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Andrew Sullivan on Henri Nouwen and the “Blessing” of Homosexuality

Andrew Sullivan’s new book, Virtually Normal: An Argument about homosexuality, is on of the most intelligent and convincing pleas for complete social acceptability I have ever read.

Andrew Sullivan is a Catholic. He is just as open about being a Catholic as he is about being a homosexual. From his writing it becomes clear that he is not only a Catholic but also a deeply committed Catholic who takes his church’s teaching quite seriously. That makes his discussion of the church’s attitude toward homosexuality very compelling.

My own thoughts and emotions around this subject are very conflicted. Years of Catholic education and seminary training have caused me to internalize the Catholic Church’s position. Still, my emotional development and my friendships with many homosexual people, as well as the recent literature on the subject, have raised many questions for me. There is a huge gap between my internalized homophobia and my increasing conviction that homosexuality is not a curse but a blessing for our society. Andrew Sullivan is starting to help me to bridge this gap.

– Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p27

(emphasis added)

 

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and celebrated writer on spirituality, who struggled throughout his life with the conflict between his priestly vow of celibacy, and his human desire for a “particular friendship”, and his deep attraction to one particular member of his spiritual community, which he described in his book,  “The Inner Voice of Love”. The writer and theologian Chris Glaser has described how Nouwen had wanted to come out in that book, and disclose that the person to whom he was so attracted was a man – but was persuaded that doing so would limit the readership and label him as a “gay” writer, and so he instead kept the gender of this person undisclosed.

His biographer, Michael Ford (“Wounded Prophet”), told me that Nouwen wanted to come out with that book but had been persuaded its message would reach a broader audience if the gender of the friend were not revealed. Nouwen had mentioned to me his concern that his reach would be narrowed if he were defined by this one aspect of his character.

Shortly after his death in 1996, I was shocked to receive an e-mail from someone quoting “the gay theologian” Henri Nouwen — a verification of Henri’s concern.

-Glaser, Huffington Post

Glaser himself had the opposite experience, when early in his career he achieved transitory fame (or notoriety) as an openly gay candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian church, at a time when openly LGBT candidates were barred by church rules from ordination. As a result, he became labelled ever after as a “gay” theologian. (James Alison, another theologian, is careful to describe himself as a Catholic theologian writing “from a gay perspective”, but not as a gay theologian).

There are then, reasons to be careful about labelling Nouwen as a “gay saint”. He has not been formally recognized by the Vatican for canonization, but there is a case that he could be recognized as a saint by popular acclamation, based on the popularity and high regard for his spiritual writing. A more serious concern lies with the epithet “gay”. He was certainly celibate, and so any implication of sexual activity must be firmly rejected. Unlike Chris Glaser and James Alison, he also does not write from any explicitly gay perspective, or even acknowledge his own sexuality. (In the extract from Sabbatical Year quoted above, he refers to his “friends” who are homosexual, but not to his own sexuality).

But if he never acknowledged it publicly, he did so privately, as is now well known, and it does in fact directly influence much of his writing and spiritual insights:

He was indeed The Wounded Healer that he wrote of early in his career: those able to bring healing to others while acknowledging personal wounds. Nouwen’s spiritual breakthrough came when he drew too close to a member of his spiritual community, prompting intense self-scrutiny that led to his published journal, “The Inner Voice of Love,” in which he comes to the realization that people will try to hook you in your wounds, and “dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.”

-Glaser, Huffington Post

September 21st was the anniversary of Nouwens death – what in Catholic hagiography is described as his “dies natale“, or day of birth into new life. Let us remember him not as in any way a “gay saint”, but as a notable and inspirational writer on spirituality, a candidate for sainthood by popular recognition, who is loved for the healing power of his writing. Who was, nevertheless, clearly of a homoerotic orientation.

“We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics. There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.”

– Henri Nouwen

(quoted at   Prodigal Kiwi)

Video:

Sue Mosteller talks about Henri Nouwen on Salt and Light’s Witness Program

(With grateful thanks to Kittredge Cherry, who alerted me to his anniversary, and to the useful link to Chris Glaser’s reflection. Kittredge has her own post on Henri Nouwen at Jesus in Love blog).

Books:

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

Nouwen, Henri J. M: 

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Henri Nouwen, Gay Priest and “Wounded Healer”

b. January 24, 1932

d. September 21, 1996

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection.

A Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who authored 40 books about spirituality. Nouwen’s books, which are still being read today, include The Wounded HealerIn the Name of JesusClowning in RomeLife of the Belovedand The Way of the Heart.. The results of a Christian Century magazine survey conducted in 2003 indicate that Nouwen’s work was a first choice of authors for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy.One of his most famous works is Inner Voice of Love, his diary from December 1987 to June 1988 during one of his most serious bouts with clinical depression – which was rooted in part, in his early conflicts over sexuality and celibacy.

 

Nouwen is thought to have struggled with his sexuality. “Although his homosexuality was known by those close to him, he never publicly claimed a homosexual identity.” Although he never directly addressed the matter of his sexuality in the writings he published during his lifetime, it is said that 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. Ford conjectured, “This took an enormous emotional, spiritual and physical toll on his life and may have contributed to his early death.” There is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy

His spirituality was influenced notably by his friendship with Jean Vanier. At the invitation of Vanier, Nouwen visited L’Arche in France, the first of over 130 communities around the world where people with developmental disabilities live 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 titled Adam: God’s Beloved. Father Nouwen was a good friend of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

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Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard’s name is one to be reckoned with. Although today we usually use the term “Renaissance Man” to indicate one with a wide range of learning to his credit, perhaps we should also recognize in a similar way some extraordinary medieval women -such as Hildegard, and others who entered convents and applied themselves with distinction to learning over many fields.
Even in some distinguished company, Hildegard stands out. Her music is highly regarded, as are her literary output and her mystical writings – which of course is what makes her particularly honoured inside the church. To round out her skills, she was also recognized as a notable poet, artist, healer and scientist.  What makes her of particular interest at this site, is that she also had an intense attachment to a fellow nun, Richardis, who may have inspired some of her finest writing.
I have known a little (very little) about Hildegard for some time, and have come across suggestions of her possible lesbianism, but have not had enough knowledge to write about her myself. I was delighted then to find that my colleague Kittredge Cherry has done some digging, and produced a wonderful extended post on this great woman. As one of Kitt’s readers put it in a comment,

 

This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.

What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!

A truly great woman, indeed.

This are some extracts from Kitt’s post:

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant medieval German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist who wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.

When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).

In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.

Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum(“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According toWikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.

Impressed? Now go across and read Kitt’s full, thoroughly researched post atJesus in Love Blog, in her series on LGBT saints. (Hildegard’s feast day was yesterday, September 17th.)

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