Deepening Our Conversation with God
January 1, 1997
On September 21, 1996, Henri Nouwen died of a heart attack in Hilversum,
The Netherlands. Nouwen was a Catholic priest and psychologist, best known
among Protestant pastors for his book The Wounded Healer.
One of Nouwen's themes was living our brokenness under God's blessing.
In one interview, Nouwen said, "Many people … don't think they are loved,
or held safe, and so when suffering comes they see it as an affirmation of
their worthlessness. The great question of ministry and the spiritual life
is to learn to live our brokenness under the blessing and not the curse."
In 1982, Leadership published an interview with Nouwen and Richard Foster
on what it takes for church leaders to know God. Founder and chair of
Renovare, Foster has written, among other books, Prayer and
Celebration of Discipline. After hearing of Nouwen's death, we reread
the interview and were moved by its timeless and timely wisdom on the spiritual
life. We offer it again in memory of the wounded healer.
Where are you currently in your spiritual journey?
Henri Nouwen: I'm in one of the most difficult periods of my life.
At times I've felt my spiritual direction to be clear-cut; right now, however,
everything is uncertain. When I came from Holland to the United States, I
became a diocesan priest, a psychologist, and a fellow at the Menninger Clinic.
I joined the faculty at Notre Dame, taught in Holland, and came back to teach
at Yale Divinity School. People started to respond more and more to what
I had to say, and that led to an
increasing sense of "Yes, I obviously must have something to say." I should
But these past months I've come face to face with my own spiritual abyss.
None of this success has made me a more saintly or holy person.
Last semester I traveled all over the world and spoke to large audiences.
All this created a sense of having arrived. Yet my inner life was precisely
the opposite of that. More and more I felt that if God has anything to say,
he doesn't need me. I found myself experiencing two extremes at the same
time: high affirmation and great darkness.
Richard Foster: Back in my earlier years of coming to God, I was very
intense. I once spent three days fasting and praying. After doing so, I felt
an urging to call a man I had confidence in for his spiritual guidance. He
lived quite a distance, but I called and asked him if he would come and pray
for me. He came, and I was all ready to place myself before him and let him
minister to me.
Instead, he sat down in front of me and started confessing his sins. I thought,
I'm supposed to do that to you. After he finished, and I had prayed
forgiveness for him, he said, "Now, do you still want me to pray for you?"
All of a sudden I realized his discernment. He knew I had thought of him
as a spiritual giant who was going to set me right. Only then did he place
his hands on me and pray for me.
What made you believe so intensely that you needed to find God?
Foster: Desperation. Not so much for me at first, but for people I
saw who needed help. Later, I began to feel how very much I also needed God.
Although the hunger is deep to spend time in solitude, many of us feel
trapped by the demands of ministry.
Nouwen: I'm like many pastors; I commit myself to projects and plans
and then wonder how I can get them all done. This is true of the pastor,
the teacher, the administrator. Indeed, it's true of our culture, which tells
us, "Do as much as you can or you'll never make it." In that sense, pastors
are part of the world.
I've discovered I cannot fight the demons of busyness directly. I cannot
continuously say "No" to this or "No" to that, unless there is something
ten times more attractive to choose. Saying "No" to my lust, my greed, my
needs, and the world's powers takes an enormous amount of energy.
The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that
I can devote all my energies to saying "Yes." In effect, I don't have time
to pay any attention to the distractions.
One such thing I can say "Yes" to is when I come in touch with the fact that
I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved,
I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.
Foster: After I finished my doctorate I went to a tiny church in Southern
California that would rank as a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical
scoreboards. I worked and planned and organized, determined to turn the church
around. But things got worse. Anger seemed to permeate everyone: the
conservatives were mad at the liberals, the liberals were mad at the radicals,
and the radicals were mad at everyone else. I hated to go to pastors' conferences
because I didn't have any success stories. I was working myself to death,
but it seemed to do no good.
Then I spent three days with my spiritual director. Toward the end of that
time he said, "Dick, you have to decide whether you are going to be a minister
of this church or a minister of Christ."
That was a turning point. Until then I had allowed other people's expectations
to manipulate me and my own expectations.
You both talk about receiving spiritual guidance from other people. How
do you describe a spiritual director?
Foster: Spiritual directorship is a Christian idea. It means having
someone who can read my soul and give me guidance in my walk with Christ.
Many churches call it "discipleship."
Nouwen: The church itself is a spiritual director. It tries to connect
your story with God's story. To be a true part of a church community means
you are being directed, you are being guided, you are being asked to make
The Bible is a spiritual director. People must read Scripture as a word for
themselves and ask where God speaks to them.
Finally, individual Christians are also spiritual directors. The use of an
individual person in spiritual direction has as many forms and styles as
there are people. A spiritual director is a Christian man or woman who practices
the disciplines of the church and of the Bible, and to whom you are willing
to be accountable for your life in God. That guidance can happen once a week,
once a month, or once a year. It can happen for ten minutes or ten hours.
In times of loneliness or crisis, that person prays for you.
How does a pastor find such a person?
Foster: This is itself a great adventure in prayer. I ask God to bring
me someone, and then I wait for the salvation of God to come.
My first director was an older woman who worked nights in a large hospital.
