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.

Relational Integration

Psychology-BgIn preparing to lead an opening devotions and prayer with our doctoral psychology faculty, I began to reflect on who we are as faculty in our relationships with our students. I reviewed a line of research began by the late Randy Sorenson and expanded in collaboration between Randy and other colleagues at several integration programs.

Randy was known for the quip: “Integration is caught, not taught.” It has become something of a classic line among educators in integration programs that actually raises more questions than provides answers. How did Randy arrive at that conclusion? Over time.

Randy led a research group that conducted at least five studies I know of on how students learn integration of psychology and Christianity while they are in training to become psychologists in faith-based integration programs. He would develop a relational attachment model for how students learn integration, and in the first two studies the focus was on the impact of students’ own personal therapists, early attachment in their family-of-origin, and their comfort with integration in the therapy they provided. Student indicated the salience of their own personal therapists in shaping their integration. These were what Randy would refer to as “affectively engaged relationships” that provided a venue for learning integration and that overshadowed early attachment figures. Personal therapists tended to intervene as though God were real (and not merely a representation); they were open and non-defensive about integration; they initiated discussions about connections between a student’s experience of God, parents, and the therapist; and they saw a student’s relationship with God as potentially positive and meaningful, among other things.

Randy then turned to the question of how students learn integration from faculty in these same integration programs. Now let me say this: We put a lot of time in these programs toward curriculum development, ordering the course offerings to maximize exposure to what is needed for assessment, clinical practices, ethics, and so on. All of our programs teach various models of integration and test students on their knowledge of these models of integration. But what Randy reported in his third, fourth, and fifth studies in this area was that students learn about integration from real relationships they form with their faculty. Two findings about faculty stood out: 1) Evidence of a process of an ongoing relationship with God, and 2) Emotional transparency.

Here is a conclusion from one of the earlier reports:

From the students’ point of view, the most salient dimension to contribute to their own integration was how well they could determine that a given professor had an authentic, lively and growing relationship with God, coupled with the professor’s nondefensive, emotionally unguarded, and even vulnerable relationship with students.

The conclusion from the final report in this line of research is similar. It is not about “creedal orthodoxy,” let alone memorizing models of integration (e.g., parallels) as such, but rather an

…ongoing process that a mentor is modeling before the students’ eyes in ways to which students feel they have real access personally, perhaps even as collaborators in the project together. … students are saying, “Show me.”

That is powerful.

I try to keep this line of research in my mind at the start of each new academic year. At a practical level, I wrestle each year with how many students to bring onto my research team, which is where most of my mentoring takes place. For me I am balancing a desire to “let everyone on who wants to learn” against the real limitation of “the number of people with whom I can be in an authentic relationship.” Of course, faculty can be open and transparent in the classroom and with larger numbers of students, and I want to do that. But mentoring relationships and research teams lend themselves to increased accessibility, collaboration, and the “Show me” approach.

I concluded this time of devotional reflection with a story I read to our doctoral students before they head off to internship. It’s from Henri Nowen’s book, Reaching Out. Nouwen is visited by a former student who just wants to be with Nouwen for a time. The student says,

I have no problems this time, no questions to ask you. I do not need counsel or advice, but I simply want to celebrate some time with you.

How disarming is that? It’s beautiful. Nouwen relays what happened next:

We sat on the ground facing each other and talked a little about what life had been for us in the last year, about our work, our common friends, and about the restlessness of our hearts. Then slowly as the minutes passed by we became silent. Not an embarrassing silence but a silence that could bring us closer together than the many small and big events of the last year. We would hear a few cars pass and the noise of someone who was emptying a trash can somewhere. But that did not hurt. The silence which grew between us was warm, gentle and vibrant. Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us. Then he said, “It is good to be here” and I said, “Yes it is good to be together again,” and after that we were silent again for a long period. And as a deep peace filled the empty space between us he said hesitantly, “When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ.” I did not feel startled, surprised or in need of protesting, but I could only say, “It is the Christ in you, who recognizes the Christ in me.” “Yes,” he said, “He is indeed in our midst,” and then he spoke the words which entered into my soul as the most healing words I had heard in many years, “From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground.”

So the question that I have is this: “What kind of relationships will you form with students now that will lend themselves to this kind of celebration of time together in the years to come?”

Reflections on England 1

Today is our last day in England. We’ve enjoyed being here for nearly a month now. As we make preparations to depart, I find myself reflecting on the experience. I hope to offer a few reflections over the next few weeks, but readers of this blog know that I am a sporadic blogger at best.

