject some hope into my suffering. I only regret that I did not choose to spend more time with him and trust in God.

    Chris, did you happen to live near New Haven in 1973? My family lived in Hamden, CT then.

    1. Thanks,Brad, for your touching description of an encounter with Henri. I think many of us wish we had spent more time with him! I came to New Haven in the fall of 1973 and graduated in May of 1977. (I did a campus ministry internship in Philadelphia Fall 1975-Summer of 1976.)Unless we were employed at a church, YDS students often went to the House of Pancakes in Hamden on Sundays, because the refectory did not serve food on that day! Small world. Good to meet you!

  4. All Christians are wounded healers. Therefore, there is nothing shameful about living a celibate life for the sake of Christ, whatever our reasons. We all are broken and rely on Christ for our wholeness, healing, and forgiveness. In fact, Christ is the only way I can face myself and my failings. This is because He is my life, my very identity!

    1. Sorry for my delay publishing this post. I've been leading a weekend course on Henri. You're right, there nothing shameful about the gift of celibacy or the choice of celibacy. I do believe the church should not beat up on gay celibates, as it has done in the past.

  5. Thank you for honoring Henri Nouwen's life.
    I ran across his writings totally be accident in the early 1980's --when everybody seemed wounded. I didn't know the slightest thing about being a Christian, but God was calling me to his own.
    When I began reading Henri's *The Inner Voice of Love*, I felt I had fallen into the precious and sanctified presence of the most honest and compassionate voice imaginable.
    I thought all Christians would have this understanding. Sadly, very few have walked this territory.
    I want to honor Henri's incredible courage to be so vulnerable, so broken, so humble, and so totally human that he begins to resemble the kind of transformed creature that Christ intended for all of us.

    1. Amen! Thank you, Lynn, for this testimony to Henri's greatest gift, offering himself to the world. Henri would rejoice to read this comment. Thank you again!