Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Spirituality is a squishy word.
At one point when I was teaching adult Sunday school, I began to wonder what people really meant when they used the word, spiritual.
- For some people, the word substituted as a new word for religious, which has, in many respects, become anachronistic.
- For other people, spiritual means being in touch with the numinous—hearing voices, seeing visions, and interpreting the spirit world primarily from a non-Christian, non-western perspective.
- For still others, spiritual is used as a synonym for relational—someone able to establish rapport with just about anyone or a passage in scripture offering relational insight.
Henri Nouwen’s writing on spirituality differed from the usual fare, in part, because he took spirituality seriously and, being a priest, wrote from a Christian perspective.
In his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses the first half of his book reviewing Nouwen’s 3 movements of the spirit: The Journey Inward, The Journey Outward, and The Journey Upward (v). These movements follow directly from Nouwen’s analysis in Reaching Out. The second half of his book divides into a chapter interpreting Nouwen’s spirituality as a Spirituality of Imperfection and a chapter on Nouwen himself, A Perfect Example of Imperfection (v). Let me focus a bit on each of these chapters.
The Journey Inward
For Nouwen, the journey inward consists of “reaching out to our innermost self” moving from “loneliness to solitude” (Nouwen 1975, 21). The objective here is self-knowledge, but more importantly being comfortable in one’s own skin. A devote Christian, like Martin Luther, might wonder if all of one’s sins had been confessed (Bainton 1995, 35), but Nouwen’s interest in self-knowledge gravitated more towards how one relates to oneself.
In the psyche ward, for example, we might caution a patient from engaging in negative self-talk—an obvious example of relating to one’s self poorly. Comfort in solitude consists of ease in spending time alone with ourselves. This peace with ourselves makes it more likely that we can extend this hospitality others and find a place also in our hearts for God.
Hernandez finds Nouwen’s comfort in healing with the inward journey informed by his training as a psychologist. He writes:
“As a newly trained psychological and theologian with a concern for melding psychology and theology, Nouwen’s cultural timing could not have been better.” (9)
All knowledge is God’s knowledge. Nouwen’s “pastoral bilingualism” (16) helped him seemly integrate his training and apply it without the usual academic veneer that usually poses a barrier to common understanding. Hernandez sees this as a “search for wholeness” which does not preclude the church’s historical focus on holiness (25).
The Journey Outward
For Nouwen, the journey outward is “reaching out to our fellow human beings” moving from “hostility to hospitality” (Nouwen 1975, 63). Here we find ourselves engaged in ministry. Hernandez sees Nouwen combining “the ministerial tasks of healing, sustaining, and guiding” (45) and 3 shepherding functions:
“Into the overlapping roles of a pastor (one who heals the wounds of the past), a priest (one who sustains life in the present), and a prophet (one who guides others in the future)” (45).
The definitions here are clearly Nouwen’s because one normally thinks of the 3 roles anointed in the Old Testament were—the king, the priest, and the prophet—not normally defined as above.
In this context, hospitality is thought of as a metaphorical virtual of being open, inviting, and warm with ourselves, others, and God—a spirit of healing and welcome (Nouwen 1975, 67). Nouwen’s use of hospitality shares a lot in common with the Hebrew concept of shalom (שָׁל֙וֹם). In Hebrew, shalom means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10001). Nouwen (1975, 71) writes that: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”
Ministry in the context of Nouwen’s writing flows out of his embrace of communion both as a sacrament (participation directly in the divine presence) and as a paradigm for community. This was the heart of Nouwen’s own sense of spirituality (26-27). Nouwen is a Catholic priest for whom the daily mass centers on the Eucharist. Table-fellowship involves a higher level of intimacy and mysticism than is usually found in protestant circles. The movement from hostility to hospitality may ironically involve traveling a greater distance for Nouwen than for many others because it starts with a deeper spiritual starting point.
Nouwen (2006) found great meaning in Jesus’ words: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt. 20:22 ESV) This is because he interpreted Jesus to mean, can you accept the suffering which my ministry requires?
The Journey Upward
For Nouwen, the journey upwards is “reaching out to our God” which involves a movement “from illusion to prayer” (Nouwen 1975, 111) . Part of this illusion is the illusion of immortality (Nouwen 1975, 116). Related is the illusion of control. Prayer becomes a destination—communion with an immortal being—which as morals we cannot travel. God must grant prayer to us as gift (Nouwen 1975, 123).
Hernandez observes: “we all experience a gap between what we say we believe and how we live out our belief” (58). Nouwen sees theological reflection focused on bridging this gap, saying: “a life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living.” (59) Elsewhere he writes that “the original meaning of the word Theology is ‘union with God in prayer’” (67). From this perspective, the journey from illusion most obviously begins and ends with prayer.
Hernandez sees Nouwen as integrating three things in his spirituality: psychology, ministry, and theology which then correspond to movements in solitude, ministry, and prayer. This he refers to as Nouwen’s trilogy of coinherence (71).
Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.
In part 3 of this review I will examine the second half of Hernandez’s book which outline Nouwen’s spirituality of imperfect and a bit of his personal history.
 The king defended the nation; the priest served primarily in the temple, and the prophet reminded the nation of obligations under the covenant—not really a forecasting idea.
 A Calvinist would see the movement starting with God, not us. However, Nouwen does see prayer as a gift.
Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York; Meridan.
BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.
Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged (Bibleworks).
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Henri J. M. Nouwen. 2006. Can You Drink the Cup? Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press. Review (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1c)