Beginning of a Spiritual Life by Henri Nouwen

Beginning of a Spiritual Life by Henri Nouwen

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Making All Things New” published in 1981:

1.Beginning of a Spiritual Life (pg 95)

     The beginning of the spiritual life is often difficult not only because the powers which cause us to worry are so strong but also because the presence of God’s Spirit seems barely noticeable. If, however, we are faithful to our disciplines, a new hunger will make itself known. This new hunger is the first sign of God’s presence. When we remain attentive to this divine presence, we will be led always deeper into the Kingdom. There, to our joyful surprise, we will discover that all things are being made new.

2.Set Our Hearts on the Kingdom (pg 65-68)

     The spiritual life is a gift. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who lifts us up into the Kingdom of God’s love. But to say that being lifted up into the Kingdom of love is a divine gift does not mean that we wait passively until the gift is offered to us. Jesus tells us to set our hearts on the Kingdom. Setting our hearts on something involves not only serious aspiration but also strong determination. A spiritual life requires human effort. The forces that keep pulling us back into a worry-filled life are far from easy to overcome.

     “How hard it is,” Jesus exclaims, “. . .to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). And to convince us of the need for hard work, He says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of Mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24)

     Here we touch the question of discipline in the spiritual life. A spiritual life without discipline is impossible. Discipline is the other side of discipleship. The practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God. The prophet Elijah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the small voice (see 1 Kings 19:9-13). Through the practice of a spiritual discipline we become attentive to that small voice and willing to respond when we hear it.

     From all that I said about our worried, over-filled lives, it is clear that we are usually surrounded by so much inner and outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when He is speaking to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us and unable to understand in which direction He calls us. Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means “deaf.” A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear. When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow His guidance. Jesus’ life was a life of obedience. He was always listening to the Father, always attentive to His voice, always alert for His directions. Jesus was “all ear.” That is true prayer: being all ear for God. The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God

     A spiritual discipline, therefore, is the concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our lives, where this obedience can be practiced. Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen. A spiritual discipline sets us free to pray or, to say it better, allows the Spirit of God to pray in us. 

3.Spiritual life leads us deeper into the world.(pg 54-59)

     Jesus sends the Spirit so that we may be led to the full truth of the divine life. Truth does not mean an idea, concept, or doctrine, but the true relationship. To be led into the truth is to be led into the same relationship that Jesus has with the Father; it is to enter into divine betrothal.

     Thus Pentecost is the completion of Jesus’ mission. On Pentecost the fullness of Jesus’ ministry becomes visible. When the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and dwells with them, their lives are transformed into Christ-like lives, lives shaped by the same love that exists between the Father and the Son. The spiritual life is indeed a life in which we are lifted up to become partakers of the divine life.

     To be lifted up into the divine life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit does not mean, however, to be taken out of the world. On the contrary, those who have entered into the spiritual life are precisely the ones who are sent into the world to continue and fulfil the work that Jesus began. The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it. Jesus says to His Father, “As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) He makes it clear that precisely because His disciples no longer belong to the world, they can live in the world as He did: “I am not asking You to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (John 17:15-16) Life in the Spirit of Jesus is therefore a life in which Jesus’ coming into the world—His incarnation, His death, and His resurrection—is lived out by those who have entered into the same obedient relationship to the Father which marked Jesus’ own life. Having become sons and daughters as Jesus was Son, our lives become a continuation of Jesus’ mission.

     “Being in the world without being of the world.” These words summarise well the way Jesus speaks of the spiritual life. It is a life in which we are totally transformed by the Spirit of love. Yet it is a life in which everything seems to remain the same. To live a spiritual life does not mean that we must leave our families, give up our jobs, or change our ways of working; it does not mean that we have to withdraw from social or political activities, or lose interest in literature and arts; it does not require severe forms of asceticism or long hours of prayer. Changes such as these may in fact grow out of our spiritual life, and for some people radical decisions may be necessary. But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people. What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the Kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes His presence known to us.

     Indeed, living a spiritual life requires a change of heart, a conversion. Such a conversion may be marked by a sudden inner change, or it can take place through a long, quiet process of transformation. But it always involves an inner experience of oneness. We realise that we are in the centre, and that from there all that is and all that takes place can be seen and understood as part of the mystery of God’s life with us. Our conflicts and pains, our tasks and promises, our families and friends, our activities and projects, our hope and aspirations, no longer appear to us as a fatiguing variety of things which we can barely keep together, but rather as affirmations and revelations of the new life of the Spirit in us.“All these other things,” which so occupied and preoccupied us, now come as gifts or challenges that strengthen and deepen the new life which we have discovered. This does not mean that the spiritual life makes things easier or takes our struggles and pains away. The lives of Jesus’ disciples clearly show that suffering does not diminish because of conversion. Sometimes it even becomes more intense. But our attention is no longer directed to the “more or less.” What matters is to listen attentively to the Spirit and to go obediently where we are being led, whether to a joyful or a painful place.

