“Courageous Honesty” in Reaching Out

“Indeed, it seems that the desire for ‘final solutions’ often forms the basis for the destructive violence that enters into the intimacy of human encounters (Henri J.M. Nouwen 31).”

We have a strong addiction to winning, even if it means shaming the other side so they close down completely, refusing to reach out to us ever again.  I see this on a personal level too. I find it hard to open up to an oppositional view.  Not only because I think I am right, but also because I’m afraid to lose myself in the fierceness of the opposition. Unfortunately, the sense of being the only one left standing or left on the island as the ultimate winner of … what? I do not exactly know … has infected all spaces of relating to each other. We often talk about connections as communication, and encourage everyone to get out and connect by making our voices heard, by spilling out into the streets and shouting down the other, and by telling it like it is … . But, if we are all making ourselves heard, and busy out in the street shouting at each other and insisting we know how to tell it like it is, then who is listening? who is thinking? who is quietly reflecting? who is working together? What if we thought of communicating as not just a mere strategy for getting what we want, but rather as a sincere and difficult part of forming relationships?  Relationships that are reciprocal and respectful. Relationships that allow space for talking and listening. Relationships that do not fall apart when we disagree. Relationships that come from deep within ourselves.

fullsizeoutput_102Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of Spiritual Life, curiously, fits here because it addresses some of the fundamental challenges we must confront as humans, that is, the interior fundamental challenges we face such as loneliness, hostility, and illusion, which if we thought about them with honest intentions or courageous honesty, we might just recognize the external obstacles to which they are linked, such as: racism, jobs, education, environment, and any other external conflict to which our attention is called.

The three movements about which Nouwen writes are as essential to community as any psychological development is to the maturing human being. They are: (1) From Loneliness to Solitude, (2) From Hostility to Hospitality, and (3) From Illusion to Prayer.

Nouwen writes in the Foreward that his book is a response to a specific question. The question is articulated within the framework of Christian spirituality: “What does it mean to live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?” I do not think, however, one has to be seeking to “live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ” to reflect upon and benefit by Nouwen’s writing. I do think, however, one has to be a gentle character who believes the current projection of shadows on the wall might not be all there is to reality.

Henri Nouwen, who, for those who do not know of him, died in 1996. He was born in the Netherlands. He was a Catholic priest, and a professor at Yale Divinity School. Now here’s what I love about Henri Nouwen: He burned out and found himself accepting an offer from Jean Vanier to live at L’Arche. It is at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada, working with people with intellectual and mental challenges, where Henri Nouwen was given the opportunity to live the words he wrote. Nouwen always had a reputation for being unafraid to talk about his struggles, but L’Arche brought him deep into his soul and turned the words he was writing into pure energy. Reaching Out, however was written before Nouwen’s life at L’Arche.




loneliness to solitude






Writing about loneliness, Nouwen reflects about society:

“The contemporary society in which we find ourselves makes us acutely aware of our loneliness. We become increasingly aware that we are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry (24).”

Nouwen brings out the point that although on the surface of things it looks as if no one could possibly be lonely; after all, there are parties and polite conversation to make one feel surrounded by friends. Presently, we must include Facebook and the sundry list of social media outlets which help us keep a tally of friends, and finally the selfie mode on the camera to serve as witness to it all. But, even with all of this proof, Nouwen concludes (this is before social media and the addiction to selfies), the reality is quite opposite: the feeling of loneliness still has us in its grip. No doubt, in our current state of “selfie” shots we are seeking something deeper than a “like” on Facebook or a “retweet” on tweeter.

Loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition.  As Nouwen writes, there is no place on earth where we can be free from loneliness:

“To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld (30).”

It appears there are two ways in which we deal with loneliness in our culture: (1) We close off all pain. We could do this by (a) simply being in denial all day, what is diagnostically referred to as, disassociation, or (b) we can continually seek out people, places and things to fill up our time and distract us from pain. (2) We can seek out final solutions, something that will end the pain once and for all. In the face of great fear, we can say things like, “let’s just blow them off the face of the earth!” Final solutions are deadly solutions. There are no final solutions that end well.

