Becoming Spiritual: A Book Review of "Reaching Out" by Henri Nouwen
Reaching Out was written by Henri J.M. Nouwen and published in 1975 by Doubleday Publishing. The book explores Christian spirituality by breaking down the quest for a Christ-like life into three forms of “reaching out”. The book begins by examining loneliness as a universal, human theme that can only be overcome by simultaneously addressing the need for aloneness and connectedness. The author explains that one cannot fully appreciate community without solitude. Importantly, solitude is distinguished from loneliness. Solitude is a state of being attentive to the inner workings of self- thoughts, fears, longings and delights, while also allowing meditation to put into perspective man’s place. The author explains that it is by acknowledging our inner longing for meaningful connection that we are able to find the points of connection that feed our souls. Unlike solitude which allows one to know oneself, loneliness is painful. The natural response to that pain is to run from it.
Running away from loneliness causes one to deny who they are and to pursue distractions and meaningless liaisons. The author argues that a meaningful journey into solitude allows a person to digest the goings-on of the world and translate them into a significant contemplation. The author says that a journey into solitude leads to a recognition of the effect one has on the whole and inevitably a sense of interconnectedness that arises from the realization that the entirety of creation groans with the same hunger for communion. It is from that recognition and by truly knowing oneself through heeding the soul’s call for solitude that one begins to reach out to the world and people that he or she now feels a part of. And it is a mindfulness of oneself, faults and short-comings included, that causes any sense of superiority to be dissolved by empathy. Nouwen declares the responsibility of Christians to be a way station for believers and non-believers who have yet to study themselves so that the believer can reach from their solitude into the loneliness of the world to rescue the sinking.
Finally, it is laid out that God must be the anchor to which the other tenets of spirituality are fastened. Knowing oneself and reaching to the world with that knowledge opens the door to reach up to God with an honest acceptance of human limitation. Knowing that life is a finite gift engenders humility. God must be approached with a brokenness that one allows to enjoin them to the global existence which yearns for community with one another and more so with God. Solitude brings a revelation that a person needs to have an inner sanctum not intruded upon by others, which becomes the window through which the world is seen. However, that world must be viewed with compassion and understanding that all are human, inept and incapable of attaining the perfection that their soul desires to rejoin. And, that perfection is God who waits for man to realize his mission- reaching to the Father while waiting for his communion.
Response to the Message
The book’s approach to discussing loneliness and alienation was shocking before it was refreshing. It is so easy to be self-absorbed and not just feel lonely but to be lonely in your loneliness. That comes from believing that your circumstance is unique. The book caused me to recall my first year of undergraduate studies when I found myself in a sociology course I did not intend to take. The professor systematically destroyed my faith with matter-of-fact assertions about the lack of any unique quality within Christianity. He reduced my entire world-view to a childish fairy tale. I spiraled. My entire life had been built on my faith. It was not just how I spent my Sunday morning. It was the core of every relationship I had built. Now, with that core crumbling, I was gripped by an unspeakable loneliness.
I began searching for answers in far flung places. I pored over works by prominent atheists and theologians alike. There was a desperate search for some kind of reconciliation. I was doing everything I could to crawl back up from the pit into which I had been thrown. Finally, I suspended all belief. I gave up. I contemplated suicide. Life without the meaning offered by faith seemed a life devoid of any meaning at all. Then, in the moment of relinquishing myself, I felt the capturing of the Spirit. I was met and constrained by the love of Christ. In a way that seemed to transcend me, I began to gravitate back to belief. It was not through my effort. Instead, it was as if external forces where leading me to the discoveries that I needed to make to “find” God again. I put “find” in quotes because I recognize that it was I who was lost. I was lost in loneliness. But I met God again in solitude.
Reflection and Deeper Understanding
As the author discussed interacting with the world, I was challenged by the ideas of being separated (2 Corinthians 6:17). How active a player can a Christian be in this existence without compromising the distinctiveness of being a believer? Nouwen recounted his interaction with a priest who had disavowed the news to better connect to God. Nouwen was disappointed in this believer’s method of pursuing spirituality (p. 51). I was struck by this. Why was the author not impressed with the priest’s willingness to deny himself (Matthew 16:24)? It seemed that the book argued against what has been stressed as a vital part of being a believer since the first covenant (Deuteronomy 14:2). But I was challenged to remember that even under the law, hospitality to strangers was stressed as an indication of belonging to God (Leviticus 19:34). The same is reiterated in the New Testament in Hebrews 13:2. It then made sense. The Israelites were to be hospitable because they had been strangers in Egypt. Christians were to be kind to strangers as those strangers represented the Kingdom of Heaven. And God himself values humanity, even in our estranged state, so greatly that he became one of us to extend hospitality to us. Jesus did not pretend to be somehow removed from the activity of life. He attended weddings (John 2), went to dinner parties (Matthew 9) and sought conversation with those of questionable character (John 4). So, as I sit encapsulated in my faith, where does this put me?
Given what I perceive as the intention of the book, I determined the appropriate application of the book’s advice. Being guilty of the kind of Christianity that retreats into self, I must grow outward as I grow upward. I will start with recognizing the importance of solitude, a journey I have already begun as meditation has become a part of my devotional habits. By knowing myself and bringing myself as an offering to God without pretense, I will be able to affect change. Furthermore, just as the author wrote, I must recognize that my life is not mine (p. 119). In application, I envision a conversation in which someone pours their heart out. Instead of being moved with the type of sympathy that is expressed through rote phrases imparted by course work, I will hear the heart cry of a kindred spirit. Beyond just the practice of counseling, I will see myself as a part of a larger system operating under the direction of a Father. I will know that faith that is not mobile is an inconsequential faith. It brings to mind the words of James 2:17, “Faith without works is dead.” So I will marry to my faith the type of work that Jesus did. I will see my role in ministry and life as more than just obligatory service, which has been my fault. I will, instead, see it as the evidence of a faith that is so alive it begets life in me.