The Spiritual Leader's Vitality
May 19, 2004
From the book LeadersDisciplines
Even spiritual exercises and disciplines can be terribly hollow. The real center is hearing God's voice and obeying his Word.
As we are involved in unceasing thinking, so we are called to unceasing prayer.
The crying need of the spiritual leader, someone once pointed out, is "a sense of the spiritual center." But how does a leader develop that sense? What roads lead to increased spiritual vitality?
Discussing those questions are two men who have ventured on the inner journey and written eloquently of their travels.
Richard Foster has been a Quaker pastor in California and Oregon. He taught at George Fox College and now teaches at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He has written Celebration of Discipline; Freedom of Simplicity; and Money, Sex & Power (all Harper & Row), books that call for increased commitment to live the Christian life. Yet it's obvious from Foster's quick laugh and soft eyes that for him Christian commitment doesn't mean something hard and austere, but something warm and loving.
Henri J. M. Nouwen is a Catholic priest and psychologist who has taught at Notre Dame and Yale Divinity School. He is now priest-in-residence at the L'Arche Community near Toronto. Among Nouwen's many books are The Genesee Diary and The Wounded Healer (Doubleday), which take a look at what it means to be a Christian and a minister in modern society. But Nouwen's prophetic words are tempered by an intense, electric concern for those around him. He's easy to love, and his quick, reasoned thinking invites acceptance.
In reading their books, one realizes Foster and Nouwen are saying many of the same things. Yet they are from widely divergent traditions and use different language to express their thoughts. In this dialogue of a few years ago, they talk freely about getting to know God.
Since the spiritual life is such a personal matter, perhaps we could start with where each of you find yourself now in your spiritual journey. What's happening in your spiritual life?
Henri Nouwen: Spiritually, 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 must have something to say." I earned an additional doctorate in theology, so I have all the credentials affirmed by the church and academia. I should be happy.
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. Let me try to describe what I mean. Last semester I traveled all over the world. I spoke to large audiences. I've never been so praised by such varied groups, from Southern Baptist to Greek Orthodox, from young people to old people. 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.
In the midst of this situation, I spent several prayerful days with some new Christian friends whom I had met at one of my lectures. During that time, I came in touch with my own brokenness in a new way. Those days together brought many valuable lessons. One of the most beautiful was that my friends experienced themselves as representatives of God's love, and discovered in themselves the ability to care for someone they had expected to learn from, not teach.
Richard Foster: I've had a similar experience, Henri. Back in my earlier years of coming to God, I was very intense; you know, i'm going to get close to god! During that period, 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 at quite a distance, but I called and asked him if he would come and pray for me. He came, and I was 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 come and 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 there is a deep hunger in church leaders to spend time in solitude seeking God, many would say, "It's impossible for me. I'm trapped by the demands of my 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. 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: Let me tie into that with an experience from the first church I pastored. I had finished my doctorate and I was supposed to be an expert. I went to a tiny church in Southern California that would rank as a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboards. I went in there and worked and planned and organized, determined to turn this 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 to tell. 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 — and my own — expectations to manipulate me.
It's fascinating that we have two opposite illutrations here: Richard in an early pastorate that really wasn't successful, and Henri in a life full of successes, but both of them falling short of God's desires.
Foster: Yes, and even spiritual exercises and disciplines can be terribly hollow. The real center is hearing God's voice and obeying his Word.
You both talk about receiving spiritual guidance from other people. Richard spoke of his spiritual director. That's a term some Protestants will be unfamiliar with. What is a spiritual director? What authority does he or she have?
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. Just to be a true part of this community means you are being directed, you are being guided, you are being asked to make connections.
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 do you 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 it began by asking God to give me someone who would travel the road with me.
Many pastors don't feel there's anyone they can turn to for this kind of help.
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 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. It is so beautiful to realize we don't have to be lonely if we really want to become open to the dependency of God's love and the love of our fellow men and women. It isn't an easy dependency. If you allow someone to love you, that love will take you to painful places. When Abram became Abraham, it didn't get easy for him. When Saul became Paul, it didn't get easy for him, or for Simon when he became Peter. But it is so true that if I want to break out of my loneliness, God will send me his angels. 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 that there is a Presence that is forgiving.
Foster: I began to learn this in a pastorate in Oregon. It wasn't too long before I realized I needed people to help me. So in a dozen different 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 for me. It did wonderful things for my spirit.
Nouwen: Richard, I like the idea of asking people to come pray for you, but for some congregations that might be a little bit too explicit or formal. The very 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. Constantly get me off my horse and throw me down and talk to me." The minister should be continuously interrupted. I'm always running somewhere, and I need people to say, "Stop! You didn't notice I was trying to say something to you."
