success stories

Posted September 27, 2003

A Remarkable Life -- The Henri Nouwen Story

From the Henri Nouwen Society

Growing Up In War Time

Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen was born on 24 January 1932 in the town of Nijkerk in the Netherlands. He was the eldest child (first of four children, three sons and one daughter) of Laurent Jean Marie Nouwen and Maria Huberta Helena Ramselaar. His parents married in 1931, Henri was born 9 months later. It was a difficult birth but the beginning of a strong bond between mother and son (Beumer 1997: 14).

Nouwen's father was a lawyer by profession with an expert knowledge of tax law. Laurent was a hard worker and became very successful. Father and son, for most of their lives, experienced strained relations on account of a competitive spirit which existed between them but 'worked their problems out' in later years. A Letter of consolation records the attempt of a son to console his father and himself after the death of his mother. The book has a cathartic air about it. Beumer says that Nouwen finally worked his relationship with his father out in the book, The return of the prodigal son (1997: 22).

His mother worked as a bookkeeper for her family's business in Amersfoort. She died in 1978.

There was a strong bond between mother and son. He wrote to her frequently and telephoned often. Everything he published in his early years was read first by her. She was a deeply religious woman and they shared much, especially spiritually (Beumer 1997: 22). Perhaps the void her death left in Nouwen's life was later filled by the figure of Madam Pauline Vanier, mother of Jean Vanier (Founder of L'Arche). The death of his mother left a deep mark on Henri; perhaps it was the first time he really experienced his woundedness. The book In Memoriam describes the process of catharsis after her death.

By all accounts, Henri enjoyed an easy childhood, apart from the war years when the Netherlands was occupied by Germany. Henri was seven years old when the Netherlands was invaded by Hitler's army (Durback 1989: x). The Nouwen parents were able to shield their children from most of the terror of war but Henri's father, Laurent, had to hide on more than one occasion to avoid being taken into forced labour (Durback 1989: xi). After the war, the process of rebuilding the Netherlands began. These was industrious years in which people were united toward a common purpose. The churches reestablished themselves along the pre-war lines, both Catholics and Protestants existing as if the other were not even there (Beumer 1997: 17). As a boy, Nouwen was very lively, active and busy. From his youngest days, he wanted to be a priest (Nouwen 1996a: 13). He records these feelings in his book, Can you drink the cup?, along with stories of how he used to dress up in robes his grandmother made for him and practice dispensing the sacrament with all his friends. He developed quickly into an energetic and enterprising young man who always wanted to assume leadership. Later, his father would say of him that he was very intense and would often 'flare up' if his leadership was not recognised (Beumer 1997: 20). Nouwen also developed a quiet, reflective side and became more and more interested in church life. His parents emphasised independence and critical thinking; the family was well off and their children mixed with the children of leaders and well-educated people. It was in this context that Henri grew up developing into a well-rounded, although somewhat intense, young man.

His Studies: Theology and Psychology

In 1950, Henri passed his final examinations at Aloysius College in the Hague and entered the final year at the minor seminary in Apeldoorn where his uncle, Monsignor AC (Toon) Ramselaar was principal. His uncle seems to have played an important role in Nouwen's call to the priesthood and also in the direction that his life would take after this. After completing this course, Henri studied for 6 years at Rijsenburg seminary near Driebergen in the programme for students from the Archdiocese of Utrecht. It was customary for priests here to read two years of philosophy and four years of theology before being ordained. It was then usual that those who showed potential would be sent to Rome to obtain their licentiates (Masters degree).

In 1957, having completed his studies, Henri was ordained a priest (Nouwen 1996a: 13). The Archbishop of Utrecht wanted to send him to the Gregorian university in Rome for further training, but Nouwen had other ideas. Nouwen made a presentation to the Archbishop (Beumer 1997: 22) in which he suggested that he be sent to Nijmegen to study psychology at the Catholic university of Nijmegen (Durback 1989: xi). This was an unorthodox step because the prevailing feeling of the day was one of animosity between psychology and theology. Psychologists regarded theologians as fanatics who lived under an illusion and theologians regarded psychologists with equal suspicion.

