The Struggles of Henri

By J.K. Jones

I admit I am no authority on Henri Nouwen, though I’ve read his writings extensively and prayerfully. The one aspect I want to talk about in this article is Nouwen’s struggle with same-sex attraction. I believe he offers help and hope for anyone struggling with their sexual identity. A brief biographical sketch is a good starting place. 

Henri Nouwen in the 1990s. (Photo by Frank Hamilton)
Henri Nouwen in the 1990s. (Photo by Frank Hamilton)

Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen was born January 24, 1932, in Nijkerk, Netherlands. The oldest of four children, his earliest memories were those of wanting to become a Catholic priest. His educational journey included the study of theology and psychology. He served as a professor at three distinguished American universities: Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. None of this satisfied his deepest longings. 

He met Jean Vanier while teaching at Harvard. Vanier was the founder and director of L’Arche in France and some 130 communities worldwide for developmentally disabled adults. 

Vanier saw the troubled condition of Nouwen’s soul and invited him to visit, and ultimately called him in 1986 to join the pastoral staff at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. Nouwen faithfully shepherded that community as chaplain, teacher, and priest until his death from a sudden heart attack, September 21, 1996.

 

A Documented Struggle

Nouwen’s struggle with sexual identity has been well documented. Michael Ford’s biography of Nouwen, entitled Wounded Prophet, published two years after Nouwen’s death, openly addressed this prolonged fight. Ford believes Nouwen’s ongoing melancholy was caused, in part, by the battle that raged between his celibacy vows as a priest and the acute loneliness he described in many of his books. 

Nouwen, as far as I can discern, never broke his vow of celibacy. The following quotations from Spiritual Direction (Harper San Francisco, 2006), pieced together by Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, after Nouwen’s death, from previously unpublished writings, reveal the inner turmoil of same-sex attraction. Nouwen disclosed a friendship that began when he arrived at Daybreak.

My friend Nathan had a surprising capability to open up a place in me that had been closed, and I focused all of my emotional needs on him. I became very dependent on him, which prevented me from making God and the community the true center of my life. In his presence I felt fully alive and loved, and I did not want to let him go. 

At a certain point, he could no longer hold on to me, and he said, “I no longer want to be with you. Whenever I’m with you, there is so much pressure. You want to be right with me all the time.” Here was a person who really understood and loved me, who brought me in touch with important walled-off parts of myself, and who then abruptly ended the friendship. 

Well, I just broke down, totally broke down . . . I don’t deny the infatuation. 

Nouwen commonly admitted his searching, his questions, and his hunger to understand how God had created him. We can hear some of Nouwen’s angst toward the end of Spiritual Direction.

I am also surprised that some of the fundamental questions I thought I had answered earlier in my life re-present themselves to me in my sixties: Who am I? What is my vocation? How can I bring my body home? How best to deal with my need for intimacy and affection as a celibate priest? Because what is most personal is most universal, I know you ask some of the same questions and struggle with similar issues of life. 

A journal entry, marked Thursday, February 8, 1996, from his book Sabbatical Journey, further disclosed Nouwen’s continual hand-to-hand combat with loneliness.

A difficult day again. I feel lonely, depressed, and unmotivated. Most of the day I have been fiddling around with little things. The same old pain that has been with me for many years and never seems to go completely away. . . . I realize that my busyness is a way to keep my depression at bay. It doesn’t work. I have to pray more. I know that I need to just sit in God’s presence and show God all my darkness. But everything in me rebels against that. Still, I know it is the only way out. . . . God help me, be with me, console me, and take the cloud away from my heart.

In Henri Nouwen: His Life and Vision, Michael O’Laughlin, one of Nouwen’s teaching assistants at Harvard, writes openly and painfully of this colossal interior war.

Henri was a gay man, and he grew up in a time and place in which this could not be acknowledged. Homosexuality was never discussed in his home, and Dutch society and Roman Catholicism was unanimous in regarding this sexual orientation as mental illness, and the living out of it as a sin. Thus, Henri grew up believing that he was different from other people, and thinking that this difference was so terrible that it must be kept a secret. 

 

A Difficult Decision

My research of Nouwen’s same-sex attraction and a subsequent conversation with my trusted friend, Neal Windham, professor at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University, led me to the same conclusion Philip Yancey reached and wrote about in Soul Survivor.