     Poverty, pain, struggle, anguish, agony, and even inner darkness may continue to be part of our experience. They may even be God’s way of purifying us. But life is no longer boring, resentful, depressing, or lonely because we have come to know that everything that happens is part of our way to the house of the Father.

4.God speaks to us Always and we have to take concrete steps to listen to Him. (pg 90-92, 94-95)

     Through the discipline of solitude we discover space for God in our innermost being. Through the discipline of community we discover a place for God in our life together. Both disciplines belong together precisely because the space within us and the space among us are the same space.

     It is in that divine space that God’s Spirit prays in us. Prayer is first and foremost the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our personal and communal lives. Through the disciplines of solitude and community we try to remove—slowly, gently, yet persistently—the many obstacles which prevent us from listening to God’s voice within us. God speaks to us not only once in a while but always. Day and night, during work and during play, in joy and in sorrow, God’s Spirit is actively present in us. Our task is to allow that presence to become real for us in all we do, say, or think. Solitude and community are the disciplines by which the space becomes free for us to listen to the presence of God’s Spirit and to respond fearlessly and generously. When we have heard God’s voice in our solitude we will also hear it in our life together. When we have heard Him in our fellow human beings, we will also hear Him when we are with Him alone. Whether in solitude or community, whether alone or with others, we are called to live obedient lives, that is, lives of unceasing prayer—“unceasing” not because of the many prayers we say but because of our alertness to the unceasing prayer of God’s Spirit within and among us.. . . . 

     How can we move from fragmentation to unity, from many things to the one necessary thing, from our divided lives to undivided lives in the Spirit? A hard struggle is required. It is the struggle to allow God’s Spirit to work in us and recreate us. But this struggle is not beyond our strength. It calls for some very specific, well-planned steps. It calls for a few moments a day in the presence of God when we can listen to his voice precisely in the midst of our many concerns. It also calls for the persistent endeavour to be with others in a new way by seeing them not as people to whom we can cling in fear, but as fellow human beings with whom we can create new space for God. These well-planned steps, these disciplines, are the concrete ways of “setting your hearts on His Kingdom,” and they can slowly dismantle the power of our worries and thus lead us to unceasing prayer.

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997:

1.Claiming the Identity of Jesus (June 3)

     When we think about Jesus as that exceptional, unusual person who lived long ago and whose life and words continue to inspire us, we might avoid the realisation that Jesus wants us to be like Him. Jesus Himself keeps saying in many ways that He, the Beloved Child of God, came to reveal to us that we too are God’s beloved children, loved with the same unconditional love.

     John writes to his people, “You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children—which is what we are” (1 John 3:1) This is the great challenge of the spiritual life; to claim the identity of Jesus for ourselves and to say, “We are the living Christ today!”

2.We are the Glory of God (June 18)

     Living a spiritual life is living a life in which our spirits and the Spirit of God bear a joint witness that we belong to God as God’s beloved children“The Spirit himself joints with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God.”(Romans 8:16) This witness involves every aspect of our lives. Paul says, “Whatever you eat, then, or drink, and whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God.”(Romans 10:31) And we are the glory of God when we give full visibility to the freedom of the children of God.

     When we live in communion with God’s Spirit, we can only be witnesses, because wherever we go and whomever we meet, God’s Spirit will manifest itself through us. 

3. What we Feel is not who we are (July 23)

     Our emotional lives move up and down constantly. Sometimes we experience great mood swings: from excitement to depression, from joy to sorrow, from inner harmony to inner chaos. A little event, a word from someone, a disappointment in work, many things can trigger such mood swings. Mostly we have little control over these changes. It seems that they happen to us rather than being created by us.

     Thus, it is important to know that our emotional life is not the same as our spiritual life. Our spiritual life is the life of the Spirit of God within us. As we feel our emotions shift we must connect our spirits with the Spirit of God and remind ourselves that what we feel is not who we are. We are and remain, whatever our mood, God’s beloved children. 

4.The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (July 26)

     Our emotional lives and our spiritual lives have different dynamics. The ups and downs of our emotional lives depend a great deal on our past or present surroundings. We are happy, sad, angry, bored, excited, depressed, loving, caring, hateful, or vengeful because of what happened long ago or what is happening now.

     The ups and downs of our spiritual lives depend on our obedience—that is, our attentive listening—to the movements of the Spirit of God within us. Without this listening our spiritual life eventually becomes subject to the windswept waves of our emotions.

