Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Friendship

Henri Nouwen longed and sought for deep, abiding friendship everywhere he went. His capacity to connect personally with thousands of friends from various parts of the world is legendary. Amazingly, of the fifteen hundred people he considered as part of his close circle of friends, Nouwen mentioned over six hundred of them by name in the original sabbatical diary he wrote just before he passed away.

For Nouwen, one of the most critical choices we can make in our spiritual life “is our choice of the people with whom we develop close intimate relationships.” Doubtless, he placed paramount importance on spiritual friendship. Much of his energy in life was expended making and sustaining friendships with all kinds of people everywhere. With Aelred of Rievaulx, the gifted Cistercian abbot who penned the classic Spiritual Friendship, Nouwen evidently agreed that “friendship from the divine perspective … springs from God.” As he himself qualified: “Although we speak of ‘making friends,’ friends cannot be made. Friends are free gifts from God.” Both the giver and the receiver mutually share in the gift of spiritual friendship. In the words of David Benner, “it is a gift God gives to us. It is a gift we can give to others.”

In evaluating his inner journey, Nouwen recognized very early his own deep need for “regular contact with a friend who keeps [him] close to Jesus and continues to call [him] to faithfulness.” What Nouwen had in mind is akin to what the Celtic Christians termed anamchara, or “soul friend”—considered an indispensable companion on the spiritual journey. As Charles Ringma affirms, this special type of friendship is meant “to help us support one another in common commitments and in the common journey of life.” Henri Nouwen took such commitments to heart. He always was as concerned—if not more concerned—with other people’s spiritual journey as he was with his own. His initiatives to move into the lives of others were driven by a genuine desire to be a significant part of their journey with God. As L’Arche founder Jean Vanier has keenly observed, “Henri’s cry for friendship and his faithfulness to friendship were particularly evident as he walked with people on their spiritual journeys.” So devoted was Nouwen to those whom he considered to be his friends that his very words echo the depth and breadth of commitment he professed:

I have lived my whole life with the desire to help others in their journey, but I have always realized that I had little else to offer than my own, the journey I am making myself … I have always wanted to be a good shepherd for others, but I have always known, too, that good shepherds lay down their own lives—their pains and joys, their doubts and hopes, their fears and their love—for their friends.

It is evident enough that Nouwen here was not referring to the act of laying down one’s life in a literal fashion. Rather, he meant offering the whole of himself. Nouwen did give of himself to his friends fully without holding anything back. In so doing, he paid a great price, including the experience of getting hurt in the process. He himself had to learn the hard way what he knew and proclaimed all along: “Friends cannot replace God . . . But in their limitations they can be signposts on our journey toward the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” From this perspective, spiritual friendship can rightly be viewed as a gift from above indeed. This was the same quality of gift Henri Nouwen richly extended to many, including his readers.

13 comments:

Tita said...

First thought that came into my mind is to pray & ask God for such a "soul friend", not just a kindred spirit (which I have had, more than a handful), one who is not perfect but can at least be "a signpost on our journey toward the unlimited and unconditional love of God", striving to become one myself, as His grace enables me. Spritual friends like what Henri Nouwen described seem hard to find. I agree that they are truly a gift from the Father, they are not "made". All the more reason that they should be valued and cared for, while time allows.

Tita said...

Btw, your blogs on Nouwen (this one and the previous one in another site)...has a pricking effect. I am beginning to be gripped by a sense of loss and regret, of what I don't have now and is sorely missing, and what I failed to do years ago with people whose lives were entrusted to me (sigh..). Bomber :-(

wil hernandez said...

Hi Tita,
Indeed we are most fortunate if we can name even one person in our life we can call our soul brother or sister. There's nothing wrong about praying that God would gift us with this type of soul companionship. Moreover, we can also pray that we can be this kind of friend to some kindred souls!

Robyn Henk said...

The first thing that impressed me about this chapter is the intentionality of "Spiritual Friendships." We must intentionally long for them -- in other words, know their value and understand our need for them; and then deliberately seek them out.

