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The bleeding heart

Henri Nouwen was the gay Catholic role model you never had.

Between 1969 to 1996, when he died, a Dutch Catholic priest became one of the most famous people on the planet. To millions he was the image of a caring cleric, writing on themes like love, intimacy, depression. “People felt like they knew more about him than they actually did,” notes Michael Ford. He’d met Henri Nouwen, loved his books—startled to learn, when beginning a biography, that Nouwen was gay.

I’m reading Ford’s 1999 book, Wounded Prophet, thinking about the writer who now seem like the author of a vast epic about a lonely gay priest who’s less and less sure about Catholic theology . . . talking, talking, talking to fill up the terrible silences.

Nouwen (pronounced ‘Now-un’) was born in 1932 in the Netherlands, and was ordained as a Jesuit in 1957. He made the unusual step of training in clinical psychology, in America, to study how religion affected people. It made him something between priest and psychologist, neither and both.

Whatever his subject is, it always seems to be himself. I’m browsing his first book, Intimacy (1969). “His depression makes him tired, and his fatigue makes him depressed, and so on.” Is that a discussion of generic priests, or him?

Here, as always, he circles the gay subject, warily.

Anyone who knows homosexual people or who himself suffers from homosexual feelings must become suspicious when he hears homosexuality explained in terms of prejudice. The horrible feelings — anxiety, fear, loneliness, the experience of restlessness, worry, panic and despair — seem too deep and too personal for an explanation which puts the whole problem on the other, the heterosexual person. Even when we give credit to projection and the self-fulfilling prophesy, even when we agree that biblical and historical references are often misunderstood or misused, we are left with a great problem: the problem of the homosexual himself.

Try psychotherapy? he suggests. Maybe that’ll help.

In 1971, in an essay in a book, Is Gay Good?, he takes it back. Try to be open to yourself, he suggests. “Christian morality in no way advocates the denial of feelings, but only a responsible way of relating to them.”

He makes a direct appeal to Jesus, as seems a bit radical for a Catholic? “He in no way judges feelings or emotions. He only asks us not to deny, distort, or prevent them, but to make them available for God’s love.”

But that was about as far as Nouwen ever got to admitting gayness or encouraging self-acceptance in anyone. He knew, of course, about himself. He had since he was a child. It seems to have contributed to vast, terrible feeling of being unloved, for which his fame would be only a partial fix.

He churned out books, one after another, that had a notably personal voice, not seeming like the cleric on high, but a human down below, suffering with you. He spoke to Catholics in a different way, more personal, wounded, and open. His fans took them in: The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, Clowning in Rome, The Life of the Beloved and The Way of the Heart, and The Return of the Prodigal Son.

The voice of the books, however, was only marginally attached to his actual experience of life. Ford calls them “reminders to himself of how he ought to be.” They’re amusing now for being chronicles of a closeted priest, often getting dreamy at passing boys. In Life of the Beloved, he’s sizing up a young journalist who comes to interview him. “Looking at him, I experienced a deep sympathy — more than that I dare say — a deep love for this man.”

Then there was that time with the straight boy.

Nouwen’s 1988 memoir, The Road to Daybreak, was a chronicle of his life at L’Arche, in Ontario, a spiritual community and care center for people with disabilities. The book narrates a developing friendship, when Nouwen is 54, with Nathan, a straight administrator in his early 30s.

Over the past few months we have gradually come to know each other. I was not aware of how significant our relationship had become for me until he left for a month to visit his family and friends in Canada. I missed his presence greatly and looked forward to his return.

Nouwen doesn’t disclose the passion he developed for Nathan, as led to the younger man, in distress, asking for a break—and Nouwen dropping into a depressive spiral. A friend recalls: “This was not just a dark night of the soul, it was a dark night of everything, of the spirit, at the point of faith, at the point of his own being, desires, longings, and sexuality.”

Nouwen’s journal from the time was published in 1996 as The Inner Voice of Love. The pronouns were changed, the edges rubbed off.

Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought me immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life. But this deeply satisfying friendship became the road to my anguish, because soon I discovered that the enormous space that had been opened for me could not be filled by the one who had opened it.

The book, narrating his breakdown, became popular as a manual for ‘discouraged Christians’.

Nouwen took to doing ‘holding sessions’. A friend recalls: “There, in this arms of this male therapist, in a primal state, he could be held very tightly and weep, scream, writhe, and be caressed, all the things a parent does when holding an infant or small child.”

I find it striking that neither his religious nor psychology training appeared to help at this lowest point. What helped was being held by a man in silence.

