Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 2

June 25, 2006



Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 2 (6/25/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning we move to part two of a three part series based on Henri Nouwen’s great 1975 book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Last week I introduced you to Nouwen, who passed away in 1996. He was a priest, a mystic, a Trappist Monk, and a professor at some prestigious institutions, including Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale.

What is spirituality? What makes one person more or less spiritual than another? The premise of Nouwen’s book is that there are three broad areas of spirituality within a human being. These three areas have opposing poles, and it is our movement between those poles that determines our spiritual state. These are, as the title of the book indicates, “the three movements of the spiritual life.”

These three movements, these three polarities, all involve relationships. The first involves our relationship to ourselves. The second involves our relationship with other people. And the third involves our relationship with God.

Last week we talked about the first polarity, the relationship with ourselves. It involves the movement between two poles: loneliness and solitude. Nouwen calls the movement from loneliness to solitude a sort of “reaching out” to our innermost self. As we learned last week, this solitude is not a withdrawal from the world. It is rather the ability to engage the world, with all its problems, from the very core of our authentic selves. And we also learned that nobody moves in a straight line from loneliness to solitude. The spiritual life is a life of vacillating between those two poles, with the hoped-for result of moving closer and closer to solitude as opposed to loneliness.

This morning we move to the second movement of the spiritual life, which involves reaching out to our fellow human beings. This is the movement between the opposing poles of hostility and hospitality. Nouwen writes,

The first characteristic of the spiritual life is the continuing movement from loneliness to solitude. Its second equally important characteristic is the movement by which our hostilities can be converted into hospitality. It is there that our changing relationship to ourself can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings. It is there that our reaching out to our innermost being can lead to a reaching out to the many strangers whom we meet on our way through life.

Nouwen points out that society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people who jealously hang on to their possessions, suspicious of the motives of everybody, with the expectation that the next stranger they meet might be an enemy bent on doing them harm. It is a world filled with fear. The spiritual life involves converting this hostility into hospitality, creating a fearless space where the stranger becomes a guest.
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The word hospitality has lost its punch in the modern world. Nouwen writes as a theologian, and hospitality is an important biblical concept. The term hospitality means much more than welcoming a stranger into our house. Hospitality is a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human beings, and it can be expressed in many ways.

The biblical way to treat a stranger is not only to treat them well, but to expect something good from them. Remember, Abraham received three strangers and offered them a fine meal. They revealed themselves as the Lord, announcing that 90 year old Sarah would soon be with child. When the two travelers on the Emmaus Road invited the stranger to join them and then offered to make him dinner, the stranger made himself known as the recently crucified Jesus Christ.

Modern society does not teach us to welcome the stranger. And there is good reason. If you are walking down a city street late at night with no companions and no cars around, it is only smart to be a little cautious about the next person you meet. This is where Nouwen perhaps falls a little short in his assessment of hospitality. As a monk, and then an academic at prestigious institutions, his life was in some ways isolated from the everyday dangers many people face.

But still, Nouwen acknowledges there are dangers everywhere. Who doesn’t keep a close eye on his luggage when traveling? The fact is 99 out of every 100 people are good as gold, but that one in a hundred can ruin things for the rest of us. But what happens is we build up a wall of fear and cut ourselves off from the places in this world where God calls us to be helpful. Our hearts may tell us to visit the prisoner, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, but our fear won’t permit it.

This fear, sadly permeates our whole lives. Nouwen writes,

Fear and hostility are not limited to our encounters with burglars, drug addicts or strangely behaving types. In a world so pervaded with competition, even those who are very close to each other, such as classmates, teammates, co-actors in a play, colleagues in work, can become infected by fear and hostility when they experience each other as a threat to their intellectual or professional safety. Many places that are created to bring people closer together and help them form a peaceful community have degenerated into mental battlefields.

Students in classrooms, teachers in faculty meetings, staff members in hospitals and coworkers in projects often find themselves paralyzed by mutual hostility, unable to realize their purposes because of fear, suspicion, and even blatant aggression. Sometimes institutions explicitly created to offer free time and free space to develop the most precious human potentials have become so dominated by hostile defensiveness that some of the best ideas and some of the most valuable feelings remain unexpressed. Grades, exams, selective systems. Promotion chances and desires for awards often block the manifestation of the best that man can produce.

Nouwen tells the story of a friend of his who was an actor. The actor told him that there was incredible tension between the various actors in a production, and that it was not unusual for a couple to kiss on stage, and minutes later offer curses to each other backstage. The spotlight, he said, brings out the most trivial and bitter of rivalries.