While it is not possible to eradicate loneliness completely, Nouwen demonstrates that we do not have to be stuck in the rigidity and coldness of loneliness. We can consider, and in fact, must begin, it seems it should be an imperative, to move towards, solitude. Solitude engages our loneliness, disentangles our being from its deadly confusion, and permits us to move inward where we, paradoxically, begin to partake in the mystery and light of living. It is in solitude and the reconnection to our inner, most intimate voice where we find the flame of love inside us. It is only in solitude, at somewhat of a distance from the constant chatter and noise of everyday life that we can begin to learn how to be compassionate and loving.  Solitude, Nouwen argues, is not counter to community, but rather the foundational stone.

“The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings” (62).

This is really not radical. It means we need to be healthy before we enter into community with others. I believe, however, there is a tendency to misunderstand healthy as living for ourselves and not caring too much for our neighbors — “as long as we are not hurting anyone we can go about our lives,” is a statement often heard. Living for yourself is not solitude, however. Living for yourself is probably as negative as living for others when the action itself is not coming from a place of genuine solitude. This is to say, a place where you know you are loved and therefore are not looking for anything at all but to love. This is not to say one does not have to take care of oneself. The point of solitude is to care for yourself; but it is not a self-indulgent care.

The second movement:






hostility to hospitality 





If in solitude we entered deeply into our very soul, hospitality brings us deep into relationship with others.  Nouwen points to three significant relationships:

Parents and Children, Teachers and Students, and Healers and Patients.

In the church I attend our bulletin used to exclaim: radical hospitality; now it is: courageous hospitality. I never thought much about what hospitality meant, though, and I do not believe attending my church made it any clearer. Of course, hospitality made me think of being hospitable to strangers. But, how hospitable? And, how does one enter into the art of hospitality when we seem to focus exclusively on violence in our culture? Our culture of attention and fascination to violence is not new.

Henri Nouwen wrote these words over forty years ago:

“Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm (66).”

It appears the sense of hostility, brought about by the fear of harm and violence done to us, has increased, even when statistics and research tell us we are less violent today. We, nevertheless, believe we are vulnerable to a random violent act. In part, this is true, we are always vulnerable to random violent acts, but how vulnerable are we? and should we all be on lock-down because we feel uncomfortable being vulnerable?  We all should know by now that fear can make us freeze, flee or fight. None of those options can help us in the long run. They are only survival modes; not modes of living and thriving.

I was talking with my spiritual guide one morning and she was telling a story of someone who years ago, received a telephone call from a woman in distress and immediately brought this family into her home. We talked about how different it would be now to respond to a call so spontaneously. I also remember when I was young, living in New Jersey, and my neighbor, who had a very modest home in a blue collar neighborhood, took in four Cambodian refugees who were being sponsored by her church. I remember them when they arrived. They were displaced, but I could never tell from their demeanor how difficult it was for them to be so far from home.

My neighbor, Eleanor Wells, Mrs. Wells to me, a large German woman who, as a lutheran, would always ask us why we prayed to so many saints!, and would readily open the door to her home whenever anyone knocked.  I could go over at any time and fetch one or two cloves of garlic if my mom happened to be without it. Mrs Wells would have a hard time understanding today’s world. She and her husband brought four young men into their home without ever saying out loud whether or not they were fearful of how their act of kindness would end. She and her husband did what they did out of love. Three of the young men eventually left to get married or made friends and moved elsewhere. One stayed with her and became very much a son to her. He was lucky to have her, but at the same time she was lucky to have him.

The gift of hospitality, as Nouwen points out is reciprocal.

“Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host (66).”

Can we imagine a world that is radically and courageously hospitable?

Nouwen never suggests opening yourself up completely in order to let people take advantage of your goodness. And, admittedly, in a world where terrorism has distorted the “precious gift” of the stranger, it is hard to defend opening doors. But, in the end are we not giving up fully living when we live a fearful life?

“Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines (71).”

We become hospitable when we no longer cling to ideas of authority; when we are concerned only with opening up a space for creation.  Perhaps, opening up a free space is exactly what creation is… . The difficulty, as Nouwen suggests, is understanding and maintaining boundaries and limits along with the open space. Often, we think that if we open up a space of creation it means totally abdicating our responsibility, and obliterating any boundaries. But the truth is, we still have responsibility as parents, teachers and healers to be guides and stewards. Once we recognize responsibility as that which includes hospitality, our responsibility has become much greater and nuanced and therefore not exactly as easy as it is to be a dictator or abdicator at home, in the classroom or in service.

