Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: Spiritual Formation – Henri Nouwen [Vol. 3, #33]

686122: Spiritual Formation A Review of:

Spiritual Formation

By Henri J.M. Nouwen
Hardback: HarperOne, 2010.
Buy now:  [ ChristianBook.com ]

Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.

[ Read the poem that the reviewer wrote
to accompany this review… ]

Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird have produced a second compilation (in a series of three books) of Nouwen’s works entitled Spiritual Formation:  Following the Movements of the Spirit.  Christensen and Laird pull pieces from a variety of Nouwen’s previously published and some unpublished pieces to create this seamless book as though Nouwen himself had penned it.

Christensen and Laird’s compilation is a pillar for understanding the process of spiritual formation against the grain of a progress-oriented culture.  Christensen, in the appendix, describes how Nouwen’s concept of spiritual formation is not progressive and linear, but rather a journey of progressive vacillation.  “The journey implies that progress is possible, but not in a measurable upward way, with cumulative results” (129).

Christensen also points out that nearly all of Nouwen’s works describe movements between various attitudes or stages.  Spiritual Formation contains seven movements along the path of adult spiritual formation.  These are:

  • From Opaqueness to Transparency
  • From Illusion to Prayer
  • From Sorrow to Joy
  • From Resentment to Gratitude
  • From Fear to Love
  • From Exclusion to Inclusion
  • From Denying to Befriending Death

All these, among the many other movements that Nouwen has written about, are the journey, and “the journey is not to be found in the pursuit of perfection but in the practice of contemplative prayer leading to community and mission.” (135)  Nouwen’s understanding of progressive spiritual formation rests on one’s ability to know God more intimately and engage the Kingdom of God.

Of particular use to the Christian worker (pastor, missionary, active lay person, etc.) is the chapter “From Resentment to Gratitude.”  Here Nouwen recounts a story about leading a retreat for some final-year seminarians.  He noticed that they were cynical and uninterested in what he had to say or the exercises in general.  I, a former seminarian found myself identifying with the students in his tale.  He writes, “Those of us who give our lives for loved ones, work hard, and have virtues that are praised are burdened by resentment in our hearts.  Resentment is the curse of the faithful, the virtuous, the obedient, and the hardworking.” (60, emphasis mine).  He calls for a movement from resentment into a graciousness that expresses gratitude.  “Resentment entangles us in endless distractions, pulling us down to the banal preoccupations.  Gratitude anchors our deepest self beyond this world and allows us to be involved without losing ourselves.” (64)  This chapter alone makes this book worth the read.

Many other movements may strike the reader at various times.  Staying true to Nouwen’s works, Christensen and Laird compile his work into a short volume, yet each page is influential and impacting.  This is truly a book to return to over and over again, reading various chapters at the appropriate time.  And, as with other Nouwen works, the book speaks to the freshman journeyer or the long-standing spiritual veteran, revealing God’s heart and pastoral care.

This book was written because of the “warm reception and productive feedback from Spiritual Direction,” Christensen and Laird’s first compilation of Nouwen’s works, and a third book, Spiritual Feedback is in the works.  Spiritual Formation, as a stand-alone book, is fantastic in itself, but I wait with anticipation and eagerness for the third book and a comprehensive Nouwen set of books on well-rounded spirituality.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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