Nouwen’s mother, Maria Huberta Helena Ramselaar (1906 – 1978), studied English, Italian, Norwegian, French, Latin and Greek. For many years she was supervisor of the Bookkeeping Department in the family business. She is fondly remembered as being warm, welcoming and religious. In 1978 she came to the United States with her husband to visit Henri and while there was diagnosed with cancer. She returned home immediately and died three weeks later. Her sudden death had a profound impact on Nouwen’s life.
Nouwen’s father, Laurent Jean Marie Nouwen (1903 – 1997), was known for his expertise in tax law. He worked for the government for 16 years as inspector of registration and public property. During the Second World War he entered private practice as an advocate at The Hague. He was later named professor of notarial and fiscal law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Nouwen’s father outlived his firstborn son by less than one and a half years, dying in 1997.
Nouwen would often say, “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” As a youth he experienced the Second World War as dangerous and exciting rather than comprehending its deep significance. At times he had to bicycle into the country in search of food for the family. At other times he helped hide his father from German soldiers.
Nouwen was a good student. He expressed his desire to become a priest at age six. His maternal grandmother had a child-size altar and vestments made for him, so he could “celebrate” the Eucharist with his siblings and playmates in the attic of their home.
When Nouwen was older, he spoke about the two voices that he heard as a child. The voice of his mother praised and affirmed him as he was, and called him always to love Jesus. The voice of his father, proud of his accomplishments, encouraged and challenged him to become a better and more successful person. Nouwen commented that he lived the first part of his life listening more to the voice of his father, and the second listening more to the voice of his mother.
Nouwen was educated by the Jesuits at the Aloysius Gymnasium at The Hague. He decided that he would not become a Jesuit priest because it required too much study. After secondary school he took one year in the minor seminary in Apeldoorn, where his uncle, Toon, was president. He studied for six years in the major seminary in Rijsenburg/Driebergen and was ordained a priest for the diocese of Utrecht on July 21st, 1957, by Archbishop Bernard Alfrink.
Nouwen was interested in pastoral ministry, and he knew that the comparatively new discipline of psychology was important despite the fact that Church circles felt it undermined faith. Immediately after ordination, Nouwen was granted further study in psychology at the University of Nijmegen, where he spent six years. During this time he also worked briefly as a pastor in the mines, a chaplain in the army, and a chaplain on the Holland-America Line, accompanying immigrants to the United States. He graduated as a psychologist in 1963.
Encouraged by the well-known psychologist Gordon Allport, Nouwen applied for a fellowship at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, in the Religion and Psychiatry Program. He spent two years there, from 1964 to 1966, working in clinical pastoral education, research and writing. He hoped to introduce the combination of psychology and theology pioneered at Menninger into a religious education program in The Netherlands.
Nouwen also grew more politically aware during this period, participating in Martin Luther King’s great civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He wrote a moving account of his experience in a Dutch publication, Sjaloom, in October 1965.
Nouwen accepted an invitation to teach psychology at the University of Notre Dame in 1966 and spent two years there. He developed courses in pastoral theology that reflected his knowledge of psychology. His first two books came out of this period.
In 1968 Nouwen returned to The Netherlands to teach pastoral psychology and spirituality and once again recognized his preference for theology. He pursued a doctorate in theology, which he received in 1971. These studies confirmed his passion for educating in pastoral ministry.
Nouwen spent ten fruitful years (1971 – 1981) at Yale Divinity School and became a fellow at the Ecumenical Institute at Collegeville, Minnesota. This study opened him to men and women of other faiths. He also spent five months as a scholar at the North American College in Rome, where he wrote Clowning in Rome.
In 1983 he accepted a part-time professorship at Harvard Divinity School. Meanwhile, he crisscrossed North America on speaking tours about conditions in Latin America. This was a painful time because his energies were scattered and he was unable to feel at home either as a professor at Harvard or as a ‘missionary’ to the South. He resigned from Harvard in 1985.
