Nouwen’s Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

I just finished a classic text that I had never read before, Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out:  The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.  I really loved it, and I’m going to be using it in an upcoming presentation.  In the meantime, I just wanted to share the movements, and a couple really great quotes.  If you like them, get the book:  it’s worth a read.

The first movement is from loneliness to solitude.  Written in 1975, Nouwen says, “The contemporary society in which we find ourselves makes us acutely aware of our loneliness.  We become increasingly aware that we are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry” [15].  True in 2016?  Yep.

We hate to be alone, we are desperately afraid of loneliness, and yet, this is a universal human experience and we cannot avoid our essential aloneness.  We have to risk being alone with ourselves, and entering deeply into our own experiences.  This has the potential to bear rich fruit for us.  Nouwen describes it this way:  “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude” [22.]

The second movement is from hostility to hospitality.  Does it seem to anyone else that hostility is increasing?  This current presidential campaign has been full of it, to everyone’s detriment.  It is so much easier–and in some ways, so much more satisfying–to regard others with hostility, especially those who are different from us.  It feels good to pile our own anxiety, mistrust, anger and suspicion onto others, treating them like scapegoats to release us from our own fears.  But Nouwen is clear:  “…that is our vocation:  to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced” [46].  For Nouwen, hospitality means “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place” [51].

The third movement is from illusion to prayer.  Here, Nouwen identifies the illusions that continually tempt us into seeking our own security and safety, and he says we have to give up the lure of what is impermanent for the dependability of what is permanent.  He writes, “Patiently but persistently we must slowly unmask the illusions of our immortality, dispelling even the feeble creations of our frustrated mind, and stretch out our arms to the deep sea and the high heaven in a never-ending prayer.  When we move from illusion to prayer, we move from the human shelter to the house of God” [86].  

Prayer is a move from the known to the unknown, which makes us very vulnerable.  Somewhat paradoxically, prayer does not lead us out of the world, but rather more deeply into it:  “Being the expression of our greatest love, it does not keep pain away from us….To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity” [107-108].

More love, more God, more humanity.  Somehow, that sort of gets right at the aims of a spiritual life, I think.

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