With the clarity and depth characteristic of the classics, this spiritual bestseller lays out a perceptive and insightful plan for living a spiritual life and achieving the ultimate goal of that life -- union with God. Nouwen views our spiritual "ascent" as evolving in three movements. The first, from loneliness to solitude, focuses on the spiritual life as it relates to the experience of our own selves. The second, from hostility to hospitality, deals with our spiritual life as a life for others. The final movement, from illusion to prayer, offers penetrating thoughts on the most mysterious relationship of all- our relationship to God. Throughout, Nouwen emphasizes that the more we understand (and not simply deny) our inner struggles, the more fully we will be able to embrace a prayerful and genuine life that is also open to others' needs. Reaching Outis a rich book to be read, reread, pondered, and shared with others. "It does not offers answers or solutions," Nouwen cautions, "but is written in the conviction that the quest for an authentic Christian spirituality is worth the effort and the pain, since in the midst of this quest we can find signs offering hope, courage, and confidence."… (more)
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When Nouwen writes of the movement from hostility to hospitality he echoes the theme of creating a safe space where people can explore their spirituality, "more important … is to offer the students the place where they can reveal their great human potential…" (p. 88). He acknowledges that religious instruction must intersect with an individual's own life in order for it have meaning, "so many students do not care for religious instruction … their own life experience is hardly touched" (p. 88). Once again, the themes of "safe space" and "relevancy to life experience" surface as key issues. Indeed, Nouwen writes, "Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy" (p. 71).
One of my favorite lines in this book is Nouwen's assertion that, "One of the greatest problems of education remains that solutions are offered without the existence of a question" (p. 85). Surely much of what goes on in church education falls into this category. People have real questions and yet the church tends to provide solutions only to the questions that it thinks should be asked. I recall in a class on "Primal and Folk Religions" a story about a group of hunter-gatherers in Africa who approached the local Christian missionary to ask him whether they should go hunting today or tomorrow. It was a critical question because they knew that only sometimes was the hunt a success and they needed guidance because the village was short on food and people would go hungry if the hunt failed. The missionary was taken aback and was unable to answer them. The local witch doctor had no hesitation about giving them exact guidance on when to hunt and when not to hunt. If the hunt failed on the prescribed day it would be because of rival witchcraft by their enemies. They left the witch doctor knowing what to do. They never went back to the missionary who had answers only to questions that they did not ask.
Nouwen's words on the movement from loneliness to solitude seem especially important in a time when, to quote Dawn (p. 164 of her book) we are busy "amusing ourselves to death". Nouwen writes, "As long as we are trying to run away from our loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy" (p. 49). Surely there is little sadder than two lonely people clinging to each other in the vain hope that each will be able to dispel the loneliness of the other. Nouwen states that "Loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today" (p. 25) and I suspect that many who go to our churches do so in part because they are lonely and they think that being with others will cure that condition. It will not. Until one is able to be comfortable with one's own self and so be accepting of solitude, as distinct from loneliness, one will never be able to interact in a genuine way with another.
It seems that Nouwen's thesis might be summarized by viewing the human experience in terms of a set of intersecting axes (the x axis stretching from loneliness to solitude; the y axis stretching from illusion to prayer; and the z axis stretching from hostility to hospitality) where each of us is challenged to move from the face defined by loneliness, hostility and illusion to the face defined by solitude, hospitality and prayer.
Rather than avoiding all three, Henri Nouwen sees each as a starting place toward wholeness, as we realize each has something to teach us, and each can lead us deeper into the heart of God. In Reaching Out, Nouwen explains how our loneliness, painful and frightening as it is, can be transformed into solitude, the quiet place where we can know ourselves better, and the place where we can finally rest in the comforting presence of God's Spirit. "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." The Christian life needs its time in the desert; by developing hearts that are comfortable with solitude, we can find again what it means to commune with God, and thus be better equipped to live with our neighbors.
This leads to the second movement - from hostility to hospitality. Because we are lonely we are protective of our space, and we often use others to fill up the empty spaces in our lives. "When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promises they are carrying with them." Hospitality, according to Nouwen, is "the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy." Hospitality is a ministry in which the host creates space for the guest to come as they are and find themselves. Nouwen sketches this out in the context of the teacher/student, parent/child, and healer/patient relationships. In each of these, says Nouwen, "Affirmation, encouragement and support are often much more important than criticism. The good host is the one who not only helps the guests to see that they have hidden talents, but who is able to help them develop and deepen these talents so that they can continue their way on their own with a renewed self-confidence."
Unfortunately, our loneliness and hostility is often hidden behind a veneer of illusion. We have such a hard time getting to the heart of our brokenness. We live as if we are immortal. We cover over our hostility with sentimentality. We make idols of our dreams, thinking ourselves much greater and of more importance than we really are. The answer is found only in prayer - not the pious platitudes of religion, but open, honest communication before the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. "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."
Like all of Nouwen's writings, this book is deceptively simple. It is a short and easy read, yet so rich and deep that it requires time to ponder, contemplate, and re-read. Even more, it requires action - not programs or plans, but action of the soul, as we seek to reorient our lives back into line with God's loving desires for us. It is an extremely helpful book for people whose lives have settled into religious routine, who feel stifled, who feel like it's time for something new but are uncertain where to turn. It's a book that requires a little maturity, but will lead to so much more.
"commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for
beautiful book of depth and understanding in the journey of hospitality
ever wonder if people want to know you
are they wanting to know about you?...
so much easier to superficially categorize someone, enabling dismissal, rather than investing the time & energy required for presence & interest in actually meeting another in depth ...
what treasures might we be missing ?
Re-reading six years after I first read it, I don't find it quite as moving or inspirational as I did the first time;
It's not a book I could read at a couple of sittings; I intended to read a chapter every morning but found very often that just two or three pages gave me sufficient food for thought. I hope that the ideas and suggestions within the book will remain with me for some time to come.
At the end of the main book there's also a much briefer book, 'Beyond the Mirror' that looks at how Henri Nouwen's life focus and attitudes changes as he faced the possibility of dying after a road accident. Also extremely thought-provoking.