Ignatian Corner - October 2011
One of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the United States today is Henri Nouwen, a native of the Netherlands who was ordained a priest there and came to the United States following studies in psychology. After an internship at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, he taught at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University. From 1986 until his death in 1996 he shared his life with persons of mental disability as a pastoral assistant in the L’Arche-Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. Among his most important writings is Reaching Out (published by Doubleday in 1975), where he develops the thesis that we are called to reach out with courageous honesty to our innermost selves, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God. The book is organized around the movement between three polarities.
The first polarity deals with our relationship to ourselves, the polarity between loneliness and solitude. The second polarity forms the basis of our relationship to others, the polarity between hostility and hospitality. The third and most important polarity structures our relationship with God, the polarity between illusion and prayer. People today are increasingly exposed to the contagious disease of loneliness in a world in which competitive individualism tries to reconcile itself with a culture that speaks about togetherness, unity and community as the ideals to strive for. Often we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the experience of being alone and sometimes we create devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded of this condition. When we try to shake off our loneliness by creating a milieu without limiting boundaries, we may become entangled in a stagnating closeness. Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. A real spiritual guide is one who offers us a chance to stay alone and take the risk of entering into our own experience.
Solitude does not pull us away from our fellow human beings but instead makes real fellowship possible. Nouwen singles out the Trappist monk Thomas Merton for emphasizing this insight since his contemplative solitude brought him into intimate contact with others. The mystery of love protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the space where a person can convert one’s loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. As long as we try to run away from our loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy. The more a person is able to convert one’s restless loneliness into a solitude of heart, the more one can discover the pains of the world in one’s own inner center and respond to them. “The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible”) p. 61).
A Prayer of Thomas Merton
Father, here you see me. Here you love me. Here you ask the response of my own love, and of my confidence. Here you ask me to be nothing else than your friend.
To be your friend is simply to accept your friendship because it is your friendship. And this friendship is your life, the Spirit of your Son. You have called me here to be your Son, to be born over again, repeatedly, in your light, and in knowledge, and consideration, and gratitude, and poverty, and praise.
Send me your Holy Spirit, and unite me with your divine Son and make me one with you in him, for your great glory. Amen.