I would have to say that one aspect of our time in England that we really enjoyed was the opportunity to worship and fellowship with other Christians. We attended Holy Trinity (HT) Anglican Church in the center of Cambridge. It is an evangelical church in the best sense of the word. The worship was “lower” church, with a drum set and band placed right in front of the altar. In some ways worship was no different from what you would find in an evangelical church in the states (or the “colonies” as my one friend was fond of saying). Having been in the episcopal church previously (and for over 10 years), I tend to prefer a “higher” church worship. The Book of Common Prayer is such a well-written theology of prayer and worship that it is sometimes unfortunate when it isn’t used. However, a lower church taps into the vibrancy of worship that can sometimes be lost in higher church worship, and HT is also right in the heart of University of Cambridge and has adapted services to the interests of students, I imagine.

I could also add that, unfortunately, many – not all – higher churches are also much more theologically liberal, and there is nothing as disconcerting as going to a high church where the people running the service do not actually believe what they recite. (I sometimes wonder about the intellectual integrity of making a career in the church if you no longer believe fundamental tenets of Christianity.) So we avoided that scene. No, the folks at HT believe what they teach and preach and sing and so on. We were warmly welcomed into the community during out time there. We had the opportunity to hear the Bishop of Ely one week and the Bishop of Sabah in Malaysia another week.

When we did go to some of the larger, more formal churches, we typically went to evensong (or as another friend from Britain refers to as “the Anglican gift to the world”). We sat in on evensong services at both the Westminster Abbey in London and at the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. A sung evensong service is beautiful and can be deeply moving, particularly if you are not used to worshiping in large cathedrals that were often built to draw people into a greater sense of awe and reverence for the sacred.

The ideal for me draws on the best of both worlds: a higher church worship experience (even “smells and bells” as it were) with genuine faith reflected in those in the congregation and those leading the worship. And it is not just a service but the ebb and flow of the entire church calendar, something that I know I often lose sight of in more informal settings.

In any case, my first reflection is on our experience of worship in England. The shared sense of identity and community in the Body of Christ is recognizable across the globe, and it was one of the highlights of our time here.

UPDATE: When I first wrote this, we had been to evensong service at Westminster Abbey, and we were planning to go to evensong at King’s College Chapel this afternoon. Well, we just got back from that service, and I have to say that it was very satisfying to participate in the service in that setting. A chapel of that design is not just for visitors to enjoy the architecture; it was designed to facilitate worship and prayer. A car enthusiast does not just want to look at a Porsche 918 Spyder, he or she wants to take it for a ride, to use it as it was originally intended.

Personal Integration Resource: The Good and Beautiful God

Integration refers to ways in which Christians in the field of psychology sort out the relationship between psychology as a science and Christianity. Much of the integration discussion centers on worldview critiques (of, say, naturalism or humanism) or explorations of theories for doing integration (an integrates model might be contrasted with a psychology of religion or the view that psychology and Christianity are distinct approaches that are not to be brought into a meaningful dialogue). Another approach to integration is to look at the life of the person doing integration. This might be thought of as personal integration.

One of the activities the faculty and staff of the School of Psychology and Counseling do is meet weekly for prayer and to study Scripture. This year we are reading through the book, The Good and Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith.

Here is what Dallas Willard had to say about it:

“The best practice I have seen in Christian spiritual formation.”

That got my attention. I read and loved Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy. Many consider Willard one of the leading writers on spiritual formation. His work has made a world of difference in my life. So when he gives this kind of endorsement to a book on spiritual formation, it is worth a look.

We are reading The Good and Beautiful God in small groups of about 5-6 faculty and staff. We then meet as a small group to discuss the book and then bring that discussion to our weekly Bible study. We aren’t that far into it yet. But I’ve enjoyed looking at rest in my life (or the lack thereof), as well as practicing the lectio divina (divine reading). I’ve known these concepts before, but I would say that the greatest difference has been reading this in a small community (5-6 people), meeting with them regularly, and discussing it with both them and the larger group. Like all resources, you will get out of it what you put in. But I would say that it is another truth of disciplines that they are more likely to be maintained if they are done within a small community that cares about you, asks you about it, and provides a venue for discussion and application. If you are looking for a resource that could significantly impact your spiritual life, this might be the one for you.

Again, keep in mind that the regular practice of spiritual disciplines in the life of the Christian in the field of psychology can be understood as a form of integration. It is personal integration, and it should not be looked at as less important than the other, more common ways we approach integration.

Avoiding Cynicism

anthologyToday was the first day of the Integration Capstone course. We read the first eight chapters of the book Psychology & Christianity Integration. It is a collection of the most influential articles that have had an impact on the Christian integration movement. I was thinking of it in these terms: Which articles would I want to make sure students read before they left the program? There are some real gems here. But I’ll write about some of those at another time.

One thing that I found important was the concept of simplicity. Most people I know who go to a Christian integration program have a fairly straightforward faith. There’s a simplicity to it. Then they study psychology for five years, and what seemed simple becomes increasingly complex. In some ways, it should become more complex. We all continue to learn and grow. But there is also a simplicity on the other side of complexity. (Someone said this, and I don’t know who it was to give them proper credit, but I should be clear that it isn’t original with me.) I think it is important to recognize this and not to leave people to just sit with the complexity, particularly if that leads to cynicism. One of my favorite professors in my program once told me that cynicism is the death of spiritual maturity. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but I have a much better sense for it today. 

