Henri Nouwen we was an influential Catholic priest and academic, who wrote over 30 books and lectured around the world, and chose to spent the last 10 years of his life caring for a seriously disabled young man in the L’Arche community. He died in 1996.
His writing continues to find a wide audience, and he crossed denominational boundaries, being widely read in Protestant and Evangelical circles as well as Catholic ones. It is his ability to speak insightfully about the complexity of life in secular western culture, and his honesty and willingness to express his struggle and vulnerability that make him compelling. He isn’t the last word on the subject, but for many people he is the first. his writing matters a great deal for his willingness to addresses subjects such as loneliness, self acceptance and depression that even 40 years later are only beginning to be taken seriously.
Reaching Out was published in 1975. Despite the self help style editorial blurb which speak about spiritual ascent and maturity, it is typically humble Henri Nouwen who acknowledges that for from progress, he often struggles with the same things for many years. Progress is slow and often hard to recognise. But what he does identify are three areas where important change has taken place, areas that might otherwise go unrecognised, but which actually are quite significant, and he calls our attention to them.
What he describes are three movements of the spiritual life (not the three movements as the cover suggests) and in fact there are not really three, because the third underpins the first two . But they are ones which have the ability to change our relationship with ourselves, and others and with God.
The first is the movement from loneliness to solitude.
To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.
It is a quiet nod to the lives of the desert mothers and fathers who were an influence on Nouwen, men and women of the 4th and 5th Centuries who would literally enter the desert and live lives of silence and prayer and simple work, often nurturing small gardens in the harsh desert environment.
Loneliness is the blight of the modern world, it is an unexpected side effect of our privilege and relative wealth, as our independence results in isolation.
The second is about our relationship to others, in a movement he describes as from Hostility to Hospitality.
One of the enduring themes of Nouwens life is the struggle for self acceptance, and the struggle to believe that he is loved. This is particularly apparent in his anxiety about publishing his writing for fear of criticism.
The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world – free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticised, ridiculed, or considered useless…. I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries
That great spiritual task is common to all of us. And freedom is found in knowing that we are loved by God sufficiently to free us from the desperate search for approval in the world.
And thirdly the movement from illusion to prayer.
In the midst of a turbulent, often chaotic, life we are called to reach out, with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God.
However prayer is not the final step, it is the foundation of everything else. Rather than something we do, it is something we open ourselves to by putting aside our excuses and stop hiding from God.
There is some good reflection on that here.