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Nouwen was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Utrecht in 1957. From 1957 to 1964 he studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. After receiving his doctorate in psychology in 1964, he was a Fellow for two years in the Religion and Psychiatry Program at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. From 1966 to 1968 he was a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame. From 1968 to 1970 he worked at the Amsterdam Joint Pastoral Institute and taught psychology and spirituality at the Catholic Theological Institute in Utrecht. In 1971 he received his doctorandus degree in theology.
From 1971 to 1981 Nouwen was a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. During this time he had several sabbaticals: in 1976 he was a Fellow at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota; in 1978 he was scholar-in-residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome; in 1979 he had a six-month stay at the Abbey of the Genesee.
In 1981 Nouwen left Yale and had a six-month trip to South America. From 1983 to 1985 he taught at Harvard Divinity School. In 1985 and 1986 he spent nine months with the L'Arche community in France. Following this he spent ten years as pastor at the L'Arche community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Nouwen's books include The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, Clowning in Rome, The Life of the Beloved and The Way of the Heart. After nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University, he went to work with mental and physically handicapped people at the L'Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada.
While visiting the original L'Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, he saw a poster of Rembrandt's "The return of the prodigal son", that made a deep impression on him. He decided to see the painting personally and traveled to Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) to visit the Hermitage Museum where it is kept. This resulted in a several day contemplation of the painting, and the book of the same name.
He died on September 21, 1996 from a sudden heart attack in The Netherlands on route to Russia to film a documentary about The Prodigal Son.
Nouwen's spirituality was influenced notably by his friendship with Jean Vanier. At the invitation of Vanier, Nouwen visited L'Arche in France, the first of over 130 communities around the world where people with developmental disabilities live with those who care for them. In 1986 Nouwen accepted the position of pastor for a L'Arche community called "Daybreak" in Canada, near Toronto. Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Adam, a core member at L'Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities, in a book titled Adam: God's Beloved. Father Nouwen was a good friend of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
One of his most famous works is Inner Voice of Love, his diary from December 1987 to June 1988 during one of his most serious bouts with clinical depression.
Prior to his death in 1996, Nouwen entrusted Sue Mosteller, csj with his estate, making her the literary executrix of his works.
One of Nouwens' major ongoing themes involved his struggle reconciling his depression with his Christian faith. In Return of the Prodigal Son, for example, Nouwen describes love and forgiveness as unconditional. In that book, he invites the reader to follow him in his personal return to the spiritual fountains, and a parallel meditation on all the characters of the parable, and their rendering by Rembrandt, and the painter's personal life.
Nouwen also wrote several essays on the necessity of peacemaking. He used God's Love as a justification for the preservation of life, as well as saying "No" to both the Vietnam and Nuclear War[weasel words].
His struggle to reconcile his priestly vows of celibacy with his human desire for physical and emotional intimacy was also a theme in his writings.
Nouwen is thought to have struggled with his sexuality. "Although his struggle was known by those close to him, he never publicly claimed a homosexual identity." Although he never directly addressed the matter of his sexuality in the writings he published during his lifetime, it is said that he acknowledged the struggle both in his private journals and in discussions with friends, both of which were extensively referenced by Michael Ford[disambiguation needed] in the biography Wounded Prophet, which was published after Nouwen's death. Ford suggests that Nouwen only became fully comfortable with his sexual orientation in the last few years of his life, and that Nouwen's depression was caused in part by the conflict between his priestly vows of celibacy and the sense of loneliness and longing for intimacy that he experienced. Ford conjectured, "This took an enormous emotional, spiritual and physical toll on his life and may have contributed to his early death." There is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy.