“His Grief Became a Light to Us”

A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:

I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.

I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.

7 thoughts on ““His Grief Became a Light to Us”

  1. I was on a panel with a couple other folks and a student who was listening to us talk asked what blessing has come with my attraction to the same gender. I told them, “Friendship. It’s taught me a lot about the value of friendship and of crying and laughing and smiling and encouraging and rebuking and hugging the people in my life.” (It probably wasn’t quite that literary, but that was the gist.) We are indeed given gifts that we may pass on to others.

  2. How beautiful. My goodness. I have not gotten much benefit from the Nouwen books I’ve read–I’m afraid that my own brokenness may be at work there, or perhaps just a difference in temperament–but I do admire him based in part on your discussion of him, Wes. This deepens that admiration, and makes me think I should revisit his writing.

  3. Pingback: “His Grief Became a Light to Us” | to church + back

  4. What a bleak vision.

    I understand that following Church teaching is going to cause us grief. Grief for the life we could have had, had God not been quite so obtuse as to make gay sex a sin. Grief for the love we’re required to deny ourselves and others. Grief for the second class status we’re assigned by a religion that views us as broken and objectively disordered.

    I find it quite chilling however that others could be inspired by such grief. That they would look on it as something positive rather than the truly awful thing it really is.

    I obviously never met Henri Nouwen, but I think if I had, and had I also known his story and understood the suffering that led to this great tenderness he displayed, I would have viewed it much as I might view a scar or an amputated limb. A horror to remind us all of the horrors that Christianity inflicts on so many.

    Nouwen’s grief would not inspire me, rather it would be a warning. “Stay well away from this faith or you might end up like that poor blighter. Alone and suffering, with the scars of his solitude laid bare for all the world to see.”

    It sends a shiver down my spine, it really does.

    • I dunno…I call it a faith which dealt with things as they really are. I’m sorry grief doesn’t inspire you, but it did me…not from its bleakness, but from the promise of the Gospel in spite of the difficulty Nouwen experienced.

    • I know this is a few days late, so I’m sorry if it is no longer germane.

      I can’t tell where you’re coming from, but this is my perspective (which I think Nouwen and probably Dr. Hill’s reader shared):

      Life post-Eden is filled with grief. This is a reality which we must first admit before we can ever get better. We are, each of us, broken and marred by our and others’ sin.

      It’s silly to blame those who point out the problem with its very existence. We do not become angry at a doctor who tells us we have cancer (unless he does so gleefully or calloused to our pain).

      Same-sex attraction is just one of the marrings that comes as a result of The Fall. Christianity doesn’t do the marring – it merely diagnoses what is already there.

      Those who are willing take the doctor’s advice and go through the surgery. Those who aren’t seek to shut out the pain through various forms of morphine and other drugs.

      We don’t draw inspiration from the marring or the grief any more than we do from the cancer; we draw inspiration from those who have shown us in the past that the surgery will not actually kill us. In Nouwen’s case, we draw inspiration from a man who was big enough to face grief and not try to anesthetize it through illicit means, just as we would a woman who has survived breast cancer.

      In that way, the marring itself becomes a reminder of what the joy of healing will one day look like. Seeing my friend who is left with only one breast after her cancer surgery reminds me what her body will be like at the Resurrection. I don’t take joy in her pain and disfigurement – I take joy in the hope that it reminds me of. And, while I bear no physical disfigurement (at least not on par with hers), I also need the Resurrection.

      So it is that her grief has become a light to me. As Nouwen’s did for that reader.

      That is how we Christians see grief and pain. It isn’t the religion that causes it; it’s the religion that gives hope of an answer.

  5. Joshua, I agree and thank you. It is not that the yearning was pathetic but that a greater love and compassion was at work in and through it. The grief is a passage which is not entirely superseded, true, but which in God’s hands becomes something redemptive and sweeter.

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