Henri Nouwen was a priest, professor, psychologist, theologian and writer. He was born in the Netherlands in January 1932. His father was a tax official while his mother was book-keeper to a small family business. His interests centred primarily around psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community.
Henri trained as a priest in the Jesuit (Roman Catholic) Aloysius College in The Hague, and was ordained in 1957. He was soon heavily involved in a ministry of healing.
Henri was always eager to learn about himself and the people he helped, so he re-trained as a clinical psychologist, becoming one of the first priests to realise the power of psychology when exploring matters of faith. His doctoral thesis explored ways of integrating spiritual ministry and modern psychology.
Nouwen became professor of pastoral theology at the Yale Divinity School (1971 and 1981) and wrote extensively about his own experiences. While there, he started a new dialogue between faith and psychology.
During much of this time he also struggled with his own sexuality (he was gay, but secretly), which contributed to colossal feelings of self-doubt. The conflict between his priestly vows of celibacy and a sense of loneliness and longing for intimacy caused a series of depressive breakdowns, which also helps explain why his biography was called Wounded Prophet.
One of the major healing encounters occurred during a long retreat at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee in 1974, which lasted seven months. Although he concluded he was not suited for Trappist life, he remained heavily influenced by Trappist theology and its radical commitment to love: a second strand was emerging in his spirituality.
Nouwen moved to Harvard after this retreat and, while there, met Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement. L’Arche cares for people with profound learning and developmental disabilities. (Today, L’Arche runs 147 communities in 35 countries across five continents.)
Henri stayed for a another, long retreat with Vanier at the first ever L’Arche community and, while there, finally found the sense of purpose that was previously missing. As a friend commented, ‘Henri had always wondered what a Eucharistically centred community would be like; he now found one at L’Arche’. After decades of teaching at academic institutions, Nouwen left to join the L’Arche community in Ontario. As a priest there, he used his psychology training to explore the boundaries of sacrificial love.
While visiting another L’Arche community in France, he saw a poster of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, which made a deep impression. He went to Saint Petersburg to see the painting for himself, and was captivated. He studied the painting for days then wrote his most famous book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is a masterpiece of psychological analysis. In it, he looks at Jesus’ parable in Luke 15, gently psychoanalysing all the major characters in the story. In 2014, the Church Times ranked the book among the most influential 100 Christian books in print today. In all, Nouwen published 39 books and hundreds of articles. They discuss issues of healing, community, and finding self.
Henri Nouwen died in the Netherlands on 21 September 1996 from a sudden heart attack, while en route to Russia to participate in a Dutch documentary about his book The Return of the Prodigal Son.