Henri Nouwen: The Catholic priest who embraced his demons

Beloved Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen believed anyone who wanted to help others had to recognize their own brokenness. Nouwen's friend and colleague Sue Mosteller reflects on how he saw his demons as angels in disguise.
Henri Nouwen

"In our woundedness, we can become sources of life for others."
-- Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen was a renowned Catholic priest, author of numerous books, and beloved confidant to many troubled souls. He was a professor at Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, but went on to live in community with people with mental and physical disabilities at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. 

"When Nouwen talked, it was like someone talking into your own ear with the language of the heart -- simpler, more direct, talking about his weaknesses but not being exhibitionistic," recalls Ronald Rolheiser, Catholic priest and author.

Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the hit kids' series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, said that Nouwen taught him to "grow into a thoughtful person who cares about the essentials of life." 

Henri Nouwen on "Vulnerability"

6 years ago
Duration 3:34
Henri Nouwen on "Vulnerability"

As many have pointed out, Nouwen could give spiritual guidance to those seeking his help, because he was so acutely aware of his own brokenness and the demons he struggled with: despair to the point of suicidal thoughts, his sexuality, tremendous need for affirmation from others.

Sister Sue Mosteller
He could at times overwhelm his closest friends with his needs and insecurities. Sister Sue Mosteller recalls: "He was demanding in friendship. In other words, he expected often more than one was willing to give. He would ask, 'Would you do this?' But what he was really saying was, 'I really want you to do it. And if you say no, I'll be hurt'… In his prayers, he had to be begging God to keep him faithful and to keep him on the road. I think he had to, because he was anguished."

But it was what Nouwen did with his anguish that was remarkable. He acknowledged and embraced his own demons, recognizing that they were actually "angels in disguise." 

"I just know that in his life he struggled a lot," says his friend Sister Sue Mosteller. "One of the things he tried to do was to discover the gift in the midst of the struggle. So that it wasn't just a torture chamber, because his best friend had died, or somebody had hurt him... He would ask: what is the gift that's in the middle of this that I can claim?"

The gift that he claimed, by going deep into the dark swamplands of his soul, was the gift of compassion -- which literally means to "suffer with". That's at the core of being a "wounded healer". Nouwen popularized the term to describe those who sought to help others while acknowledging their own woundedness.

Sister Sue Mosteller sums it up this way: "You have to bandage your own wounds. You have to make sure your wounds are bandaged, so that you're not asking for anything. You're speaking to a fellow human being about an experience that you know a little bit about, because of the fact that you yourself are dealing with wounds."

Nouwen knew that what was most personal -- our fears, insecurities, despair, and hopelessness -- was most universal. It is this profound insight into what it means to be human that inspired admirers and followers around the world.

During her gruelling presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton told CNN host Anderson Cooper, in response to a question by Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, that the writings Henri Nouwen were a great source of strength. She said, "I read a treatment of the Prodigal Son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is: practice the discipline of gratitude."

Henri Nouwen died in 1996, but his legacy endures. During his life, he wrote 39 books -- seven million copies of which are still in print.

Win a copy of Love Henri 

We're giving away a copy of  Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  If you'd like to be entered in the random draw, email us at tapestry@cbc.ca with "Love Henri" in the subject line. Read the CBC's contest rules here.