5.The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (July 26)

     Our emotional lives and our spiritual lives have different dynamics. The ups and downs of our emotional lives depend a great deal on our past or present surroundings. We are happy, sad, angry, bored, excited, depressed, loving, caring, hateful, or vengeful because of what happened long ago or what is happening now.

     The ups and downs of our spiritual lives depend on our obedience—that is, our attentive listening—to the movements of the Spirit of God within us. Without this listening our spiritual life eventually becomes subject to the windswept waves of our emotions.

  6.Spiritual Choices (Jan 6)

       Choices. Choices make the difference. Two people are in the same accident and severely wounded. They did not choose to be in the accident. It happened to them. But one of them chose to live the experience in bitterness, the other in gratitude. These choices radically influenced their lives, and the lives of their families and friends. We have very little control over what happens in our lives, but we have a lot of control over how we integrate and remember what happens. It is precisely these spiritual choices that determine whether we live our lives with dignity

  7.The Spiritual Work of Gratitude (Jan 12)

     To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.

     Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God. 

8.Listening as Spiritual Hospitality (March 11)

     To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

     Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very being. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.

9.Reading Spiritually about Spiritual Things (April 15)

     Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.

     As we read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God’s voice. Sometimes we must be willing to put down the book we are reading and just listen to what God is saying through its words

10.Letting the Words become Flesh (April 16)

     Spiritual reading is food for our souls. As we slowly let the words of the Bible or a good spiritual book enter into our minds and descend into our hearts, we become different people. The Word gradually becomes flesh in us and transforms our whole beings. Thus spiritual reading is a continuing incarnation of the divine Word within us. In and through Jesus, the Christ, God became flesh long ago. In and through our reading of God’s Word and our reflection on it, God becomes flesh in us now and makes us into living Christs for today.

     Let’s keep reading God’s Word with love and great reverence

11. Spiritual Courage (June 27)

     Courage is connected with taking risks. Jumping Grand Canyon on a motorbike, coming over Niagara Falls in a barrel, walking on a tightrope between the towers of New York’s World trade Center, or crossing the ocean in a rowboat are called courageous acts because people risk their lives by doing these things. But none of these daredevil acts comes from the center of our being. They all come from the desire to test our physical limits and to become famous and popular.

     Spiritual courage is completely different. It is following the deepest desires of our hearts at the risk of losing fame and popularity. It asks our willingness to lose our temporal lives in order to gain eternal life.

12. Spiritual Dryness (July 29)

     Sometimes we experience a terrible dryness in our spiritual lives. We feel no desire to pray, don’t experience God’s presence, get bored with worship services, and even think that everything we ever believed about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is little more than a childhood fairy tale.

     Then it is important to realise that most of these feelings and thoughts are just feelings and thoughts, and that the Spirit of God dwells beyond our feelings and thoughts. It is a great grace to be able to experience God’s presence in our feelings and thoughts, but when we don’t, it does not mean that God is absent. It often means that God is calling us to a greater faithfulness. It is precisely in times of spiritual dryness that we must hold on to our spiritual discipline so that we can grow into new intimacy with God. 

13.Two Kinds of Loneliness (July 30)

     In the spiritual life we have to make a distinction between two kinds of loneliness. In the first loneliness, we are out of touch with God and experience ourselves as anxiously looking for someone or something that can give us a sense of belonging, intimacy, and home. The second loneliness comes from an intimacy with God that is deeper and greater than our feelings and thoughts can capture.

     We might think of these two kinds of loneliness as two forms of blindness. The first blindness comes from the absent of light, the second from too much light. The first loneliness we must try to outgrow with faith and hope. The second we must be willing to embrace in love.

14.Our Spiritual Leaders (Oct 28)

     The Church as the body of Christ has many faces. The Church prays and worships. It speaks words of instruction and healing, cleanses us from our sins, invites us to the table of the Lord, binds us together in a covenant of love, sends us out to minister, anoints us when we are sick or dying, and accompanies us in our search for meaning and our daily need for support. All these faces might not come to us from those we look up to as our leaders. But when we live our lives with a simple trust that Jesus comes to us in our Church, we will see the Church’s ministry in places and in faces where we least expect it.

     If we truly love Jesus, Jesus will send the people to give us what we most need. And they are our spiritual leaders.

15.Spiritual Bodies (Nov 30)

     In the resurrection we will have spiritual bodiesOur natural bodies came from Adam, our spiritual bodies come from Christ. Christ is the second Adam, offering us new bodies not subject to destruction. As Paul says, “As we have borne the likeness of the earthly man (Adam), so we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly One (Christ)” (1 Corinthians 15:49)

     Our spiritual bodies are Christ-like bodies. Jesus came to share with us the life in our mortal bodies so that we would also be able to share in His spiritual body. “Mere human nature,” Paul says, “cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Jesus came to dress our perishable nature with imperishability and our mortal nature with immortality (see 1 Corinthians 15:53). Thus, it is in the body that our spiritual life finds its fullest manifestation.

