Henri Nouwen Remembered in Presentation

News Story: September 1, 2012

Students, faculty, staff and members of the community were thoroughly entertained Tuesday evening (Sept. 25) as Dr. Michael W. Higgins

Dr. Michael Higgins, left, 
with Dr. Ed Hendricks at the talk.

discussed the last 10 years of Henri Nouwen’s life in a presentation at Sacred Heart University. Higgins, who is vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart, is also the official biographer of Henri Nouwen. His presentation was the University’s Second Annual Henri Nouwen Lecture on Contemporary Spirituality.

Higgins’ topic was “Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier and L’Arche: a Sacred Trinity” – a topic that is also covered in his recently published book, Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen. His co-author, CBC producer Kevin Burns, presented the inaugural Henri Nouwen Lecture at Sacred Heart last year.

Higgins told his audience that Nouwen, a Dutch psychologist and priest who authored 39 books and more than 18,000 letters, spent among the happiest years of his life in Connecticut while teaching at Yale. Those 10 years were followed by three years at Harvard where he was deeply unhappy. His restlessness and unease led him to France, Jean Vanier and the first L’Arche home for the handicapped in Trosly-Breuil. In issuing the invitation, Vanier believed that in his wounded state, Nouwen could be of help to the wounded, Higgins said.

For more than an hour, Higgins shared with the audience stories from Nouwen’s years spent ministering to the mentally challenged. The presentation included excerpts from his book. Higgins hypothesized that through his ministry Nouwen came to understand not only the wounded, but who he himself was and that through their suffering he was able to recognize his own vulnerability.

Higgins noted that throughout his life, Nouwen wrestled with homosexuality, although he was chaste and loyal to his vow of celibacy. Nouwen understood that spirituality is a life process and not a phase. He was also intensely loyal to his friends and deeply empathetic. All a friend had to do was indicate he was in pain and Nouwen was immediately by his side.

Higgins’ tales of Nouwen’s last 10 years included a love affair with circus acrobats, a reconciliation with his father and, sadly, a death with no one by his side – something he had feared above all else. Following his death, the L’Arche community honored him by building the coffin in which he was buried.

During the question-and-answer period, members of the audience shared their own experiences with Henri Nouwen, which included attending lectures where Nouwen was accompanied by members of the L’Arche community. Higgins took the opportunity to point out that Nouwen did not believe the handicapped needed to be kept away from the general population, and he made that point by integrating them into his daily life.

The discussion continued at a reception following the presentation, and Nouwen fans are already looking forward to next year’s third annual Nouwen lecture.

Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen, published by Paulist Press, is currently available in bookstores and online.