Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

Holt reviewBradley P. Holt.[1] 2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity is boring from an Eastern perspective because God created us and, in Jesus Christ, provided the means of our salvation—we must simply accept God’s gifts of creation and salvation. The role of pilgrimages to holy places; special clothing or food; knowledge of the divine; and the spiritual disciplines are presumably incidental for Christians. We must merely follow Christ’s example and live it out in our relationships with others. These other activities have entered some Christian traditions, but they often differ radically between groups.


In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt surveys a wide range of Christian traditions with:

“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)

This survey is helpful in distinguishing among more familiar traditions and adding others that are less familiar from years past or from non-Western sources. In this respect, Holt reviews these categories from the ancient church to offer a template—themes—for distinguishing traditions:

“We see in the first six centuries the beginning and development of certain themes in Christian spirituality that are significant to the present day: worship and sacraments, charisms, witness unto death, spiritual disciplines, monasticism, and mysticism.”(59)

If we take the sacraments as an example, the Protestant churches have fewer sacraments than the Catholics and sacraments play a more important role in Catholic services and pastoral care than in the Protestant tradition. Thus, focusing on the sacramental theme, it is easier to distinguish Protestant and Catholic spirituality.

Celtic Spirituality

One aspect of my personal journey of faith in seminary and beyond has been to understand my own history and spirituality better as I learn about other practices. My mother’s family, for example, is Scotch-Irish and rather less than observant in their religious affiliations while my father’s family is uniformly Dutch with strong commitments to the reformed tradition.

When I write:

Myself, when I am anxious at the end of the day, I retire with a good book to my front porch to enjoy a cool breeze, listen to the birds, and watch the sun set through the trees. Here God’s presence comforts me.

such observations seem a bit out of place in the highly rational reformed tradition, but the Celtic tradition is long known for its special fondness for God’s creation. Holt wrote an entire chapter on “Christian Spiritualty and Ecology,”which aptly described a part of my own spiritual experience that remained implicit, not explicit, in my thinking and writing.

One of the many fun facts that Holt offered was that private confession, now practiced by the entire Roman Catholic church, started in the Celtic tradition (79).

The Jesus Prayer

I found Holt’s discussion of the Jesus Prayer most interesting. In English, the most common form of the Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”(97) This breath prayer closely resembles the prayer of the Publican in Luke 18:13: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”(ESV) The Jesus Prayer is attributed to various monks going back to the fifth century, especially Evagrius, who would repeat the prayer constantly throughout the day (98) following Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).

While I have been aware of the Jesus Prayer for many years, its use only became significant to me when I worked in a psyche ward at Providence Hospital. Psyche patients often obsess about traumatic and perceived traumatic events in the past, a problem known as rumination. Because such patients have trouble distinguishing fact from illusion, such ruminations about the past amply their perceived trauma and divert them from thinking more productively about their own present or future. Sister Maureen advised me to instruct such patients to substitute the Jesus Prayer for this negative self-talk and thereby to break the rumination cycle, a kind of cognitive therapy for these patients. It works for the rest of us as well.


Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.

Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for God provides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.



Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

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Jonathan Edwards’ Most Famous Publication

Jonathan Edwards. 20016. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd (Orig Pub 1749). Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In February 2008, I read a biography by John Piper which focused on the lives of three saints whose affliction bore fruit for the Lord. Having known affliction in my family life—my wife had two rounds of breast cancer, my son is a kidney transplant, and so on—this book sparked my interest. Of particular interest was the story of David Brainerd, who suffered greatly in life—losing both parents at a young age, chronically despondent, and infected with tuberculosis most of his adult life—yet persisted in ministering to the Indians of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware until his untimely death at the age of 29.

Writing about Brainerd’s diary, Piper (2001, 131-132) writes:

“why has this book never been out of print [since 1749]? Why did John Wesley say, ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd’? Why was it written of Henry Martyn (missionary to India and Persia) that ‘perusing the life of David Brainerd, his soul was filled with a holy emulation of that extraordinary man; and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example? Why did William Carey regard Edward’s Life of Brainerd as precious and holy? Why did Robert Morrison and Robert McCheyne of Scotland and John Mills of American and Fredrick Schwartz of Germany and David Livingstone of England and Andrew Murray of South Africa and Jim Elliot of twentieth-century America look upon Brainerd with a kind of awe and draw power from him as countless others?”

This biography proved irresistible to me and I ordered a copy of Edward’s The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, which became the core of my personal devotions as I entered seminary in August 2008.

