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.