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Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, (Nijkerk, January 24, 1932 - Hilversum, September 21, 1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest and writer who authored 40 books on the spiritual life.
His books are widely-read today by both Protestants and Catholics alike. The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, Clowning in Rome, The Life of the Beloved and The Way of the Heart are just a few of the more widely recognized titles. After nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University, he left to share his life with mentally handicapped people at the L'Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. He died in September 1996 from a sudden heart attack.
His spirituality was influenced by many, notably by his friendship with Jean Vanier. At the invitation of Vanier he visited L'Arche in France, the first of over 130 communities around the world where people with developmental disabilities live and share life together with those who care for them. In 1986 Nouwen accepted the position of pastor for a L'Arche community called "Daybreak" in Canada, near Toronto. Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Adam, a core member at L'Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities, in a book entitled Adam: God's Beloved. Father Nouwen was a good friend of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.
The results of a Christian Century magazine survey conducted in 2003 indicate that Nouwen's work was a first choice for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy. See: Carroll, Jackson W. (8-23-2003). Pastors' Picks: What Preachers are Reading. Christian Century, 120(17), 31.
One of his most famous works is Inner Voice of Love, his diary between December 1987 to June 1988 during one of his most serious bouts with clinical depression. Famous Hong Kong Christian theologian Milton Wan Wai Yiu had appended this book with his spiritual experiences with the encounter with him. Milton had commented his spiritual theology with the level 'Higher and Deeper than Catholicism and Protestant' and his works are well accredited by many Christians even with gospel stream.
Nouwen put his stamp on Christian spirituality by conveying his understanding of the belovedness of God, that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Books such as the Return of the Prodigal Son, Adam, Compassion and Life of the Beloved all emphasize this. One of his 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. Though this is not a novel idea, Nouwen's approach is arguably unique as we approached this theme from the angles of the younger son, the elder son, and the father. Each captures the unconditional quality of love and forgiveness in their own way. The younger son's life shows how the beloved lives a life of misery by thinking he can be loved only by meeting certain qualifications of the lover (which he fails to meet). The elder son's actions shows how the beloved can be depressed because he thinks he should receive greater love because he has done all the right things (i.e., that he has met these qualifications). The father alone understands how to love and forgive and is able to do so and be happy. Nouwen explains that we are the younger son at times (when we think we don't deserve the love or the forgiveness) and the elder son at times (when we think we deserve love or that another doesn't deserve it more than us), but that we are all called to be like the father (and that only by being like the father can we come closer to being loved as we should be loved).
Nouwen also wrote, in part, about his struggles reconciling his priestly vows of celibacy with his human desire for physical and emotional intimacy.
See External links for an excellent example of the use of Nouwen's work in modern meditations.
Nouwen is thought to have struggled with the question of whether or not he was homosexual. Although he never directly addressed the matter of his sexuality in the writings he published during his lifetime, he acknowledged the struggle both in his private journals and in discussions with friends, both of which were extensively referenced by Michael Ford 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. There is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy.
"We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior. God doesn’t approve of betrayal, violence, hatred, suspicion, and all other expressions of evil, because they all contradict the love God wants to instill in the human heart. Evil is the absence of God’s love." -Bread For the Journey, 1996
"Although we tend to think about saints as holy and pious, and picture them with halos above their heads and ecstatic gazes, true saints are much more accessible. They are men and women like us, who live ordinary lives and struggle with ordinary problems. What makes them saints is their clear and unwavering focus on God and God’s people." -Bread For the Journey, 1996
"Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for nuclear man the way to liberation and freedom." -The Wounded Healer, 1972
"I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self." -In the Name of Jesus, 1989
"What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life." -In the Name of Jesus, 1989
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." - Out of Solitude
"Your body needs to be held and to hold, to be touched and to touch. None of these needs is to be despised, denied, or repressed. But you have to keep searching for your body's deeper need, the need for genuine love. Every time you are able to go beyond the body's superficial desires for love, you are bringing your body home and moving toward integration and unity." - The Inner Voice of Love
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