I want to welcome CNN anchor Anderson Cooper to the club! Not the gay club, to which he has belonged for a while. Rather, the club of those whose character is questioned because they didn't come out earlier. In place of the more difficult work of questioning a culture's character, it's easier for pundits to question a celebrity's character.
And I say this as one with bona fide credentials, having come out 40 years ago this summer, not as a celebrity but as one who experienced transitory "fame" a few years later as an openly gay candidate for professional ministry in the Presbyterian Church, replete with TV, radio and newspaper coverage. Those were heady times when we thought we might change the world, or at least our little part of it, the church. And finally, last year, Presbyterians lifted the ban on ordination of openly gay and lesbian people -- just as I am approaching retirement!
But my character also was questioned, and so I have empathy for celebrities who don't fall all over themselves coming out, despite the good it might do to limit bullying, suicides and inequality.
A spiritual mentor and friend, Henri J. M. Nouwen, faced the same difficulty. Having written dozens of books on the spiritual life and Christian ministry, Nouwen was a celebrity among Catholics and Protestants alike. But he believed in his call as a celibate priest, while yearning for what Catholic teaching opposed: "a particular friendship."
He was indeed The Wounded Healer that he wrote of early in his career: those able to bring healing to others while acknowledging personal wounds. Nouwen's spiritual breakthrough came when he drew too close to a member of his spiritual community, prompting intense self-scrutiny that led to his published journal, "The Inner Voice of Love," in which he comes to the realization that people will try to hook you in your wounds, and "dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them."
His biographer, Michael Ford ("Wounded Prophet"), told me that Nouwen wanted to come out with that book but had been persuaded its message would reach a broader audience if the gender of the friend were not revealed. Nouwen had mentioned to me his concern that his reach would be narrowed if he were defined by this one aspect of his character.
Shortly after his death in 1996, I was shocked to receive an e-mail from someone quoting "the gay theologian" Henri Nouwen -- a verification of Henri's concern. Thus we might take Anderson Cooper at his word in telling friends he didn't want to be known as "the gay anchor."
I have the opposite but analogous experience. Because I became known for my gay activism, I've discovered I have been typecast and whatever spiritual insights I might offer the church have been viewed through a prejudicial lens.
As one who resisted mentioning Henri's sexuality after his death even after it had become public, I was nonetheless invited by his spiritual community to write about it for an anthology entitled "Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen." They trusted me, they said, to write about it without sensationalizing it.
So I understand Anderson Cooper's earlier public reticence. Our often Cycloptic (my own word) culture tends toward viewing people through one aspect of character rather than dealing with complexity.
As I say, welcome to the club, Mr. Cooper!
Rev. Chris Glaser is the author of Henri's Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen's Legacy and posts "Progressive Christian Reflections" weekly on his blog http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com. He will be leading a seminar on Henri Nouwen open to the public Feb. 28-March 3, 2013 at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
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