The nature of Spiritual Formation is at the core of Christian ministry – both for leaders and the people they serve. A common way of understanding spiritual formation is with progressive development stages where a person as they mature spiritually goes from one level to the next (or not) over a lifetime. Traditional Catholic mystical theology uses this approach with distinct passages of a journey toward God, as has popular contemporary modern stage theory writers such as James Fowler. An alternative approach that Henri Nouwen develops is of dynamic movements, seeing faith development more as cycles over a lifetime than as graduations from one level to another leading to perfection. The movements Nouwen invites his readers towards are from things that enslave towards things that brings liberation and life.
Nouwen was a pastor, professor, pastoral psychologist, and widely read spiritual writer of 40+ books including The Wounded Healer. After two decades of teaching, with appointments including Yale and Harvard, he worked as pastor with mentally challenged people at Daybreak’s L’Arche community in Canada. In his teachings he draws on Catholic mystical theology and a psychodynamic understanding of the soul, as well as broad experience of academia and pastoral ministry and counselling. Spiritual Formation, like the previous volume Spiritual Direction (2006) and the following Spiritual Discernment (forthcoming) that form a trilogy, is a posthumous book. It is compiled from his notes and manuscripts by his Yale student Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, while they were teaching spirituality and spiritual formation at Drew University.
The underlying invitation of the book is to descend from the mind to the heart to be shaped by God’s Spirit within. It asserts the importance of a well-formed heart as a foundation for a well-formed life, or the need to start with soul-work within and let that lead outwards in community and to ministry. The key to spiritual formation, and ultimately to community building and ministry fruitfulness, is not mass organization and management skills but discernment of movements of the Spirit within. The basic task of the church, or by extension theological education, is to help people communicate with God as the source of life.
The book is structured around seven chapters of seven movements divided across early, midlife and mature movements. (Maybe Nouwen is still influenced by, albeit not limited to, some life stages.) Each chapter includes a “Henri story” as a parable that can be read slowly with lectio divina (divine or sacred reading). To get away from reliance on words, each chapter also offers a favourite “Henri icon” or image – including Van Gogh paintings, Rublev’s icon and Antonio’s sculpture of Woman Dancing – that can be used for visio divina (divine or sacred seeing). The aim is to move from skeptical and utilitarian reading and viewing to let images as well as words help us connect with God and nurture and unify our minds and hearts. Journal and application sections give the reader a basis for deeper contemplation and/or group work. Each chapter describes a condition of human experience and where that can lead to as we descend from our heads to our hearts, and be formed and reformed by God’s Spirit.
The first ‘early movement’ is from opaqueness to transparency, to unmask desire for control and possessiveness that sees nature, time and people as tools to use, and instead see them as gifts to enjoy and learn from. The challenge is to be who really are, see others as they are, and help others see God and themselves as they really are. The second early movement is from illusion to prayer, a helpful reminder to move from the illusion of self-importance and preoccupation to make space to experience God. Unlike a driven life where identity depends on the illusion of achievements and possessions, a prayerful life can be content to simply waste time and be alone with God. This movement helps teach that productivity does not define us and that our worth is not a reflection of our usefulness. This is a very practical chapter – outlining how to choose a time, place and patter for prayer, and advice on focusing.
Reflecting on the ‘midlife movements’ was especially welcome for this 41-year-old reviewer. Movement from sorrow to joy comes as we dare to cry and realize we are not alone in our loss, of lost friends, dreams or what might have been. Movement from resentment to gratitude occurs as we give up defending ourselves and judging others, and be grateful for how we can enjoy and serve where we are. Says Nouwen, “Let us not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now, receive it with gratitude, and see it in the light of a loving God who guides us day by day” (Kindle, loc 1365). And movement from fear to love emerges as we stop trying to control the future by fearfully hoarding and clinging, and instead open ourselves up to be loved and to love.
The ‘mature movements’ are from exclusion to inclusion, letting go of the prejudice and worry that leaves little room for hospitality, to grow into radical hospitality and including even people who are very different. Nouwen explored this academically as a teacher but lived it where he found his true home as a pastor at Daybreak, living and working with people with disabilities. The other mature movement is finally from denying to befriending death, acknowledging our finitude and the communion of saints we will join. This is Important as we get older, and for someone like me I may be half way through life (at 41 hopefully not quite, but just as likely past halfway; I need to come to terms and ‘befriend’ that reality.)
Nouwen puts his finger on many of my weaknesses and sins, and the invitations to growth and maturity that I become aware of in quiet times of solitude and reflection. Awareness comes equally in times of conflict and challenge, which I learned as I wrote this review while travelling in a week of resentment about conflict with a host, fear after theft from my credit card and sorrow from disappointment it was not the pilgrimage we had hoped; plenty of opportunity to practice the movements. Formation is a lifelong and ongoing journey to move along these polarities away from things that drain us and towards that which is life-giving. This is a valuable reflective book for personal use and for pastors, spiritual directors and counselors to understand growth paths of those they listen to.
[This review was originally published in Pacifica 26:3 (October 2013), 336-338.]