Father Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) presents a deeply spiritual and insight book with Reach Out. He presents a Christian approach to living with a systematic form of spiritual life, occurring in three defined steps; loneliness to solitude; hostility to hospitality; and illusion to prayer. Through each step Nouwen encourages a person to question themselves, and to seek an “ascent” to a higher way of being that achieves unity with God. His presentation of his message however is not an attempt to “bible bash” the reader, rather he uses the Bible as a filter to draw analogies to his interpretation of a meaningful life.
Nouwen’s defined categories distinguishes the stages of the journey of Christian life as he sees it, basically reaching out to; the innermost self, to the rest of humankind; and to God. In itself the book is a beautiful rendition of a way of living that focuses on humankind as a community, and as sharing in their experiences of emotional states. It provides the reader with practical methods to apply change to their lifestyle that will cultivate a greater sense of peace and contentment.
The phrasing and choice of words in titles and headings has been carefully considered and in themselves transports the reader to a place of reflection and prayer. The strength of Nouwen’s book is his ability to question his own values, decision-making and actions. He has gone to places of hardship in his experiences of loneliness, hostility and illusion and returned with treasures to share. Nouwen uses the movement between emotional states to provide a systematic process for the living the Christian life, which completes modern day values of systems thought, and critical analysis.
However, the writer presents his material also in a highly capitalistic manner, in that emotional states are basically divided into two distinct forms: positive (winning) and negative (losing) and ignores the possibility that each state may not actually be so absolute; a milestone on the continuum of what it is to be human. The dichotomy he sets up may in itself be the cause of internal conflict for people, as Western societies value distinct black and white boxes in which to place information; Nouwen maintains this cultural value in his differentiation of distinct categories, and the application of a model of “ascent” for emotional states.
The book is richly spiritual and helpful in learning to cope with loneliness, anger and misperceptions, and Nouwen’s voice tends to be presented as one of experience, that has gone to the depths of each of these states. His approach implies that all people feel loneliness, illusion or hostility and that “you like to stay away from”. The Bible describes many experiences of Jesus, prophets and other of the Lord’s people being tested, polished like jewels, or smelted like pure gold and other metals.
The message is that if we are not prepared to undergo hardship how can we expect to lose ourselves of that which is not important? Nouwen encourages the reader to cultivate their faith and sense of hope by allowing ourselves to experience a forward movement into a more spiritual and subsequently balanced life. 2. Concrete Responses A Suffocating Loneliness is the title of Chapter One and for me came across as quite visceral terminology. It conjured up feelings of confinement that implies that Nouwen has really been there himself.
I imagined the soul suffocating, unable to breathe, speak, communicate, or reach out because it was focused solely on survival. The title made me think about what it is to be alone and to have something happening to you beyond your control; a life threatening experience. Another heading, Between Competition and Togetherness, cam across to me as being very Zen, as the juxtaposition of words threw my mind off its track trying to hold an image of both concepts at once.
Not unlike those silhouette pictures of the vase which is a face, or is it the other way around! The phrase further implies that there is a point between the two which each of us are at; though this point is unlikely to be static-given the human experience and we are dynamic beings. Nouwen encourages the reader to find a point of balance between these two concepts, and in my minds eye I saw a see-saw and a set of scales, and wondered to myself whereabouts on the continuum I was today (N.
B. , near the competitive edge as I have a game of bingo in an hour). I believe I noticed these words because I have chosen the spiritual life for myself, and live my life to cultivate a sense of personal control as well as acceptance for that which I cannot change, as well as harmony and balance. Like Job and Jonah I let myself be smitten or swallowed by the beast when I perceive it to be the time in my life cycle to let go, fall apart, draw away from others, and to suffer hardship.
Like these two men I come through stronger and wiser about myself, my place in this world, and with a deeper meaning of what is important – to keep on going, never give up on one, and to be there for others. I am also a writer and sometime poet and delight in the juxtaposition of words and the images that they provide which take me to places within myself that may have ever undiscovered. And the use of words in new ways helps me to see the world from another perspective, which is always a discovery. 2. Concrete responses A Suffocating Loneliness is the title of Chapter One and for me came across as quite visceral terminology.
It conjured up feelings of a time for me when I felt confined by my problems and unable to reach out for concrete help from others – no one seemed to understand where I was, what I was trying to communicate to them. I imagined at the time my soul suffocating, unable to breathe, speak, communicate, or reach out because it was focused solely on survival. The title made me think about those times when I have felt absolutely alone and separated from all others, and that life was completely beyond your control; a life threatening experience.
The juxtaposition of words in the chapter heading threw my mind off its track trying to hold an image of both concepts at once. I believe I noticed these words because I have chosen the spiritual life for myself and live my life to cultivate a sense of personal control as well as acceptance for that which I cannot change. Like Job and Jonah I let myself be smitten or swallowed by the beast when I perceive it to be the time in my life cycle to let go, fall apart, draw away from others, and to suffer hardship.
Like these two men I come through stronger and wiser about myself, my place in this world, and with a deeper meaning of what’s important – to keep on going, never give up on one, and to be there for others. I have in the past drawn on Bible accounts of suffering and grief to understand the experiences of difficulty I have (do) have. The phrasing of many of the Biblical passages, such as those in Proverbs, are easy to “write upon one’s heart” and Nouwen’s voice has a similar effect in his blending and weaving of words and phrases.
3. Reflection I wonder why the author portrays loneliness as a negative and unwanted state, particularly as he is a Christian. Many verses in the Bible, in fact the whole book of Job, contends that pain such as that felt in loneliness is necessary to “remove the dross” form a person’s soul. Going into the crucible of fire, such as the suffering of loneliness may cultivate, is a way that many mystics, monks, prophets and medicine women and men claim is the path to become more the person that “God”/we want us to be.
Loneliness is an emotion, and so by virtue of the Christian teachings that emotion is also God, as our emotions are the flux of hormones, neurotransmitters and bioelectric currents, tangible substances which omnipotent God intrinsically exists within; God is everywhere at once. Also, God created all, so all emotions can be sourced from God; humans are made in his image, suggesting that God has knowledge of what loneliness is.
It perplexes me that a state of loneliness is seen by Father Nouwen as the “bottom rung” in his ascent model; John the Baptist lived in the desert and has been often described as experiencing intense loneliness; Jesus spent 40 days and nights alone in the desert; Moses was alone with his “crazy” dream of the chosen people, and Mary mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene suffered deep loneliness many times during their lives. 4. Action I will facilitate a counselee to find more functional ways to experience loneliness and to keep on going and not give up on themselves or humankind.
I will also encourage them to consider the concept of living a more spiritual life and achieving a union with God; for me God is the unity of all things (omega and beta) so that I am never truly alone as all is from God and in God. So that loneliness for me is a temporary state when one forgets that we are all interconnected. Alternatively, Nouwen approaches loneliness, hostility and illusion as purely negative states and provides of all things an “evolutionary” model to explain “developing from” each state to another state.
Firstly, I do not agree with this form of development as it certainly implies ascent from a lesser (primitive) quality to a higher (civilized) quality. Instead I would encourage the counselee to embrace their diversity and variability in experiencing their emotions. Movement away from a particular emotion is illusory, as our emotions are a continuum like a circle or a ring; we can move to another state but all are parallel, none higher or lower than others. I intend to start a reflective journal of my values, interpretations, decision-making and actions to learn more about myself, and to find the balance across my emotional states.