If people are in unity with God and in community with one another, their ministry will be the natural pouring out of His love.
Nouwen’s personality, extremely wanting of affection, sensitive and always ready to tend to others’ wounds through his own, gave him the epithet of “wounded healer.”
A man, master of an absolute spirituality, to whom contemplation was a crucial part of his every daily action toward God, but also a fragile being, dependent on the love of other people. He lived in a latent inner friction, a terrible despair to the point that he could not stand his friends’ alienation, even if unintentional, demanding all their attention even when that was impossible at times.
In his last interview to the journalist Rebecca Laird, editor of “Sacred Journey,” Nouwen stated: “I’m here only to tell you who I am and to put myself at the disposition of others.” (editor’s translation)
Five days prior to his death, Nouwen left for the Netherlands to meet with a TV director with whom he had previously travelled to St. Petersburg, the city where he would record a documentary on The Return of the Prodigal Son (see Biblion #1). Such would not come to being, as Nouwan suffered a heart attack upon arriving to Amsterdam. He was taken to the hospital immediately and registered a slight recovery before succumbing to a second heart attack a few days later.
Henri had a huge appreciation for art, being a great admirer of Vincent van Gogh, even authoring the preface to a work titled Van Gogh and God, where he exalted the spirituality springing from Van Gogh’s paintings. The influence of the famous painter was also expressive in Nouwen’s career as a university professor, having a very significant impact on his student body.
His books shine by his endless search for spiritual intimacy, by his sharing of his life’s “wounds” with the community, by his unconditional love and support towards his neighbor. These could be found in the White House, on the hand of then First Lady Hillary Clinton, or under the rubble of a house destroyed by the bombings in Bosnia.
A flawless communicator, Nouwen left an indelible mark on those who attended his conferences, but at the same time he often lived in a painful personal dissatisfaction due to lack of attention, of fellowship, even of personal intimacy, surrendering to anguishing solitude, much like the archetypical “sad clown.”
At the age of fifty-five, Nouwen shocked everyone who knew him when he abandoned his academic life to pastor a small congregation with severe physical disabilities – L’Arche Daybreak, in Toronto, where he retreated to better understand his own deficiencies. In spite of an emotional collapse that led to therapy, he kept writing, exposing himself openly and leaving clear his homosexuality, which he only came to terms with in the last years of his life, and which he could not separate from what flowed from his works.
At the time of his death, the ecumenical consensus around Henri Nouwen was so far-reaching that, from Eastern Orthodox monks to Evangelical Protestants, from Radical Catholics to lay Jews, spanning the most diverse religious quadrants, “the world of contemporary spirituality mourns one of its most influent and prolific advocates.” (editor’s translation)
1932 – Nouwen is born on January 24th, in Nijkerk, Netherlands.
1957 – Ordained as a Catholic priest at the Archdiocese of Utrecht.
1957-1964 – Studies Psychology at Nijmegen University.
1964-1966 – Participates in the Religion and Psychiatry program of Menninger Foundation (USA).
1968-1970 – Amsterdam Joint Pastoral Institute and Catholic Theological University of Utrecht.
1970-1971 – Studies Theology at Nijmegen University
1971-1977 – Professor of Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School
1974 – Semester at the Abbey of the Genesee, in Piffard, NY.
1976 – Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, MN.
1977-1981 – Professor of Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School
1979 – Semester at the Abbey of the Genesee, in Piffard, NY.
1981-1982 – Associate Fellow at the Abbey of the Genesee. Trip to Bolivia and Peru.
1983-1985 – Professor and speaker at the Harvard Divinity School
1985-1986 – Nine month stay at L’Arche, in Trosly-Breuil (France).
1986-1996 – Pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, in Ontario, Canada.
1996 – Dies on September 21st, in Hilversum (Netherlands), at the age of sixty-four.