Nouwen: Be Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Henri Nouwen.  2007.  The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students.  As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend.  The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.

Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility.  For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38).  Nouwen writes:  The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47).  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp.  These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.

Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility.  Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:

  1. The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
  2. The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
  3. The temptation to be powerful (rule as king) [1].

This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain.  Nouwen (50) observes:  Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian,  minister, or pastor] do?  Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.

The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance.  Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58).  Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59).  If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.

The third temptation is to be powerful.  Nouwen observes that:  Power can take many forms:  money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61).  We want to be in control.  To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).

Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69).  Discipline is required but:  The discipline of  the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70).  Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:

  1. The discipline of the church;
  2. The discipline of the book; and
  3. The discipline of the heart (71).

For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event.  Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73).  We must create time and space in our lives for God.  In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).

The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture.  The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78).  We must chew the word (78).  The angel tells the Apostle John:  take and eat (Revelation 10:9).  It must become part of us.  Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).

For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).

The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.

I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life.  Reminders are imperative for me.  The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility.  Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment.  I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.

[1] Also see:  Henri Nouwen.  1989.  In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  New York:  Crossroads Book.

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