The Hidden Words of Henri J. M. Nouwen

When I began my research into the life of Henri Nouwen, I had no idea that the struggle with his homosexuality would emerge as a major brushstroke in the portrait I was painting. I had often wondered why, in his best-selling paperbacks, the popular author wrote so often about intimacy but never about sexuality. In fact, when I interviewed him in 1992, I asked him about this apparent omission. He said that he wanted to write a book on the subject but the words were eluding him.

What I didn’t realize was that, at that time, the world renowned spiritual guide was wrestling at a deeply personal level with his own sexuality. Nouwen’s hallmark was writing honestly about  hat he experienced, believing that what was most personal was most universal. But this particular issue was just too private and too controversial to share with his global audience. He was worried that he would become known as ‘just another gay priest writing from my sexuality and
not my spirituality.’

During my research trip for Wounded Prophet, I learned how much Nouwen had suffered as he weighed up the demands of his priestly calling, his responsibilities as a beloved spiritual writer and his emerging sexual identity as a human being who loved deeply. He formed a close, platonic friendship with an assistant at L’Arche (and wrote about it in his books) but the demands he placed on the relationship became too much for the other person and led to a breakdown for Nouwen.

Initially, Henri Nouwen saw his sexuality as a wound but, as he came to embrace it during his later years, the more he was able to accept it as a gift. (A woman in Ireland, who sought Nouwen’s counsel during a lecture tour, told me that he had, in fact, encouraged her to receive her lesbian identity as ‘a blessing from God’).

As I gradually learned, Nouwen was like a Desert Father who needed to be converted by his own words. This came home to me when I discovered, hidden among his papers at Yale Divinity School, a brilliant, undated reflection on homosexuality that he’d written many years before – possibly in the late sixties or early seventies. It was based on the thinking of a Dutch psychiatrist W. G. Sengers. Adept at melding the insights of psychology with the riches of the Christian mystical tradition, Nouwen – a Roman Catholic priest and a clinical psychologist – produced a paper that, in my view, remains one of the most perceptive and helpful ever written on the topic. But, sadly, he didn’t seem able to apply its directives to himself, at least not through his usually transparent modus operandi. Fame may have made this difficult for him at a time when homosexuality was polarising the Church and Nouwen was being careful not to alienate any sections of his all-embracing readership.

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Sexual feelings for gay or lesbian people are just as real, personal and intimate as for heterosexuals so suggesting that gay people can change feelings is a direct offence to their most precious selves, Nouwen writes in The Self-Availability of the Homosexual.

The underlying issue for gay and lesbian people is: how can they relate meaningfully to their own sexual feelings in a culture where such feelings are already judged and evaluated before they can even begin to make them their own. Homophobia makes it very difficult for gay people to come to terms with their sexuality and relate to their feelings realistically.

In order for human beings of any sexuality to relate meaningfully to their own selves, they have to be available to themselves. But Nouwen points out that this isn’t easy for gay people because they’re easily conditioned by who they think they already are as a result of what, over the course of our lives, other people have said about them.

They might fundamentally judge themselves to be victims of discrimination or bullying, members of a persecuted minority, people who don’t really belong, or as women and men who have experienced shame and rejection. These negative images become internalised, distorting their self-image and damaging their self confidence. In the process, their feelings are suppressed and repressed. Much suffering is the result of detachment from feelings that were never made available.

So, argues Nouwen, in any culture hostile to homosexuality, it’s understandable that a gay man or lesbian woman, who experiences homosexual feelings, might be inclined to disown themselves from those feelings and put them on the periphery of their experience. The idea of being a homosexual is so loaded with fear that many people resist their true feelings rather than relate realistically as their own.

The erotic feelings one might have towards someone of the same sex should only be experienced as positive, says Nouwen. Love is about beauty and freedom, so the strong attraction between two people of the same sex should be something valuable and enriching.

But in reality this is not always the case. The growing awareness of eroticism towards people of the same sex creates feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and a fear of difference and potential rejection. Feelings that are in themselves positive tend to be condemned by those who experience them. What is actually good is filtered as bad – and what is positive is usually interpreted as negative because people adapt their feelings, not to their own perceptions, but to what others say about them. The resistance or denial of these feelings can create massive psychological issues. There are, according to Nouwen, two levels of resistance.

The first is repression. Gay and lesbian people deny their inclinations to others but primarily to themselves. This cuts them off from their own most personal, intimate and creative nature, forcing them to evacuate to the safe place of cerebral life. “If we do this, we become rigid, impersonal, distant and controlling”, comments Nouwen. “This does great harm to the personality, creating emotional poverty”. The second level of resistance is suppression: Lesbian and gay people know and understand their feelings but don’t dare communicate them to anyone else because they’re tortured by the fear anyone else should know about them. So they pretend to be heterosexual and never put themselves in situations where they can be themselves and express their true feelings. They become so tormented by the fear of becoming known as a lesbian or gay person that their sexual feelings constantly preoccupy them, sexualizing their total existence.

Every situation becomes filled with dangerous occasions and they’re constantly on guard to prevent anyone from discovering their sexuality. In this scenario, the sexual life cannot form a unity with the rest of the personality and distorts social reality.

Nouwen says sexual feelings touch the core of the internal lives of gay people. If we pretend not to have them, it is ‘like living without a heart.’ But when they overcome this resistance, they can start to make our sexual feelings available to themselves and give them a place of belonging at the centre of their own lives. Then they can begin to relate to their feelings realistically.

Christian morality, notes Nouwen, has never advocated the denial of feelings, only a responsible way of relating to them. We act morally only when we are able to face the reality of our lives and make our decisions from there. Feelings are never moral or immoral in themselves – only the way we relate to them.

Nouwen says if people feel a strong erotic love for someone of the same sex, they experience a deep human feeling that tells them very much about themselves. But if they think, talk or act as if this feeling isn’t there at all, they mutilate their emotional life and are in danger of psychological paralysis.

But if lesbian and gay people make their real feelings available to themselves and recognize them as their own feelings, then they can make a moral decision about the way they want to live their lives – to develop a deep relationship, channel emotional energy into a social concern, make the feelings part of a contemplative life or choose to live a celibate life. But the feelings have to be owned first, liberated from the fear of prejudice or rejection, and integrated into the total personality.

Henri Nouwen observes that the Gospel makes it overwhelmingly clear that Christ came to reveal the real human condition and to challenge us to face it without fear. Christ does not judge feelings or emotions. He asks us only not to deny or distort them but instead to make them available for God’s love.

● Michael Ford

Michael Ford is a broadcast journalist and author of a number of books on contemporary spirituality including Wounded Prophet, A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen and Disclosures: Conversations Gay and Spiritual. Both are published by DLT.

Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love” (Jn 15:10). Jesus invites me to abide in his love. That means to dwell with all that I am in him. It is an invitation to a total belonging, to full intimacy, to an unlimited being-with.
(Extract from Sabbatical Journey: the diary of
Henri Nouwen’s final year).

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