Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 1

June 18, 2006



Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 1 (6/18/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning I am starting a series based on a book by one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen. The book is called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I want to begin by providing a little background on Henri Nouwen.

Nouwen was born in Holland in 1932, and entered the priesthood at the age of 25, in 1957. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. After that he taught at the University of Notre Dame, and the divinity schools at both Harvard and Yale. For part of the 1970’s he lived as a Trappist monk, dedicating his life to the strict rules of the Benedictine Order—an ordered life of work and prayer.

In the 1980’s he dedicated his life to a group in Canada working with severely disabled people, those who in no way could even offer gratitude for his dedication to their well-being. Nouwen died in 1996.

Along the way he wrote many books which have become spiritual classics. The book we will examine, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, is my personal favorite.

What is “the spiritual life?” We can often sense when a person has a strong spiritual foundation, but what is it that makes that happen? Henri Nouwen claims there are three areas, three movements in human life, which determine the depth of our spirituality. Each requires that we make a conscious effort to reach out from our mundane lives to a more spiritual way of being.

The three movements are as follows: reaching out to our innermost self; reaching out to our fellow human; and reaching out to our God. This can seem like a lot to take in, but we are going to examine each of these movements in detail. What makes a person more or less spiritual? I’ll read from Nouwen’s book:

In the middle of all our worries and concerns, often disturbingly similar over the years, we can become more aware of the different poles between which our lives vacillate and are held in tension. These poles offer the context in which we can speak about the spiritual life…

The first polarity deals with our relationship to ourselves. It is the polarity between loneliness and solitude. The second polarity forms the basis of our relationship with others. This is the polarity between hostility and hospitality. The third, final, and most important polarity structures our relationship with God. This is the polarity between illusion and prayer…

Thus, the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. The more we come to the painful confession of our loneliness, hostilities and illusions, the more we are able to see solitude, hospitality and prayer as part of the vision of our life.

This morning we will concentrate on reaching out to our innermost self. Nouwen calls this the movement from loneliness to solitude.

Loneliness is a by-product of life in the modern world. We are caught between two extremes our culture demands of us. One is that we become competitive, successful individuals. The other is that we hold up togetherness, unity and community as ideals after which to strive. Nouwen claims that loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering, leading to alcoholism, drug use, and even suicide. Nouwen writes,

The real pain is felt where we can hardly allow anyone to enter. The roots of loneliness…find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.

The main way we have developed of coping with loneliness is to shut it out—to never be alone with ourselves. We do this either by surrounding ourselves with people, or by bombarding our eyes and ears with sensory input at all hours of the day and night. But neither of these options is really a cure for loneliness.

We walk into our empty house and instantly turn on the television. We don’t care what’s on, we just need something to occupy the quiet space. My goodness, we can hardly go to the bathroom without having some reading material at hand. Better to read the latest about Brad and Angelina than to have to be alone with ourselves for a few minutes.

The other option, constantly surrounding ourselves with other people, is not a real cure for loneliness. If we haven’t taken the time to really discover who we are at our deepest level, then our relationships with others are shallow and superficial. They are a way of passing time, but not of really entering into communion with other people.

Why does our being alone manifest itself as loneliness? Nouwen claims that neither friendship, love or even marriage can take away that innate loneliness that is a part of human life. The only solution comes in the movement from loneliness to solitude. I’ll again quote from his book:

This difficult road is the road of conversion, the conversion from loneliness to solitude. Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry, desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.

This is the beginning of the spiritual life according the Henri Nouwen. We must recognize those two poles within us—loneliness and solitude—and make an effort to move from the one pole to the other. He insists that one need not become a monk or a hermit to make this movement. Yes, it is essential to have some alone time in order to move from loneliness to solitude, but the solitude that really counts does not involve isolation from other people. What matters is a solitude of the heart, which is an inner attitude that does not rely on physical isolation from others.

Nouwen notes that our world is not divided between lonely people and people of solitude. Each of us fluctuates between these two poles day after day, year after year. And we don’t have total control over these fluctuations. But when we recognize these poles, we can at least be sensitive to the movement between the poles, and discern the direction we would prefer to move.