16.Our Spiritual Parents (Jan 2)

     Joy and sorrow are never separated. When our hearts rejoice at a spectacular view, we may miss our friends who cannot see it, and when we are overwhelmed with grief, we may discover what true friendship is all about. Joy is hidden in sorrow and sorrow in joy. If we try to avoid sorrow at all costs, we may never taste joy, and if we are suspicious of ecstasy, agony can never reach us either. Joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth.

17.Mastering Evil with Good (Sept 2)

     The apostle Paul writes to the Romans, “Bless your persecutors, never curse them, bless them. . .Never pay back evil with evil. . . Never try to get revenge. . .If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. . .Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.”(Romans 12:14-21) These words cut to the heart of the spiritual life. They make it clear what it means to choose life, not death, to choose blessing not curses. But what is asked of us here goes against the grain of our human nature. We will only be able to act according to Paul’s words by knowing with our whole being that what we are asked to do for others is what God has done for us.  

     The passages below on spiritual life are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, ”Henri Nouwen” published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.

From the House of Fear to the house of Love (pg 6)

     How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred, and violence, and not be destroyed by it? When Jesus prays to His Father for His disciples He responds to this question by saying, “I am not asking You to remove them from the world but to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (John 17:15-16)

     To live in the world without belonging to the world summaries the essence of the spiritual life. The spiritual life keeps us aware that our true house is not the house of fear, in which the powers of hatred and violence rule, but the house of love, where God resides.

     Hardly a day passes in our lives without our experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions, and preoccupations. These dark powers have pervaded every part of our world to such a degree that we can never fully escape them. Still it is possible not to belong to these powers, not to build our dwelling place among them, but to choose the house of love as our home. This choice is made not just once and for all but by living a spiritual life, praying at all times, and thus breathing God’s breath. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love. (Behold the Beauty of the Lord, 19-20) 

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.

1. Friday of the Third Week of Lent (pg 76) 

     To live a spiritual life is to live in the presence of God. This very straightforward truth was brought home to me forcefully by Brother Lawrence, a French Carmelite brother who lived in the seventeenth century. The book  The practice of the Presence of God contains four conversations with Brother Lawrence and fifteen letters by him.

     He writes: “It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Everyone is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less. He knows what we can do. Let us begin, then. Perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage.”

     “I know that for the right practice of it (the presence of God) the heart must be empty of all other things, because God will possess the heart alone; and as He cannot possess it alone without emptying it of all besides, so neither can He act there, and do in it what pleases, unless it be left vacant to Him.” 

     Brother Lawrence’s message, in all its simplicity, is very profound. For him who has become close to God, all is one. Only God counts, and in God all people and all things are embraced with love. To live in the presence of God, however, is to live with purity of heart, with simple-mindedness, and with total acceptance of His will. That, indeed, demands a choice, a decision, and great courage. It is a sign of true holiness. (Genesee Diary152)

2. Fourth Sunday in Lent (82)

     Our heart is the center of our being human. There our deepest thoughts, intuitions, emotions, and decisions find their source. But it’s also there that we are often most alienated from ourselves. We know little or nothing of our own heart. We keep our distance, as though we were afraid of it. What is most intimate is also what frighten us most. Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden centers; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such or such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house. The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make His love known to us there, to free us from our fears and to make our own deepest self known to us. In the privacy of our heart, therefore, we can learn not only to know Jesus but, through Jesus, ourselves as well. (Letters to Marc, 68)

3.Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent (90)

     Today in the Gospel reading of the liturgy, Jesus reveals that everything He does is done in relationship with His Father. . .

     Jesus’ words have a special meaning for me. I must live in an ongoing relationship with Jesus and through Him with the Father. This relationship is the core of the spiritual life. This relationship prevents my life from being consumed by “keeping up” with things. This relationship prevents my days from becoming boring, fatiguing, draining, depressing, and frustrating. If all that I do can become more and more an expression of my participation in God’s life of total giving and receiving in love, everything else will be blessed and will lose its fragmented quality. This does not mean that everything will become easy and harmonious. There will still be much agony, but when connected with God’s own agony, even my agony can lead to life. (The Road to Daybreak, 146-147)

4.Wednesday in Passion Week (109)

     The interior life, Gustavo Gutierrez said, does not refer to the psychological reality that one reaches through introspection, but is the life lived free from the constraining power of the law in the Pauline sense. It is a life free to love. Thus the spiritual life is the place of true freedom. When we are able to throw off the compulsions and coercions that come from outside of us and can allow the Holy Spirit, God’s love, to be our only guide, then we can live a truly free, interior, and spiritual life. (Gracias, 133)

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