Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Guidance

Spiritual guidance is another form of spiritual accompaniment, though many regard it as less intimate than spiritual friendship. All the same, it is hard not to correlate it closely with the ministry of friendship. As Henri Nouwen evidenced by example, a true friend is a true guide steering another toward the right path. Conversely, a real guide is just as real as a friend who comes alongside someone in their journeying process.

In its more qualified sense, spiritual guidance, according to Morton Kelsey, involves “the deliberate attempt to accompany other people on their journeys into God and, in the process, to share what we have learned as we have made our own journeys.” The underlying assumption here is that a spiritual guide is a person who possesses a considerable amount of spiritual experience and maturity. In short, he or she must be a veteran traveler, well acquainted with the terrain of the spiritual journey and all its accompanying realities. Henri Nouwen exemplified perfectly this qualification of a true and effective guide to fellow spiritual travelers. Not only did Nouwen possess the spiritual ability but also the passionate desire to lead others and show the way. He specifically prayed that his ministry would be “to join people on their journey and to open their eyes to see [the Lord].” He was thoroughly convinced that the best thing he could offer others in their journey was the reality of his own journey.

Nouwen viewed spiritual companioning as validating people’s essential search for meaning which, to him, inevitably involves our daily experiences in life. True accompaniment, he explained, “calls for the creation of space in which the validity of questions does not depend on the availability of answers but on the questions’ capacity to open us to new perspectives and horizons.” As one spiritual writer puts it, “the questions we are willing to ask and wrestle with are way more important than the answers we think we know.” Nouwen’s own honest admission that he did not have all the answers never diminished his being a trustworthy companion.

Henri Nouwen’s listening capacity was nothing short of phenomenal. He not only knew how to listen attentively; he listened lovingly and compassionately as well. This was how he managed to establish such a powerful connection with so many people. To Nouwen, listening as “a form of spiritual hospitality,” meant “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.” In exercising this ministry, Nouwen incorporated the critical elements of spiritual presence, discernment, and creativity.

Writing about the legacy of Henri Nouwen as a spiritual guide, Deirdre LaNoue notes that “the value of a guide is found in his or her ability to meet you where you are, to understand how you got there, and lead you to where you need to be.” Far from resorting to a cookie-cutter approach to ministry, Nouwen moved in to people’s lives with the intent of helping them uncover by themselves their own intimate relationship with God. Since he was so focused on individuals for who they truly were, he was always right on target when it came to the weight of guiding wisdom he dispensed to them. Nouwen’s capacity to discern wisely was what enabled him to get right to the heart of the matter when confronted with people’s issues. A wise soul guide, he could point them with certain precision toward the right path because of his own soul’s attentiveness to their souls. In offering guidance that was inspirational, exemplary, and compelling, Henri Nouwen proved to be a true spiritual companion on the way that could be relied upon.

29 comments:

Tita said...

Being unequally yoked, whether in a marriage or other forms of vital relationships or unions, is truly incongruent to the concept of spiritual accompaniment and would make spiritual friendship impossible. How can one come alongside another who is going on the opposite direction? It will always be a tug of war. Maybe at a superficial level, a form of friendship and accompaniment may be possible. But it will never reach a depth that only compatible, kindred souls can journey into. Sooner or later, the spiritual dissonance will limit and hinder the intimacy and godly infuence.

I would even venture to suggest that two fellow believers can be unequally yoked with one another, if one stops growing and chooses to stagnate, stubbornly refusing the prodding of the Spirit to walk on. It's hard to come alongside someone who refuses to budge and/or even lives in the past. The test of spiritual friendship then (for me) is knowing when to stick it out and wait for the friend to wake up, stand-up and walk, and when to move on in the journey alone, hoping and believing that my friend will someday rejoin the Race. At the same time, I know He will gift me with another kindred spirit who will come alongside me in my next leg in the journey.

Tita said...

“The questions we are willing to ask and wrestle with are way more important than the answers we think we know.” So true. Sometimes, our predisposition to guess, project, hypothesize and analyze possible answers only prevent us from asking the hard questions, became we are terrified to get the answers we don't want, thinking it is/may be the answer we will get from God. Thus, in the process we usurp God's role as a sovereign, loving God who knows best. It shows our little faith when we try to calculate His moves and guess His answers.

Sometimes, it's less difficult to ask hard questions which you know you don't have or cannot second-guess the answers to. Less treatening to come up with a blank wall than to be presented with a smorgasboard of choices.

Tita said...

Oops sorry...typo, I meant "BECAUSE we are terrified to get the answers we don't want"

Tita said...

And when faced with a smorgasbord of choices, it's when spiritual guidance via friends, mentors, and elders is most needed.

