Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Direction

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Mentoring

Henri Nouwen was a good friend to many people and a close friend to a number of special individuals. As well, he is considered by many as their spiritual guide even today. To a select few, Nouwen was both a friend to those he guided and a guide to those he befriended. There were also those who looked to Nouwen as their spiritual mentor. Indeed he did not just serve as a friend and guide to many: he mentored specific people in specific ways as well.

People were drawn to Henri Nouwen for the wealth of wisdom and experience he possessed. For his part, Nouwen was only too willing and eager to share his insights and gifts with those seeking him out for spiritual help. It was in his very nature to always seek to bring out the best in people. Somehow people picked up that bent of his that is why they came to him wanting to learn.

“How can I help you get to where you are going?” was exactly the kind of question Henri Nouwen would ask the individuals to whom he ministered. His aim was always that people might be freed to be who they were called to be. Herein lies the heart of a real guide and mentor, one of selfless giving for the others’ sake. It is said that a good mentor releases the mentoree to be his or her own person, empowering them to live out their true identity and calling. Nouwen lived such characteristic well for he was definitely not after advancing his own agenda. On the contrary, he was always committed to empowering others.

Henri Nouwen’s mentoring style rested firmly on the foundation of relationship. Spiritual theologian James Houston affirms this vital foundation by emphasizing that “spiritual mentors matter most when the spiritual life is centered upon spiritual friendships.” To Joe Vorstermans, who spent ten years working with Nouwen at L’Arche Daybreak, Nouwen was definitely a mentor-friend with whom he experienced a genuinely nurturing and caring relationship that he never once felt toward his earthly father. When asked to identify Nouwen’s influence upon him as a mentor, it is Nouwen’s fearlessness that first came to his mind. As he recounted, “Henri unhesitatingly moved into my life and the risks he took only resulted in my own growth and development as a person.”

Many others testified of Nouwen’s lingering relational influence via his ministry of mentoring. Parker Palmer, the famed educator, wrote this short piece in his journal in loving memory of Henri Nouwen, his mentor and friend: “Henri’s spirit continues to call me … to more openness and vulnerability, more shared humanity and mutual healing, even—and perhaps especially—when the subject is so difficult that words seem to fail.” In depicting Nouwen’s overall mentoring impact, author Ron Rolheiser could not have phrased it better:

By sharing his own struggles, he mentored us all, helping us to pray while not knowing how to pray, to rest while feeling restless, to be at peace while tempted, to feel safe while still anxious, to be surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, and to love while still in doubt.

Henri Nouwen was not just a mentor; he was a mentor-friend. As a mentor-friend, he offered wise guidance necessary to direct others to their own chosen path. On many occasions, Nouwen likewise functioned as a sensitive, discerning spiritual director. This final role is what we will tackle and focus on next—Nouwen as a spiritual director.

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.

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.

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.