Many people love Henri Nouwen and quote him often. He is known as the famous Catholic priest that addressed in many of his writings the spiritual practices of the Christian life. He is placed, in many people’s minds, in the bucket of one of those contemplatives. Perhaps known more for talk about the disciplines of the inner life of solitude, silence, and prayer–those kinds of things that people do in the quiet places of monasteries, retreat centers, or their own special rooms at home. That is where I had him placed in my thinking. But, as I’ve discovered in my recent reading, he was really a champion for the fuller sense of what it meant to be a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. To my immense delight, he did in fact address the danger, like I’ve been trying to do ever sense I started this blog (Worldly Holiness) nearly 15 years ago of a whats-in-it-for-me kind of Christianity which totally misses the point! I also wrote 175 pages of a dissertation on the same theme simultaneously, and started following a new calling in my life–peacemaking.
For Nouwen, and this is my big aha, all of the inner work was not meant to be an end in itself. In fact as one of his important commentators, John Dear, writes, “Henri taught that participation in church life, Sunday worship, and private prayer were merely outer manifestations of a much more profound life journey. For him, spirituality not only celebrates God’s intimate love for each and every one of us, but comprises an active, public love toward every human being on earth, especially our enemies.” He goes on further to say, “the inner contemplative life that he encouraged flows out and touches wounded humanity.”
This is big. It’s big because even now today, I see arguments for a kind of Christianity which aligns with a need to protect our Christian enclaves from others, to think of ourselves, our people, our country first, to buffer the blunt edge of some of Christ’s commands to love even our enemies, whoever they may be. But I would suggest, as does the author of this book, that if we haven’t taken seriously how our Christian faith propels outward towards others, if it doesn’t bring us into places of loving and serving our “others” (and this list should include lots of people and places in need of our compassion), than we might as well start over. We’ve entirely missed the point of what it means to follow Christ.