Nouwen sought counseling from a center that ministered to homosexual men and women, and he listened as gay friends proposed several options. He could remain a celibate priest and “come out” as a gay man, which would at least release the secret he bore in anguish. He could declare himself, leave the priesthood, and seek a gay companion. Or he could remain a priest publicly and develop private gay relationships. Nouwen carefully weighed each course and rejected it. Any public confession of his identity would hurt his ministry, he feared. The last two options seemed impossible for one who had taken a vow of celibacy, and who looked to the Bible and to Rome for guidance on sexual morality. Instead, he decided to keep living with the wound. Again and again, he decided.

I write this article as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have pastored, prayed for, and given spiritual direction to church members and Bible college students who struggle with sexual identity. 

Homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and other sexual temptations are not sins because they run counter to nature. They are sins because they rebel against and contradict our loving creator’s original design of one man and one woman in covenant relationship for a lifetime (Genesis 2:22-25; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18, 19; and 1 Peter 3:1-7). The love and grace of Christ compel us to tenderly speak the truth to all, who like Nouwen, struggle with sexual identity.

J. K. Jones Jr. serves as pastor of spiritual formation with Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois.

________

My Struggle with Writing This

I never wanted to write this article about Henri Nouwen. But when the editor asked me if I would consider putting together a piece on Nouwen’s struggle with same-sex attraction, my friendship with Mark Taylor and respect for his work convinced me to give it a try. Relationships are powerful. They often compel us to do that which we, otherwise, would not do. 

Let me explain some of the reasons I did not want to write about Nouwen.

First, Nouwen is a lightning rod for many Christians. Some can’t comprehend why anyone who claims the name of Jesus would read, let alone quote, a Catholic priest. Numerous websites are devoted to identifying him with New Age thought and Eastern mystical practice. 

I acknowledge that Nouwen doesn’t always square with my own theistic worldview and biblical interpretation, but I find in him an articulate and compelling voice. 

John Mogabgab served as Nouwen’s teaching, research, and editorial assistant at Yale from 1975 to 1980. Mogabgab was once asked what Nouwen was really like. Mogabgab carefully selected three words: available, generous, and sensitive. I tend to be drawn toward people like that. I accept that which is good in Nouwen’s writings, and I reject that which is not rightly handled according to the Scriptures. Don’t all disciples of Jesus do that? 

Second, Nouwen is not only a lightning rod for criticism, but a barn-sized target for those who hear in his writings and teachings an acceptance of universalism (that is, people can come to God with or without Jesus) and a strong advocacy for Eastern meditation (that is, an emptying of the mind, rather than a filling of the mind with God’s Word). 

Those critics have identified some troubling tendencies in Nouwen’s writings, justifiably pointing to specific sentences that don’t align with Scripture. However, and I say this repeatedly to my students, if we only read books we agree with, our reading will be anemic.

Third, Nouwen is a bewildering mixing bowl of Christian and non-Christian thought. Every person who explores the writings of this man has the demanding task of discerning what is true and what is false. Again, what author, outside of Scripture, says everything with complete accuracy all the time?

Fourth and finally, some Christians delight in finding what is false, while never searching for an ounce of gospel.

—J.K.J.

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3 Comments

  1. John c. Samples
    February 6, 2015 at 8:07 am

    J. K. Jones,
    Thank you for insight into the life of Henri Nouwen. His book, Return of the Prodigal Son, was a great source of help to me following the death of our son. What you have shared increases my understanding that even though we may be struggling with our own journey we each have giftedness to enable other pilgrims in their walk of faith.

  2. R Daniels
    February 12, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    J.K.,
    Once again your eloquence and grace are greatly appreciated as you write of Nouwen’s humanity. It is true isn’t it, that it is our very humanity which can be incredibly glorious and insufferable often at the same time. My hope is that the church will seek to listen in an age when all the rage is to try and out shout opposing voices. This discussion regarding this specific aspect of our humanity is long overdue in. And if we are not careful, once again the church of Jesus Christ will be found wanting for not having had the courage, humility and love to speak compassionately to a critical issue of our time. Thank you again for adding your voice to this discussion.

  3. April 10, 2019 at 10:04 am

    […] Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) […]

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