It is easy to get caught up in Brainerd’s life story. As a third-year ministry student at Yale, Brainerd made an uncomplimentary statement about one of his tutors, a Mr. Whittelsey, saying: “He has no more grace than this chair” (28) in a private conversation, which was overheard and reported to the faculty. The faculty expelled him; the presbytery appealed his expulsion, but Yale did not back down. Concern about Brainerd’s case led the presbytery to establish a new school, which became Princeton University which later spun off Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812.[1]

But Brainerd’s influence did not depend on Princeton, which was founded after his death. Because of his expulsion from Yale University, Brainerd could not be ordained as a pastor and he was commissioned as a missionary to the Indians, in spite of suffering from tuberculosis. His illness left him chronically weak, depressed, and frequently spitting up blood. Yet, he ministered from horseback preaching multiple times a day and even lived among the Indians enjoying a fruitful ministry to within months of his death.

What is most striking about his diary is the depth of his personal piety—he constantly praises God, contemplates scripture, fasts, and prays. For example, on Saturday February 19, 1743, he writes:

“Was exceeding infirm today, greatly troubled with pain in my head and dizziness, scarce able to sit up. However, enjoyed something of God in prayer, and performed some necessary studies. I exceedingly long to die; and yet, through divine goodness, have felt very willing to live, for two or three days past.” (72)

Brainerd actually lived another four years (1718-1747).

Brainerd’s work among the Indians did not go unnoticed by local businessmen. On Monday, February 3, 1746, he writes about being accused of a “popish plot” for:

“[vindicating] the rights of the Indians, and complaining of the horrid practice of making the Indians drunk, and then cheating them out of their lands and other properties” (184)

He personally raised funds to hire a teacher to help the Indians learn English, which would allow them also to read the Bible for themselves. Absent this skill, they could be cheated by local businessmen and depended wholly on preaching and the teaching of catechisms (328) to learn about the Gospel.

Another technique for teaching, which is mentioned mostly in passing, is the use of what Brainerd refers to as “ejaculatory prayer” (74), which is a short prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, designed to be repeated as a form of meditation.[2] He later cites a prayer of one of his Indian converts:

“I hearkened to know what she [an Indian woman] said, and perceived the burden of her prayer to be, Guttummaukalummeh wechaumeh kmeleh Ndah, i.e. ‘Have mercy on me, and help me to give you my heart.’” (284)

In my own ministry, I was introduced to ejaculatory prayer by a Roman Catholic Sister who encouraged psychiatric patients engaging in negative self-talk to substitute the Jesus prayer to break the despondency created by their own rumination. In Brainerd’s ministry, he used such prayers to focus his converts on Christ and to bring them to faith in spite not having access to scripture in their own language.

One of the more fascinating stories that Brainerd recounts is his visit with a local shaman among the Indians. Brainerd describes him as a devout and zealous reformer who tried to help his community resist the temptation of alcohol through a frightful costume and prodigious dancing (300-301).

Jonathan Edwards edited David Brainerd’s diary and published it two years after Brainerd died under the care of Edwards’ daughter, who later also died of tuberculosis. The diary was Edwards’ most popular publication, which seems odd because Edwards is often described as America’s most influential theologian and was better known himself for his role in the Great Awakening.

If you liked this review, you will love the diary of David Brainerd.


Piper, John. 2001. The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

[1] http://www.ptsem.edu/about/history.

[2] “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Prayer).


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Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God

Henry Nouwen. Reaching OutHenri J. M. Nouwen. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

A ministry friend once distinguished problems from polarities. He argued that problems, unlike polarities, have solutions while polarities can only be managed. For example,  an umbrella manages our response to rain, but does not solve the problem posed by rain;  having an umbrella simply makes rain more tolerable. Ministry would be more tolerable, my friend advised, if I learned to manage polarities rather than treating them as problems to be solved. Because unsolvable polarities are everywhere in life and ministry, I never forgot my friend’s advice.

Three Polarities

Three polarities lie at the heart of our spiritual life says Henri Nouwen. In his book, Reaching Out, he describes them as: an inner movement from loneliness to solitude, an outward movement from hostility to hospitality, and an upward movement from illusion to prayer (20). These movements each potentially involve progress—hence, the term, movement—but for Nouwen this progress is tentative and subject to lifelong tension (39). He writes: “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer.” (20) Tension suggests a struggle with polarity both in heart and mind.


