Henri Nouwen, a popular and prolific author and spiritual guide, died suddenly on Sept. 21, 1996, from the complications of two major heart attacks. En route to Russia, he was going to film a special for the BBC on Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The author of 43 books that have been translated into 22 languages, Nouwen remains one of the most widely read contemporary spiritual writers. Two million copies of his works are in print, and many anthologies of his writings and studies of his works continue to appear. On this, the 10th anniversary of the famous Dutch priest’s death, it is fitting to ponder the strength of his appeal.
Crisis for the ‘Wounded Healer’
Why do countless people turn to the writings of this spiritual genius, who was admittedly fragile, often unsure of himself and sometimes psychologically troubled, for strength, reassurance and wholeness? Why is Henri Nouwen so popular…still?
To answer that question, one might focus on a pivotal period in Nouwen’s life. The year was 1974. He had been a priest for 17 years. He was already well known through early books like Creative Ministry and Intimacy: Pastoral Psychological Essays and syndicated articles in The National Catholic Reporter. He could write his own ticket on the lecture circuit. But the public Nouwen, who was becoming an icon for countless men and women, was mired in a very private struggle of his own. The person so many people credited with helping them to find their spiritual footing was losing his.
Nouwen, to borrow the title of one of his own early books, personified the archetypal “wounded healer.” He lamented that he was “continuously trapped by a sense of urgency and emergency.” He was dogged by the memory of a frosty relationship with his own father and by conflicts with his sexual orientation. He spoke of his longing for inner peace, more satisfying relationships and a deeper union with God. He worried about becoming “a prisoner of people’s expectations instead of a man liberated by divine promises.” He questioned whether his success as a writer and mounting pressure to publish would risk, in his own words, “putting my soul in danger.” But perhaps beyond anything else, Nouwen yearned for the freedom to be himself. He sometimes joked that his middle initials, “J. M.,” stood for “just me.”
Nouwen was in the midst of what might be termed a spiritual midlife crisis. One could argue that such doubts evidenced weakness, that the prolific spiritual writer’s readers might be scandalized to know that he had clay feet and reconsider following the advice of one who questioned if he knew where he was going. But this sort of self-examination added to Nouwen’s credibility. His “weakness” was the sign of an uncommon strength that allowed his readers to see his frailties, to encounter places where the faith of the spiritual guide whom they had admired was splintered and frayed, and to see how he understood and sought to integrate these aspects of himself and move forward.
This dynamic marked Nouwen when in 1974 the best-selling author and hot ticket on the lecture circuit took two steps back. In June of that year, he entered a Trappist monastery in upstate New York as a “part-time monk.” Six months later, he emerged from the Abbey of the Genesee and resumed his duties as a faculty member at Yale Divinity School. What transpired during those six months arguably formed the pivot in Nouwen’s life.
Nouwen did not simply wander into the abbey. Seven years earlier, seriously doubting his priestly vocation, he visited the noted Trappist monk Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. The perceptive monastery guest master suggested another monk who could perhaps quell the downward spiral threatening Nouwen’s priesthood—Merton’s personal physician and confidant, the monk-psychiatrist John Eudes Bamberger, O.C.S.O. By that time, Bamberger had been elected abbot of the Cistercian abbey in Piffard, N.Y.
Driven by the Holy Spirit, Nouwen began the first of two extended retreats at that abbey. He was trying to catch his breath. He had a distinct purpose: to reorient himself, to confront the psychological barriers that weighed him down and to work through obstacles in his spiritual life. That required a place where, for the moment at least, he could keep the world at bay. “A life without a lonely place, that is, without a quiet center, becomes destructive,” he wrote.
Nouwen found that quiet center amid an extraordinary mixture of solitude and community when he entered the Abbey of the Genesee as a “part-time monk.” Shortly after his arrival, Brother Anthony Weber trimmed his shock of long, curly hair, prompting Nouwen to write in his journal that the crew cut made his hair appear “as unsophisticated as that of all of the other monks.” When Brother Christian Walsh tailored a “work habit” for him consisting of a modified gray-hooded smock, dark pants and a wide leather belt, Nouwen joked that his new uniform made him look like a member of Snow White’s court. But the physical changes had a profound psychological power that he could neither deny nor joke away. Reflecting more seriously, he wrote: “Now I feel more like a member of the community. I received quite a few smiles and remarks in sign language. People seem to feel good about the ‘instant monk.’”