From 1957 to 1964, Nouwen immersed himself in psychology. Over the years, he began to develop links between theology and what he was studying. He was influenced by the famous psychologist of religion, Hans Fortman. Fortman was one of the first academic psychologists brave enough to publish papers which were interdisciplinary in that they sought to show links between psychology and religion. Nouwen also, because of the influence of Fortman, became interested in the relationship between action and contemplation (Beumer 1997: 24). Even in his vacations, Nouwen moved beyond the expected norms. He worked at the mines in south Limburg on one occasion, at Unilever in Rotterdam on another occasion and even served as a chaplain in the army. Nouwen found his love for travel on yet another vacation job, while he was serving as chaplain on the Holland-America shipping line (Durback 1989: xii).

Nouwen was also influenced by the writing of the Harvard psychologist, Gordon Allport who had an interest in religion and psychology (Beumer 1997: 27). A meeting was arranged and Nouwen sought Allport's advice regarding his interest in pastoral psychology. Allport advised Nouwen to finish his degree at Nijmegen and then to enroll in the programme on "Religion and psychiatry" at the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas (Durback 1989: xii). Nouwen took this advice and from 1964 to 1966, Nouwen participated in the programme where he discovered many others who shared his interest. One of these, with whom he enjoyed a long friendship was Sewart Hiltner. In Creative Ministry, he referred to Hiltner as "teacher and friend ... who introduced me to the field of pastoral theology"(1972c: Acknowledgements). The Menninger Institute was in many ways the birthplace of the contemporary discipline of pastoral psychology and clinical pastoral education. For Nouwen, it was a place where academic rivalry turned into collegial cooperation. It was also a time of political awakening in him (Beumer 1997: 28). He learnt of the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Nouwen participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and wrote a moving account of the events of that day.

From Learning to Teaching

At Menninger, Nouwen became friends with a catholic psychologist, John Santos. Santos had been invited to set up the first department of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and invited Nouwen to assist him in this (Durback 1989: xii). Nouwen, eager to try his hand at teaching, accepted and became a visiting lecturer in Psychology at Notre Dame from 1966 to 1968. At first he taught general psychology, but soon, at the insistence of his students (many of whom were young priests), he began to teach pastoral psychology.

His first book, Intimacy: essays in pastoral psychology is a collection of thoughts worked out in early lectures and discussion groups at Notre Dame (Durback 1989:xii). This book introduces a theme that would characterise Nouwen's work from this point until his very last book, creating a space for the other. The book, Creative Ministry, also inspired by Notre Dame lectures, is again a collection which bears witness to Nouwen's developing understanding of the nature of pastoral theology. Nouwen's lecturing style seems to have been very participatory, attempting to engage all his students in his developing thoughts. "He developed a fine integration of psychology and practical theology, with special attention to the spirituality of the pastor" (Beumer 1997: 30). The book, Creative Ministry, together with the very popular The Wounded Healer were both published in 1972 while Nouwen was teaching at Yale and constitute the beginning of Nouwen's role as the pastor's pastor. Many priests and ministers from all over the ecclesiastical world found in Nouwen a pastor pastorum, one who understood the joys and pains of ministering to ordinary people.

For Nouwen, his stay at Notre Dame was always only a "visit" (Nouwen 1969: vii), an opportunity to try teaching and to publish his first book. He had never expected to stay in the United States and was keen to teach the things he had been learning and teaching here in the Netherlands. In 1968, he moved back to the Netherlands and began teaching, first at the Amsterdam Joint Pastoral Institute and then at the Catholic Theological Institute of Utrecht. In this time, Nouwen wrote two books, With Open hands, a book about prayer in which the author for the first time revealed his deeply personal and vulnerable style and Thomas Merton: contemplative critic in which Nouwen provides an introduction and commentary on the life and writing of the prolific social commentator and Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Nouwen only met Merton once but was profoundly influenced by him (Nouwen 1972a: ix).

While teaching at Utrecht, it was felt that Nouwen should register for his Doctoral exams in theology at the University of Nijmegen (Durback 1989: xii) so that he would be able to teach, from a strong academic position, about the links between psychology and theology. In 1971, Nouwen passed the doctoral exams but chose not to write a thesis.