Nouwen sounds a bit like Shakespeare, with his “all the world’s a stage,” when he says we are all on the stage of life, and what goes on backstage, behind the curtains, is never as pretty as what we show to the world. And nobody is immune. Doctors, priests, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and counselors all start their vocations with the best of intentions and motivations. And those intentions almost always, to some extent, fall victim to the intense rivalries in their personal and professional circles. Nouwen writes,

Many ministers and priests who announce peace and love from the pulpit cannot find much of it in their own [lives.] Many social workers trying to heal family conflicts struggle with the same at home…the act on our stage will probably always look better than what goes on behind the curtains, but as long as we are able to face the constant struggle to minimize it the tension can keep us humble by offering our services to others, without ourselves being whole.

In the midst of all this introspection, Nouwen lays out the bottom line. The spiritual life involves moving away from all our hostile instincts and becoming hospitable people. Hospitality means the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

And the trick is to accept people as they are. We have a tendency to invite people closer to us on the condition that they change in ways we expect of them. But hospitality creates a free space where the stranger can be himself of herself. Nouwen quotes Henry David Thoreau on this subject:

I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account… Before he has learned it I may have found another for myself. I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

The whole of our relationship with other people can be determined by where we position ourselves between the two poles of hostility and hospitality. Life is far too complex for us to expect to move smoothly from the pole of hostility to the pole of hospitality. Nouwen acknowledges that we will never be free from all our hostilities, and there will be times in our lives when hostile feelings dominate. But simply becoming aware of this inner movement between these poles can make us more hospitable, and more spiritual, people. It can result in a more open attitude toward others.

Nouwen then reveals the relationship between the first two movements of the spiritual life. We cannot move from hostility to hospitality without a constant inner connection to the movement from loneliness to solitude. If we have not moved from loneliness to solitude, we cannot create free space for others. Instead, we end up clinging to them and changing them. The good host in a hospitable relationship is firmly anchored on his or her own solitude. Nouwen writes,

The real host is the one who offers that space where we do not have to be afraid and where we can listen to our own inner voices and find our own personal way of being human. But to be such a host we have to first of all be at home in our own house.

So why aren’t we good hosts? If we can move past our fear of the stranger, and past our own competitiveness toward others, what makes us poor hosts, inhospitable people? The problem is our minds are too filled with ideas. Nouwen claims that a person who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions will be a poor host. After all, we’ve accumulated all those things over time, and we believe in them. And we think others should believe in them too. Everybody should think just like we do. After all, we’re not dummies. We’ve thought things through. We have good reasons for being democrat or republican, liberal or conservative, pro-military or pacifist. How dare somebody draw different conclusions from us?

Nouwen says we must learn what he calls “poverty of mind” as our spiritual attitude. Poverty of mind as our spiritual attitude. What does that mean? It is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life. It is a willingness to admit we know much less than we would like to think we do, that life is a mystery beyond words, and that only when we stop trying to grasp the fullness of life will we be able to enter into life fully. The point of life is not to master God, but to be mastered by God. I’ll say that again. The point of life is not to master God, but to be mastered by God.

Nouwen tells the story of a minister who was hired by a church even though he had no theological training. He spent two years delivering long and authoritative sermons. He was enthusiastic, and with great fervor he taught adult classes and gave lectures. After a few years, the congregation decided to send him to seminary. These are the words of that minister:

During those years I read the works of many theologians, philosophers and novelists. Whereas before everything seemed so clear-cut and self-evident to me, I now lost my certainties, developed many questions and became much less certain of myself and my truth.

Nouwen reflects on that story with words aimed very much to ministers, and which I take very much to heart. He writes,

The story illustrates that well-educated ministers are not individuals who can tell you exactly who God is, where good and evil are and how to travel from this world to the next, but people whose articulate not-knowing makes them free to listen to the voice of God in the words of the people, in the events of the day, and in the books containing the life experience of men and women from other places and other times.

It can be difficult discussing Nouwen, because he was a mystic. He saw the world a bit differently from most of us. Consider the simple act of being approached by another human being. Nouwen quotes Johannes Metz describing an encounter between two people:

We must forget ourselves in order to let the other person approach us. We must be able to open up to him to let his distinctive personality unfold—even though it often frightens and repels us. We often keep the other person down, and only see what we want to see; then we never really encounter the mysterious secret of his being, only ourselves. Failing to risk the poverty of the encounter, we indulge in a new form of self-assertion and pay the price for it: loneliness. Because we did not risk the poverty of openness, our lives are not graced with the warm fullness of human existence. We are left with only a shadow of our real self.

Well, it has been, I believe, a challenging two weeks as we discussed the three movements of the spiritual life. But there is an order here, and there is a payoff. Because it is only when we are aware of the first two movements that we can honestly seek to make the third. The first movement of the spiritual life is from loneliness to solitude, a reaching out to oneself. The second movement is from hostility to hospitality, a reaching out to the neighbor. And that brings us to the big question. Having learned to reach out to ourselves and to our neighbors, how can we reach out to God? How can we reach out to the very source of our own lives, of our neighbor’s lives?

The third movement of the spiritual life is the movement from illusion to prayer, and that is where we will begin next week.