The Library is pleased to announce that it has received its copy of Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, with the editorial and integrative help of Drew faculty Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. The editors have richly enhanced the bibliography of Nouwen, with this volume, as it incorporates much previously unpublished material, including sermon notes, and texts of public addresses and sound recordings. The book seamlessly integrates these with published writings not otherwise easily accessed, and frames the whole with a Preface and Appendix by the editors. Michael Christenesen studied with Nouwen at Yale Divinity School, and the bond between author and editors is itself part of the book’s spiritual message: echoes of our earthly pilgrimage (Nouwen died in 1996) continue to sound in the communities of friendship we have formed. The book is the second of a planned trilogy, of which the first, published in 2006, is Spiritual Direction. The projected third volume will be entitled Spiritual Discernment.
Part of the intimacy the book models stems from the shifting reference of the personal pronoun, I, which mostly refers to Nouwen, but sometimes (in the Preface) to Michael, and sometimes, more generally, to the reader, when Nouwen projects towards our thought about ourselves. The little word, I, becomes a meeting ground for author, editors and readers, and so begins to realize the book’s teachings on community. At the same time, readers who listen to the sound of that little word will begin to hear its homonym, “eye”, which points to a distinctive teaching of this work, about visio divina. A complement to the ancient tradition of lectio divina, or contemplative reading, this “postmodern practice of visio divina” (p. ) is a prayerful seeing stimulated especially by icons or iconic paintings and sculptures. At the center of the book are several beautifully reproduced color artworks, from as far apart in time as Andrei Rublev and Vincent Van Gogh. These artworks coordinate with the seven movements of the spirit that name the chapters of the book, beginning with, “From Opaqueness to Transparency” and ending with, “From Denying to Befriending Death.” Each of these movements is a practice to perform, in concert and unendingly, for we are never wholly established at the desired pole of, for instance, transparency. The book supplies both readings and visuals to help the seven processes along. It is designed to be read in community, but will also enrich the spiritual life of the solitary reader.
Nouwen was a poetic writer. In context of his teaching about the heart, as the locus of spiritual life, his open question, “What do you know by heart?” (p. xviii) connects spiritual work to memory work. And indeed, “the prayer of the heart” (p. 31) is a prayerful phrase from memory, “repeated throughout the day.” Nouwen also supplies etymologies that deepen the meaning of words, for example: person, which “comes from the Old French, per-sonare, which means ‘sounding through'” (p. 11). We are most personal when our soul sounds through our words and deeds.
Nouwen does not conceal from us the “ungodly spirits that haunt our souls” (p. xxi), parading under a mask of goodness. He warns that our very efforts towards goodness may conceal lingering resentments. The spiritual life is not free of ambiguity. “Real ministers are powerless servants who offer gifts of availabilty and hospitality” (p. 91). At the same time, “ministers need training so they won’t become victims of the selfishness of others” (p. 90). Nouwen’s nuanced reflections on this point prompt the reader towards a keener self-discernment: in any given act towards goodness, am I being more minister or victim? Perhaps it is possible to be both at once.
In any number of different ways, this wise book will find its way to the reader’s heart. For this reader, stories, images and ideas from the book interweave with memories of beloved spiritual classics, in a pattern of mutual strengthening. For instance, the story of the “old priest … [who] complained for too long that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work” (p. 65) evokes George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, where the young protagonist, also a priest, voices a similar complaint, but learns over time the same lesson.* Or again, Nouwen’s notion of a beauty in ourselves we cannot see unless another sees it first (p. 13) recalls a character from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Princess Maria, whose own beauty shone forth only when she wasn’t seeking it herself.** And anyone who has been to the movies recently, to see “Eat Pray Love“, will recognize Nouwen’s image of the “descent from the mind into the heart” (p. xxv), from having seen it pictured, in that movie, in a Bali work of art.
Henri Nouwen was a prolific writer. Some of his books gather in the library at the Dewey Decimal number 248.4, but, interdisciplinary as he was, no one classification number can hold the breadth of his work. Browse searches in the library catalog turn up 43 books by Nouwen and 19 about him, located at a variety of places in the library. In addition, Drew students will want to hear the 2010 Henri J. M. Nouwen Lecture in Classical Spirituality, “The Road to Peace: The Wisdom of Gospel Nonviolence from Jesus to Henri Nouwen,” by Fr. John Dear, on Monday, Sept. 27, 2010, at 7:30 in Craig Chapel.
*”Yes I pray badly and not enough. Almost every day after mass I have to interrupt my thanksgiving to see some parishioner.” George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest, tr. Pamela Morris (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1965), p. 102.
**”The Princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes–the look they had when she was not thinking of herself.” Tolstoy, War and Peace (Plain Label Books, 1952), p. 183.