To American, Writing and Academia

It was at about this time that a copy of Nouwen's Intimacy was passed on to Colin Williams, Dean of Divinity at Yale University (Durback 1989: xiii). Williams was impressed with Nouwen's work and style of writing and felt that Nouwen was just what Yale needed. Williams invited Nouwen to take up a visiting lectureship at Yale. Nouwen agreed but made his acceptance conditional on several factors. Firstly, the university was never to require him to produce his doctoral dissertation. Within three years he was to receive tenure and within five years, he was to be offered a full professorship. Finally, the university was to agree to allow Nouwen to publish whatever he saw fit. (In this regard, Nouwen probably wanted to avoid being pushed into writing textbooks and papers of an academic nature). Against all odds, Yale accepted Nouwen's conditions. It seems that even as early as 1971, Nouwen had become a much sought after commodity.

In 1971, Nouwen took up an appointment as a lecturer in pastoral theology. In 1974 he received tenure, becoming Associate Professor in pastoral theology. He taught courses on the ministry and spirituality. He was awarded the status of full professor in 1977 and taught at Yale until June 1981. "The teaching of religion meant, for Nouwen, the 'creation of the space in which the validity of the questions does not depend on the availability of answers but on their capacity to open us to new perspectives and horizons'"(Durback 1989:xiii). These were fruitful years for Nouwen and at least ten of his books were published in this time. The highlight of his publications during the Yale period was Reaching Out, a book in which he sought to draw together all his thoughts on the spiritual life. In this book, published in 1975, Nouwen described, in terms the ordinary reader could understand, the process of spiritual transformation. This process, and the centrality of the concept of compassion for it, will be described later in this paper. Nouwen also enjoyed the privilege of four long sabbaticals in his years at Yale. The first, from June to December 1974, was spent in the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. It was here that Nouwen began to confront his inner life, in a very direct and intimate way. He expresses the purpose of the retreat as follows: to "allow the hard questions of life to touch me even if they hurt"(Nouwen in Durback 1989: xiii). The Genesee diary, published in 1976, describes the process of inner struggle and healing in which Nouwen participated under the spiritual direction of John Eudes Bamberger (the Abbott of the monastery and friend of Nouwen). In 1976, Nouwen spent time as a Fellow at the Ecumenical Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. While on this Sabbatical, Nouwen wrote The Living Reminder. A Third Sabbatical took place in 1978 and this time Nouwen spent five months as Scholar-in-Residence at the North American College in Rome. The book, Clowning in Rome, is a summary of the main ideas presented in his lectures there.

One of the critical points in Nouwen's own development came with the death of his mother in 1978. As previously mentioned, there was a strong relationship between mother and son. Her death brought Nouwen face to face with his own struggle with the ultimate. In his book, In Memoriam, Nouwen openly deals with his own grief, his struggle with life and death and with his discovery of peace and joy in the midst of pain. This is wonderfully expressed in his words: "A mother was dying, her son was praying, God was present and all was good" (Nouwen 1980: 18). Although he would only write clearly about death and dying a decade later, I believe that it is here that the seeds of his emphasis on vulnerability and compassion were sown.

Yale Divinity School was very accommodating to Nouwen's need to write and to explore the spiritual life and so he was allowed to take yet another Sabbatical from February to August 1979. For this, which was to be his last Sabbatical at Yale, Nouwen returned to the Abbey of the Genesee. This time, instead of publishing a diary, Nouwen published a selection of prayers, A cry for mercy, written at the end of each day as a discipline (Nouwen 1981c: xiii). Nouwen hoped that the prayers would bear witness to the prayer of the Spirit of God prayed in all of us constantly. The book, Making all things new, which was written at the end of Nouwen's ten years at Yale, provides a short, concise summary of his teaching and thought-life in this time (Beumer 1997: 47). In the midst of all of this Nouwen was searching for his vocation. Much of this may have been because he really did not feel at home in the midst of the wealth and celebrity of the academic world. In part, it was also due to his own restlessness and the fact that Yale did not provide the challenge he so desperately sought. With hindsight, it is also possible to say that God was preparing Nouwen for even deeper levels of self-discovery and new understandings of compassion.

