Nouwen biography explores paradoxical life

The "life and legacy" of Dutch-born priest Father Henri Nouwen (1932–1996), is explored through interviews with family members, friends and colleagues in this companion volume to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio series.

"Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen" by Michael W. Higgins and Kevin Burns. Paulist Press (Mahwah, N.J., 2012). 176 pp., $17.95

The book is co-written by Michael Higgins, Father Nouwen's official biographer, and radio producer Kevin Burns.

"Genius Born of Anguish" is not a whitewashed portrait, but a sympathetic and empathic reading of Father Nouwen's paradoxical life. He taught at Yale and Harvard and was a pastor at Daybreak, a L'Arche community outside of Toronto.

He spent time in Cistercian monasteries, lived in barrios in Peru and Bolivia, and befriended the Flying Rodleighs, a circus trapeze team. He was depressive, deeply lonely, conflicted by his homosexuality, and afflicted with an incessant need for affection and affirmation.

We see ample evidence of Father Nouwen's "emotional volatility, his thin-skinned nature, his sensitivity to any gesture or comment that he perceived as undervaluing his work." But we also see his fidelity to his friends, his vocation and his lifelong effort to discover the freeing mercy of God.

He was both self-absorbed and remarkably compassionate, emotionally needy but exceptionally generous in accompanying people in their suffering and joys. He was faithful to his religious vows, maintained an integrated prayer life, and refused to engage in "the cultural and ecclesiastical politics of the post-Second Vatican Council era."

Carolyn Whitney-Brown, a Daybreak colleague, noted that Father Nouwen "says that some people try so hard to have no sins that they end up with no virtues either. You have to take the whole package we call life; you have to live with the whole thing."

That is an apt summary of the man who is so lovingly and clearly portrayed in this book.

"Through painful transparency, he wrestled with his sexual identity, acknowledged his furiously buried failures of heart, experienced the leveling honesty of intensive therapy, and tried with near heroic fortitude to pave a road to holiness through the loneliness and abandonment that were his steady companions."

 

Catholic News Service