Henri Nouwen

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Henri J.M. Nouwen
Portrait of Henri Nouwen in the 1990s by Frank Hamilton
Portrait of Henri Nouwen in the 1990s taken by Frank Hamilton
Born (1932-01-24)January 24, 1932
Died September 21, 1996(1996-09-21) (aged 64)
Resting place
St. John’s Cemetery in Richmond Hill, Ontario
Nationality Netherlands Dutch

Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, (Nijkerk, January 24, 1932 – Hilversum, September 21, 1996) was a Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor and writer. His interests were rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community. Over the course of his life, Nouwen was heavily influenced by the work of Anton Boisen, Thomas Merton, Vincent van Gogh and Jean Vanier.[1]

After nearly two decades of teaching at academic institutions including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, Nouwen went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Before his death Nouwen published 39 books and authored hundreds of articles.[2]:9 His books have sold over 7 million copies worldwide and have been published in more than 30 languages.[2]:3


Early life[edit]

Henri Nouwen was born in Nijkerk, the Netherlands on January 24, 1932. He was the oldest of four children born to Laurent J.M. Nouwen and Maria Nouwen (née Ramselaar).[1] His younger brother Paul Nouwen(nl) was a prominent Dutch businessman and his uncle Toon Ramselaar(nl) was a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Utrecht and a co-founder of the Service International de Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne(it).[3]


Nouwen was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Utrecht in 1957 by Bernardus Alfrink.[4][1]:37 Eager to learn more about himself and the people he counselled, Nouwen requested permission from Alfrink to study psychology instead of theology. His request was granted and from 1957 to 1964 he studied at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. [5]:xvii

After receiving his doctorandus in psychology in 1964, Nouwen studied as a Fellow for two years in the Religion and Psychiatry Program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas based on the advice of psychologist Gordon Allport.[6][1]:45 Nouwen completed his clinical pastoral training at the Topeka State Hospital[7] and graduated from the Menninger Foundation's training program in theology and psychiatric theory on June 19, 1965.[8] During his time at the Clinic he found he preferred direct contact with patients over the more scientific and medical analysis of certain branches of psychology. This prompted an examination of his professional practice in order to better integrate spiritual ministry with modern psychology.[5]:xvii-xix

From 1966 to 1968 he was a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame. From 1968 to 1970 he worked at the Amsterdam Joint Pastoral Institute and taught psychology and spirituality at the Catholic Theological Institute in Utrecht. In 1971 he received his doctorandus degree in theology.

From 1971 to 1981 Nouwen was a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School, during which time he took several sabbaticals. In 1976 he was a Fellow at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota and in 1978 he was scholar-in-residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He also spent several months at the Abbey of the Genesee. His first visit began on June 1, 1974 and lasted seven months. While there he kept a journal that was published as Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery in 1976.[9]:16 He returned again in 1979, after the death of his mother, which led to the publication of A Cry For Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee.[10] Though Nouwen concluded he was not suited for the trappist life, the Abbey of the Genesee and his relationship with then abbott John Eudes Bamberger continued to be of great importance to him.[11] The Abbey served as his home base for more than a year after he resigned from Yale[12] and it was where he chose to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a priest in August 6, 1982.[13]

After leaving Yale in 1981, Nouwen took a six-month trip to South America visiting Bolivia and Peru.[14] Upon his return to the United States in 1983, Nouwen was appointed at the Harvard Divinity School as Professor of Divinity and Horace De Y. Lentz Lecturer. The half-time appointment allowed Nouwen to split his time between teaching at the Divinity School and working with a theological center in Latin America.[15] Nouwen taught at the school until his resignation in 1985.[16] In 1985 and 1986 he spent nine months with the L'Arche community in France.

Father Nouwen was a good friend of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.