By 1981, Yale became a place of loneliness for Nouwen and he began to search for a new vocation, a place of solitude in which he could live and minister (Durback 1989: xv). Nouwen began to take a keen interest in the situation in South America and wondered whether his vocation did not lie among the poor, bringing contemplation together with action.

A Search for Vocation

In July 1981, Nouwen resigned his position at Yale and soon thereafter, travelled to Bolivia to take a course in Spanish. He then lived with a family in a small house in the slums of Lima, Peru. Nouwen went to South America in a time when the oppressive Reagan administration supported military dictatorships and Liberation Theology was beginning to awaken the minds of the poor to the situations in which they found themselves. Nouwen immersed himself in this kind of theology, becoming a good friend of Gustavo Gutierrez. Nouwen's spirituality began to grow in the area of social awareness. Nouwen would later challenge liberation theology "to be deepened by a spirituality of exile and captivity" (Nouwen 1983: 40). Nouwen was attracted to Gutierrez's integration of "a spirituality of struggle for freedom with a spirituality of personal growth" (Nouwen 1983: 144).

The South American experience was a difficult one for Nouwen. He couldn't help feeling useless in the face of the work that needed to be done (Durback 1989: xv). By most accounts, Henri was not a very practical person, struggling with even the most elementary of domestic and manual tasks. The sense of depression at his fumbling attempts was offset by the euphoria coming from a vision of a small community gathered in the midst of the squalor "creating a space for people to celebrate God's presence" (Nouwen 1983: 145). He consulted widely about the idea but his restlessness remained. His journal leaves the reader with the impression that Nouwen had found his vocation but the realisation soon came that this was not to be. In his later diary, The Road to Daybreak, he writes:

Slowly and painfully, I discovered that my spiritual ambitions were different from God's will for me. I had to face the fact that I wasn't capable of doing the work of a missioner in a Spanish-speaking country, that I needed more emotional support than my fellow missioners could offer ... It was hard to hear my friends say that I could do more for the South in the North than in the South and that my ability to speak and write was more useful among university students than among the poor (1988b: 3).

There is no denying, however, that the time spent in South America was part of the preparation for what would become Nouwen's lifework. One of the many things which it taught him was the balance between prayer and service, contemplation and action.

In March 1982, Nouwen returned to the United States and was invited to teach liberation theology and spirituality at Harvard Divinity School (Durback 1989:xvi). Again a special arrangement was negotiated, he would teach for half of the year and be free to travel and/or write in the other half. Nouwen was to stay at Harvard less than three years until the summer of 1985. In 1983, he travelled to Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras. In 1984, he gave lectures drawing the attention of American people to the situation in South America and travelled to Guatemala. His book, Love in a fearful land: A Guatemalan story, sought to tell the story of a murdered priest who tried to make a difference in the troubled South American context. Nouwen's restlessness remained. Little did he know that his next step would be the one which brought him into his life vocation.

Homecoming: Trosly and Daybreak

In the late seventies, while Nouwen was still at Yale, he had been visited by a woman named Jan Risse, who brought him greetings from Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche communities, which cared for the disabled and were established around the world (Nouwen 1988b: 1). Over the years, Nouwen had forgotten about this event until one day, Jean Vanier telephoned to invite him to join him on a silent retreat in Chicago. From this point, a series of events transpired which led Nouwen more and more clearly into a realisation that his vocation was to spend his life among the poor, not the unwealthy but the poor in spirit, the disabled. This was the way in which he would be allowed to follow Christ more fully (Nouwen 1988b: 2).

In 1983, Nouwen made his first visit to Trosly where the L'Arche community was founded by Jean Vanier and Pere Thomas (Nouwen 1987: 9). In 1984, he was back to take a thirty day retreat. He began, more and more, to discover his vocation here. The break with Harvard was a difficult one because he still felt that he could do much there. There was a growing understanding that the way for him was the "downward mobility" of living with the poor and not the "upward mobility" of the academic world (Beumer 1997: 56). Nouwen moved to Trosly in France to test his call. He would stay in Trosly for a year, from August 1985 to August 1986. The search for home would continue for quite a while. Nouwen struggled through the first few months with interior and exterior struggles. His third diary, The Road to Daybreak, records the process of pain and the joy of discovering what was to be his lifework.

