Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen by Michael Ford

Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen cover imageSummary: A biography of Nouwen by a late-in-life friend (and journalist), which helps to give context to Nouwen’s prolific writing. 

Like many, I have been impacted by Nouwen’s writing, but especially after reading several posthumously published books, I realized I needed more biographical context to understand what Nouwen was about.

It is incredible that more than 25 years after his death, new books are still being edited from his vast writing. (The most recent of which is Flying, Falling, Catching.) I am mixed on these posthumous books. I don’t think any of the ones I have read stand up to the best of his books published while he was alive. But they are also better than the worst of his books as well. Nouwen wrote an enormous volume of books. According to Wikipedia, he published 42 books while alive, not including 35 additional books to which he contributed an introduction, afterward, or chapter. And there have been 31 additional books of posthumous work or compilations.

Part of what Ford makes clear is that while Nouwen strived to live up to his writing, there was a disconnect.

“It is also difficult to explain the author without acknowledging a certain disconnection between his writing and his living, not because of any scandalous gap between the two, but because he always managed to write way beyond what he himself could actually live. This was especially true in terms of what he said about solitude and community. Nouwen’s spirit, mind, and body all ran ahead of him; his books were often reminders to himself of how he ought to be.” (Kindle location 180)

That is not to say he was a hypocrite who called others to live as he did not but to say that we do not always live up to what we know to be right or best.

The book’s first section was more of a psychological profile before moving back to start to tell his story from the beginning. Nouwen was driven, lonely, seeking affection and approval, and at the same time, able to give of himself deeply to those in need around him.

Because he passed away before I was fully aware of him (in 1996), I did not realize how influential he was. In 1994, a survey of 3400 protestant pastors rated him the second most influential Christian (ahead of Billy Graham.) That was when there was an opening to influence from Catholicism within the Protestant world, but many Protestants were still very skeptical of Catholicism.

The second central theme of Wounded Prophet is the influence of his sexuality. Many that were around him knew that he was gay. Nouwen said he understood that he had a homosexual orientation by the age of six. Celibacy for Catholic priests holds regardless of sexual orientation, but his resistance to talking about his sexuality publicly seems to have contributed to his loneliness. But at the same time, his openness about that loneliness in his writing and the ways that friendships both empowered and hurt him certainly made me and others suspect he was gay before it was discussed more publicly.

Part of what made Nouwen so influential was the openness of his writing. That writing was partly open because he saw himself as a teacher and understood teaching to be spiritual and moral formation, not just intellectual imputation of knowledge.

To be a teacher means indeed to lay down your life for your friends, to become a ‘martyr’ in the original sense of witness. To be a teacher means to offer your own faith experience, your loneliness and intimacy, your doubts and hopes, your failures and successes to your students as a context in which they can struggle with their own quest for meaning. To be a teacher means to have the same boldness as Paul, who said to the Corinthians: ‘Take me as a model as I take Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). To be a teacher means to say as those who want to learn what Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39).” (Kindle location 1898)

I am still conflicted about Nouwen’s discernment and how Pere’ Thomas and Jean Vanier influenced him, people we know were predatory sexual abusers. But it is not just those two. His discernment about his vocation and how he seemed to move around constantly and not submit to regular spiritual direction or consistent community, even at L’Arche, seems to be part of the weakness of his spiritual life. Ford has the line, “He had many spiritual directors and did not know which one to turn to” (Kindle location 2579), and that, in many ways, counters the idea of spiritual direction as I understand it. If you reveal a small part of your spiritual life to many but are resistant to revealing all (or most) to any one person, that seems like it can only be, at least in part, a feature of hiddenness. And Ford does talk about that in Wounded Prophet. 

In the end, many of his friends believed he worked himself to death. (He died when he was 64.) That, too, is part of discernment and spiritual and emotional health.

Wounded Prophet was what I was looking for to understand Nouwen better. Over the next year or so, I will probably read another book by Nouwen and then look for another biography to get another perspective, as is always helpful.

(I have 23 highlights that are public here.)

Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen by Michael Ford Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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