Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen is a book on Christian faith and life that is brimming with wisdom. And that’s not an overstatement. Published posthumously, it is a collection of many of Nouwen’s writings on the spiritual life that have been brilliantly woven together by one of his former students in partnership with one of his former editors. The book maps out some of the most significant regions, terrains, and pathways of the Christian life, offering profound guidance that makes it an immensely valuable resource for the spiritual journey.
Hence its title, it is designed to address some of life’s biggest questions, and as such some of the questions that often arise in a formal relationship of spiritual direction. Yet in classic fashion, Nouwen avoids giving trite answers to deep spiritual questions. Indeed, this is not a manual of quick-and-easy techniques and solutions. Just the opposite, in fact. And herein lies much of Nouwen’s brilliance: in the opening chapter of the book, he asserts that “seeking spiritual direction … means to ask the big questions, the fundamental questions, the universal ones in the context of a supportive community.” Spiritual direction, then, is not a relationship where the director coercively imposes all of the “right answers” and the “right ways” upon the directee. Rather, it is a relationship that involves a great deal of common inquiry, searching, and questioning, a relationship in which it is safe to ask and really ponder some of life’s deepest questions. Accordingly, Nouwen claims that the Christian life is actually deepened by “asking the right questions and living the questions.” In other words, questions are not a Christian’s enemy but their friend.
This attitude may come as a surprise to some, believers and unbelievers included. Christianity is frequently caricatured as anti-reason, anti-science, and anti-inquiry—as a prepackaged set of dogma that the faithful must blindly accept which actually prohibits critical thinking and questioning. In refreshing contrast, however, Nouwen presents a stance that not only welcomes the big questions but views “living the questions” as an indispensable process in spiritual growth. So why then do at least some Christian leaders seem to discourage honest questioning? Because some church leaders apparently imagine that spiritual realities and living are things to be completely comprehended, controlled, and conquered, as Nouwen notes: “living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge to understand, skills to control, and power to conquer.” It is this sort of misguided approach to the Christian life that Nouwen’s encouragements counterbalance, precisely because “in spiritual listening we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, we discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden not in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.”
And so he invites his readers to ask the deep questions by forming his chapters around them. The first part of the book addresses questions that arise as we look within ourselves, such as, Where do I begin? Who am I? And where have I been and where am I going? The second part of the book address questions that arise as we look to encounter God through prayer and in Scripture. These include, What is prayer? Who is God for me? And how do I hear the Word? The last part of the book addresses questions that arise as we look to others in community, such as, Where do I belong? And how can I be of service? Along the way, Nouwen never gives glib answers but rather shares some truly helpful guidance and wisdom by addressing them for what they are: deeply profound questions that deserve to be asked and re-asked over a lifetime. One big reason this is the case, in his words, is that “our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.” This is the sort of orientation that he encourages, the sort of orientation that is centred around Jesus while also allowing space for searching and asking and changing and growing.
My intention is to followup this post over time with a post on each of these questions. I want to do this to share some of Nouwen’s insights from the book. But I also want to write briefly on each question as a way to reflectively engage his ideas. I highly recommend reading his book, Spiritual Direction, if any of this has perked your interest, and I welcome your thoughts and comments as well.