Nouwen's spirituality was greatly influenced by his friendship with Jean Vanier. The two men met while Nouwen was teaching at Harvard.[17] Vanier sensed how lost Nouwen was feeling and invited him to visit Trosly-Breuil.[1]:105 Nouwen visited Vanier at the French community, the first in the L'Arche network, twice before returning in 1985 for a nine month residency.[18] The stay helped Nouwen find a purpose that had been missing. As Robert A. Jonas explains: "Henri had always wondered what a Eucharistically centered community would be like, and now he had found one at L'Arche".[19] :l

During Nouwen's time in France he traveled to Toronto, Ontario to officiate a wedding and sought permission to stay for a week at L'Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. While there a core member named Raymond was hit by a car and left in critical condition.[20] Nouwen provided spiritual guidance to the community and Raymond’s family, ultimately helping to reconcile the community and the family, who partially blamed Daybreak for Raymond's injuries. His pastoral intervention had such an impact on the Daybreak members that after leaving they sent a letter asking Nouwen to serve as their pastor.[1][21] Nouwen accepted and moved in the fall of 1986 to L'Arche Daybreak, where he would spend the last ten years of his life.[5]

While at Daybreak Nouwen was paired with Adam Arnett, a core member at L'Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities. Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Arnett in a book titled Adam: God's Beloved.[22]


Nouwen is thought to have struggled with his sexuality.[23] Although this struggle was known by those close to him, Nouwen never publicly identified himself as a homosexual[24] despite acknowledging the matter in discussions with friends and alluding to a personal struggle in his private journals.[25] Biographer Michael Ford referenced these instances in the biography Wounded Prophet, which was published after Nouwen's death. Ford suggests that Nouwen only became fully comfortable with his sexual orientation in the last few years of his life, and that Nouwen's depression was caused in part by the conflict between his priestly vows of celibacy and the sense of loneliness and longing for intimacy that he experienced.[17] "This took an enormous emotional, spiritual and physical toll on his life and may have contributed to his early death."[23] There is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy.[23][24]


Nouwen died on September 21, 1996 from a sudden heart attack in the Netherlands on route to Russia to film a documentary about The Prodigal Son. Prior to his death he entrusted Sue Mosteller, C.S.J. with his estate, making her the literary executrix of his works. The founding of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection at the John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael's College was the culmination of Mosteller's effort to centralize Nouwen's personal records, which involved organizing his material at L'Arche Daybreak and negotiating with the Yale Divinity School Library for the release of records he had begun depositing there as a faculty member in 1975.[2]:19


"Terugkeer van de Verloren Zoon" by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Nouwen wrote a short book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, based on his contemplation of Rembrandt's painting of the same name.

Nouwen's books include The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, Clowning in Rome, The Life of the Beloved and The Way of the Heart.

While visiting the L'Arche Trosly-Breuil community in France, he saw a poster of Rembrandt's painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, that made a deep impression on him. He decided to see the painting personally and traveled to Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) to visit the Hermitage Museum where it is kept. This resulted in a several day contemplation of the painting, which prompted him to write a book of the same name. In 2014 The Return of the Prodigal Son was ranked number 66 on a list of 100 best Christian books compiled by the Church Times.[26]

The results of a Christian Century magazine survey conducted in 2003 indicate that Nouwen's work was a first choice of authors for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy.[27]

One of his most famous works is Inner Voice of Love, his diary from December 1987 to June 1988 during one of his most serious bouts with clinical depression.


Nouwen’s popularity as a spiritual guide has been linked to his capacity to describe his personal struggles in a relatable manner.[28]:1 He credited his approach to an interest in the daily life of people and his own journey with Christian life:

I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.

—Henri Nouwen, Catholic New Times [29]

One of Nouwens' major ongoing themes involved his struggle reconciling his depression with his Christian faith. In Return of the Prodigal Son, for example, Nouwen describes love and forgiveness as unconditional. In that book, he invites the reader to follow him in his personal return to the spiritual fountains, and a parallel meditation on all the characters of the parable, and their rendering by Rembrandt, and the painter's personal life.

