Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Direction

(Green Lake, Wisconsin)

I'm reading Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. Nouwen has been one of my spiritual directors. I did not know him personally. I did write him once with a question. He wrote me back. Nouwen was someone who had time for others.

I've done a lot of spiritual directing and spiritual coaching with pastors, Christian leaders, and Jesus-followers. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up this book by Nouwen. Was there a greater spiritual director in the 20th century? Thomas Merton, maybe. Both had phenomenal spiritual depth, with Nouwen being the gentler of the two.

For Nouwen "a spiritual director simply was someone who talks to you and prays with you about your life... [Spiritual direction] can be defined as a relationship initiated by a spiritual seeker who finds a mature person of faith willing to pay and respond with wisdom and understanding to his or her questions about how to live spiritually in a world of ambiguity and distraction." (ix)

Nouwen writes: "Spiritual direction provides an "address" on the house of your life so that you can be "addressed" by God in prayer. When this happens, your life begins to be transformed in ways you hadn't planned or counted on, for God works in wonderful and surprising ways." (xv)

A spiritual director introduces or re-introduces a spiritual seeker to God. A spiritual director discerns, separating God-things from non-God-things. A spiritual director does not lecture, but creates the space where the seeker can be addressed by God, for only God can do the work of spiritual formation. The spiritual director, then, "directs" rather than shapes or forms. Spiritual direction gets at the roots of the human heart that lie deep below the surface of a person's life.

Nouwen writes: "Teachers can teach only when there are students who want to learn. Spiritual directors can direct only when there are seekers who come with a question. Without a question, an answer is experienced as manipulation or control. without a struggle, the help offered is considered interference. And without the desire to learn, direction is easily felt as oppression." (7) Unasked-for advice is usually felt as criticism. Beware of those who desire to direct your soul without your permission.

Nouwen tells the familiar story of Michelangelo and the "lion in the marble" to illustrate how spiritual formation takes place in the heart.

"There was once a sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large, powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, 'Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble?'" (16)

Nouwen comments: "Spiritual direction is the interaction between the little child, the master sculptor, and the emerging, beautiful marble lion. Any director is really an onlooker who cheers and marvels as the artistry unfolds." (17)