Six days a week at eight in the morning, the end of the night shift, we met
together to learn about prayer and to share our experiences with God. We
began to learn what it means to walk with Christ, and the experience was
a wonderful one for both of us.
But many pastors don't feel there's anyone they can turn to.
Nouwen: If you are seriously interested in the spiritual life, finding
a spiritual director is no problem. Many are standing around waiting to be
asked. However, sometimes we don't really want to get rid of our loneliness.
There is something in us that wants to do it by ourselves. I constantly see
this in my own life.
A spiritual director is not a great guru who has it all together; it's just
someone who shares his or her sinful struggles, and by doing so, reveals
there is a Presence who is forgiving.
Foster: In a pastorate in Oregon, I realized I needed people to help
me. In a dozen ways, I said, "Folks, I love you, and I need your help. I
would love it if you would come to my office not just when you have a problem
or when you are angry. Come any time and give me a booster shot of prayer."
People began to stop by for ten minutes or so and pray for me. Grinning,
they would say, "I've come to give you a booster shot of prayer." I'd get
on my knees before these people in an act of submission and let them pray
Nouwen: Richard, I like the idea of asking people to come pray for
you, but for some congregations that might be a little too explicit or formal.
The first thing for me to communicate to people is that I would really love
to know them. In other words, I say, "Listen, come and tell me what is happening.
Drop in. Interrupt me."
I'm always running somewhere, and I need people to say, "Stop! You didn't
notice I was trying to say something to you."
But how do you cope with those interruptions?
Nouwen: What I'm talking about is having a spiritual attitude that
wants to be surprised by God. We crowd our thoughts with so many agenda items
that we don't take time to listen to God. God doesn't just talk to me at
the end or at the beginning of a project, but all the time; he may have me
change directions in the middle.
The minister in one sense is a useless person, useless in that he or she
can be used at anytime by anyone for anything. I was talking yesterday to
a priest in Philadelphia who said, "I'm so worried about the summer; I'm
a white priest in a black neighborhood. What do I do?"
I replied, "Be sure to walk the streets. Make it clear that you are there.
You don't have to talk all the time; just hang around. Tell the people you
don't want anything. Act totally useless, waiting to be with them and love
How is love best communicated?
Nouwen: I remember a student whose father was never able to express
affection to him. The boy decided to become a minister and came to divinity
school. I was one of his teachers. Even though others think I'm a good teacher,
he told me, "I never enjoyed anything you were saying. I came to class, and
I left it."
I tried to be interesting, but he couldn't hear an adult male tell him anything
because it reminded him of his father.
Once when he was feeling sick, I was biking around one evening and suddenly
realized I was near where he lived. I decided to drop in. I said, "I've been
thinking about you today. Are you feeling better?"
He said, "You came to see me? You thought of me?"
I touched him, put my hand on his hand, and said, "I love you, I really do;
that's why I'm here." And I meant it; I really felt it. Later, he told me
he'd cried for several hours; he had never heard an adult male say, "I love
you." He added, "That taught me all I wanted to learn."
Foster: One day I had a strong feeling to call a parishioner who is
a college chaplain. I said, "John, I didn't call you to ask you to do anything.
I just wanted to say 'Hi."
On the other end, there was a deep sigh of relief. He said, "I'm so glad
you called." Then he began to share a deep inner need. One of the greatest
expressions of love is simply to notice people and to pay attention to them.
Nouwen: If you really want to know God, go to his people. Go to your
barber and talk about God. Tell the carpenter about what you're experiencing.
Take time to read the lives of the saints. They always knock you off your
feet because they tell you the preoccupations you have aren't the ones you
should have. Get in touch with those women and men who did crazy things like
falling in love with God
Foster: I agree. But don't let your experience get behind your reading.
Rather than read twenty books on servanthood, get the idea, and then serve
people. Some of us have experimented with this little prayer: "Lord, lead
me today to someone whom I can serve."
Also, pastors should take spiritual retreats. Moses did, Elijah did, David,
Paul, and Peter did. Jesus took time to retreat.
What should happen at a spiritual retreat?
Nouwen: One word: prayer.
Foster: I think the Protestant world needs to rethink the whole question
of retreats. I remember preaching a sermon about the need for "tarrying places,"
based on Peter's experience at Joppa, and then adding, "If any of you want
to take a spiritual retreat, I will find a place for you to go."
One individual took me up on it, and I called every retreat center I could
find in Southern California. Everyone gave me the same story-they had facilities
to accommodate 500 people, but not just a single individual. As far as I
could determine, Catholic retreat centers were the only places that would
take an individual person. Why can't we build places for this in our churches?
Nouwen: That's an excellent idea. I know of parish houses in Canada
where the third floor is arranged as a retreat place.
Foster: You don't always have to go away. You can have retreats by
arranging a room in your house for prayer and quiet reflection. I know one
family that has a chair designated as a quiet chair. When someone sits in
that chair, he or she is to be left alone.
Nouwen: The discipline of silence has been very important in my teaching.
Last semester I offered a course in spiritual direction. One requirement
was that students spend an hour of silence with a selected Scripture passage
during our afternoon together. After that hour of silence, I invited them
to come together in small groups and share what they had experienced. Many
realized for the first time that there is something other than discussion.
They would say, "I was impressed that the Lord had something to say to me,
and it frightened me when it happened."
Continued in next article.
1997 by Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.