We must listen to our children, students and patients. Not necessarily because they know what is best for them — sometimes they really do not know what is best —  But, any idea of what is best for someone must grow from within the internal workings of relationships; not from outside them. Relationships are a collaborative effort. As a parent I can say that my daughters have taught me more than they know about life. And, I urge you to understand that sentence literally. More than they know… . They do not know much about how life works, but somehow they have conveyed to me how it is I need to treat them, and how much control any one of us really has in our relationship.

We move to the third movement:





Illusion to Prayer






Nouwen discusses two tangible manifestations of illusion, which are: sentimentality and violence.  These illusions, according to Nouwen, center on the greatest illusion of all, immortality (119).

We all know we are going to die, but still we live as if death only occurs to the other person.  I used to visit a Shambhala meditation center to practice meditation. They also offered courses. One of their courses was, “one year to live.” I was always fascinated by this course, but never dared to sign-up for it. I also wish I could live as if it were always the eleventh hour, as Kierkegaard writes.  Yet, death feels more like a scheduled appointment that is sometime in the future than a reality that informs my waking life.  It is interesting how most spiritual practices make an attempt to think about death as it relates to life, but tend to render this truth somewhat inconsequential to our everyday existence.

Also, the cultural pressure to remain young makes it all the more difficult to understand the natural life-cycle. There is an intoxicating belief that it is only time before technology saves us from everything: excessive carbon dioxide in the air, weeds that need to be pulled, soil that needs tending, bodies in need of exercise and care, minds that are slow, and eventually the life-cycle itself.  Illusion thrives within our technological world, which makes the ultimate illusion of immortality stronger and stranger than at any other time. I believe that while technology has eased our pain it has also created deeper psychological wounds of mourning.

Nouwen offers us a way to gain a mature understanding of prayer. To embrace our own mortality is a way to enter into deep reflection. It reverses the popular use of prayer as an essential default when one feels the need to escape the present difficulty in one’s life.  As a child you pray for help and whatever it is that you want. But, as an adult, should we really be praying the same way? As Nouwen explains, prayer is thought of as a weakness because it is only understood as support:

“Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayers is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on his terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer therefore is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many ‘safe’ gods to the God whose love has no limits” (126).

Prayer, as Nouwen describes it, can lead to a relationship with God; rather than a God that comes in the form of an all protecting father who we obey because we get what we want when we do what the father tells us to do. For this reason, I am attracted to the stories in the Old Testament. In these stories the men and women have relationships with God. They plead with Yahweh, argue with Yahweh, and bargain with Yahweh. Another paradox opens up: we reach out to God, on God’s terms in order to know God, but it is not in obedience to God that we do this; rather it is because we have risked waking up and maturing to the point that we can now enter into a relationship and act with responsibility and discipline. As with all relationships, it is the weight of responsibility and the dedication to our discipline which make us act not out of the desire to please ourselves, but out of the desire to serve something greater than ourselves. And, the greater than ourselves can only come about in relationship.

In the beginning of Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes:

“Many of us have lost our sensitivity for our own history and experience our life as a capricious series of events over which we have no control. When all our attention is drawn away from ourselves and absorbed by what happens around us, we become strangers to ourselves, people without a story to tell or to follow up” (96).

The stories we clung to, or the stories we were told when we were young were not grounded in the truth. They, indeed were pure illusion:

In my house the stories went like this: go to school, get a job, move up, marry, have children, keep moving up, buy bigger and better things, buy a bigger house, watch your children grow with mild discomfort to yourself, move up some more, go on some interesting vacations, send your children to college, retire, go on more vacations, and then your children will repeat the process while you delight in having paid your mortgage and playing with your grandchildren for an hour or two, three days a week, and perhaps one or two weeks out of the year… maybe you will die; maybe you will not. We never talked about death in our house.

When my friends and I huddle together to talk about our world there is a sorrowful sense of loss of control, as if we had some sort of control before the elections in the United States.  But then I think, my entire life has been lived feeling as if I were watching as one program, one safety net, and one hand outstretched to offer help — one-after-the other-after-the-other, etc…, have been pulled back. And they have. But, I’m inclined to believe now that life has always been rather unpredictable and shrinking at the same time that it is sort of predictable and expanding. This is not to say that we must embrace the current set of conditions in which we are living. Not at all. Rather, I believe, we must keep reaching out, we must keep trying to make relationships, and we must seek to live differently than we have ever lived before.

We have our stories to tell. They are rich and unique and filled with triumphs and pain. We must tell them to our children so they do not embrace illusion rather than truth.


Live courageous honesty!

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