How do you cope with those interruptions? Don't they derail you as well as help you?
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 talk to me just at the end or at the beginning of a project but all the time; he may have me change directions in the middle. Now, I don't mean that you sit around waiting until God speaks in a burning bush. That may happen, but God also uses people to speak to you. Listen to them; stretch out your hand and let your people guide you.
The minister in one sense is a useless person; useless in that he or she can be used at any time by anyone for any thing. 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 them."
What should happen at a spiritual retreat?
Foster: A silent period spent listening to God is indispensable. We often hear the question "How can busy pastors find time for a regular devotional life?" That's like asking, "How can auto mechanics find time to work on an automobile?"
It would be easy for a pastor reading this to feel enormous guilt. Some of the psychological studies indicate pastors may have insecure personalities, and that's one of the reasons they have gone into the pastorate. Yet they're susceptible to the pressures of pastoring. How can we help them get up in the morning and not run out simply to do the pressing and the urgent?
Foster: I was told in seminary that ideally if I preached from the Old Testament I should study the Hebrew text, and if I preached from the New Testament I should study the Greek text. I was told to spend time each week working on my sermon delivery. Pastoral counseling, they told me, is crucial to my ministry. I added up the time it takes to do all these things, and the total was staggering. And once in the ministry, I found out very quickly that those things might build churches, but they don't necessarily help people. So I had to go back to square one and ask, "What am I to do?" The answer that came was "Love God and walk with him." Once I am settled and centered on that, the guilt feelings aren't there about what I have to do or what I haven't done.
Nouwen: One of the most beautiful ways for spiritual formation to take place is to let your insecurity lead you closer to the Lord. Natural hypersensitivity can become an asset; it makes you aware of your need to be with people and it allows you to be more willing to look at their needs. In a sense, you let your psychological trembling become trembling for the Lord, and you use the insecurity of human relationships to develop a firm relationship with God.
Foster: The disciples are some of the best examples of that.
Nouwen: Your insecurity can be neurotic, but it can also lead to a deep spiritual life. Instead of telling clergy, "You're insecure; that's why you became pastors," we should tell them, "Your insecurity is a vocation; it's an invitation to really live the spiritual life."
How can ministers accept their insecurity that way?
Nouwen: Here the spiritual director is important. You need a person with whom you feel free to be insecure. Let me paint a picture. You're in a big room with a six-inch balance beam in the center. The balance beam is only twelve inches off the fully carpeted floor. Most of us act as if we were blindfolded and trying to walk on that balance beam; we're afraid we'll fall off. But we don't realize we're only twelve inches off the floor. The spiritual director is someone who can push you off that balance beam and say, "See? It's okay. God still loves you. Take that nervousness about whether you're going to succeed and whether you have enough money — take the whole thing up on that narrow beam and just fall off."
Foster: That's one of the great values of reading the saints. They had this utter vulnerability to fail by human standards.
There seems to be a hunger among Christians for worship, both corporate and private. Why this thirst for spiritual things?
Foster: There's been a great disillusionment with the superficialities of modern culture, especially the religious culture, and a longing for something that can really help.
Nouwen: The churches in the United States, Catholic as well as Protestant, have never concentrated on the idea of spiritual formation. Pastoral care, yes, but a nurturing of the intimate life with God, no. The Catholic church was involved in getting herself established in the United States, building churches and schools. The Protestant church majored on bringing people together for fellowship — the place where you go with your pains and family struggles. There's a pastoral richness there that's good.
But the mystical (and that's a good word) has been shortchanged in our culture by Catholic and Protestant alike. It's unfortunate, because in the Christian tradition there is an enormous treasury of this. If you study Luther, you find a spiritual life that most Lutherans are quite unfamiliar with. Wesley was deeply steeped in literature of the spritual life. Calvin quotes straight from the Desert Fathers.
Foster: Yes, many don't realize that the longest section in Calvin's Institutes is on prayer.
Nouwen: In the sixties we were concerned with social change; we learned change comes slowly at best, and it doesn't come at all without a spiritual grounding. The real protesters, the ones who are still protesting, receive their strength and inspiration not from social theorists but from the mystics. Jim Forrest, head of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, came to see me last night. What did he talk about? He talked about Thomas Merton; he talked about prayer. We prayed more than we talked. Prayer gives him strength to continue to fight for a better world.
There is a Jewish story about a little boy who went to a prophet and said, "Prophet, don't you see? You have been prophesying now for fifteen years, and things are still the same. Why do you keep on?"
And the prophet said, "Don't you know, little boy, I'm not prophesying to change the world, but to prevent the world from changing me?"