There is a risk of becoming cynical in the study of psychology. Cynicism includes the idea that we do not trust the motives of others, that we can become jaded. This can affect how we think about and experience a host of our most important relationships, including our relationships with clients, colleagues, students, family members, neighbors, fellow believers in the church, and God. 

So we do well to train students to become psychologists while retaining the truth of their Christian convictions and what originally inspired them to want to study psychology from a Christian perspective. We can recognize and model elements of faith that is vibrant on the other side of the complexity seen in the study of psychology. We can also show them what it means to take rists, to trust others, to study the character of God, and take other steps that can offset the tendency toward cynicism.

This is actually an element of what has been referred to as personal integration. It involves attending to the spiritual life of the psychologist (or the student in training to become a psychologist). In many respects, it lays the foundation for the other kinds of integration, including worldview, theoretical, applied, and role integration.

Signature Sins

Michael Mangis, professor of psychology at Wheaton College, has a new book out titled Signature Sins: Taming Our Wayward Hearts. It is published by InterVarsity Press in their Formatio line, which focuses on spiritual formation.

Signature Sins begins with the question of why we sin, making the case that each of us has a specific sin or tendency toward sin that has a unique presence in our lives. Even if countless people struggle with pride or envy or sloth, we each struggle with our signature sin in particular ways due to our circumstances, personality, gender, culture, and so on. The next two chapters look at pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, and fear, often drawing upon Augustine’s Prayer Book, a devotional resource created by the Order of the Holy Cross. The Prayer Book itself is a tremendous resource for understanding various expressions of signature sin and could be an important adjunct to personal spiritual formation.

The next few chapters of Signature Sins encourages readers to identify and name their signature sin, to explore how their own temperament is reflected in their struggle, and to consider how culture, gender, and biology interacts with their sin. The book then focuses on spiritual disciplines “to tame the wayward heart.” What is particularly encouraging is the importance Mangis places on navigating spiritual formation in the context of community. He is here drawing upon his own appreciation of community coming from a rural community in Montana, recognizing the connections to ancient Christian practices emphasizing community, and drawing implications for contemporary spiritual formation.

Each chapter ends with helpful questions to facilitate one’s own spiritual journey, and the book ends with additional chapters a small group could use. This makes this resource particularly helpful and practical.

My experience has been that many Christian psychologists are wary of discussing sin, and it comes in part from our training, which is often steeped in humanistic and hedonic assumptions. But Christians in the field fun the risk of not appreciating an important area of reality when we do not have a way of understanding the fallen human condition and its expression in everyday life. Signature Sins addresses this head on, but does so with an emphasis on grace, so that the reader is invited in – so that the reader can develop his or her own Rule of Life, going deeper into greater spiritual maturity. This makes Signature Sins an important contribution to the literature on spiritual formation and Christian integration, and it is also a helpful reminder of the state and condition of sin that extends into all facets of human experience.

Kingdom Triangle – 2

In a previous post I mentioned that we recently completed the book Kingdom Triangle by J.P. Moreland. The triangle he is referring to is the Christian mind, the use of the spiritual disciplines in the life of the Christian, and the power of the Holy Spirit. He has an interesting chapter titled “Restoration of the Kingdom’s Miraculous Power” in which he discussed “Four Subgroups in the Christian Community.” These four subgroups are cessationist, open but cautious, Third Wave, and Pentecostal/charismatic. Here’s a brief description from Moreland (citing Wayne Grudem):


  • cessationist: there are no miraculous gifts today; gifts such as prophecy, healings, and tongues ceased with the death of teh apostles because their function of establishing the church was complete.
  • open but cautious: cessationist arguments fail; miraculous gifts are, indeed, possible today, but the teachings and practices associated with the current use of such gifts are unimpressive, frequently characterized by abuses, and not important for evangelism and discipleship compared to Bible study, obedience, and allegedly more traditional forms of spiritual growth.
  • Third Wave: all Christians are baptized by the Holy Spirit at conversion, subsequent fillings and anointings of the Spirit are acheved through yielding and faith; while the gifts of tongues is for today, tongues is not emphasized nor is it seen as evidence of the Spirit’s filling; miraculous gifts, especially those associated with healing, deliverance, and words of knowledge and prophecy, are important for the life of the church.
  • Pentecostal/charismatic: while these two groups are different in some ways, they may be collectively understood as accepting the current availablility of the miraculous gifts; they often hold to a baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation and evidenced by speaking in tongues, and if they do not embrace such a second baptism, there is, in any case, greater emphasis on speaking in tongues than advocated by Third Wave believers. [p. 178]

For reflection: Do these four subgroups capture the range of theological positions on the topic? Which reflects your theological background/tradition?