Dom John Eudes proved to be an insightful and pragmatic spiritual director for Nouwen. The abbot helped him to navigate the complexities of the inner life by offering him two principal challenges: “identify and choose.” The abbey’s combination of solitude and community allowed Nouwen to respond to Bamberger’s challenging pastoral conversations. Nouwen perceived solitude as “the place of the great struggle and the great encounter…the furnace in which transformation takes place.” But he also intuitively understood that such transformation could not occur in isolation. He desired solitude, but could also not deny something fundamental about himself: he needed people.
At this phase in Nouwen’s life, Bamberger was the person most critical to the priest’s spiritual development, but he had other guides and mentors. Nouwen often recounted the story of his encounter with a retired Holy Cross priest, Charlie Sheedy, as they strolled on the lush campus of the University of Notre Dame. The older man placed his arm around Nouwen’s shoulder and lamented: “You know Henri, my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” Nouwen longed to transform such interruptions into an occasion for a change of heart, an opportunity to achieve a more solid grounding in the spiritual life and to strike a new balance between “silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community.”
But merely possessing an intellectual understanding of oneself and one’s situation is seldom enough. Despite his creativity and remarkable intellectual acumen, Nouwen also owned his limitations, quirks and weaknesses. He longed for a home where he could experience a sense of belonging, celebration and forgiveness—elements often lacking in his relationship with his demanding father. Groups—like the community of the monks at the Abbey of the Genesee and later, during the final decade of his life when he served as pastor at the L’Arche Daybreak community for physically challenged and developmentally disabled adults in Richmond Hill, Ontario—proved crucial in this regard.
Carrying such unsatisfied yearnings into adulthood is not uncommon, but by laying open his own needs and frailties, Nouwen, the “wounded healer,” did something rare for those who looked to him as a spiritual guide and soul-friend. He offered something as compassionate as it was courageous: he allowed his readers to see his struggles in an almost exhibitionist way. By doing so, he provided an example for others of how they could work through such things in their own lives. This stance represented Nouwen as teacher at his most profound, the psychological equivalent of Pope John Paul II’s willingness in his final days to allow his failing physical health to be laid bare before television audiences around the world.
In A Cry for Mercy: Prayers From the Genesee, prayers that he composed during his second sabbatical at the Genesee in 1979, Nouwen wrote: “Lord, when I look back at this time, I realize that you have given me a real spiritual home. You have given me brothers who consider me one of them and who will care for me wherever I go. I now know that I can always return and be accepted, that I can always ask for their prayers, and that I can always count on the strong spiritual support of my brothers here.”
Nouwen’s monastic commitment was temporary and renewable. Bamberger playfully reminded the community in Nouwen’s presence during a Sunday morning conference: “We are not here on sabbatical—for us, it’s for keeps!” Nouwen noted that his experiences at the monastery...
brought me closer to the world as well. In fact, distance from the world has made me feel more compassionate toward it…. Here in the monastery, I could look more easily beyond the boundaries of the place, the state, the country and the continent—become more intimately aware of the pain and suffering of the whole world and respond to them by prayer, correspondence, gifts or writing…. I experienced especially that a growing intimacy with God creates an always widening space for others in prayer. I had a real sense of the power of prayer for others and experienced what it means to place your suffering friends in God’s presence right in the center of your heart.
At the abbey, Nouwen strove to become better anchored in the “still point” and to immerse himself in a spirituality that would sustain him following his re-immersion in the world when he left the monastery. On the final pages of The Genesee Diary, he asks: “Why did I stay? Because I knew I was at the right place and nobody told me otherwise.” He ponders:
If I were to ask about my seven months at the abbey, “Did it work, did I solve my problems?” the simple answer would come to me, “It did not work, it did not solve my problems.” And I know that a year, two years, or even a lifetime as a Trappist monk would not have “worked” either. Because a monastery is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them. I had known this all along, but still had to return to my old busy life and be confronted with my own restless self to believe it.
Ten years after Henri Nouwen’s sudden death, one can appreciate his steady appeal to equally restless readers. Even in death, Nouwen remains a trusted spiritual guide and friend to countless wounded persons; he remains a wounded healer and a doctor of souls.