At the invitation of his Menninger colleague Dr. John Santos, Nouwen joined the new psychology department at Notre Dame. He taught pastoral theology, served as priest to the academic community, offered counseling and made many lasting friendships. He was the first professor to teach abnormal psychology at this university and the first to invite Protestant psychology professors to give lectures.
This period launched Nouwen’s teaching career and his fruitful writing career. His lectures on themes of depression, intimacy and love were well attended and drew the attention of a journalist from the National Catholic Reporter who requested permission to publish one of the lectures. The positive response led to publication of his first book, Intimacy: Essays in Pastoral Psychology, in 1969.
When Yale Divinity School invited Nouwen to teach there in 1971, he accepted with conditions. He would not have to write a dissertation, and he would receive tenure after three years and full professorship within five years. He also wanted to be free to write without restrictions. Over the next ten years, Nouwen’s classes became some of the most popular on campus. This period was very fruitful – he made many good friends, was beloved by his students and began to publish prolifically. His widely read books The Wounded Healer, Reaching Out and The Way of the Heart, among others, date from these years.
During this time Nouwen also discovered solitude by twice spending about seven months living as a monk in the Trappist Monastery of the Genesee in New York State. He wrote about this experience in The Genesee Diary. And Nouwen’s mother died during this time. He wrote compellingly about her death and the gift of her life in In Memoriam and A Letter of Consolation.
In the late 1970s Nouwen became interested in the political and theological developments that were so deeply affecting the poor in Central and South America. He decided to leave Yale in 1981 to spend six months discerning whether to join the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to live with and serve the poor in Peru. Although this proved not to be his calling, his visits to the South expanded his worldview and deepened his engagement with social justice. During this period he wrote the journal iGracias! and Love in a Fearful Land, about Father Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma City who was murdered by a Guatemalan death squad in 1981, and his friend Father John Vesey who continued Fr. Rother’s work for a short time in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
In 1983 Nouwen accepted a position at Harvard Divinity School that required him to teach only one semester per year. This arrangement allowed him to continue to travel to Latin America and to lecture in North America, offering a ‘reverse mission’ by which those in the developed North could learn from those in the developing South.
Despite Nouwen’s popularity at Harvard, he was not happy there. He found it a very ambitious, competitive environment and yearned for community. He wrote:
“After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues . . . I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.”
Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 10-11.
So in 1985 Nouwen resigned from Harvard and went to stay at the L’Arche community in Trosly, France.
A chance meeting with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international movement of communities that welcome people with disabilities, inspired Nouwen to spend a year writing in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. He felt at home there and in 1986 accepted an invitation to become pastor for the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, Canada.
Daybreak was his homecoming. He lived in one of the homes and was asked to help Adam Arnett, a man with a severe disability, with his morning routine. Nouwen’s book Adam, God’s Beloved describes how Adam became his friend, his teacher and his guide.
After recovering from a severe depression, Nouwen began to experience perhaps his deepest fulfillment as priest, friend, author, lecturer and mentor. He gave countless talks and retreats, welcomed hundreds of people for counsel and still found time to write. Whenever he traveled or lectured, he invited a core member (person with a disability) to accompany him as a co-facilitator. His contribution to the spirituality of L’Arche was as profound as the transformation he experienced at Daybreak.
En route to Russia to do a documentary about Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen suffered a heart attack in The Netherlands. He died on Saturday, September 21, 1996. There were two funeral services, one in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and the other near Daybreak. Nouwen is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario, close to his beloved Daybreak community.
Henri Nouwen is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. It is about 4 miles (6.5 km) north of Major Mackenzie Drive on the east side of Yonge Street. Click here for directions.
Henri’s wish was for his grave to be close to the graves of his beloved Daybreak community members. He rests among dear friends Bill, Carol, Rosie and Peter in the south/east section of the cemetery.
The date of Henri’s death, September 21st (1996), is also the International Day of Peace.