Best Reads 2013 · Spirituality

Best Reads 2013. VIII: Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of LoveThis is one of the lesser known books by the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, best remembered perhaps for books such as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. In the former, he briefly talks about giving up his distinguished academic career in order to work with people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen reveals that, during his time at L’Arche, he suffered a severe breakdown lasting about six months, a period he describes as the most difficult time of his life. It was, he says, ‘a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life’.

I felt that God had abandoned me. … The anguish completely paralysed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.

The breakdown was triggered by the loss of a close friendship, which Nouwen describes in moving terms:

Going to L’Arche and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of many of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.

When that friendship came to an end, Nouwen ‘lived through an agony that never seemed to end’. But, he says, he never lost the ability to write. Indeed, writing became part of his ‘struggle for survival’, and so he kept a secret journal, which was to be published years later as The Inner Voice of Love.

In this book, Nouwen describes how the loss of that friendship ultimately deepened his love of God, and how his suffering taught him compassion for others. There are many profound insights in these reflections on issues such as wounds and pain, friendship, love and compassion, God and spirituality, loneliness and transformation, the body, emotions and incarnation, community and living up to one’s calling.

The following quotes, offered without further comment and presented simply in the order in which they appear, give an illustration of the richness of Nouwen’s thought:

… those who seem to reject you … never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. … They simply ask for your compassion.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. … As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.

It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there.

When your deepest self is connected with the deepest self of another, that person’s absence may be painful, but it will lead you to a profound communion with the person, because loving each other is loving in God. When the place where God dwells in you is intimately connected with the place where God dwells in the other, the absence of the other person is not destructive. On the contrary, it will challenge you to enter more deeply into communion with God, the source of all unity and communion among people.

There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know now that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

… real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them …

It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move towards the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

There is much in this book, which I discovered quite by chance and only recently, that I can relate to in deep and profound ways. Nouwen’s journey from anguish to freedom is also one from hurt and pain to love and compassion, and that goal of a loving and compassionate life, while not making the hurt and pain any easier to endure, can give deep meaning to our struggles.

Biblical Studies · Spirituality

Brief but insightful spiritual reflections on the book of Jonah

Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of BewildermentPaul Murray’s book on the prophet Jonah, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment, is a short one. Actually, it’s a very short one. Discounting the text of the book of Jonah itself and the illustrations, it runs to no more than 49 small pages. A pretty lightweight book then? Short, yes, but no, lightweight it isn’t. Although Murray, an Irish Dominican, obviously cannot give us an in-depth explanation of the text in those 49 pages, he has nonetheless written some quite remarkable reflections on this fascinating Old Testament text.

Murray is well-informed, and he manages, again rather surprisingly, given the limited space, to engage with an astonishing variety of perspectives, including modern scholarly treatments (Phyllis Trible, A. R. Ceresko, James Limburg, Yvonne Sherwood, André LaCocque, Jack Sasson, Hans Walter Wolff), works from the long history of Christian and Jewish engagement with this text (Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Columban, Martin Luther, Rabbi Eliezer, the Zoar), poets, novelists and dramatists (Herman Melville, Francis Quarles, Wolf Mankowitz, Hart Crane, Robert Frost), philosophers and psychologists (George Steiner, Erich Fromm, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Buber), mystics (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton), the list goes on ….

More importantly, in his brief comments on the lesson of the wild storm, the lesson of the great whale (before anyone objects, Murray is well aware that the Hebrew text doesn’t mention a whale) and the lesson of the wondrous plant, Murray has given us some equally brief but nonetheless insightful spiritual reflections on fear, terror and courage; compassion, love and responsibility; suffering and bewilderment; failure and breakdown; death and resurrection; anger, resentment and bigotry ….

The following quotes may give a flavour of Murray’s writing:

… the moment of actual failure and breakdown – the experience of bewilderment in our lives – can be the moment of breakthrough, the moment when God’s grace finally shakes down all our defences. And then, to our amazement, from out of the belly of failure, from out of the death of false dreams and false ideals, and even from the jaws of a living hell, we can begin to experience the grace of resurrection.

… sometimes, it is only in the midst of the ‘tempest’, in the heart of a storm of circumstances which we can’t control, that we come finally to realise something of the wonderful mystery of God, and realise also how far beyond anything we can imagine or hope for are his plans both for ourselves and for the entire world.

Here’s something else that Murray has done for me. Having come across numerous references to John of the Cross’s reflections on the ‘dark night of the soul’ in recent months, Murray’s quotes from this text have finally persuaded me that I must go and read it!