Henri Nouwen: A Leadership Profile – Madeleine Jones

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Henri Nouwen, born January 24 1932, was defined by three passions; faith, education and social justice. Henri was ordained a Catholic priest in 1957, however continued studying psychology, as opposed to theology, to explore the human element of faith. From 1966-1981 Henri taught pastoral theology at the University of Notre Dame and Yale Divinity School. After leaving Yale in 1981, Henri travelled through Bolivia and Peru. Upon his return, he was appointed Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, where he lectured until 1985. In this period, his time was split between teaching at Harvard, authoring Christian books and working with a theological centre in Latin America. For nine months across 1985 and 1986 Henri volunteered as a carer at the L’Arche Daybreak Community, a Canadian housing centre for people with physical and mental disabilities. In 1986, Henri became Daybreak pastor and resided within the community for the last ten years of his life. His relationship with a core member at L’Arche Daybreak, Adam Arnett, who had a profound physical and mental handicap, led Henri to a new understanding of his faith and what it means to be beloved of God. Henri’s final book, titled Adam: God’s Beloved, tells the story of his relationship with Adam and how this unexpected friendship revealed a greater piece of God’s story of Jesus and a broken, yet beloved, creation.

Over the course of his life Henri published 39 books and hundreds of articles. Moreover, he touched the lives of many who were downtrodden, forgotten and pushed to the fringe of society. I believe there are two main reasons for his writing and caring for the least. Firstly, Henri understood the power of words to change hearts when guided by Spiritual truth. He was gifted with intelligence, faith and a desire to express God’s story and his own story, in a way that could resonate with others. When asked about his ability to describe his personal struggles in a relatable manner, Henri responded; ‘I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. It was based on the idea that what is more personal might be the more universal’ (Coady, 1986, p.3).

Henri was motivated to write as a way of connecting with others, walking beside them in faith and assuring them they weren’t alone in their struggles. Ultimately, his writing served to remind himself and others of the Spiritual truths of a mysterious, yet loving, God.

Secondly, Henri was motivated to love disabled and disadvantaged people because of the example of Christ. Christ did not turn away from the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the diseased. Jesus loved the least because God loves them, and he came to offer a free gift of eternal life to all of God’s creation. Jesus commands his believers to also love others because the world will know they are his disciples if they continue to bear with and love one another (John 13:35). In Matthew 24:40 Jesus says ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. Henri’s love of God, and desire to live following the example of Jesus, motivated him deeply to pursue social justice and to love disabled people.

While these motivations were the starting blocks for Henri’s work, I believe other factors developed which also compelled him to continue. Henri began his work at the L’Arche Community understanding that each individual is made in the image of God and loved by God. However, throughout his time at L’Arche, Henri also learnt that each individual possesses a sacred gift and is sent unto earth to use that gift to fulfill a purpose. As Henri took upon himself the task of caring for Adam he realized Adam was waiting to bless Henri with his own God-given gift of peace. Henri states, ‘I was able to reveal to him that he had a gift and his true gift became a gift when I welcomed it… Caring for Adam was allowing Adam to care for us as we cared for him’ (1997, p. 59).

Henri realized God has given people with disabilities gifts, with a divine mission to impact the lives of those around them in a way that is not a burden, but a blessing. Henri’s understanding that he could help those with disabilities reach their potential, and moreover be blessed and enriched by them, if he would only offer an open hand and heart became the driving factor that compelled him to continue.

Henri’s work did not come without personal cost. Henri wrote about personally suffering from depression, which was partly the result of the conflict between his priestly vows of celibacy and longing for intimacy. He was known to write openly about feelings of great loneliness and struggling to reconcile his depression with his faith. Henri took solace in writing about his experiences and drawing alongside brothers and sisters of the faith. His book Inner Voice of Love, published 1988, details his battle through clinical depression and experience of God’s love and forgiveness through the difficult times.

Henri’s ability to put his faith into practice is the aspect of his character I admire most. Henri viewed the world through the lens of Spiritual truth and the overflow of this was his ability to identify a divine gifting and purpose from those people society frequently expects nothing from. Henri looked at disabled people and saw children created in the image of God, sent to earth to play an important role in God’s story. Within this attitude, resentment, condescension and prejudice cannot exist, but rather love, hope and friendship take hold. I hope that I may learn to look at others through this lens of truth and to love the least, the poor and the disabled. I also believe Henri held an amazing duplicity within his character; on one hand he was strong, steadfast, and persevering while at the same time he was tender, kind and nurturing. It is a rare quality to find within a person, and it inspires me greatly. I hope to lead others and use power, but in a way that nurtures those within my influence and helps them discover their gifting and potential, much as Henri did for the clients he cared for. I hope to hold to my values without swaying, and persevere through any hardship my life with undoubtedly encounter, as Henri clung to his faith and endured through his battle with depression. Henri, I believe, was a complex man but his faithfulness, tenderness and perseverance are qualities of his character I find truly inspiring. Like Henri, I work as a carer for children with disabilities. Until learning his story I was complacently happy with the way our society treats people with disabilities, and those disadvantaged through other means. I reasoned that given we provide sufficient housing, education, medical attention and care we were achieving social justice. What I didn’t realize, even as I went to work, was I saw my clients more as objects entrusted to my care than fellow human beings gifted with a potential and purpose. This is a grave relational injustice. Henri’s story changed by outlook, and the joy and freedom that has followed is almost inexplicable. I go to work to care for friends, who love me and care for me in return, albeit in unconventional or even invisible ways. I have a client, a little boy (I’ll refer to him as John), who has taught me life lessons over and over again. Sometimes it feels like society is only interested in me if I have an achievement to offer up, something to grab their attention and prove I’m worthy of love and friendship. But John doesn’t care what I do or achieve, he’s my friend because of who I am. I can walk up to his door after a miserable week of failing a test, or getting no housework done, or being a lousy conversationalist, and he doesn’t turn me away. He offers friendship freely, rather than measuring me up against the ‘what’ questions of my life. As Henri put it himself, ‘people with handicaps teach me that being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind’ (1997, p. 77). Henri’s story resonates within me deeply, because it opened me to a world of possibilities. Within this new understanding I’ve found perspective, friendship and hope for the promise of a new world, where love will be perfected and the broken will be broken no more.


Coady, Mary. (1986). Nouwen finds rest at Daybreak. Catholic New Times. 173, 3-4.

Nouwen, Henri. Adam God’ Beloved. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997. Print.

Title: Henri Nouwen: A Leadership Profile
Author: Madeleine Jones
Format: Biographical article
Year Published: 2015
Publisher: National Student Leadership Forum
Access: NSLF Online Library

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