Meet Henri Nouwen

Born in 1932 in Nijerk, Holland, Henri Nouwen would say, "I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people who were neither." (Henri Nouwen: A Restless Seeking for God, Jurjen Beumer)

His mother praised and affirmed him as he was, and told him to always love Jesus. His father encouraged him and challenged him to become a better and more successful person. Nouwen commented that he lived the first part of his life listening more to the voice of his father and the second part listening more to the voice of his mother. (Henri Nouwen Literary Centre)

He was ordained a priest in 1957 and completed his degree in psychology in 1963. Coming to the United States in 1964, he taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. During his fruitful years (1971-1981) at Yale, he published 13 books, including The Wounded Healer, Out of Solitude, and Genesee Diary. After leaving Yale in 1981, Nouwen spent several months in Latin America where his life took on a new dimension—close association with the poor—and his spirituality took on more socially critical features.

In 1983, he accepted a second appointment to Harvard, dividing his energies between teaching at the university and crossing North America, speaking about the oppressive conditions in Central America. He felt scattered and unfocused, finding the constraints and pressures of the upwardly mobile success of the university completely opposed to what he had discovered in Latin America, the downward spiral of the poor’s suffering.

He resigned the Harvard appointment in 1985, and in 1986 accepted an invitation to become pastor for the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, where those with handicaps and their assistants live together as God’s children. In Lifesigns Nouwen observes that "these homes are created to offer an intimate place to live for people whose handicap is different than ours." He was welcomed into one of the homes and was asked to help Adam Arnett, a severely disabled man, with his morning routine. Adam, God’s Beloved describes how Adam became his friend, his teacher, and his guide.

Many members of L’Arche do not read, and Henri’s restless spirit wanted a home where his reputation would mean nothing. (Toronto Globe and Mail) For those of us who do read, Nouwen’s inspirational writing has a graceful, though not gentle, quality. Through his journals, he invites the reader to intimacy with God, with others, and with oneself. Moving the reader to develop a more real and alive spiritual life through prayer, the Word, and social action, he calls often for solitude but never for isolation. Nouwen expresses a day-to-day faith that is as difficult as it is glorious. He forces you by the power of his own belief and commitment to consider your own life and faith or lack of it. Mary Rourke of the Los Angeles Times once observed, "Henri Nouwen isn’t the sort of man the world is aching to meet."

When Henri Nouwen died of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 64, his funeral in Canada brought together over a thousand people to whom he had been priest, friend, author, lecturer, and mentor, all grateful to celebrate and to continue his life. (Toronto Globe and Mail)

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