Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen

I’m at an interesting place in my life. At 44 years old I suppose I am, in fact, if not in “middle age” then at least in my middle years. In a year my oldest child will leave for college. In 10 years we’ll be empty nesters. I’ve had a more than reasonable amount of professional success. Enough that if it stopped now, I would have no reason to be disappointed. So I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the next phase of my life, wondering what else my life might be for, thinking about what else might be interesting. Said differently, am I called to be something different, something more, in the second half of my life than I am today?

I routinely look to books for direction in my life. The Bible, of course, but also other books. Biographies, histories, sometimes novels. Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen is one such book and like the best of this kind, didn’t answer my questions so much as it left me with better ones.

Broadly, after a brief preface and introduction to the concepts of spiritual direction (the practice) and spiritual directors (the practitioners) “Spiritual Direction” Is divided into three sections.

Part One: Look Within to the Heart.

“The first and most essential spiritual practice that any spiritual director must ask anyone to pursue is the discipline of the Heart. Introspection and contemplative prayer is the ancient discipline by which we begin to see God in our heart.”

In some ways this is simultaneously the most comfortable and most uncomfortable part of spiritual direction for me. You see, I am usually most comfortable in my own head. I like the company and they always laugh at my jokes. I am a person who places a very high value on thinking, self-awareness, and introspection. The uncomfortable part is that if I spend enough time in introspection, I’m forced to confront those things about myself I don’t like. My insecurities, my prejudices, and my doubts. I’m forced to confront the fact that I’m simultaneously bullshitting my self and the world. I’m not as confident or sure as I pretend to be. In fact, I’m just making it all up as I go along…just like everyone else.

To this Nouwen directly replies,

“When God enters into the center of our lives to unmask our illusion of possessing final solutions and to disarm us with always deeper questions, we will not necessarily have an easier or simpler life, but certainly a life that is honest, courageous, and marked with the ongoing search for truth.”

Yes, Nouwen tells us, we’re called to wade into the morass of our own egos and push through what we find there, comfortable in the promise that God is, was, and always will be there.

Later, Henri (can I call him Henri?) cautions, “The greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection, doubting who we truly are.”

In one sentence Nouwen has summarized what I’m struggling with these days. Who am I, truly? Is the person I present to world, the person I tell myself I am…is that who I truly am? Is that who God is calling me to be now?

And to that Nouwen adds, “The discipline of prayer is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves.”

Part Two: Look to God in the Book

“A second discipline held essential in spiritual direction is the discipline of the Book, in which we look to God through lectio divina – the sacred reading of the scriptures and other spiritual writings.”

In this section Nouwen digs into the hard, solitary work of prayer and reading scripture as disciplines but I quickly begin to feel chastised by Fr. Nouwen.

“As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people,” he writes.

Try sitting with that for a while when your theological book shelves are heavy laden. Have I been more interested in acquiring knowledge that I have in deepening my relationship with Christ?

Nouwen provides some knowing solace and counsel with,

“Spiritual reading is far from easy in our modern, intellectual world, where we tend to make anything and everything we read subject to analysis and discussion. Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree with what we have read, we should wonder which words are spoken directly to us and connect directly with our most personal story…we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our hearts, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance.”

Not content to simply point out the weaknesses in my recent scriptural studies, Nouwen takes aim at my prayer life too.

“Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts – beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful – can be thought and expressed in the presence of God.”

Then, shooting down my typical filibuster of prayer, he says,

“The truth is prayer is more than feeling, speaking, thinking, or conversing with God. To pray also means to be quiet and listen, whether or not we feel God is speaking to us. More than anything, prayer is primarily listening and waiting. We listen for God in an attitude of openness of heart, humility of spirit, and quietness of soul. We let our mind descend into our heart and there stand in the presence of God.”

This is exactly what I haven’t been doing. Instead of sitting quietly, listening, and waiting for God, I’ve been doing what the world has rewarded me for doing. Go. Fast. Now. As I sit and reflect on how I’ve been living my life the last many weeks and months, I can feel a physiological response. My breathing has shallowed and my pulse has quickened. Simply by shifting my focus for a moment, I have created a sense of frenzy in my mind that must be present most of the time because I’ve lost touch with it.

“As long as our hearts and minds are filled with words of our own making, there is no space for the Word to enter deeply into our heart and take root.”

I remember a Christian ed class I taught some time ago, where I posed the question: Why does God speak so quietly? Because those with authority, true authority, don’t need to shout. It is clear to me that I’ve been shouting into the world and listening to the world shout in return. What I haven’t been doing is sitting quietly, patiently waiting. It is this stillness that, just in the moments it has taken me to write these words, it has become clear I so desperately need and want.

And finally, Part Three: Look to Others in Community

“The third discipline key to spiritual direction is the discipline of the Church of faith community. This spiritual practice requires us to be in relationship to the people of God, witnessing to the active presence of God in history and in community ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my Name” (Matthew 18:20).

This section is obviously about the need for us to be in relationship with one another, on a personal and a spiritual level, and many of us naturally think of that in the context of church. But once again Nouwen, or more likely God through Nouwen’s words, speaks to me directly where I am this week, this year, and in this season of my life.

This week I leave with our church youth group for our annual trip to do mission work on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. These have always been and remain very challenging times on the rez and our work there, though valued, makes such a seemingly small impact. My corporate day job is becoming increasing challenging due to regulatory scrutiny, a soul crushing work load, and a blistering pace of cultural change. And as I mentioned at the beginning, I find myself nearing the precipice of the next phase of my life.

What does Fr. Henri have to say to me and you?

“The fruits of the spirit are not sadness, loneliness, and separation, but joy, solitude, community, and ministry.”

“To celebrate another’s gift means to accept that person’s full humanity as a reflection of God.”

“The ministry of the body of Christ is not really something that you try to do, although it calls you to do many things. Ministry is the fruit of finding your gifts and offering what you have. Ministry is not something that requires professional credentials. It is a vocation each of us claims by virtue of our baptism in the body of Christ.”

“Resentment is the opposite of gratitude.”

“Ministry happens when we move from resentment to gratitude. The spiritual life is one of gratitude.”

“The great seduction of the dark world is indeed being reduced into desiring to become an object of interest rather than a subject of compassion.”

What do I feel when I read these words? What is revealed about myself? My heart is hardened to those around me who are suffering. I’ve become resentful of people who are children of God but are dealing with sadness, loneliness, and separation. I have failed to value the full humanity of so many other people because I have allowed my ego to drive my thoughts and my actions.

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen may not hit you as it has done me. Maybe your spiritual life is in better shape than mine. Maybe I’ve worked myself into a literary and spiritual tantrum. Maybe you would experience an equally strong response but to completely different passages. I suspect however, that if you approach Spiritual Direction with an open heart and an open mind, you will find a least a little something you are looking for.


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