Cover image for Wounded prophet : a portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen
Wounded prophet : a portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen
Ford, Michael, 1956-
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First edition.
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New York : Doubleday, 1999.
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xxi, 233 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
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BX4705.N87 F67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, was one of the most beloved and important spiritual writers of the twentieth century. His death in 1996 has only added to his stature, and his books, includingThe Inner Voice of Love,The Wounded Healer,andThe Return of the Prodigal Son, have become cherished classics. For thousands of readers around the world, Nouwen's influence as a teacher and author is considered equal to or greater than that of the century's great spiritual writers, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. Although Nouwen could be radically revealing about his personal thoughts and struggles, there are nonetheless gaps in our understanding of who Nouwen was. WithTheWounded Prophet, readers are given the first extensive look into this man who touched so many, through his own words but most powerfully through the eyes of those people around the world who knew Nouwen best. While researching this compelling biography, BBC producer Michael Ford conducted wide-ranging interviews with Nouwen's friends, colleagues, and family members. What he discovered was far more compelling than what he had imagined: Though Nouwen was indeed the generous and loving man many thought he was, he was also never able to find consistent peace in his own life. Tormenting him were profound feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and loneliness. This portrait gives an honest and well-balanced account of Nouwen's life that leaves no stone unturned, investigating his childhood, his family, his sexuality, and his life as a priest and member of the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto.

Author Notes

Michael Ford is BBC journalist who reported on the aftermath of September 11th. A broadcaster specializing in religious affairs, he has recently completed a doctoral thesis in Christian spirituality.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this "portrait"Änot a formal biographyÄBBC journalist Michael Ford explores "the person of Henri Nouwen as a wounded prophet for our time." In his title, Ford plays on one of Nouwen's favorite themes, the "wounded healer." Divided into three sections, "Heart," "Mind" and "Body," the book examines the ways Nouwen offered healing and prophetic utterances to his readers and friends as well as the nature of the personal woundedness out of which Nouwen ministered. His strengths included emotional openness, spiritual insight and courage in seeking new avenues to express his faith, from living among the poor in Bolivia and Peru to turning his back on academe to serve the severely handicapped residents of L'Arche. Nouwen's admirers may be less familiar with his weaknesses, such as an emotional insecurity that led him to constantly seek attention and reassurance, bouts of depression and, according to Ford, anguish over his sexual orientation. Ford's theological training (he's working on a doctoral thesis at Heythrop College at the University of London on Henri Nouwen's spiritual writings) allows him to engage Nouwen's ideas and evaluate intelligently his place in the theological landscape, and he discusses Nouwen's character and struggles with compassion and understanding. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Next to Thomas Merton, Henri NouwenÄa Dutch Roman Catholic priest who spent most of his life in North America and died in 1996 as chaplain of the L'Arche community in MontrealÄis arguably the most influential spiritual writer of the latter half of the 20th century. One of his books was titled The Wounded Healer, and BBC producer Ford's well-written biography reveals just how wounded Nouwen was. While not a tell-all, Ford's book perhaps provides more detail on Nouwen's personal life than many readers will care to know. Still, it does show the human side of a spiritual writer who has touched many people, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish alikeÄa restless spirit whose personal crises, which were the substance of his writings, were so much like the personal crises of the ordinary believer. De Vinck, a spiritual writer, has gathered reflections by various people who were touched by Nouwen or his work. Some, like John Mogabgab, Nouwen's research assistant at Yale, knew him well. Others knew him only through his writings but were transformed by them. Given the tremendous popularity of Nouwen's works, both of these volumes should find a place in all but the smallest libraries.ÄAugustine J. Curley, O.S.B., Newark Abbey, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is the first biography of Henri Nouwen (1932-96), a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, theologian, psychologist, and academic (Notre Dame Univ., Univ. of Nijmegen, and Yale). It is a necessary acquisition for any collection containing his works, which include Pray to Live. Thomas Merton: a Contemplative Critic (CH, May'73), The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (1972, 1990), and The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (1992). Although Ford, a current doctoral student in the spirituality of Nouwen and former BBC religious affairs producer, prefers to call his book a "portrait" rather than a biography, it offers a rich, nuanced, honest presentation of the significant people and events that shaped this very popular and prolific spiritual writer. It will be read profitably by interested readers at any level, and it will not soon be surpassed as a sympathetic, helpful introduction to the life and work of this much-loved and much-read "wounded prophet." E. S. Steele; University of Scranton