Nathan Ball declined to be quoted for Ford’s book, but I notice him quoted in a later article. He recalls: “Henri had a fair bit of difficulty managing, I would say living, in the physical world. He was awkward. He didn’t know how to cook. He fumbled. He was much more at ease in the world of ideas and intellect and I say in the world of the heart, in the world of compassion and of caring and of teaching. So the day-to-day life of the L’Arche community was very confusing for him at times.”

The impression is always of a man who’s a bit freakish. The mania rising in his body reminds me of Little Richard or Elvis, except without any music. Just tics and manias. Ford recalls Nouwen in public lectures: “He moved around the auditorium like a circus performer, with penetrating eyes, electrifying expressions, and contorted postures, waving his giant hands and flowing arms, his fingers outstretched to choreograph a point.”

It was more extreme in person. One of Ford’s sources has a memory of sitting next to Nouwen, praying. “I opened my eyes, glanced to my left, and saw Henri’s leg working furiously.” He’s recalled to constantly fidget, ever on the move, apparantly with no awareness that he was.

A speaker known around the world, able to hold thousands captive with a real charisma, Nuwen would go back to his hotel room, to sink into despair. Nobody asks a priest out for a drink. It’s a life thought closer to God, and existing in an enforced human isolation.

He later had a gay assistant, Michael Harank, who tells Ford: “It was very clear to me from the very beginning of our relationship that Henri was a gay man, but he was not able to say those words for a very long time. However, he was eventually able to share with a small circle of friends that he was gay. That he could share this truth gave him an enormous sense of relief.”

It became apparent to Harank that the voice of Nouwen’s books was a bit of theater. “His true friends,” he says, “helped him to realize that he had to be somewhat accountable for what he wrote.”

What helped Nouwen come out was AIDS. Harank continues: “Because of the generation Henri was part of, because of the Catholic Church which he grew up in, was formed by, and, in my opinion, deformed by, the area of sexuality was repressed by him for many years. What the AIDS epidemic did for him, and for a lot of people like him, was somehow provide him with a way of connecting with his sexuality and his compassion.”

But with the surrounding details that Ford provides, this isn’t that great of a story. Nouwen refused to be involved publicly with HIV/AIDS issues until, slightly, in 1994. He witnessed the Christian rage throughout the 1980s to frame the virus as “God’s punishment” on gays, and he said nothing. How perfectly positioned he’d have been to push back. I might even suggest he was the servant sent for that moment, and he fucked up hard.

We continue to learn how extensively Nouwen was unable to see and respond to the world around him. Just months ago, L’Arche was rocked by the disclosures that its founder, Jean Vanier—Nouwen’s friend—had for decades been a sexual predator on many women under his supposed spiritual care.

I think over the many subjects Nouwen never wrote about, like the Catholic sexual abuse of boys, about which he surely had some knowledge.

I’d been interested in Nouwen’s relationship with Fred Rogers. A picture floats around of them together, and a recent book of letters, Love, Henri, includes one between them with a bit of information. (Ford, unfortunately, has nothing.) The two men met in 1984, and Rogers—in his ascended self as Mister Rogers—seemed to reach for Nouwen as a gay role model to cite.

That was my reading, at least, of a 2000 profile of him in Christianity Today, with an interviewer, Wendy Murray Zoba, who’d recently written of kicking her gay son out of the house. Sitting with her, Mister Rogers takes over the interview, pulling out a wallet full of pictures and showing her one. “Did you know Henri Nouwen?” he says.

As Ford’s book would’ve recently come out—and so was Nouwen. In a pinch, he’d have to do.

There weren’t many figures known by or respected by Evangelical people, able potentially to disrupt patterns of theological hatred of gays. “Look for the helpers,” as Mister Rogers said, but in this war, there maybe weren’t any.

The patterns of hatred remain to this day, as he died of a heart attack at age 64. He is certainly a sexual reactionary. I try to get through a 1978 paper, “Celibacy,” he writes praising non-sexuality as a divine mode. I see him trying to talk himself out of being gay, and lending his considerable gifts, as he did all his life, to strengthening the system that imprisoned him.

But there’s surprises. In the middle of yet another passage encouraging sexual restriction, in a posthumously published book, Home Tonight (2009), there’s a strangely out-of-context, beautiful little rant for freedom as could be on a sign at any Pride parade.

We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist.

He did help bring Catholics, and all Christians, into a deeper engagement to self, and therefore to God. He’s glimpses of possibility, and a puzzling bit of gay history—that publicly closeted Catholic priest who wrote dozens of memoirs and yet somehow kept missing the story.

spirituality + sexuality + stories

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