Henri Nouwen and Homosexuality

I was introduced to the late spiritual writer Henri J.M. Nouwen through two friends: Mrs. Pat Boettner and Dr. Dale Wayman. The first book of his that I ever read was the tenth anniversary of Can You Drink the Cup? I read this book during a particularly tumultuous time in my life almost five years ago. The book, for me, was revolutionary. Nouwen taught me how to embrace the real me -- the me I kept largely hidden from most people. He writes: "So often we are inclined to keep our lives hidden. Shame and guilt prevent us from letting others know what we are living. We think: 'If my family and friends knew the dark cravings of my heart and my strange mental wanderings, they would push me away and exclude me from their company.'"1 For just over 40 years I refused to let others know the real me.

But Henri, through his works, helped me to understand that, when we "dare to lift our cup," meaning, all of the joys and the pains we experience inwardly, and we "let our friends know what is in it, they will be encouraged to lift their cups and share with us their own anxiously hidden secrets. The greatest healing often takes place when we no longer feel isolated by our shame and guilt and discover that others often feel what we feel and think what we think and have the fears, apprehensions, and preoccupations we have."2 He is right. The more honest and transparent I am, and especially so in writing here, the more others open up to me and share their own joys and pains.

As a Roman Catholic priest, Henri pledged to God a vow of celibacy, a vow that, at times, was difficult to keep. Like every other human being on the planet, he, too, longed for companionship, for someone to love and for someone to love him unconditionally. Celibacy can be difficult even for those who claim to maintain the gift (cf. Matt. 19:11; 1 Cor. 7:7). For many, the difficulty of celibacy is not merely a lack for the physical act of sex, but of a desperate loneliness that leads one to feelings of hopelessness. There is a stark difference between being alone and being lonely: the latter grants a worldview that is bleak. Henri knew the latter; he unwittingly embraced darkness as an inevitability.

Henri struggled with celibacy -- and, thusly, proved his humanity. Nouwen biographer Michael Ford remarks about Henri's forays into the darkness of loneliness and inner anguish. Henri's dear friend Bart states that, during one particularly dark season, Henri was experiencing "not just a dark night of the soul, [but a] dark night of everything, of the spirit, at the point of faith, at the point of his own being, desires, longings, and sexuality."3 When his friends thought he may be emerging out of his darkness, his depression worsened, and he "began to feel homeless, devoid of faith, and abandoned. He could no longer sleep, cried uncontrollably for hours, was unaffected by consoling words of friends, was uninterested in other people's problems, had no appetite for food, and lost all his appreciation of music, art, and nature."4 These I have experienced first-hand over the last six weeks.

I have sensed an affinity with Henri ever since I first began reading his works. I have learned from his pain, from his experiences, and from his encouragement. I am indebted to Mrs. Pat and Dr. Wayman for introducing me to this spiritual giant. But "spiritual giant" is not an epithet that Henri would have generally appreciated. He knew his flaws; he understood his weaknesses; and he was all too eager to point someone to the purity and absolute righteousness of Jesus rather than highlight his own accomplishments. But I was also encouraged and comforted to learn of his same-sex attraction.

During his time at L'Arche -- an international organization dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities -- he met Nathan Ball, a man, notes Henri Nouwen biographer Michael Ford, "in whose company he had felt most secure."5 We learn in Henri's book, The Inner Voice of Love, that he learned to let his guard down regarding his sexuality and his relationship with Nathan:
Going to L'Arche [a.k.a. Daybreak] and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. 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.6 (emphasis added)
But, sadly, the friendship would see an end due, mostly, to Henri's "possessive, needy, and dependent"7 nature in this special relationship. Biographer Michael Ford notes: "There was undoubtedly a love between them, but at different levels of intimacy."8 In Nouwen's The Road to Daybreak, Henri admits that he "made Nathan the centre [sic] of [his] emotional stability,"9 and Nathan could never completely stabilize Henri's emotional state.



