Book Review: “A Spirituality of Living” by Henri Nouwen

So much of life has rhythm.  The seasons move from one to another in predictable and regular motion.  Tides have rhythm.  So too the lives of animals.  Our moods and spirits even move up and down with some predictability, though regularity may be an overstatement.  For most of us, a week of life marches along with a comfortable cadence we know and welcome.  We do well to recognize the rhythms of life and to work with these instead of against them.

Could it be that there is also an optimal rhythm to the spiritual life that one can discover and adopt in order to flourish as a truly loving child of God?

This is the question that Henri Nouwen explores and answers in the affirmative in A Spirituality of Living, the tiny, new repackaging of one of my favorite writings of his, a small essay he wrote for Leadership in 1995 entitled “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.”  While $12 does seem steep for 63 pages, the two or three hours spent with this book will pay rich dividends.

A spiritual life without discipline is impossible. (13)

So Nouwen begins.  Then he takes us to Luke 6:12-19, in many ways the centerpiece of the book:

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.  When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.  He went down with them and stood on a level place.  A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.  Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Here Nouwen sees three disciplines that were central to Jesus’ life, and can be for us too if we want to find the love and centeredness that he had.  Jesus moved rhythmically from solitude with God to community with his apostles and finally to ministry to the harried and oppressed masses.  Because he practiced these with regularity and intentionality, Jesus tapped into a reservoir of divine love and was able to share this in a healing manner to those he was called to save.  When we do the same, our lives will also become sources of healing to others and we will be empowered to love people without using them as replacements for God.

This three-part pulse of Jesus’ life can be diagrammed as follows:

Solitude

Jesus made a regular practice of leaving the crowds and even his friends in order to be alone with God.  It is instructive that in this passage Jesus did this early — when it was still night — and first.  We need the strength and encouragement that solitude brings before we rub shoulders with our friends and certainly before we roll up our sleeves and get busy with our various roles in bringing the kingdom to this world.  Nouwen argued here, as he does in almost any book he writes, that in solitude Jesus was reassured that he was “God’s beloved child” (Luke 3:22; 9:35).  In solitude, we shore up the sense of love, belonging, acceptance and identity we need to function healthfully in this world.  Time of solitude sends us forth into the world with freedom: we don’t go looking to others to love and fulfill us in a way that only God can do, a recipe for relationships with unrealistic expectations and disappointment.

Community

Rather than reinforce insularity, true solitude is intended to “call us to community,” helping us “realize we are part of a human family and that we want to live something together” (33).  Next, Jesus gathered his friends around him, those he called the apostles.  Like Jesus was doing, when we enter into community we are saying “we are God’s beloved.”  We acknowledge that others are as special to God as we are and we celebrate that fact, rather than turn them into competition.  Also, because he have already found perfect love in God, we don’t need our friends and lovers to play that role.  They are free to be the imperfect people they naturally are, and forgiveness is easier to grant as we haven’t freighted them with divine expectations.  Just as Jesus said to his apostles that he wished to go through life with them, we too forge togetherness for the next part of spiritual life.

Ministry

Together, Jesus and his apostles walked down to the level plain before them where the crowds had assembled from all over.  All manner of harried and oppressed people flocked to Jesus to listen to this provocative new teacher and to be delivered from their maladies.  Nouwen emphasizes that now, empowered by an awareness of the Father’s love and encouraged by his community, Jesus is able to radiate a love that truly heals.  Overflowing with love, Jesus was able to show compassion on the masses, that is “feel with” them.  Like Jesus, ministry will move from being a burden to being a natural outflow of love as we follow the three-part rhythm of this passage.  We too will find that God’s love brings healing and wholeness into the lives of those around us in need.

Some questions worth asking yourself as you read and process this small book would be:

  • Do I have a disciplined time of solitude, such as prayer?
  • What is keeping me from believing how deeply I am loved by God?
  • With whom am I trying to find the kind of love that only God can bring?
  • Who makes up my small community of friends with whom I am able to find support?
  • What is my ministry to harried and oppressed people?
  • When have I seen healing and wholeness come from God’s radiating love in my life?
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