Before beginning the main discussion in Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen points to three different points of connection, spiritual disciplines, that are necessary for a healthy approach to a wisdom that can help us “to slow down and order our time, desires, and thoughts to counteract selfishness, impulsiveness, or hurried fogginess of mind.” Those three things deserve some attention, I think, before moving forward.
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The first “discipline” for spiritual direction is what Nouwen calls “the discipline of the Heart.” Nouwen sees this as “first and most essential” in a way that could cause concern for many Christians. But I understand where he’s coming from: it’s clear that most of us have absolutely no idea what to do with our hearts. We know it’s “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17) even while it is the thing we need to guard “because everything we do flows from it” (Proverbs 4). Nouwen links this discipline with the work of more ancient Christians, particularly in the area of prayer. Nouwen asserts:
The discipline of the Heart makes us aware that praying is not only listening to but listening with the heart. Prayer helps us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties; our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations, and hopes; our reflections, dreams, and mental wandering; and most of all our family, friends, and enemies– in short, all that makes us who we are. With all this we have to listen to God’s voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being.
I read this and remember what Eugene Peterson once said: that his main task as a pastor was to teach his parishioners how to pray. The kind of prayer Nouwen writes of hear sounds a million miles removed from most of our experiences in churches and with other Christians. But I also think that Nouwen is onto something, particularly in light of the quote that closes this post.
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The second discipline on Nouwen’s list is probably the one that most of us would put as first: “the discipline of the Book.” For this, Nouwen speaks of looking “to God through lectio divina— the sacred reading of the scriptures and other spiritual writings.” This reading leads back to prayer, Nouwen asserts.
When we listen to a sentence, a story, or a parable not simply to be instructed, informed, or inspired but to be formed into a truly obedient person, then the Book offers trustworthy spiritual insight . . . Scripture does have a personal word for us, yet knowledge of the historic Christian teaching helps us avoid the easy trap of wanting scripture to support our own designs.
For me this means having a sense of the Biblical Story as a whole (with thanks to Wright, for me) so that I can understand how to play my role fittingly (with thanks to Vanhoozer, for me). It is the reminder that whatever “self-actualization” or “will of God” for my life must fall in line with the work of the Trinity in the Bible and the world around me. This doesn’t mean proof-texting and abstracting Scripture so that it means whatever you want in the moment.
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The third area of focus from Nouwen’s perspective is “the discipline of the Church or faith community.” Nouwen asserts that “this spiritual practice requires us to be on relationship to the people of God, witnessing to the active presence of God in history and in community.” He goes on to say that
A faith community reminds us continuously of what is really happening in the world and in our lives.
Nouwen speaks if the importance of the common language and practices of “church liturgy and lectionary” and the formation that can occur when we follow “Christ’s life throughout the year.” Nouwen adds that
To listen to the Church is to listen to the Lord of the Church.
This, I would argue, is not what most of us think when we consider how the Church can help us understand the world around us. I consider the local church vital to my own spiritual growth as a youth and young adult, and that was without liturgy and lectionary. And now that I have a better sense of those two things, I find some confusion about the role that the Church should play. How does one bring the events of life and the world to bear on conversations with the Church about the spiritual life? Even still, the Church in both its history and immediacy should be vital to making headway in spiritual direction.
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In yesterday’s post I attempted a “play” on the Nietzsche-quote-turned-book-title about “a long obedience in the same direction,” which is a goal that we all should have with the spiritual life, particularly as we embrace it over a life-time in the context of a shifting (church) culture. The great hope, of course, is that things will “get fixed” when we get all of the right ingredients in place, particularly our hearts, Scripture, and the church. Thankfully, Nouwen reminds us to think wisely and clearly about that:
To receive spiritual direction is to recognize that God does not solve our problems or answer all our questions, but leads us closer to the mystery of our existence where all questions cease.
That, I think, is no vague truth. It is to behold well the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life in all His crucified, resurrected, and ascended glory. But the beholding, even for a moment, isn’t all that easy.
(image from 4n6.com)