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Book Review: Nouwen Offers a ‘How-to’ on Spiritual Formation

By Sister Jean Peerenboom

Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird (HarperCollins, $25.99)

Spiritual formation takes place in the heart not the mind, so our challenge is bringing the two together. Henri Nouwen can help with that.

Spiritual formation is an elusive thing for so many of us, so having a step-by-step guide is helpful, and who better to guide us than Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual leader who has written several spiritual classics, including “The Wounded Healer” and “Making All Things New.” Nouwen died in 1996, but his lessons are timeless.

Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird have taken Nouwen’s famous course in spiritual formation and supplemented it with his unpublished writings to create the series on Nouwen’s thoughts on the Christian life.

This book follows a first called “Spiritual Direction” about Nouwen’s core concepts and how to live out the questions of the spiritual life. “Spiritual Formation” reveals Nouwen’s wise advice on how to live out the five classical stages of spiritual development. Each section includes a unique “visio divina” – sort of a visual “lectio divina” – to guide and focus the reader’s prayer.

Each chapter opens with a favorite Nouwen story or parable and one of his favorite icons or images. The sections are “Early Movements,” “Midlife Movements” and “Mature Movements.” The book can easily be read in small sections and does not have to be read in order. It can be used for solitary reflection or group discussion. I would recommend it for faith-sharing groups.

Basically, the point is that spiritual formation begins in our heads, but can only be successful when it comes from the heart. This formation is done both singly and communally.

The book opens with words about prayer. Nouwen writes: “Prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart – that is, in the point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally within ourselves, with God and with others and the whole of creation. In the heart of God, the spirit dwells, and there the great encounter takes place.” This is where spiritual formation takes place.

Nouwen once said he feared that in a few decades “the church will be accused of having failed at its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the divine source of human life.” This can be avoided, he said, by entering the heart and becoming familiar with the complexities of our inner lives.

We make this inward journey through prayer, silence, reflection/meditation, discernment and spiritual direction. But, there is also an outward journey from the heart to community and ministry. “Christian spirituality is essentially communal,” he wrote.

In community, he said, we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other. In community, we find our own woundedness, but also healing. It is here that we learn true humility. Without community we become egocentric and individualistic.

Some advice gleaned in the book includes:
• Make time and a space for regular prayer.
• If we don’t fall asleep during prayer, we know how many distractions there are in our lives.
• The movement from illusion to prayer requires daily practice.
• We express spiritual formation through service to the world.

The authors take us through the movements or stages of our lives. For example, to move from sorrow to joy, we need to face and mourn our losses and then connect our suffering to that of the larger world. Nouwen suggests viewing losses in light of the suffering of others.

Moving from resentment to gratitude requires moving toward something more life-giving – an attitude of gratitude. The book takes us from fear to love, from exclusion to inclusion and from denying to befriending death.

The importance of communal prayer in spiritual formation is strong for Nouwen. He said formation not only flows from community, but also creates community. “It nurtures the life of the spirit in us, within us and among us. The spirit of God dwells in the center of our heart and is the center of our life together.

“Community is a gift of the Spirit that may present itself in many different ways, in silence as well as in words, in listening as well as in speaking, in living together as well as in a solitary life, and in various forms of worship and active service.”

There is not a lot of new information in “Spiritual Formation,” especially for Nouwen fans. However, it is a good way to sit back and take an inventory of our spiritual life. Nouwen is an excellent person to help us do that. His ideas are still good advice; his insights are still relevant, and his direction is still superb.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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