Henri Nouwen and The Spiritual Life

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. He focused on integrating Christian theology, philosophy, and psychology. He unfortunately died of a massive heart attack while traveling to Russia to participate in a documentary about his book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He authored a total of thirty-nine books and hundreds of articles during his ministry. He struggled with loneliness, but had an uncanny ability to describe his personal struggles in a way that resonated with his many readers.

“I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.

In his seminal book The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles, Nouwen described a persistent urge to enter more deeply into the spiritual life, but said he was confused about the direction in which to go. He desperately wanted to be among the believers who have a deep desire to “know” and experience the “story of Christ.” He noted that heart-knowledge was necessary over head-knowledge in order to accomplish this. He intimated that the method for accomplishing this was to “…set your hearts on [H]is kingdom first.”

I hope to expound on his journey and the results of his search in a way that incites you to do the same.

All These Other Things

I think it is natural for the layperson (indeed, even the young minister) to determine that “the spiritual life” can only be realized through monk-like study and contemplation. Many believe we must sell our earthly possessions, quit our jobs, leave our family and our paramour, and walk into the dessert to confront our flesh and yield to the Spirit. First of all, if this were indeed the only way we can live a truly spiritual life then there would not be many among us who could achieve it.

Nouwen taught that the spiritual life is not a life “…before, after, or beyond our everyday existence.” Instead, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains, joys, difficulties, and successes of the here and now. We simply must begin our search for a Spirit-filled life by taking a careful and thorough look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year. It is only through this exercise that we can become more fully aware of our need for the Spirit in our lives. While earning my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I learned about a rather unique concept called metacognition. Essentially, this is an awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes. I like to call it thinking about what I’m thinking about.

When we are not content with the way our lives are going, we are not really very happy. There is no joy and no peace. Indeed, Christ said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NASB). We must understand that any mood of resignation to our “lot in life” will prevent us from actively searching (and ultimately finding) the life of the Spirit. To get there, we need instead to be honest, show courage, and trust in a positive outcome from our journey. We must honestly unmask and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games.

From a psychological standpoint, we tend to bury (repress) our true feelings. We “stuff them,” hoping that ignoring them will work. That somehow this “baggage” will take itself out to the trash container. In addition, we are prone to project unwanted feelings and attributes within ourselves onto others. In other words, we “displace” our emotions. We also tend to use denial to cope with uncomfortable emotions and, sometimes, actions that have been perpetrated on us. Because many of our so-called defense mechanisms are subconscious and (accordingly) automatic, finding them and bringing them to the light of day requires us performing a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. I first heard of this concept while attending 12-step meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous. Believe me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The Essence of Spirituality

Spirituality is described by J.M. Houston as “the state of deep relationship to God.” It is noted that prior terms like “holiness” or “discipleship” tended to turn believers away from seeking a spiritual life, liking it to intense dedication at the expense of the day to day life. In addition, “spirituality” is somewhat abstract. It seems Catholic devotion was a spin-off of spirituality. Interestingly, the influence of secularism, atheism, pluralism, and moral relativism into virtually every avenue of Western life caused enough alarm among ministers and believers that many began to take devotion to Christ more seriously.

Christian heresies within the early church all won popularity because of the ascetic and mystical properties they featured more than the “doctrine” they espoused. Some heresies responsible for this reaction included Gnosticism, Greek mystical thought (especially during the period of Diaspora when the Jews were forced out of Israel), Trinitarian and Christological belief, Arianism, Docetism, and others. In fact, Islam is considered by some biblical scholars as a heresy of Judaism. You may remember the story of Abraham and God’s promise to him to bless him with a vast land and countless heirs through his otherwise barren wife Sarah. God said Abraham would be blessed and he would bless many. It was through Abraham that God instilled his plan for the redemption of mankind. Unfortunately, Abraham grew impatient and his faith waned. He and Sarah agreed that he would have sexual relations with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. As a result, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, through whom the Muslim faith was established.

The Nature of Christian Spirituality

According to J.M. Houston, there are six aspects that characterize Christian spirituality:

  1. Asceticism as such does not define Christian spirituality because much of asceticism involves contempt for the material world. The biblical doctrine of creation recognizes that God created all things, and they were “good” (see Genesis 1). God does not ask the believer to detach from this good life.
  2. Biblical revelation of God as “personal” leaves no place for relying on human wisdom. Moses spoke with God face-to-face, the temple was filled with the Glory of God (Gr. shekinah), and the prophets all manifested God’s will and developed a degree of Christian spirituality never seen before.
  3.  Christian spirituality must be Christ-centered. Paul frequently talked about being “in Christ” to emphasize the union Christians can have with Jesus. The synoptic gospel writers describe following Jesus to mean being in union with love. God’s original purpose was to create man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). Moreover, redemption is interpreted as being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).
  4. Christian spirituality by definition is life in the Trinity: believers accept God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one triune God. It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians can cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
  5. Christian spirituality is the outworking of God’s grace in the human soul, beginning with conversion and concluding with having been killed, buried, and resurrected (to new life) with Christ.
  6. Christian  spirituality engenders fellowship, and the communion of saints. This aids in deepening the believer’s character. After all, iron sharpens iron. Spirituality can be tested by measurement of a believer’s public behavior and worship (Acts 2:42-47). Frankly, godliness and spiritual fellowship compliment each other. Christian worship is primarily a matter not of special practices or performances, but of lifestyle (Romans 12:1; 14:6; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