I think that recognizing if our friendships and relationships, whether by kindred spirit or intentional invitation, are signposting our journey toward God's love or away from His love is a crucial element we must become aware of if we are to experience the potential of becoming "fully human."

wil hernandez said...

HI Robyn,
The beautiful things is, God knows the deepest longings of our hearts and he comes through for us at just the perfect time. He gifts us with soul friends when he thinks that's precisely what we need at a particular juncture in our journey!

Robyn Henk said...

So true -- again emphasizing the "God-giftedness" of such friendships, and realizing that God chooses to gift us with imperfect, human friends who also need our companionship in all our own glorious imperfection! : )

wil hernandez said...

Amen again Robyn!

Tita said...

A relative from Toronto shared this entry from a church bulletin:

"There is a tendency among many of us to try to go it alone, carrying our burdens by ourselves. Is this what God wants for us? Does anything we know about God suggest He wants us to live isolated lives, disconnected from Him and other people? The relationship that we believe is expressed in the Blessed Trinity would seem to say no. Father, Son and Spirit live in love with each other. God intends the same for us: we are to be one with Him, and live in fellowship with one another."

Ria Valencia Ferro said...

The notion of friends as gifts that come to you hit home to me when a dear soul sister with whom I felt great spiritual and artistic kinship passed away at the young age of 41. It took me a long time before I could even speak of her because I could not yet articulate the profound meaning of having had such a wondrous delightful creature engage with me in this perilous sorrowful joyous adventure called Life. She was attracted to me despite my great insecurities and flaws and seemed to complement all the seemingly off the wall ideas and dreams that my mind seemed to gravitate to. She and I did not always agree and we even fought towards the end, a silly fight borne because I was essentially jealous of her. I thought that she was grabbing all the attention and that so many more people were helping her with her problems and very few with mine as I struggled myself with illness. When I heard that she was dying, I rushed to her side and held her hands and told her to believe that she would live if she can believe the Word and the healing power of Jesus. She was happy to see me and though now so very thin and weak, she stood triumphantly in response to my prayer for her to be strengthened. Before I left she grabbed my hand and with tears in her eyes, asked forgiveness for everything. I must have mumbled something back somewhat the same...I told her that I loved her so much. We were restored that day... I loved her dearly and love her still... God's expression of iridescent sweet soft kind beauty, brilliant and terrible. When the choir of her church came to minister music to her, they asked her how she was. She said that she was in profound pain but that the pain was refreshing. She was a most extraordinary woman, friend, lover of God. And We loved each other. I thank God we had a chance to really love each other.

Shortly after her death, I enrolled in Bible School, with my chest still in stitches from a mastectomy, still bewildered from the harrowing experience of 7 weeks in a China cancer hospital...still reeling from the loss of a dear frend. I sat in the cafeteria alone one day as I have the propensity to do, and a young woman approached me. I was bloated, no hair, introspective, a loner, but she approached me ... this beautiful brilliant creative artist writer dancer educator who loves God with all her passion. I did not know it then but she and I would become very close friends through a very natural chain of events. She would tell me later, that God had prompted her to approach me and to "friend" me. God knows all things. God knows the friends we need in the seasons we need them. I love the fact that God hands does not merely create man and all its creation but also the very beautiful relationships within it that reflect Him on the earth. Glory!

wil hernandez said...

Hello Tita,
I can no more agree with that bulletin entry you just quoted. The journey is essentially a communal venture not a solo flight!

wil hernandez said...

Wow, thanks for sharing your experience Ria! That was so touching indeed! Yes, God knows when to gift us with what we need; that simply shows his love and care for us. Glad to know that you have been a recipient of God's wonderful gifts of friendship. Amen!

Robyn Henk said...

It occurs to me as I ponder on Chapter One, "Spiritual Nurture of the Soul" that as spiritual companions, we too can be pastors, priests, and prophets as we care for (not trying to "cure") one another along our life-ways. As pastors we give each other context to the circumstances in our lives. As priests we offer and escort each other on pathways to greater communion with God. And as prophets we detect and encourage the movement of God's spirit among His children.

wil hernandez said...

Well put Robyn! Now I know you're reading the book itself and I'm impressed by your additional insights.