Nouwen began to discover the difference between being productive and being fruitful. Having succeeded in the academic world where productivity was an expectation, he discovered the pain and joy of caring for people who might previously have been thought of as useless. He found that even the most severely disabled person could be fruitful and also minister to him. Henri was attracted to the extreme vulnerability and honesty of the disabled community. Nothing was hidden and everything was exposed. Feelings were always openly displayed and they ranged from open anger to unconditional love. It was to these people that he was called and it was these people that he was to embrace, comfort and love. Further, these were the people that were going to bring him the words from God that he was to bring to others in his writing. They were to be his teachers and he was to bring their message to the average Christian.

In December 1985, Nouwen received a 'call' to become part of the Daybreak L'Arche community in Toronto Canada. Nouwen was deeply moved by this call because it was the first time that he had been called since his ordination. He spent the next months discerning the call and consulting his apostolic superiors. The book, In the house of the Lord, describes his discoveries about the spiritual life in this year. It is interesting to see how Nouwen's images begin to change from this point onwards, he begins to use images of homecoming and family far more than before. During this time, the mother of Jean Vanier, Madam Pauline Vanier, both influenced and inspired Nouwen. She was a deeply religious woman who not only provided him with hospitality but also challenged him spiritually.

In August 1986, Nouwen joined the Daybreak community, living and working with six disabled people and their assistants (Durback 1989: xxi). Nouwen was to remain here until his death in 1996. The journey was not an easy one for Nouwen. He no longer could rely on his books, his lectures or his reputation as the foundations for his self identity. He was among people who had never read his books, for whom his lectures meant nothing and who had never heard about him. What was important for them was whether he loved them and "whether he was going to be in tonight"(Nouwen 1989b: 78). Within a year, living at Daybreak began to take its toll and "physical and emotional exhaustion" forced Nouwen to take some time off (Nouwen 1989a: 12). A process of rediscovery of vocation and identity followed and Nouwen grew into a new discovery of self. His teachers were a seventeenth-century artist and a severely disabled man.

In his book, The return of the prodigal son, Nouwen describes a journey of homecoming in which he comes to understand his own identity and the nature of God, in a new way. This is perhaps Nouwen's most intimate book in which he allows the reader access into the very relationship between God and himself. The painter Rembrandt facilitates this journey of Nouwen from the darkness of the periphery to the light which lies at the centre of the picture, the light emanating from the living relationship with God. Nouwen realises that he is the beloved in whom God is well pleased, he realises that his home is in Christ and that he is called to be 'the father' to those seeking relief from their burdens. The other way in which Nouwen was helped into a new self identity was through the witness of a severely disabled man, Adam Arnett. Nouwen realised, as he cared for this man every day, that Adam was being used by God to minister to him (Durback 1989: xxi). Through Adam's vulnerability and reliance on others, God was showing Nouwen what it meant to be led where he did not want to go. Henri learnt about passivity and reliance on God. Henri continued writing, publishing fifteen books in his years at Daybreak. It was however the pastoral work and not the writing that came first. He continued to travel, albeit much less frequently than before, but his travels took him all over the world.

His understanding of passivity was enriched by the experience of seeing the Flying Rodleighs, a troop of trapeze artists, perform in the early nineties. The secret Nouwen learnt was that the important skill was not so much the flyer's but the catcher's (Beumer 1997: 70). This brought him into a new reliance on God and a new perspective of his own role in the ministry of God. Nouwen wanted to apply himself to the significance of the body for spirituality and the relationship between physicality and spirituality, and to apply his method of hermeneutics (as seen in The return of the prodigal son) to other portions of scripture (Beumer 1997: 69 -70) but he died suddenly in September 1996 after suffering a series of heart attacks. His body is buried near Daybreak in the Sacred Heart cemetery in Toronto, Canada.