Nouwen speaks of being “filled” or “unfilled” relative to the spiritual life:

Filled

It seems that today’s believers are always busy. This is true for all of Western society. It is practically a badge of honor to be “too busy” to get everything done in a day. The fallout is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized potential. As if that were not enough to distract us, Nouwen says “more enslaving that our occupations, however, are our preoccupations. To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there.” I’ve been there many times. All those “ifs” running through my brain. What if that persistent left lower abdomen pain is cancer? What if I get killed in an automobile accident? What if my mother dies suddenly? What if I can never own a home? What if I can’t find a job in my chosen vocation? This habitual negative prognostication makes us wonder constantly what to do and what to say in case something happens in the future. We ruminate, making us anxious, fearful, suspicious, greedy, nervous, and morose.

What would our lives be like if we were to stop worrying? If we could ignore the urge to be entertained, to travel the world “in search of ourselves,” to buy so much, and to arm ourselves, perhaps our society as it exists today would fall apart. Unfortunately, we all seem to get caught up in materialism, wanderlust, competition, contrived needs, self-sufficiency, and workaholic behavior. We become so filled with the world and our selves that there is no room for God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. When this happens to a follower of Christianity, his or her walk with Christ is sorely compromised. This pervasive materialism can quench the Spirit and lead to a continual walk in the flesh.

Unfilled

Beneath our worrying lives, however, something else is going on. Our minds and hearts are filled with many things, and we wonder how we can ever hope to measure up to the hype. While busy with “this and that,” we seldom feel truly fulfilled. How can we? The material world is experienced solely through the flesh. The result is a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. Nouwen says, “Boredom is a sentiment of disconnectedness.” He believes to be bored doesn’t really mean we have nothing to do. On the contrary, we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. He writes, “The great paradox of our time is that many of us are busy and bored at the same time” [italics mine]. The most debilitating expression of our unfulfillment is depression. Perhaps we can call this the spirituality of boredom.

This pervasive depression raises it’s ugly head in thought: “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are sentiments of disconnectedness. There it is, plain as the nose on our faces. Man was created to be in fellowship with God and with each other. When we feel unfulfilled, our life is perceived as nothing more than a series of broken connections. Loneliness is one of the most widespread social diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life (although my father was never bored during his retirement), but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. Frankly, it is because of this sense of separation that many among us are suffering. This is true because when we feel cut off from the human family, we quickly lose heart.

We cannot, however, think of ourselves as passive participants in life who have no contribution to make. I’ve been there way too many times. Not unlike others, I have a need to feel relevant. Without that, we start to believe our pains are no longer growing pains and our struggles no longer offer the potential of a new or changed life. Our past is pointless, dead to us; our future seems to be leading us nowhere. It simply leaves us worried, preoccupied, and without promise.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

One of the most notable characteristics of worrying is that it fragments our very existence, cutting us off from everyone and everything, troubled by events that may never happen. But in our minds, we’ve come to believe we’re no longer destined for success or happiness. We’ve essentially “gone fleshly,” forgetting how to walk in the Spirit. The minutiae of our daily empirical world takes us in a million directions. We struggle to make sense of it all. Nouwen puts it this way: “…most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.”

The proper way to address this inescapable spiritual malaise is through Jesus Christ. He responds to this condition of being filled yet unfufilled, very busy yet disconnected, running and looking, yet never leaving home. He wants to bring us to the place where we belong. But His call to live a spiritual life can only be heard when we are willing to honestly admit our own “homelessness” and fretful existence, and instead recognize that we are all from God, and He loves us much more than we could ever comprehend. He gave His one and only son to die a gruesome, painful death on the cross in order for us to live a life for salvation. A spiritual life. Not a life in the flesh, competing, compiling, coveting, stealing, worrying, or amassing material possessions just so we can “become fulfilled” in the flesh.

Instead of feeding our flesh, essentially our ego, with money and fame and “things,” we need to work at feeding our souls with the Spirit of Christ. When our treasure is with God, we will have no reason to worry—economic recession, falling stock prices, government shutdowns, pollution, extinction of various species, failing health. It would be more productive to realize nothing in this world, indeed in the entire universe, is as God intended. Man’s fall has impacted virtually every realm of physical existence, and it has shut us off from communion with God.

Christ did not die to fuel our material desires. He is not pleased with televangelists who speak only of “having it all,” indicating God seeks to bless us with wealth and success (which He does so long as it doesn’t own us, and we use it to bless others) but forgetting to talk about the wages of sin, the essential need for living in the Spirit denying the lusts of the flesh, and moving toward becoming Christ-like. He died an excruciating death on the cross to provide the means by which we can become redeemed and have the power to crucify the flesh. There is no other way to lead a true spiritual life.

References

Houston, J.M. (2017). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Nouwen, H. (1985). The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles. New York, NY: Harper One.

 

 

 

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