Solitude does not call us away from other people; in fact, it has the opposite effect. Nouwen writes,

Without the solitude of the heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitive and parasitic, because without the solitude of the heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.

The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. In this solitude we can strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other’s individuality…and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart.

So this solitude that Henri Nouwen speaks of does not isolate us from others. It draws us closer to others, while respecting others as individuals and respecting their boundaries. So it is with the world around us. Nouwen says that the movement from loneliness to solitude does not cause a withdrawal from the affairs of the world, but rather calls us to be engaged with the burning issues of our time. And this engagement with the world around us is not a fearful reaction, but rather a loving response.

Nouwen laments the story of a good friend of his, a priest, who quit reading the newspaper. That priest felt that his meditation and prayer life were being disturbed by all the stories about war, crime and political manipulations. Nouwen writes.

That is a sad story because it suggests that only by denying the world can you live in it, that only by surrounding yourself with an artificial, self-induced quietude can you live a spiritual life. A real spiritual life does exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.

It is this alertness in solitude that can change our life indeed. It makes all the difference in the world how we look at and relate to our own history through which the world speaks to us.

Nouwen notes how self-centered religion has become. Take, for instance, the notion of a contrite heart. We tend to think of this as an inner sense of guilt for our personal experiences, and perhaps a willingness to do some form of penance as a result. But we must let more than personal piousness into that area of contrition. We should not keep the horrors of life on earth outside the solitude of our hearts. Wars, murders, violence torture, hunger and illness. Unless we allow these things into our solitude, our contrition is simply pious emotion.

Nouwen then asks the important question, can we carry the burden of reality? How can we keep our hearts open to all the tragedy this world throws at us without becoming paralyzed and depressed? And he answers the question with great honesty. He does not know. He simply knows it is a part of living in this beautiful hurting world, and it is a demand of the spiritual life. And yet we cannot be paralyzed by the pains of the world. Nouwen writes, beautifully,

Maybe, for the time being, we have to accept the many fluctuations between knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing, feeling and not feeling, between days when the whole world seems like a rose garden and days in which our hearts seem tied to a millstone, between moments of ecstatic joy and moments of gloomy depression, between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.

Nouwen is brutally honest about life—about the spiritual life. Opening ourselves to the reality of the world around us is not easy. It leaves us feeling powerless, because in many ways, we are powerless. So we look only for the problems we can solve, because we want to maintain the illusion that we are masters of our own universe. Nouwen says we “create our own Disneyland where we can make ourselves believe that all events of life are safely under control.” We make ourselves blind and deaf to much of the reality of the world so we can pretend to be Lord of the Universe. The truth is, we resent our powerlessness, so we fantasize a world that doesn’t really exist.

But there is something to be gained from facing this powerlessness, namely, wisdom. Having made the move from loneliness to solitude we can be taught by life. Situations may be out of our hands, but they should never be out of our hearts, and through this newfound wisdom, instead of feeling bitter we can respond with a wise and creative response. We can respond with compassion. Nouwen writes,

In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. There we can feel that the cruel reality of history is indeed the reality of the human heart, our own included, and that to protest asks, first of all, for a confession of our own participation in the human condition. There we can indeed respond.

It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. Because out of an inner solidarity with our fellow humans the first attempts to alleviate these pains come forth.

Nouwen goes on to say that we can all find strength in the movement from loneliness to solitude, and with that strength we no longer feel the need to run from the pains of the world, but are emboldened to confront them, to share them with others. The beginning of spiritual healing is a willingness to enter into the pain of others.

Nouwen concludes the first part of his book with these words:

The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings. And so, the movement from loneliness to solitude leads us spontaneously to the movement from hostility to hospitality. It is this second movement that can encourage us to reach out creatively to the many we meet on our way.

And that’s where we’ll take up next week, with the second movement of the spiritual life, the reaching out to our fellow human beings, the movement from hostility to hospitality. In the meantime, may we all find ourselves moving from loneliness to solitude, growing in compassion, and embracing life as the beautiful and mysterious gift that it is.