Henri Nouwen seized the practice of spiritual direction for his own sake and for the sake of others. He sought direction for himself when he needed it and gave direction to others who asked for it. Creatively, he was able to draw from its rich diversity of expressions while at the same time wisely focusing on its most fundamental thrust: listening to God.
As if to wipe out its rhetorical mist and in the process demystifying it, Nouwen—in his characteristic simplicity—boiled down his definition of spiritual direction to that of “direction given to people in their relationship with God.” God is the ultimate focus of spiritual direction. It is not jut a one-on-one but a one-with-one encounter. For Nouwen, “a spiritual director simply was someone who talks to you and pray with you about your life.” Nouwen focused on this crucial component of prayer which is the lifeblood of any true spiritual direction relationship.
As many practicing spiritual directors would attest, at the heart of the spiritual direction experience is the dynamic of prayer. Henri Nouwen painted the profile of a spiritual director as someone mature “from whom we can expect prayerful guidance in our constant struggle to discern God’s active presence in our lives.” As he explained further, “the prayer life of the spiritual director is the source of his or her own directing ministry. To be a spiritual director means to share one’s prayer with the searching other.” Moreover, Nouwen regarded prayer as “an outward, careful attentiveness to the One who invites us to an unceasing conversation.”
Fundamentally, Nouwen believed “prayer is an attitude of open heart, silently in tune with the Spirit of God, revealing itself in gratitude and contemplation.” In saying this he noted the primary thrust of prayer as that of listening and waiting. This involves the art of discernment. Henri Nouwen brings to our attention the reality that authentic spiritual direction “means that ... people come together to listen to the direction of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit must be acknowledged ultimately to be the real director.
As Henri Nouwen underscored, spiritual direction, “offers prayerful presence, wise counsel, and careful guidance by a spiritual friend who is sensitive to the movements of the Spirit ...” In short, everything about spiritual direction revolves around the twin dynamics of prayer and discernment. In it, we pray as we discern and discern as we pray. What made Henri Nouwen the effective spiritual director that he was can largely be attributed to the fact that he refused to stray from these two focal points; instead, he relied heavily on the Spirit’s work to use the crucial avenues of prayer and discernment to effect inner change in people’s lives. He prayed and discerned out of a deep motivation in his heart to see this kind of change take place.
Andrew Dreitcer, one of Nouwen’s former students at Yale remarked: “We learned spiritual direction primarily because Henri modeled it for us. He showed u show to be the spiritual friend, the sacred companion. He offered us the space and time to be companions to one another.” Dreitcer’s words sum up the kind of versatile journey companion Henri Nouwen was to many people. He filled the oftentimes indistinguishable roles of a spiritual friend, a spiritual guide, a spiritual mentor, a spiritual director effortlessly. He was able to do so because this was precisely who he was—a well-integrated soul companion on life’s sacred journey.