We must say no to war, killing, and poverty, not because people are going to listen, but because it belongs to an authentic witness of the living God. And you can do that only when your heart is rooted in the love of God, not in the responses of the people. Maybe more people are seeing that and are saying to their ministers, "Tell me about the spiritual life. Tell me how to pray."
We've talked a lot about prayer. What is prayer?
Nouwen: Prayer is first of all listening to God. It's openness. God is always speaking; he's always doing something. Prayer is to enter into that activity. Take this room. Imagine you've never been out of it. Prayer is like going outside to see what's really there. Prayer in its most basic sense is just entering into an attitude of saying, "Lord, what are you saying to me?"
Foster: The problem with describing prayer as speaking to God is that it implies we are still in control. But in listening, we let go. Real intercession is what comes out of listening. People are tired of hearing about "ten steps that will change your life." That isn't where it's at, because then people tend to focus on the steps instead of hearing and obeying God.
The spiritual life is not something we add onto an already busy life. What we are talking about is to impregnate and infiltrate and control what we already do with an attitude of service to God. For pastors, this might mean silent prayer in their board meetings. One of the greatest revelations to me was to experiment with being in communion with God in board meetings. I learned I didn't always have to speak and control, and that I could pray for people in the room who had a heaviness with life. It's like living on two levels. On one you are doing the activities of the day, but on a deeper, more profound level, there is this inward prayer and worship.
What can we do to help us center our thoughts on God?
Foster: Many different things. My boys and I have built a basketball standard out by our driveway. I go out alone at ten at night and shoot baskets. It's a time to pray. And as I shoot baskets, I invite God to remind me of my day. Are there things that need to be confessed: Was I curt to my secretary? Do I need to set something straight? Am I disturbing my neighbors?
In the morning I've been having fun experimenting with prayer during that period of just starting to wake up. You aren't fully conscious, but you aren't fully asleep; during that in-between period I try to surrender my day to God.
Nouwen: People who live a spiritual life become sensitive to their surroundings. Notice their houses; they are uncluttered. Your physical place becomes more spacious when your life is lived spiritually. The idea of going on retreat for prayer is crucial, but we also need to pray daily. It's not only important to set aside time to pray, but also a place to pray. I have a special place to pray, and I spend a predetermined amount of time in this space. The only reason to be there is to pray. After the time is up I can say, "Lord, this was my prayer, even if my mind was full of confusion."
Foster: There are many practical ways to increase the spiritual atmosphere of the home. In our home we don't answer the telephone when we are eating or if I'm reading stories to the children, because I want my boys to know they are more important than the telephone.
Nouwen: The obvious assumption of always answering the phone is that the person on the phone has something more important to say than what you are saying, which is not true. The same applies to the television. My mother always said, "I don't understand why you tolerate this stranger talking in the middle of my room. We didn't invite him. Turn him off."
Foster: I have another suggestion for discipline that I have found very helpful. Tell people not only when a meeting starts, but when it ends. I don't mean only business meetings, but social meetings too. I always invite students from eight to ten in the evening. At ten I say, "Let's close with prayer."
Nouwen: A word here on the form of prayer. Prayer involves the body. It can be done in many different postures. You can stand, kneel, lie flat, hold hands, lie in bed, or sit in a chair.
Foster: You do what is appropriate for the type of prayer you are praying. A friend who is now a philosophy professor has prayed with me a great deal. I remember one time we met together to pray for some people in our congregation who had serious problems. As we began, my friend, who is over six feet tall, flattened himself straight out on the floor. I had planned to just kneel, but I realized his posture was appropriate for the kind of concern we had.
Nouwen: What is also important about different postures is that sometimes your mind is too tired to concentrate in the right way, and your body position can get you in the proper frame of mind.
What about the content of prayer?
Nouwen: Too many Christians think prayer means to have spiritual thoughts. That's not it. Prayer means to bring into the presence of God all that you are. You can say, "God, I hate this guy; I can't stand him." The prayer life of most people is too selective. They usually present only those things to God they want him to know or they think he can handle. But God can handle everything.
Foster: You've heard people say, "I don't know what to pray about." Or, they will get a prayer list and pray for missionaries because they don't know what else to do. A lady said to me not too long ago, "I can't pray for more than two minutes at a time. What can I do?" When people say that to me, I reply, "What have you been thinking or worrying about this last week? Pray about that."
Nouwen: Convert your thoughts into prayer. As we are involved in unceasing thinking, so we are called to unceasing prayer. The difference is not that prayer is thinking about other things, but that prayer is thinking in dialogue. It is a move from self-centered monologue to a conversation with God.
Copyright ©1987 Christianity Today
By Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen. Originally printed in Leaders, copyright © 1986Disciplines, copyright © 2011