Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

 

Wil Hernandez, A Spirituality of ImperfectionHernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto Part 2; goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over time I find myself losing Henri Nouwen’s books. Some get lost because I lend them to friends. I forget who and they forget to return them. Others get lost because I read them at a particular stage in life and they get mixed in with other books from that stage. Still others get lost in the sense that I mix Nouwen’s ideas with my own and I forget where I got them. Writing reviews helps me sort out better what Nouwen really said and what I thought about it at the time.

In the second half of his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses on 2 things: explaining Nouwen’s spirituality and describing Nouwen himself.

Spirituality of Imperfection

While the Bible describes sin as a basic human characteristic; a less judgmental pastoral response to sin interprets sin as brokenness.  The first observation is a theological statement; the second is an ethical statement that points the sinner to God in the role as Great Physician. Nouwen helped me to find this integration.

Hernandez writes:

“Henri Nouwen’s proclivity for integration represented a major step towards wholeness. On a much deeper analysis, his commitment to pursuing integrity spoke more about his heightened awareness of his fractured human condition than an obsessive drive for perfection. Nouwen’s integrative pursuit of the spiritual life never obviated but instead incorporated facets of psychological, ministerial, and theological imperfections.“(75).

One cannot be whole until one understands one’s self which implies seeing both the good and the bad. Imperfections, which typically hold us back interpersonally and professionally, are hard to look at objectively. Peering at our imperfections from different points of view aids this task of integration and clarifies our vision.  We learn more from failure than from success because failure forces us to admit and deal with our brokenness—our imperfections.

The Eucharist

Nouwen saw the Eucharist as a symbol reminding us of Christ’s physical brokenness on the cross that helps us to deal with our own brokenness (78). Once again faithful to his Catholic roots, Nouwen viewed the cross as “the compelling symbol of authentic Christian experience”. Without the suffering of Christ, the victory of Christ in resurrection is devoid of meaning (81). Suffering forces us to ask ourselves the tough questions about our own brokenness. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus asks: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 ESV) (86)

Hernandez observes:

“the spiritual journey for Nouwen was never about perfection, but about struggling to live in a deep and meaningful relationship with God that would bear fruit in the lives of others.” (92).

Here we hear an echo of God’s blessing of Abraham:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)

In other words, leave your comfort zone for my sake and I will bless you so that you can bless others. Facing brokenness and imperfection to minister to others quickly leads away from comfort, but also leads towards communion with Christ.

A Perfect Example of Imperfection

Why do we cheer for athletes who overcome physical handicaps to compete and win?  For me, the answer is that overcoming physical handicaps is inspiring not only to other special needs individuals but also to those of us who, in spite of having no handicaps, struggle to overcome everyday challenges of inertia and personal limitations.

Hernandez sees Nouwen as a “perfect paradigm of imperfection” for at least 3 reasons.  Nouwen was:

  • “a restless seeker”,
  • “a wounded healer”, and
  • “faithful struggler” (95).

Restless seeker

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

“Nouwen’s penchant for spreading himself thin, along with his obsessive-compulsive behavior and ‘workaholic’ drive, all seemed to conspire in bringing out the unhealthy side of his restless maneuvers.” (98)

Nouwen was ultimately restless seeking after God (99).  According to Augustine, our restlessness is planted in us by God himself—its resolution can be found therefore only in God (101).

Wounded Healer

Nouwen used his incompleteness to become a place of hospitality for others. Hernandez observes:

“Only the bruised, wounded minister can powerfully connect with those who are badly wounded” (116).

One of my first ministries, even before I had even thought of seminary, was to victims of breast cancer. My wife, Maryam, was twice afflicted with breast cancer and we both suffered miserably. Not only were we victimized by the disease, we were victimized with depression and the inability of those around us to provide any meaningful support.  My sister, Diane, later died needlessly from breast cancer because of similar issues.  My wounds gave me knowledge and street credibility for reaching out to others suffering in this same journey.  The book, Wounded Healer, was an early exposure to Nouwen which provided comfort even though I scarcely understood what it said.

Faithful Struggler

Nouwen understood implicitly the role of suffering in discipleship (118). Nouwen also understood the role of leadership as providing an example to those around us (119).  After Reaching Out, I would have to say that Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is the most cited in my work because it centers on the temptations of Christ.  Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptations are to be relevant (turn stone into bread), powerful (become my vassal and rule the world), and spectacular (throw yourself down and prove who you are) (Luke 4:4, 7, 9).

Assessment

Hernandez pictures Nouwen as faithfully struggling with his demons to become a Christ-figure to modern society. His commitment to celibacy (126) and service to L’Arche (viii) scream authenticity in a world more used to leaning into pain than leaning on Christ.  As in Gethsemane where Jesus said:

“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

Nouwen was faithful in turning to God instead of yield to his pain.

May we all learn to follow his example.

References

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

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-148).

Nouwen, Henri J.M.  2010.  Wounded Healer:  Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York:  Image Doubleday. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-ZJ)

 

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 2

Hernandez_review_part_1_08102015Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto part 1, goto part 3)

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[1].

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) [2].   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).

Assessment

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.

Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] A Calvinist would see the movement starting with God, not us.  However, Nouwen does see prayer as a gift.

REFERENCES

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)

Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 2

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