Connections The University of Notre Dame was founded in 1842 by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a French religious community led by Father Edward Sorin, who sought to establish a great Catholic university in America. Originally it comprised a men's college, an elementary school, a college preparatory school, a vocational ("manual labor") school, and a novitiate. A sister school for women, St. Mary's Academy, was opened in 1843. In its early days the college offered a standard program of humanities, rhetoric, and philosophy, to which modern languages, music, and art were added and, later, science, law, and engineering, along with an academic press and a library. In the 1920s the university was reorganized into colleges of arts and letters, science, engineering, law, and business administration. Under the presidency of Father Theodore M. Hesburgh C.S.C. from 1952, the university's undergraduate and graduate programs were strengthened. With the development of the largest Catholic university press in the world, Notre Dame became a place where the Catholic Church could do its thinking, especially on education, culture, and parish life. The aerodynamics of glider flight and the transmission of wireless messages were also pioneered there, but the school perhaps became best known for its football team, its newly expanded eighty-thousand-capacity stadium, and its marching band, the Band of the Fighting Irish. When Henri Nouwen arrived as visiting professor in pastoral psychology in 1966, it was still a men's university. (It was not to become a coeducational undergraduate university for another six years.) Father Hesburgh was looking for ways of revitalizing the curriculum, one of which was a new department of psychology. While the Second Vatican Council was still in session, Father Hesburgh was already seeking ways of integrating its theology into the spiritual and intellectual lives of students and staff. After the close of the council in 1965, its full implications were causing upheaval among Catholic congregations of North America, which were beginning to open their windows to the unpredictable winds of ecclesiastical change. There was both excitement and revolt: The Mass was changing from Latin to English, priests were starting to face the people, parishes were becoming less cloistered and more socially engaged, and there was an atmosphere of ecumenism among denominations and other faith traditions. Nouwen had attended sessions of the council in Rome and was invigorated by the air of renewal that subsequently swept through Catholic Christendom. Much of Nouwen's own theology was clearly shaped by Vatican II. The church was to be seen as a mystery or sacrament and not primarily as an institution, which was completely in line with his deeper intuitions. The church was the whole people of God, not just the hierarchy, clergy, and religious; its mission included action on behalf of justice and peace and should involve the laity in their own apostolate. The word "church" embraced all Christians. God used other Christian churches and non-Christian religions in offering salvation to all, so the Catholic Church was not the only means to salvation. Not all official teachings of the church were equally binding or essential to the integrity of the Catholic faith, while the dignity of the human person and the freedom of the act of faith formed the foundation of religious liberty for everyone, over against the view that "error has no rights." Eager to help people connect their lives with the new insights of Vatican II, Nouwen was something of a fresh breeze at Notre Dame as he encouraged searching clergy and congregations to imbibe the spirit of the council which many had regarded as the most significant religious event since the Reformation. Father Don McNeill, who founded and directs the university's Center for Social Concerns, recalled the August day in 1966 when, as a newly ordained priest, he had his first encounter with Father Nouwen during a concelebration of the Eucharist. His hair was all over the place and he was running around making sure the cruets for the wine, and the bread, were taken care of before the Mass began. I didn't know who he was. I even wondered if he was someone who was able to celebrate the Eucharist. But when he began to preach, there was an immediate magnetism--all of us were awestruck by his passion and insights. As he continued the Mass, his reverence and emanation of light released us from our stereotypical expectations of priesthood. I also participated in a course he was teaching on pastoral care and counseling. It was magnificent. The courses I studied in Rome were in Latin, but Henri's dynamism was so captivating that I had to rethink my approach to theology and what I was going to be doing as a priest. Henri used experimental learning and helped us develop journals and case studies, based on our ministries. Students and others in need became sources for our theological reflection. It was a whole new way of doing theology. Some Protestant seminaries used clinical pastoral education. In the Roman Church our use of psychology was often pragmatic and compartmentalized. It was a time of confusion for us. Henri integrated the best wisdom of forward-looking European theologians with clinical-psychological insights from Holland and the Menninger Foundation. He had a way of integrating psychology and theology, and bringing