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
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)
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).
Ford, Michael: Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen
Nouwen, Henri J. M:
- The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
- The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society
- The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
- Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World
- Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
- Catholics, Civil Partners and Marriage Preparation (queeringthechurch.com)
- Henri Nouwen: Priest & author who struggled with his homosexuality (jesusinlove.blogspot.com)
- Henri Nouwen Society website