Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Henri Nouwen and His Ministry of Companioning: INTRODUCTION

Just as spirituality itself is irreducibly communal, so is our entire journey. Far from a picture of a solitary odyssey, we navigate through our spiritual life with the help of people coming alongside and companioning us. This series will spotlight Henri Nouwen’s ministry of soul companioning. Together we will take a closer look at how he journeyed with others. Hopefully, as a result, this can trigger a desire in us not only in terms of how we can be better companioned by others but more so, how we can be better companions for others on their journey.

Henri Nouwen was keenly aware of the danger of journeying without a trusted companion and called attention to the fact that “our way to God is always a human way, and that without a guide our spiritual journey can entangle us in introspective self-preoccupation instead of helping us to become empty for God.” Indeed all of us can profit from having spiritual companions who can tend to our souls. Elsewhere, he articulated this great need:

We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, to just walk away in despair. We need someone who discourages us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal. We need someone who can suggest to us when to read and when to be silent, which words to reflect upon and what to do when silence creates much fear and little peace.

Unwavering in his attention to the spiritual dimension of soul care, Nouwen acknowledged the need “for diagnosticians of the soul who can ... guide people to an active and vital transformation of soul and body, and of all their personal relationships”—the kind who promote real change through repentance and faith, confronting and inspiring the people to whom they minister. He explained the dynamics involved: “Confrontation challenges us to confess and repent; inspiration stirs us to look up again with new courage and confidence.” Nouwen exercised both, with great care and delicate balance and he companioned people always with their spiritual well-being as his ultimate concern.

To be sure, we have a great deal to learn from Nouwen’s creative and elastic approach to spiritual accompaniment. In fact it is difficult if not impossible to peg down Henri Nouwen into one exclusive image or role—be it a pastor, a priest, or a prophet—for he assumed various roles as he ministered to the varying needs of people. Depending on the particular need or situation, Nouwen displayed enormous flexibility in his ministerial style and approach. Nouwen was definitely not one who was chained to any particular role. He was not what you would call a specialist. Rather, Nouwen functioned more as a generalist when it came to the ministry of formation, integrating with ease various aspects of companionship—whether as a friend, a guide, a mentor, or a spiritual director. It could be said that, instinctively, Henri Nouwen operated integratively in his overall ministry.

The contemporary world of Christian soul care covers an entire gamut of intersecting approaches to spiritual formation ministry. Soul care by itself alone cuts across the various categories of professional counseling, lay care giving, spiritual guidance and direction, and pastoral care and counseling, to mention some. In this series we will specifically focus on spiritual friendship, spiritual guidance, spiritual mentoring, and spiritual direction—four distinct but overlapping companioning approaches which Henri Nouwen no doubt employed in his ministry.

22 comments:

JR Woodward said...

Wil,

It is great to see you re-instate your blog. There is so much that you have to share in regard to Nouwen that I think it is great to have this format to share with us all. Thanks a bunch for taking the time to do this. I mentioned you on my blog today. Peace.

wil hernandez said...

Thanks for all your support JR. You started this all rolling!

Robyn Henk said...

For many of us Henri Nouwen "fans," Henri has been a Spiritual Advisor, friend, and mentor. I'm excited to see how I can continue his legacy by learning how to use his influence in reaching out to others in the same capacities.

You write in the Introduction how Henri's integrated approach to ministry, his spirituality, and his transparent imperfection resonates with a generation that desires authenticity. Sometimes we who are involved in "core ministries" forget these important characteristic and become tunnel visioned, spiritually lazy, and facaded with our own authority-image. What a refreshing freedom we get from Henri's example.

wil hernandez said...

Well put Robyn! Thanks for your commitment (which I share!) to continue to propagate Nouwen's unique way of doing ministry. I happen to be a firm believer that his approach does resonate well with our day and we have so much to learn from his lived out insights especially in the way he companioned others on the journey. I appreciate your comments a lot!

Joanna Barge said...

The intro was timely for all those who not had the pleasure to know Henri. It reaffirms that in spiritual companioning we need to become all others to be affective.
It's awsome! On the road in silent listening.
Joanna Barge

wil hernandez said...

HI Joanna,
I'm glad that you're able to follow this series and interact not just with me but with all the other bloggers. What exactly do you mean when you said "in spiritual companioning we need to become all others to be effective?"

Joanna Barge said...

Wil, you already answered your question to me about becoming another. How do you think Henri became so effective in his journeying with others? . He was a delicious healing listener. So from his example, we too, become one with others by being a delicious healing listener. 3.By that very fact, we symbolically become the other. Christ does the rest. We can work through Him &can experience anothers triumps,sorrows..if only for a moment.

wil hernandez said...

