Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen
Wil Hernandez. 2012. Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension. Mahwah: Paulist Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
When I was a scout, I loved working with map and compass. Out in the wilderness armed with map and compass, how do you find your location and plot progress towards your destination? Stories of survivors of plane crashes in remote places often have the theme that those who survived plotted a course out to the horizon while those that died walked around in circles following their own instincts. Because our spiritual journey often bears a resemblance to these survival stories, how do we interpret the tensions and polarities that we encounter along the way? Wil Hernandez in his book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, takes up this challenge.
Hernandez describes himself as “a retreat leader, counselor, and spiritual director” who also teaches at various colleges and seminaries. He finished his doctoral degree in practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California) in with a special concentration in spirituality/spiritual formation.
Hernandez states his purpose as:
“This book is about the tension-filled journey of Henri Nouwen and centered around his inward, outward, and upward (or Godward) resolve to live out the dialectical tensions that characterize much of spiritual life.” (xxi)
Three key points arise in this statement. First, the journey is Nouwen’s journey. Second, Hernandez sees Nouwen at work to resolve the tension in the journey. Three, the tension itself further divides into three dimensions—inward, outward, and upward—which Hernandez describes as a trilogy—psychological, ministerial, and theological (xxiv). He sees Nouwen adopting a “both/and modality, moving closer to the center, and working towards integration” (116-117).
For Hernandez tension arises: “when we face various elements of irony, anomaly, absurdity, opposition, or contradiction in our experience” (2). He asks how come:
“God is portrayed in Scripture as both transcendent and immanent, hidden and revealed, unknowable and knowable, unreachable and accessible, universal and local?” (1)
While he acknowledges that this is the nature of the mystery of God, Hernandez is careful in his introduction to define three concepts of opposition:
Paradox: “a paradox is characterized by a self-contradictory proposition that can appear absurd or nonsensical.” (2)
Antinomy: “As in paradox, the same element of contradiction is present, except that the appearance of contradiction does not reside in the clever phrasing of the language, but rather is constituted in the very nature of the proposition being articulated.” (3)
Polarity: “Polarity, at its simplest, refers to the presence of two opposites. When two contrasting principles are placed side-by-side or invoked simultaneously, tension predictably rises.” (4)
Following Preston Busch, Hernandez distinguishes two types of spiritual polarities: conversional and cooperative. In the first, natural movement is from one pole to the other, while, in the second, movement between poles is back and forth (4-5). While he sees Nouwen’s work in Reaching Out as an illustration of a conversional polarity (from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer), the emphasis in this book is on cooperative polarities—such as breathing in and breathing out (5). The reason being that Hernandez sees Nouwen having a proclivity towards integration (6), as mentioned previously.
Hernandez’s focus on this proclivity is highly ironic because, having focused on cooperative polarities, he organizes his chapters around the same trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—articulated in Reaching Out, which he describes as conversional.
Because Hernandez uses this trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—to organize the chapters in his book, let me focus on each in turn.
Nouwen (1975, 23) sees the inward journey as a movement from loneliness to solitude. Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the Christian walk as a journey from the false self in ourselves to true self in Christ. Here Hernandez writes:
“Integral to the notion of loving ourselves is the capacity to accept and embrace the totality of who we are—good and bad, true and false. Lodged into our very depths is an ongoing interplay of light and darkness.” (16)
Hernandez interprets Nouwen as seeing the opportunity to re-channel negative energies into “more positive forces” (19). This re-channeling of the negative is possible because “In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted, but all is redeemable.” (20) He sees self-knowledge, especially knowledge of our own sin and brokenness, helping us reframe our fallen condition under the curse to become a blessing (24, 41).
Nouwen’s outward movement journeys from hostility to hospitality (Nouwen 1975, 63). Nouwen hospitality uniquely describes hospitality as offering “a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found” (Nouwen 1975, 65). Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the inward and outward movements closely bound, perhaps even in tension, for example, when he cites Bonhoeffer:
“Let him [sic] who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.” (48)
Closer to earth, opposite to a ministry of presence is Hernandez outlines a ministry of intentional absence or, what Nouwen refers to as, “creative withdrawal”. He writes:
“The rational for such withdrawal is to pave the way for the Spirit of God to work freely in a person or situation without us potentially getting in the way.” (75)
Perhaps the way to think of it is as an outward counterpart of solitude.
Hernandez sees our tension with God caught between Christ’s suffering and his glory which we, in turn, mirror (83). He cites a verse dear to my heart:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10)” (83)
Nouwen (1975, 111) starts in a slightly different place talking about a movement from illusion to prayer. Nevertheless, I prefer Hernandez’s perspective because of the temporal component that he takes from John Dunn’s “already” and “not yet” (93)—while we suffer with Christ today, we also look forward to sharing in his future glory.
Wil Herandez’s book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, provides a helpful and accessible commentary on the breadth of Nouwen’s writing, with special emphasis on Nouwen’s treatment of polarities. Nouwen is an important influence on my own spirituality and writing, yet on first reading I have not understood very well what he actually said. Hernandez’s writing has helped me move beyond that point. Seminary students and pastors reading Nouwen will want to take a look at this book.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.
 This book is the third in a trilogy focused on Henri Nouwen. The other two are: Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (2006) and Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration (2008). For a review the first, see: Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1ey), Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eJ), and Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eN).
 Back cover of his book. Also see: http://www.NouwenLegacy.com/author.php.
 I might have expected Nouwen to offer a detailed theology of prayer with transcendence embedded in it. Otherwise, I might be concerned that Nouwen’s view of prayer is another aspect of his inward journey, an example of psychology overwhelming theology.