Tag Archives: henri nouwen

Entering your suffering with you – the opportunity of spiritual direction

“If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness… After so much stress on the necessity of a leader to prevent his own personal feelings and attitudes from interfering in a helping relationship it seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, even destroyed in the process. The beginning of all [good spiritual leadership] is to give your life for others. Thing about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.

“…In short: ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Our lives are filled with examples which tell us that leadership asks for understanding and that understanding requires sharing. So long as we define leadership in terms of preventing or establishing precedents, or in terms of being responsible for some kind of abstract ‘general good,’ we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its [pain]... Personal concern makes it possible to experience that going after the ‘lost sheep’ is really a service to those who are left alone.” (Henri NouwenThe Wounded Healer) Italics mine

One of the things that I love most about offering spiritual direction and companioning as my practice as work is that there is so much more room for responding to the movements of Spirit and less “protocol” for staying removed from people’s pain. So often, directees have left my office and I have found myself crying in compassion and sadness for their situation. How needed are those who will enter the pain with us and let us know that we are not alone.

Though Nouwen asks his question about taking away suffering by entering into it, I don’t believe that it is the director who does this. What I do believe is that the director points to and helps to notice a compassionate Source who does take away suffering and does enter into it. Healing happens… I don’t know when, who, where, or always how, but it is always a reality in the midst of our pain.


Going the final mile and the danger of self-direction

I wonder if I have a tendency to avoid going the extra mile when I start getting deep into my spiritual practice. I have been reading Henri Nouwen‘s The Genesee Diaryand he talks a lot about his meetings with his spiritual director, John Eudes. John was saying that when the normal distractions are gone – like attention, talking, normal relationships – we begin to focus on our base desires. Sex, food, sleep.

“In a sense, you fall apart, you regress, but it is also there that you become available for spiritual direction and can find a place for prayer and ascetical life. It is all a very sensitive thing. It can also lead to an egocentric preoccupation. You need guidance to prevent that.”

This is the last mile that I so often avoid. Turning the intensity outward to prayer and service rather that getting so preoccupied with self.

Nouwen also wrote earlier of what he was reading from the desert fathers.

Nothing is more harmful than self-direction, nothing more fatal… I never allowed myself to follow my thought without asking advice” (Instructions of Dorotheus of Gaza)

And this, too, is so poignant for our times. How often it is that we seek to find out own way, make our own decisions… “my spiritual journey is my own personal thing and I keep it to myself mostly.” My friends, as good as this sounds, it is not the way to move forward in the spiritual life. We must not separate ourselves from the saints, the fathers and the mothers, that have come before us, whatever religion they may be. They will always tell us of the need for a director, a spiritual companion, a confessor, a community.

Growing the trust factor

Yesterday, I began my recent writing on small groups and transformational community with the  foundational element of the Trust Factor. Much of what I am learning currently is emerging through weekly facilitating Spiritual Integration Classes at myc yoga, here in Bend, OR, and through some extremely good reading (Parker J. Palmer – A Hidden Wholeness).

I closed out the last post urging us, as leaders and inviters into community, to begin to pay attention to the Trust Factor. As we begin paying attention and rejoicing at every hurdle of trust that others in our community climb over, we are well on our way to facilitating groups and building community that support transformation authenticity. Hand in hand with paying attention is our ability to invite others into space that nurtures the Trust Factor. There are a few things that I seek to remember at all times (but often forget) when it comes to holding space for trust:

  • Any movement towards more trust is worthy of celebration and support. If someone feels supported, chances are they are not going to move in the direction of less trust.
  • At the same time, causing damage to someone’s willingness to trust is like two (or ten) steps backwards after one step forward. People who have repeatedly taken the risk of trusting and been hurt, are in need of great care. There are many, many things that kill trust.
  • Eye contact and smiles help immensely
  • I try to envision what it would look like for me to embrace the other without actually giving them hug. My eyes, my smile, my posture, my tone of voice… all of my being is here to embrace and welcome you!
  • Envision an open space of comfort and love expanding between the two of you. Breath the other into that space, deeply and calmly. I must NOT fill it with my “self” and my needs.
  • In regards to breath… our breath, as clear and free and deep as it can be, and our posture, as relaxed and open and strong as it can be, invite others into that space with us. This is not something we learn at school. Crossing arms, slouching, looking out the window (the clock, our phone, etc), breathing shallowly, wearing sunglasses… all these things do not help.
  • As hard as it is, we must avoid “leading questions…” those being questions that seek to make a point or get someone to consider something we think would be “more appropriate” for them to consider.
  • We must be able to be alone ourselves. As Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out, “As long as we are lonely, we cannot be hospitable because as lonely people we cannot create free space. Our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them.” Spending time in solitude and silence allow us to truly be an safe host, without an agenda to carry out or needs that we demand the other to meet.

There are a lot more things… I think that the best place to start is considering myself in their shoes. We can open others in trust with our own bodies. Breath, posture, eye contact. This is absolutely essential to consider. Oh yah, and SLOW DOWN. Silence pauses are ok! We must be okay with the open space between us… not filling it with our insecurities.

Reaching Out – From Hostility to Hospitality Part 2

As we look at Becoming Community… journeying in hospitality and belonging, I move to the next chapter (first entry here.) of Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Chapter Four is entitled, “Creating Space for Strangers.”

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found… It is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”

Nouwen begins describing this hostility that so much of the world lives in. Because of competition and fear, we do not trust the stranger. We go through our lives as actors who act out “peace, justice, and love” but “cripple each other by mutual hostilities.” He defines hospitality, in contrast to this hostility, as “primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.

The idea is to create a paradox of emptiness… not one that is fearful, but one where strangers can find themselves free. Too often though, our empty spaces are fearful because we are used to being occupied (busy) or preoccupied (concerned with insecurities). We must remember that we cannot control people, we cannot force them to change. Rather, we must offer friendly open space, where we invite change to take place.

Reaching Out – From Hostility to Hospitality Part 1

Looking for reading to supplement our Sunday night gathering’s study on Becoming Community… journeying in hospitality and belonging (intro entry here), I dusted off Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I’ll be reflecting on a number of things he wrote here, primarily from the section regarding moving from hostility to Hospitality.

Nouwen begins Chapter 4: Creating Space for Strangers by noting that the very world we live in is hostile. So many people are busy, lonely, estranged from friends, family, God. The world is so full of competition, aggression, fear, and suspicion. In this type of setting we as followers of Jesus have an obligation to “offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.” When this happens, he writes, guests “reveal to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.”

Nouwen defines hospitality as “creation of free space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer space where change can take place… The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free to leave and follow their own vocations.”

Nouwen makes the distinction between real hospitality and occupied|preoccupied space. We are so busy, active, and on the move, that more than anything else, we want our space to be occupied with something or someone… otherwise major anxiety sinks in. Radio, television, food… anything to keep us from having to face what is really going on inside us. These things going on inside us are what Nouwen calls the preoccupations. This is even more of a challenge to overcome than being occupied. What we have the opportunity to do, as hospitable ones, is to “offer space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.”