Tita said...

Thankful that you quoted Kelsey that spiritual guidance involves “the deliberate attempt to accompany other people on their journeys into God and, in the process, to share what we have learned as we have made our own journeys.” On being a "guidepost towards God" (quoting from your previous blog), it truly is a deliberate choice - one that is carefully weighed and intentional - not a passive one, knowing that providing guidance to another is a sobering and humbling experience, one that holds the 'guide' accountable to Him and to those influenced. It's a form of ministry that is not to be taken lightly, and only for those "who possesses a considerable amount of spiritual experience and maturity" (otherwise, the risk of "the blind leading the blind"). True, one cannot give from without.

Being a spiritual guidepost is also not for those who are not yet ready or willing to tell of their own life stories. As Kelsey wrote, there is a need "to share what we have learned as we have made our own journeys." I am sure this meant being humble & vulnerable enough to share one's struggles and failures, not just joys and victories, if only to highlight the saving grace and restoring power of God to those who are walking alongside you. I think this was one of the hallmarks of Henri Nouwen's ministry, never for a moment that he pretended to have it altogether...he glorified God through his own imperfections.

(Ehrr, not meaning to dominate the discussion, heheh..will be offline for the next 3-5 days bec. I'll be on travel and will likely not have internet connection. It's just that all these thoughts keep coming up, so will have to pen them in my own journal as I continue my reflections).

wil hernandez said...

I agree with you Tita that it's difficult to journey with someone who's not in step with you. But there's a fine line here and this is where discernment is in order. Sometimes, sticking it out with somebody will make a world of difference with that person; sometimes pulling out may be the most loving thing to do. Indeed it's a difficult call. But we can know if we are in tune with the one who ultimately is leading the journey!

wil hernandez said...

Rainer Maria Rilke rightly proposed: "learn to live the questions" - time may come when the answers will come but it's not for us to demand such. In fact it's in living the questions that we learn to form and solidify our deepest convictions - something not borrowed but truly owned because we've wrestled well with the questions productively.

wil hernandez said...

Sharing our own journeying realities is one of the most tangible ways to come alongside others. And you're right Tita, that certainly includes our vulnerable self that need not be "together" before we can give it away. Nouwen did precisely that and was an effective guide to others while he himself was wrestling with the process himself.

Thanks for your wonderful insights Tita! Happy trip!

Robyn Henk said...

One of the things that has really "jumped out" at me is how often the concept of "coming alongside" or "accompanying" another person in their spiritual journey has come up in these chapters. I think that was Henri's spiritual "genius." He didn't try to "commandeer" someone else's pathway, but served to empower and enlighten as their guide. It really is a lost concept in today's world of "effective leadership skills" that so many church bodies are trying to implement.

wil hernandez said...

Thanks for the comment Robyn! In the words of Alan Wolfelt: "Companioning is about walking alongside; it's not about leading." That's why I prefer the term "one WITH one" as opposed to "one on one."

Glendale Yap said...

For me, a true friend is, in a deep sense, the most qualified to be a spiritual guide. He sees your "blind spots" because it took him time and patience to get to know you.
Of course, we know ourselves in the conscious level such as our motivations and drives, strengths and weakness, our gifts and aspirations. But, we will always remain partially hidden to ourselves and we need true friends with their own special gifts to remind us of our own truths, sometimes bitter truths that are hard to accept. Yet, the very presence of such friends become our guideposts on the journey, and they lead us into the depth of God's unconditional love!

wil hernandez said...

Thanks for pointing that out Glendale - that true guidance always occurs within the context of a friendship relationship. Nouwen was a friend and a guide rolled into one. I agree with you; we need guides who are real enough friends who can love us boldly to point out our blind spots!

Robyn Henk said...

But I think it is important to remember that we must give our Spiritual friends and guides the permission to point out those blind-spots; as well as to go gently into those dark areas with each other... else the "confrontation that challenges us to confess and repent" (pg.31) can be interpreted as attack or criticism and backfire on the relationship.

wil hernandez said...

If they're truly our spiritual friends, I'd like to think that such permission is a given, don't you think so Robyn? Of course I'm assuming that any kind of confrontation is done out of love!

Robyn Henk said...

True, however, although both spiritual friendships and spiritual guide relationships are intentional, unlike mentor or director relationships they can be gradually moved into, so certain aspects of that relationship develop over time and therefore are not always explicitly defined. Occasionally it might be a good idea to "take stock" of where the relationship is headed and make sure that certain permissions and expectations are actually voiced (or confirmed anew) and not just assumed.

And of course all confrontation, accountability, and such must be done in sincere love with kindness and gentleness -- but even THOSE descriptors carry different characteristics and expectations when acted on.

wil hernandez said...