This struggle with both head and mind components distinguishes writing in spirituality from theology where the logic of the mind is more narrowly the focus. Nouwen focuses immediately on the question—“What does it mean to live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?”—and links this question to one Jesus himself poses: “Some say. . .others say. . .but what do you say?” (16-17) What we say is immediately pertinent. Nouwen sees spirituality discussions as intensely personal. In this setting or any other, “we have to face and explore directly our inner restlessness, our mixed feelings towards others, and our deep-seated suspicions about the absence of God.” (17). In these three movements, Nouwen is clearly inviting us into his spiritual struggles and the tone of the book is captured in its title.

Outline of Book

The title, Reaching Out, captures Nouwen’s sense of the three movements, around which he structures the book (17) into 9 chapters, preceded by a foreword and introduction, and followed by a conclusion and notes:



 REACHING OUT TO OUR INNERMOST SELF—The First Movement From Loneliness To Solitude

  1. A Suffocating Loneliness
  2. A Receptive Solitude
  3. A Creative Response

 REACH OUT TO OUR FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS—The Second Movement From Hostility To Hospitality

  1. Creating Space for Strangers
  2. Forms of Hospitality
  3. Hospitality and the Host

 REACHING OUT TO OUR GOD—The Third Movement From Illusion To Prayer

  1. Prayer and Mortality
  2. The Prayer of the Heart
  3. Community and Prayer


Notes (15)

Who is Nouwen?

In addition to being a prodigious author, Nouwen was a Catholic priest and longtime academic who went to live and work in the L’Arche-Daybreak Community[1] (of special needs individuals) in Toronto, Canada, laying down the academic life much like Jesus laid his clothes aside to wash the disciple’s feet (John 13:4-5).

Three Movements

Let me turn aside now to focus on the three movements.

Movement from Loneliness to Solitude

As an observant priest who suffered from same-sex attractions,[2] Nouwen felt loneliness deeply, describing it as: “one of the most universal sources of human suffering today.” (25) Even in his suffering, Nouwen goes on to write:

“The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” (34-35)

The key words here are a restful spirit (Sabbath), inward-reaching search (an attentive heart and mind), and play—play! Play usually distinguishes adults from children—a child of God must learn to play. For Nouwen, this play makes space in our life for others (40) because we are more rested, “alert and aware of the world around us” (50). Nouwen’s vision of solitude develops the inner resources that make hospitality to others possible (61-62).

Movement from Hostility to Hospitality

Much like solitude provides the inner space for admitting others, hospitality provides outward space for others. This is where “the stranger can enter and become a friend, instead of an enemy” (71). Nouwen (66-67) gives three biblical examples. These include Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers (Gen 18:1-15), the widow of Zarephath hospitality to Elijah in spite of her own poverty (1 Kgs 17:9-24), and the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who unknowingly offered hospitality to Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). In each case, Nouwen writes:

“When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.” (67).

For Nouwen, hospitality accordingly offers the possibility of transforming strangers into friends who respond with their own gift, promise, and new life (67). This new life is instrumental in the case of parents offering space to children (81-84), teachers offering space to students (84-90), and healers offering space to patients (91-97). Hospitality is for Nouwen a primal concern.  Lonely people cannot offer much space, solitude is a key prerequisite for hospitality (101), which necessarily brings us to God.

Movement from Illusion to Prayer

No paths up the mountain lead to God; God must come down, as Nouwen relates:

“. . . the paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize, or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either.” (126)

Nouwen notes the problem of finding a spiritual guide. He finds wisdom in praying the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (141) I was taught the Jesus prayer working in a Catholic hospital as a substitute for the negative self-talk often practiced by psychiatric patients.[3] Because we all practice negative self-talk, the motivation to engage in continuous prayer (or to pray the Jesus prayer) is much the same. It makes space in our hearts for God, who grants us a capacity for both solitude and hospitality.


Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out has been a significant influence on my spiritual life since I first read in 2007 and it continues to influence my professional writing. Like all of Nouwen’s writing, this book reads well but requires reflection, like any classic in Christian spirituality. Christians serious about deepening their faith will want to spend some time with this book.


[1] http://www.LArcheDaybreak.com.

[2] Wil Hernandez, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, (New York: Paulist Press, 2006),page 126.

[3] A somewhat longer breathe prayer was prayed by Nehemiah just before speaking to the king: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”  (Neh 1:11 ESV)

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God

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Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen 

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