The Spiritual Life

Eight Essential Titles by Henri Nouwen

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Henri J. M. Nouwen
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , May
     2016.
     672 pages.
     $27.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780062440105.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This collection of eight titles by renowned theologian Henri Nouwen takes the reader on a journey that is nourishing to one’s soul. The Spiritual Life, while not perfect, provides opportunities to reflect and grow in one’s faith, as well as deeply reflect on serious issues—such as death and vocation. Nouwen was clearly a pastor at heart, as some of his illustrations are spot-on. This is noted in his book, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (HarperCollins, 1994),where he uses clever illustrations in explaining how to prepare for death, underlying his point beautifully. He writes like a friend, sharing his own spiritual journey with the reader and describing lessons he has learned about God and faith. ¡Gracias!: A Latin American Journal (Orbis Books, 1983) is especially striking for its journal-like approach to searching for vocation and God’s calling. Everyone, at some point in their life, has tried to discern God’s calling and, as Nouwen proves (writing the book well into mid-life), it is never too late to change direction or make a leap of faith. Occasionally Nouwen’s books do not transfer well for the general public, such as The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ (HarperOne, 2009), which is targeted at priests—although ministers of other denominations will be able to glean interesting thoughts from it as well. Nouwen also demonstrates a rather pessimistic view of close friendship and community in educational settings, highlighting the toxicity of groups, which makes one wonder if he is speaking from a negative experience. However, these are minor hiccups in what is a truly wonderful collection of pieces for fostering spiritual growth. 

What is especially striking is Nouwen’s emphasis on moving down the ladder, so to speak, instead of climbing it. He describes working in higher education as having a great deal of pressure to advance higher and higher, but instead we as Christians are called to humble ourselves and serve. Nouwen definitely practiced what he preached, and in reading this collection one has a deeper appreciation and understanding of why he chose to leave a prestigious job in higher academia to serve as a minister in L’Arche, a community of disabled individuals. Nouwen’s focus on serving God is a breath of fresh air from contemporary culture’s focus on self-glorification and advancement. 

Nouwen also has an insightful work on spiritual practices, in The Way of The Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence (Ballantine Books, 2003), he shares—from personal experience—the best ways to routinely orient one’s mind and heart towards Christ. His suggestions are simple but profound, although they may be difficult for the busy parent. However, the suggestions are attainable. His chapters on silence and solitude are especially striking, as they are incredibly counter-cultural. His discussion on how his own thoughts shout and crowd his head when he is alone and silent speak on a universal level. Nouwen talks, not like an expert condescendingly lecturing the amateur, but as a fellow Christian struggling to make time to connect with the Lord—just like everyone else.

In this collection, Nouwen has two works on death and dying, which are beneficial to read even if one is not attending to that stage of life at the moment. Our Greatest Gift is especially moving in its heartfelt and beautifully illustrated discussion on preparing for death. Nouwen reflects on how we, as a community, rarely prepare individuals adequately for death, and his thoughts on how to do so demonstrate deep thought and personal experience. Even those who are too young—or perhaps too busy—to attend much to the eventual reality of death will greatly appreciate Nouwen’s thoughts on it, which are rooted in the gospel and his own experience of death (his mother and members of L’Arche). 

The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles by Henri Nouwen is not a quick read. The work spans more than six hundred pages, but is full of insights and wise reflections. Nouwen writes with humility and vulnerability, which is delightful and tugs at one's heart. He had a reputation as a spiritual master and if anyone was entitled to lecture others, it was certainly Nouwen and yet, his works consistently read like an intimate conversation with a trusted friend. Getting through this book is a commitment, but is well worth the effort. This is a journey you want to take. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Margaret Pierson is a graduate student at Gorden-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henri J.M. Nouwen was a world-renowned spiritual guide, counselor, and bestselling author of over forty books that many today consider spiritual classics. He taught at the universities of Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame before becoming the senior pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Canada, a community where men and women with intellectual disabilities and their assistants create a home for one another.

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