it to life in exciting terms linked with our contemporary experience of the 1960s and beyond. As always, Nouwen cared about his students and their personal lives. He was the first to recognize their goodness and gifts and, with the same attention, was willing to help them through any crisis. He was very curious and deeply interested in all that went on in people. He was sensitive to people's sufferings and wanted to do something about them. Because of his own woundedness, the concept of the wounded healer came naturally to him--but not in the sense of "I've had my problems so I can now understand yours." It was at a much more fundamental level. The sporting spirit of Notre Dame raised some questions. Nouwen was attracted by the opportunities and vision the university offered but had a more ambivalent attitude toward its overtly competitive ethos. Nouwen went to some of the Notre Dame football games with Don McNeill, himself a former athlete (they were still exchanging their opinions on competitiveness six weeks before he died). Nouwen didn't understand everything that was going on in the matches, but he was amazed by the size of the players and the roughness of the sport, wondering how it all connected with the Christian message. He objected to people's self-esteem being based on competition that showed they were better than someone else. He cringed when students said that they were happy only if Notre Dame was the number-one team in the country. Yet he also loved watching the game. When Nouwen and McNeill--along with Douglas Morrison--were writing the book Compassion, they decided to include competition among the themes. But the issue was sometimes difficult, even among the authors themselves. Nouwen disagreed with some aspects of McNeill's approach, and more or less won the day on what eventually appeared in print. This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships, prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other, and stands in the way of our being compassionate. We prefer to keep compassion on the periphery of our competitive lives. Being compassionate would require giving up dividing lines and relinquishing differences and distinctions. And that would mean losing our identities! This makes it clear why the call to be compassionate is so frightening and evokes such deep resistance. This fear, which is very real and influences much of our behavior, betrays our deepest illusions: that we can forge our own identities; that we are the collective impressions of our surroundings; that we are the trophies and distinctions we have won. This, indeed, is our greatest illusion. It makes us into competitive people who compulsively cling to our differences and defend them at all cost, even to the point of violence.1 Nouwen's one-year visiting professorship was extended to two years, during the course of which he engaged with, connected, and reconnected people in ways few others could. He was an enthusiastic teacher and by all accounts highly respected by the students. Nouwen had much to contribute to psychology at a time when those trained in classical behaviorism tended to be distrustful of what went on inside people. They understood psychology as a science, whereas Nouwen put a lot of emphasis on people's experience, not their behavior. It was the inner life that mattered. Peter Naus, a Dutch friend who spent a year teaching with Nouwen at Notre Dame, believes that his spirituality came out of the psychology he had been exposed to rather than the other way around. Henri's books almost all start with human experience to which he gives a spiritual meaning. His core concept, the wounded healer, is a very profound spiritual concept--but it's also a very profound psychological concept within a phenomenological, not a behaviorist, tradition. The power of Henri's writings was that people recognized their own experiences in them. He would say that if people cannot connect their own experience to what you are talking about, you might as well forget it. Henri found a way of connecting the psychological with the transcendental approach, so he would say to pastoral people, "Do not stay at the psychological level, you have to bring something else, you have to clarify the transcendental dimension. As a pastoral counselor you have to show how human experience can be elucidated by reference to the Gospel." On the other hand, he was always very clear that you couldn't talk about a spirituality which was disembodied, as it were, of human experiences--so he found his own unique solution for bringing the two levels together. But Nouwen could not hide his own dissatisfaction about being solely a psychologist. The longer he stayed in the profession, the more he realized that he would have to go on asking psychological questions that would only elicit more psychological answers. He wanted to "make available the light of the Spirit" and free himself from a life to which he was beginning to feel enslaved. At the same time, he had seen the development of the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church and been attracted by its focus on personal renewal and community. He believed that by concentrating on inner conversion and the eradication of evil from the human heart, by stressing personal love and the creation of small communities of prayer, many deeply committed Pentecostals were basically saying that the only way to change this destructive world was to start with a change in one's own heart--a position with which he fully agreed. Notre Dame was the only Catholic university in the United States at which Nouwen taught full-time. He felt at home with its ethos but knew he needed a wider ecumenical perspective. While the authorities were indebted to him for his service, they insisted