Nouwen’s Letters on the Spiritual Life

NouwenbookcoverIn my most recent post, I cited a letter from Henri Nouwen to a person who wrote to him about his (Nouwen’s) celibacy. The letter is part of a book that was published in 2016 that is a complication of letters that Nouwen wrote to different people, many of whom where friends of his, but others were those who had been moved by his writings. The overall theme of this book is that these are letter on the theme of the spiritual life. It is a terrific book.

I’ve always been drawn to Henri Nouwen’s letters more so than his other books, as good as they are. I am embarrassed to admit that I saw myself in one of the letters he wrote to a person who criticized him for his more polished books often seeming repetitive and overly simplistic. I have sometimes had a similar reaction, but I suspect it’s because I tend to read academic books that are making an argument and that you scrutinize the book, etc. I probably haven’t approached his books in the right spirit.

My favorite book by Nouwen (until this current book of letters on the spiritual life) had been the Genesee Diary; I recall it read as more raw and just less polished over all. But I’ve enjoyed other books, especially his reflections on the prodigal son and his reflections on icons, which I have collected for a few years now, as well as The Wounded Healer, which we read in our graduate training in psychology. In fact, Nouwen was lovingly referred to by one of my professors as the “patron saint” of our graduate psychology program.

In any case, I don’t think it is a fair criticism of Nouwen’s other books, and Nouwen was gracious to the person who wrote and made that observation, and I think he would have been gracious to my own response.

Nouwen’s letters challenge me in so many ways. It felt strange to read them, like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, which I suppose is how I should feel. How else should we feel when we read other people’s letters?

His letters have been a gift to me. I’m still digesting and making adjustments in response to reading his book. In fact, I’ve been ordering many of the books and resources that he recommended to other people. So this will be part of a larger journey, I’m sure.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It matters that we are good friends and mentors to one another. Nouwen takes the time to maintain correspondence with friends and with those who see him as a spiritual mentor of sorts. I was challenged to invest the time and energy and to ask God for His support in this.
  • Stay practical. I was drawn to the concrete and specific aspects of discernment in a letter from Henri Nouwen to a friend: “Try to take little steps in the direction of your inner call (a regular hour of silent prayer, talks with people who can truly listen to you, reading books that help you sharpen your own inner vocation, visits to places and people where some of your dream is lived out). Be sure never to let your life go flat. Always know that God is calling you to ever greater things.”
  • Live out “convicted civility.” This is a phrase made popular by Richard Mouw, but I was reminded of it when I read Nouwen’s letters. He would be so gracious and kind to critics. That would be a great quality to further cultivate.
  • Attend to your interior life. This book came to my attention at a good time in my life. I was wrestling with spiritual questions and how to cultivate my interior life. Nouwen writes letter after letter to people like me, people who would benefit from leaning into God and the reality of the love and acceptance of Go, to spending time in prayer and reflection, to have time to develop a liturgy of spiritual life (or use the liturgy if that is part of your faith tradition), and so on.

In a collaborative project I’ve been working on with a colleague, we discuss the different approaches to the integration of psychology and Christianity. I won’t go into all of the various approaches here, but reading Nouwen reminds me of what we refer to as “personal integration,” which involves attending to your spiritual life as one aspect of what it means to bring your faith as a Christian into a meaningful dialogue with the field of psychology.

Personal integration rests on the foundation that your spiritual life and corresponding experience of vocation is a journey. Your walk with God orients you to everything else. Let me encourage you to take the next practical steps to attend to spirituality, to invite God into it, to ask God to help you set aside the time to cultivate your walk, to be increasingly aware of your journey.

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