That's rather a helpful distinction you're making Robyn; I basically agree!

Robyn Henk said...

mmmm... "basically agree," does that mean there are areas you specifically differ in? (it's ok -- that is what makes discussion interesting and interesting discussion encourages growth)

wil hernandez said...

Hi Robyn, I better watch my language huh? When I say basically, I'm concurring while realizing that it's hard to make a hard and fast rule about "expectations" and "assumptions" -which, while good to have, sometimes do warrant clarifications.

Glendale Yap said...

Hi Wil and Robyn, may I join in? Here's my two cents' worth: When friends have known each other for a length of time, each one is familiar with the terrain.. the time and place when to "confront in love".
I agree that friends can hurt you the most, but the hurting was as necessary as a surgeon's knife.
Yes, there are varying degrees of expectations in spiritual guidance, so that permission may be required in entering a sacred, private space for loving confrontation to take place.

wil hernandez said...

Thanks Glendale for your input! As I said elsewhere, there is a way to do what my former mentor at Fuller called "carefronting" in his little booklet "Caring Enough to Confront." And I do believe in discerning "when" and "how" to do it in the most loving way!

Robyn Henk said...

I think you hit a very important point right on the head Glendale Yap --- TIME! The longer we travel together as companions, the more familiar we become with our particular relationship's "terrain" (great visual GY) the more honest we can become with each other... but there is an important "IF"... that is, "IF" we have the same destination in mind.

Henri seemed to have established patterns with those he both "befriended" and "guided"... his destination for their shared journey seemed to be "wholeness" or as Eugene Peterson says, "restoration to the person God created each to be" (my paraphrase there.)

Two stumbling blocks to such fullness in these relationships (it seems to me) is:
1. not establishing healthy spiritual patterns for the journey to reach the desired destination and
2. not giving the relationship enough time to develop the trust, love, etc. and to endure the occasional wrong turn and mishap (like the initial confrontations that come from a sincerely loving intent, but executed clumsily.)

Seems it all must be covered with a healthy dose of GRACE :-)

wil hernandez said...

Great discussion going here Robyn and Glendale. Thank you both for your wonderful insights. YES,time (as well as timing) is critical. Nouwen always emphasizes that we should make sure we live in sync with God's "kairos",not necessarily according to our own interpretation of "chronos"(I may be mispelling it here!). God's timing is the God-given opportunity we should seize! This holds true for any kind of companioning reality.

Robyn Henk said...

Wow, I love that thought: living in sync with God's Kairos not my chronos... something to meditate on

wil hernandez said...

According to Nouwen, "kairos" means "the" opportunity - the right time, the real moment, the chance of our lives.

Robyn Henk said...

It seems to me that to live in sync with that "Kairos" as Nouwen defines it, also means to attempt to be "fully present to God's Presence and to each other in the present moment" (another one of Nouwen's concepts I believe -- he just states it better.) I wonder how many God-opportunities slip away simply because I'm more worried about my "busy schedule" than being fully aware of what is happening (physically and spiritually) around me at the moment.

Tita said...

Very interesting discussions here, and getting a lot of insights from all of you. Also a bit fascinated with the concept of 'kairos' (my first time to come across its meaning). When I googled the term, it says in the New Testament kairos means "the appointed time in the purpose of God", the time when God acts.

My question is: what characterizes a kairos moment? When do you know when you are in one (so as not to miss these divine opportunities)?

wil hernandez said...

I love what you just said Robyn - the need to be present to God's presence. That to me answers Tita's question. How do we know? we would know if we learn to practice the sacrament of the present moment with God and with one another.

Robyn Henk said...

There are two quotes that come to mind, Tita, that illustrates the idea of what I think Henri means by "kairos."

The first, by Henri:
"Our minds are always active. We analyze, reflect, daydream, or dream. There is not a moment during the day or night when we are not thinking. You might say our thinking is "unceasing" …we can convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer by making our inner monologue into a continuing dialogue with our God, who is the source of all love."

The second by Joan Chittiser:
"Prayer is an attitude toward life that sees everything as ultimately sacred, everything as potentially life-changing, everything as revelatory of life’s meaning. It is our link between dailiness and eternity."

I see it as the intentional action of keeping heart, mind, soul, and body consciously in God's Presence... BUT, to be honest, it takes alot of practice and training, it is a spiritual discipline that requires (at least for me) intentional focus and practice and examen.

wil hernandez said...

Super Robyn!
To quote Chittister too, practicing monastic "statio" (the time between times) means to practice the virtue of presence - where we're exercising contemplative awareness and mindfulness (the principle of interiority and attentive subjectivity in the words of Bernard Lonergan!).