Nouwen and a Long Obedience with No Direction

No DirectionIn yesterday’s post I asked a question that twisted the popular 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 passage a bit: what if the changes effected in contemporary culture have led us to feeling more renewed in body but more diminished, even damaged, in soul?  And if that is true, what, if any way, can lead us towards some kind of healing?  And is there a way beyond the fad and fashion of the moment that can help us?

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I would like to exist in a world where good and honest questions can be asked and the Bible could be used both to open and answer those kinds of questions.  In my experience, that’s not as likely as it should be.  So one way of trying to draw out the necessary conversation is to insert the work or words of another.  And so bringing in Aquinas to help triangulate a discussion of faith and the nature of the universe can work well in ways that simply presenting Genesis 1 or Colossians 1 cannot (which is not the Bible or God’s fault, mind you).  And so you bring C. S. Lewis into a conversation on morality or J. R. R. Tolkien into a conversation about creativity.  You could also venture out into areas and authors not normally tied to particularly Christian conversations.  That can work as long as there is a real grounding in Christian orthodoxy matched with a real sense of how to handle more ambiguity in conversation than usual.

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One of the Christian authors who has been particularly helpful for me over many years when considering the spiritual condition of people has been Henri Nouwen.  His Creative Ministry was a huge early influence on my understanding of the various aspects of ministry (and I picked that one up because the closest bookstore didn’t have a copy of The Return of the Prodigal, his most famous book, and one I still have not read).  As with almost any other Christian thinker (and feeler), Nouwen has his detractors, which is understandable.  It’s rare to agree with everything anyone says.  But I have found real nourishment and challenge in his writing.  That’s part of the reason why I spent spring break reading through two posthumous collections of Nouwen’s thought: Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation.  I read them partly to balance out some of the headier reading that I was doing.  I also read them because this year of transition (tied to what I’ve called my temporary vocational stretch) had left me in need of some framework for processing the current moment.  I found that in both books, with the questions of Spiritual Direction and the “movements” of Spiritual Formation.

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I first learned of the concept of “spiritual direction” from Eugene Peterson (in one of his pastoral books, The Contemplative Pastor, perhaps).  The concept has always intrigued me, partly because of the potential it holds for someone in the pastorate but also because of my own need for some kind of direction that goes deeper than just a “duty” mentality for the spiritual life.  But spiritual direction can be hard to find.

In fact, I’d posit that a large chunk of any contemporary Christian malaise could be attributed to our inability to engage in the kinds of conversations that spiritual direction implies.  From the book’s introduction:

The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation– the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart.

And then:

Any spiritual direction commitment affords the opportunity for spiritual friendship, and provides the time and structure, wisdom and discipline, to create sacred space in your life in which God can act.

On some level, this is Christian Discipleship 101.  It is time and space shaped by prayer and Scripture and accountability.  But it also intentionally brings what one of my college professors called “the vicissitudes of life” into the conversation in a way that looks like a conversation longer than a quiet moment here or there.  It includes something Nouwen calls “spiritual friendship,” which is maybe a way of elevating the idea of “brother in Christ” as something including but much more than simply a “brother in crisis” when life goes haywire.

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The title of this post is a twist on a Nietzsche quote “redeemed” by Eugene Peterson as a title for a book on “discipleship in an instant society.”  One could easily argue that many of us now exist in a contemporary Christian culture worn out by constant movement, unending activity, with no real sense of direction or intention (beyond “that’s what we’re supposed to do”).  What I’d like to do over the next few days is glean some wisdom from Nouwen’s approach to spiritual direction as I think about a transition from one moment in life to the next.  Nouwen asserts, I think in most instances rightly, that he has

a lot more to say . . . because the journey of the spiritual life calls not only for determination and discipline, but also for an experiential knowledge of the terrain to be crossed . . . In the terrain of the spiritual life, we need guides.

If we are going to move with intention and direction, if we are going to move from one world to the next with a real hold on the nuts-and-bolts of the Christian life as vital to the human experience, He might have something to say.  The terrain is beautiful but also dangerous, easily to get lost in and even easier to give up on.  I’d like to go as far as I can in the right direction.

(image from a band on Facebook named “No Direction”)

This entry was posted in Books, Faith, Notes for a World's End, Scripture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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