Nouwen also wrote several essays on the necessity of peacemaking. He used God's Love as a justification for the preservation of life, as well as his opposition to both the ongoing Cold War and the intervention of the United States in Vietnam.

His struggle to reconcile his priestly vows of celibacy with his human desire for physical and emotional intimacy was also a theme in his writings.


Selected bibliography[edit]

Books about Nouwen[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f O'Laughlin, Michael (2005). Henri Nouwen: His Life and Vision (1st ed.). Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. ISBN 9781570758225. 
  2. ^ a b c Earnshaw, Gabrielle (2011). The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael's College. 
  3. ^ Wahle, Hedwig (1997). "Some known and unknown Pioneers of Continental Europe". SIDIC (Rome: Service International de Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne). Retrieved February 9, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Ordination certificate". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved January 2, 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c Jonas, Robert A., ed. (2009). The Essential Henri Nouwen. Boston ; London: Shambhala. ISBN 9781590306642. 
  6. ^ Genius Born of Anguish: Henri Nouwen Talk by official biographer Michael W. Higgins, Avila Carmelite Centre in Donnybrook, Dublin 4 on Thursday, January 17
  7. ^ "Completion of Clinical Pastoral Training certificate". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved December 27, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Graduate Training Program in Theology and Psychiatric Theory certificate". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved December 27, 2014. 
  9. ^ Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1976. ISBN 9780385113687. 
  10. ^ A Cry For Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1981. ISBN 9780385175074. 
  11. ^ Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1976. ISBN 9780385113687. 
  12. ^ Durback, Robert (1989). Seeds of Hope : A Henri Nouwen Reader (1st ed.). Toronto ; New York: Bantam Books. 
  13. ^ "25th ordination anniversary invitation". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved January 2, 2015. 
  14. ^ Nouwen, Henri (1993). Gracias!: A Latin American Journal. Orbis Books. ISBN 0883448513. 
  15. ^ "Dutch Theologian Nouwen To Teach at Divinity School". Harvard Gazette (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University). January 28, 1983. p. 1. 
  16. ^ Nouwen, Henri. "Letter to friends announcing resignation". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  17. ^ a b Ford, Michael (1999). Wounded prophet : A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385493727. 
  18. ^ Burback, Robert, ed. (December 29, 1997). "Henri Nouwen: The Person". Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-49049-8. 
  19. ^ Jonas, Robert A., ed. (1998). Henri Nouwen: Writings. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. ISBN 9781570751974. 
  20. ^ Mosteller, Sue (December 29, 1997). "Funeral Eulogy for Henri Nouwen". In Durback, Robert. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-49049-8. 
  21. ^ Egan, Joe (December 4, 1985). "Letter from Joe Egan". University of St. Michael's College Collections. The Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection. Retrieved January 5, 2015. 
  22. ^ Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1997). Adam: God’s Beloved (1st ed.). Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. ISBN 9781570759949. 
  23. ^ a b c Gibson, David (2004, page 191, ISBN 0-06-058720-2). The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-058720-8. Retrieved March 31, 2008.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  24. ^ a b McGinley, Dugan (2004, page 185-186, ISBN 0-8264-1836-8). Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-1836-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  25. ^ Elford, R. John (2003, page 72, ISBN 0-85323-519-8). The Foundation of Hope: Turning Dreams Into Reality. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-0-85323-519-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  26. ^ "100 best Christian books". Church Times. 2014. Retrieved November 12, 2014. 
  27. ^ Carroll, Jackson W. (August 23, 2003). "Pastors' Picks: What Preachers are Reading". Christian Century 120 (17): 31. ISSN 0009-5281. 
  28. ^ LaNoue, Deirdre (2000). The Spiritual Legacy of Henri Nouwen (1st ed.). New York: Continuum. OCLC 44469051. 
  29. ^ Coady, Mary Frances (November 23, 1986). "Nouwen finds rest at Daybreak". Catholic New Times. p. 3. 
  30. ^ no:Emmausprisen

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