that if he were to teach there permanently as a professor, he would need a doctoral degree. In 1968 Nouwen returned to Holland, where he worked at the Joint Pastoral Institute in Amsterdam and the Catholic Theological Institute of Utrecht as head of the department of behavioral sciences. For a while he lived in a community of professors, who recognized the signs of loneliness in him--that he expected more from others than they were able to give him. This need for friendship and community produced a restlessness in him--he was looking for so many people and so many places, driven by his need of real affection, a factor of unrest in his life. During this time, Nouwen got stuck into his further studies at the University of Nijmegen. He realized that as a priest and pastoral counselor, it was important for him to deepen his theological insights, and he hoped that his work in psychology in the United States could be reworked into a doctoral thesis in theology. But, as with his psychological research several years before, there were hurdles. He presented a text in the spirit of Hiltner, a case study he had been working on in America. It was a good piece of work but, according to his supervisor, Professor Frans Haarsma, the theological side was not sufficient for a doctoral thesis. His interest was not strictly scientific, but more practical--and he wasn't prepared to start again on a wholly new thesis. But, passing exams in pastoral theology, psychology, sociology, and catechetics, he was awarded another Doctorandus qualification. (All would not be lost, however, as American institutions later showered him with honorary degrees, including doctorates.) Nouwen did not settle back in Holland. His name was now becoming known in the United States, where his articles had started to appear in newspapers, his lectures on pastoral psychology had been published in book form, and he was gaining a reputation as a teacher and speaker. He regretted the way in which the Dutch church was drifting away from what he considered to be its spiritual values and sacramental life, and he knew that Holland, in the aftermath of Vatican II, would not be the soil in which his newfound insights would germinate. There was a lukewarm response to his publications and he was not offered any professorship at Nijmegen which he might have expected. All in all, Europe did not look like the continent for him. At one point Nouwen resigned from his teaching job and lived for a year as a student in a rented room--but found he was soon forgotten. People I had hoped would come and visit me didn't come; friends I expected to invite me remained silent; fellow priests whom I thought would ask me to assist them in their Sunday liturgy didn't need me; and my surroundings had pretty well responded as if I were no longer around. The irony was that I always wanted to be alone to work, but when I was finally left alone, I couldn't work and started to become morose, angry, sour, hateful, bitter, and complaining. During that year I realized more than ever my vulnerability.2 Encouraged by the transatlantic reaction to his first publication, Intimacy, derived from his Notre Dame lectures, he submitted a text based on his theological thesis, which would become the book Creative Ministry. He also managed to get published in Dutch a study of Merton, which was later translated into English. Like an actor who had tasted Broadway and relished it, Nouwen kept up his American connections while he was back in the Netherlands. From an address in Utrecht in March 1970, he sat down in front of his typewriter with yet another proposal--this time for a manuscript that would eventually become his most famous book, The Wounded Healer. The letter, addressed to Betty Bartelme, religious editor at Doubleday, explained that it would be a pastoral book consisting of three substantial articles around the question "How do we face the world of tomorrow?" He ended by pointing out: I have been reading the prison letters of George Jackson and I have this strange feeling that this book has really changed me very much. If I will write more things in the future it certainly will be different. I think I am getting less sweet if you know what I mean. I very much would appreciate a quick note from you. Time is becoming very precious to me and I can hardly keep up with my own change of feelings. There were indeed many changes afoot. The offers were not only coming by way of publishers--he was being headhunted by academics too. The prestigious Yale Divinity School, a leading American Protestant seminary, invited him to apply for a post as a pastoral theologian. Initially, he had turned down the offer and affirmed his commitment to the church in Holland. But he began to realize that the Dutch were not as interested in him as the Americans were, and that he was more likely to have greater influence across the ocean. Six months later he was approached by Yale for a second time, interviewed, and appointed to the staff. However, the conditions were laid down not by the interviewing panel or by the appointments board but by the candidate himself. He would be pleased to join the faculty, but only on his own terms and in his own time. He wanted a permanent appointment within three years and the rank of full professor within five years. He should not be expected to produce a dissertation, nor should the subject be broached at any time in the future. 1. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), pp. 19-20. 2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Genesee Diary (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), p. 68. Excerpted from The Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen by Michael Ford All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.