That Henri and Nathan shared an immense love for one another is not evidence that both were drawn toward each other homosexually, romantically, so some would argue. Nouwen biographer Ford states that, in the mid-1990s and later in his life, he "became more at ease with his own sexual identity, cultivating friendships with gay men both inside and outside the church, discovering that there were a great many more than he had ever suspected, not all of them single but many of them spiritually minded."10 Homosexuals and bisexuals and transgender individuals have always been, still are, and will always be part of Christ's body -- the Church -- whether or not heterosexual members are aware of this reality. Such people, graced by God, love Christ, the Church, and long to belong.

Henri became distressed that members of the LGBTQ community were abandoning or had already permanently abandoned the Church, notes Ford, and there was "still pressure on [Henri] at times to be open about his [homo]sexuality, and equal insistence from other friends to keep quiet about it. For the man who liked to be on good terms with everyone, this cannot have been easy for him."11 Consider, also, the times in which he lived: only within the last few years has the plight of LGBTQ persons been embraced by the culture. Still, however, there are many bigoted people who wish to harm LGBTQ people; and still many evangelicals, like Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Vice President-elect Mike Pence et al. who oppose equal rights for LGTBQ persons. My own mother still, to this day, fears for my life because I am (now) open about my (homo)sexuality. That, friends, is tragic.

Close friends of Henri, including biographer Michael Ford, cared deeply about this spiritual man of faith. The very last notion in their mind is to exaggerate or to lie about Henri's homosexual orientation. A close friend of Henri's, Maurice Monette, himself a former Roman Catholic priest, came out as gay to Henri in 1984, Henri, of course, remaining silent about his own homosexuality. Within a year, though, Henri was seeking Maurice's advice regarding his own homosexual proclivity.12 When E.M. Forster's wonderful and inspiring novel-turned-film Maurice was released in theaters, Henri asked Maurice Monette to go see the movie with him.13 He didn't want to go alone.

Ford also notes that Henri "wondered if some of his gay friends were trying to force him out into the open to justify their own decisions. . . . But, as he told a close friend, 'If I came out, I would be labeled as just another gay priest writing from sexuality and not my spirituality.'"14 That reminds me of my dad and a couple of friends asking me if I joined The Episcopal Church to affirm my own homosexuality. But I joined The Episcopal Church for one reason and one reason only: I became an Episcopalian. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, insulting. But I am glad that this church is affirming.

Henri had two other friends, a gay Roman Catholic couple named Joseph Stellpflug and David Martin, who "offered him their home as a sanctuary from the public demands of his priesthood. 'He [Henri] recognized our relationship as life-giving and we became a safe haven for him where he could just be himself,' said David."15 When the couple were finally wed, at a Metropolitan Community Church, Henri "sent them a van Gogh print with 'an incredibly beautiful letter' affirming that they were making a very solemn and holy commitment."16 Joseph, having been dismissed as a religion teacher and lay chaplain at a Roman Catholic high school due to this union, noted that Henri "needed a place where he could let his guard down and be himself. He was so afraid that if he was outed or came out himself, it would affect his work and the number of people who would read him. He really felt that in his professional writing he was touching liberals, conservatives, Catholics, and non-Catholics, and he didn't want to jeopardize that."17 I used to worry about that but not any longer.

I suppose part of our fallen human nature inevitably forces us to perceive of individuals through our fallen lenses. Because some people learn about Henri's homosexuality, they view him in a lesser hue, as a lesser hero than they did prior to this discovery. I've been guilty of this, as well, though I'm ashamed to admit it -- not regarding a man or woman being homosexual but in other ways. Actually, learning early on that this great spiritual writer was homosexual gave me hope, someone with whom I could identify. Finally, a man of faith who loved the Lord, but who was also homosexual! I've been looking for someone like him in my spiritual journey for quite some time.

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1 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? Tenth Anniversary Edition (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2008), 64-65.

2 Ibid., 65.

3 Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen (New York: Image Books, 2002), 167.

4 Ibid., 168.

5 Ibid.

6 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Image Books, 1998), xv.

7 Ford, 168.

8 Ibid.

9 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), 223.

10 Ford, 191.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 192.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 193.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 193-94.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.