Throughout this week’s reading of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out, I was exposed to a markedly different style of writing than the memoir-like recounting of Ed Loring and the Open Door Community. Appearing much more pragmatic than Loring, Nouwen systematically spells out his “three movements of the spiritual life” illustrating the balance between “the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer” (Nouwen, 19). At the same time, Nouwen remains general enough to allow the reader to introduce their own circumstances, ideas and situations into the framework that he illustrates. Nouwen personifies his belief that “hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of the chance for the guest to find his own” (Nouwen, 72). Similarly, true hospitality is one in which confrontation occurs as others see “our own life choices, attitudes, and viewpoints…that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically” (Nouwen, 99). In essence, Reaching Out as a work is attempting to apply the same hospitality in its pages that Nouwen describes. He proposes the framework for how he understands and categorizes the stages of spiritual movement without restricting the reader. This work confronts the reader with a certain viewpoint on Christian spirituality and presses no further only creating space for the reader to think. It only hopes to instigate self-reflection and critical thought giving the reader a chance to formulate their own responses.
Using Nouwen’s definition and presentation of hospitality, it is only appropriate that I examine my current situation with a blending of his thoughts and my own. If that is the purpose of his writing, then this synthesis is the correct response after reading and reflecting upon his interpretation of the world around him. By applying these three movements with my experiences at the Haven and within my own heart and mind, a new and unique amalgamation could emerge.
First, the movement from isolation to solitude. In Reaching Out, “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today” (Nouwen, 25). Stemming from this acute sense of loneliness is a desire to avoid it and distract ourselves from it. We attempt to rectify this deep loneliness by relationships with other people but soon find that “there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used” (Nouwen, 26). Searching for an end to this isolation, we attempt to quell our restless hearts in a number of ways. For me, I believe that my time at the Haven could threaten to devolve into something like this: trying to find purpose in helping homeless folks or busying myself to a point where I no longer think of “not belonging” (33) because I preoccupy myself. My need for community and unity becoming intertwined with my actions at this organization. Attempting to block out the nagging, “irking loneliness” (36) and quieting the thoughts in my head with “good deeds.” Nouwen warns against such motivations claiming that “no friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness” (30). If wholeness cannot be found in my work at the Haven, then where is it located?
Second, the movement from hostility to hospitality. The world around us “seems to be increasingly full of fearful, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion” (66). When loneliness and strife prevail, “our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them” (101). Spurred on by our excessive loneliness and inability to find solitude in open-ended questions, we suffocate others in an attempt to reduce our thoughts. Our relationships become nothing more than one-sided interactions in which we use one another, wringing out every last drop of comfort for our own gain. I also see potential for this in my time with the Haven: a time when my motivations for volunteering could be solely based on feeling better about myself. In the same way, working with the homeless pats my own ego and stops me from interacting in compassion, love and empathy. If hospitality cannot be achieved because of loneliness, then where is there hope?
Third, the movement from illusion to prayer. For Nouwen, this is the movement by which all the others fall into place. The truth is that “we need the willingness and courage to reach out beyond the limitations of our fragile and finite existence toward our loving God in whom all life is anchored” (113). It requires a faith and strength that can only be found in prayer which “is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew” (125). It is in this reality that we can know that God is “beyond our heart and mind” (126) while at the same time being as close to us as possible. In our striving for fulfillment, we use our preoccupations to stymie our lonely thoughts when the only true source of solitude is found in the mystery of an incomprehensibly big God. Divine intimacy and purpose is only grounded in shedding the “illusion that we know what life is all about, that we rule it and determine its values” (131). Control is placed in the hands of God, and it is only in this moment that my heart can be satisfied, isolation can be invaded by solitude, and hostility is trumped by compassion and hospitality. If my time at the Haven stems from this transition from illusion to prayer, then it will not be about boosting my ego or suppressing my longing, but rather an honest desire to create space for others.