Nouwen and the First Question

QuestionsFor a number of years I have been convinced that one of the best things that I can do as a teacher is to ask good questions.  Question-asking has been particularly fruitful with upperclassmen, as it allows for a more mature response amongst people who may have been around one another a lot without really getting to know each other all that well.  So I was pleased to see that the editors who put together Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction used the framework of questions, with each chapter posing a question tied directly to the disciplines of Heart, Book, and Community.  The book’s first question is one I found to be one of the most pertinent: who will answer my questions?

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One of the statements in this section of Nouwen’s book that strikes me most is the assertion that

Without a question, an answer is experienced as manipulation or control.  Without a struggle, the help offered is considered interference.  And without the desire to learn, direction is easily felt as oppression.

As a teacher I’ve had to wrestle with that first sentence: answering a question before it is even asked.  The better option, of course, is to lead people to ask the right questions and to understand the stakes of asking the right question well.  I think this is especially true . . . and difficult . . . when it comes to the spiritual life.  Here’s how Nouwen connects direction and questions:

Seeking spiritual direction, for me, means to ask the big questions, the fundamental questions, the universal ones in the context of a supportive community.  Out of asking the right questions and living the questions will come right actions that present themselves in compelling ways.  To live the questions and act rightly, guided by God’s spirit, requires both discipline and courage . . .

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I would argue that many of us don’t know where to go to ask the questions rooted in our hearts, the big questions.  As Nouwen points out, the willingness to ask questions and seek answers brings with it a vulnerability that can be difficult to handle.  We don’t like not having the answers.  Beyond that, we don’t know what to do with that weird no-man’s-land that exists before the answer we find gets internalized on our part.  By that I mean there’s a small-but-wide distance between the head knowledge of an answer and the heart knowledge of that answer.  We do our best to live with the first until we find ourselves embraced by the second, but that can take time.

What is clear from holding life up to Nouwen’s framework of Heart, Book, and Community is that the three are so intwined that you can’t hold them apart for long.  The answers to our hearts’ questions are answered in the Bible.  And those necessary questions are best understood in the context of the Christian community.  And yet sometimes the three seem so opposed to one another . . . or at least so distant from one another . . . that the dissonance keeps us silent and distant ourselves.

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And so who will answer our questions? involves but is bigger than the heart.  For Nouwen, part of asking the question means living the question (something that I learned from Donald Miller years ago, actually).  The other part means finding people who can ask and answer and live through those questions with you.  Which means we need pastors who can ask and answer questions with us.  We need teachers who can ask and answer questions with us.  Parents and children and friends co-workers.  We must learn to ask the questions together knowing that there are answers, that God provided and provides those answers, and that those questions and their answers have and can be lived out with real conviction.

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