That's quite an insight right there Joanna! Nouwen became deeply connected with others because he knew how to be attentive and in completely tune with them. Conversely, the best way to disconnect with others is to fail to listen. You're right on track, for how can anyone companion another if he/she doesn't know about what it means to listen, and listen well. I still am learning myself, I have to confess!

Robyn Henk said...

I think one of the things that made Henri so unique, and such an excellent model is that he could "enter in" to the experiences of others, by being a "delicious healing listener" (what a great phrase) without crowding them out of their own life experience. He was keenly aware of creating a safe space for others to live out their own truth.

One of the concepts I hope to learn through this discussion is the fragile balance between being a healing "encourager" AND being a discerning "discourager." Henri seemed to have the ability to safely communicate truth in love -- even if that truth was difficult.

wil hernandez said...

Robyn, thanks for your feedback. Again you're right on. In his discernment, Nouwen knew the balance between inspiration and confrontation and, in the words of my former mentor at Fuller, he was a great "carefronter" of people - something we tend to dichotomize a lot when we deal with people.

Lopps said...

I appreciate the need for both confrontation and inspiration. Its necessary and a tough challenge.

wil hernandez said...

Therein lies Nouwen's genius for integration. What we normally split off, Nouwen has a way of making them "cooperate" together. Nouwen always had a way of holding seeming polarities in great tension.

Rick Oxenham said...

It is encouraging to see that Nouwen was not able to be labeled when caring for others. This freedom allowed him to be fully present to others and their needs. And to allow the Spirit full access to each encounter. While that most often feels foreign in my encounters, it is also a place of hope-to become a greater part of the Father's reconciling of people to himself and each other.

wil hernandez said...

Great to hear from you Rick! Wonderful and insightful response! Yes, Nouwen showed a great deal of sensitivity to the Spirit's work in people's lives; he merely cooperated with what God's already doing!

Anonymous said...

It seems that Nouwen's authenticity - what Robyn above called "transparent imperfection" (I love that!) - is what makes him such a companion even to those of us who know him only through his writings. His honesty and vulnerability cause our own hearts to be exposed and we see those things we perhaps didn't realize we had in common with the rest of humanity.
Maybe a better way to say it is that he helps me see, taste, touch my own humanity instead of trying to cover it up or deny it.

wil hernandez said...

Very well said Barbara. That's exactly what we all love most about Nouwen - his authenticity! He did live out what it meant to be in solidarity (one of his favorite words)with the entire humanity and that's the reason why we readily connect with him!

Robyn Henk said...

And Henri's writings, which both suggest and detail his struggle to "see, taste, touch his own humanity" (to use Barbara's words) help us to not only accept and celebrate our own very real "human-ness", but also to become aware of the fragile "human-ness" of others; and in doing so we begin to experientially realize that we are more alike than we are different from one another.

wil hernandez said...

Amen to that Robyn!

Ria Valencia Ferro said...

Dear KW,

I have a somewhat rudimentary question on the subject of the ministry of companioning or spiritual direction. Is there a guideline or a rule that you recommend be followed that only men spiritual directors guide men, only women spiritual directors guide women? What is the difference between counselling and spiritual companioning/directing?

Cheers and Thanks!
Rhea

wil hernandez said...

Hi Ria,

Finally, I heard from you. In answer to your question, there really isn't a hard and fast rule about men directing only men (or women to women). As a member of the SDI - Spiritual Directors International, we abide by the Code of Ethics we all subscribe to (see www.sdiworld.net).

As for your other question: counseling is quite different from spiritual direction although there are similarities. As a trained counselor myself, I can attest to some advantages I see for having been exposed to it but for the most part, SD is about prayer and discernment (see the 5th installment when I discuss this subject more thoroughly). SD is primarily about listening to the Spirit's work on behalf of the directee via silence and contemplation. It's a very slow process and an agendaless one. It's moving with the flow of the Spirit - no advise-giving, information-providing, teaching nor lecturing, etc. A good book to acquire on the topic is Margaret Guenther's "Holy Listening" or Thomas Green's "The Friend of the Bridegroom" to get a good sense of what it is and the what the process involves. Lastly, people go for direction not because they have problems to be solved but primarily because they want to deepen their relationship with God through the help of a sacred companion.

Ria Valencia Ferro said...

I neglected to tick the box requesting that follow up comments be emailed to me this is why I only read your response now several months later. Nevertheless, thank you very much for shedding light on the difference between SD and counseling and providing direction on some reference material I surely would like to get my hands on at some point. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful answer to my question. Cheers and blessings!

Alan said...

This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.

Sharon

http://www.bukisa.com/articles/274655_how-to-become-a-better-listener