Loneliness and Community: An Interview with Henri Nouwen (Mar – Aug 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Darryl Tippens
March – August, 1994

EDITORS’ NOTE: Henri Nouwen, author of more than 30 books including The Return of the Prodigal Son, In the Name of Jesus, and Life of the Beloved, is an international authority on the spiritual life. Born in the Netherlands, today he lives and serves in the L’Arche community called Daybreak near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Darryl Tippens conducted this interview at Daybreak on December 29, 1993.

TIPPENS: I am interested in the fact that your words transcend denominational boundaries. Like C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and a few others in our day, you have been able to reach a broad spectrum of Christian believers. Has this been one of your goals?

NOUWEN: First of all, I am very grateful that I am in touch with so many different church groups. I am always very moved by the fact that so many people—practically over the spectrum of the Christian world—are responding to my writing. I never consciously tried to do that. It’s much more a gift I’m grateful for. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I am trying to articulate the movement of the Spirit within me, and I try to be very faithful to my own journey. Although I am a committed Catholic priest, and nowhere hide that fact, my focus is very much a spiritual journey.

I have always felt that if I am very personal and connected with what I myself am living, my writing will transcend ecclesial boundaries. I really believe that what we finally want is to know God, as God has come to be known through Jesus. Knowledge is knowledge of the heart—the Spirit—I would say. It is the Spirit in us who reveals God. I have tried to stay very focused on that sort of question.

TIPPENS: I see a paradox in your work. On the one hand you are profoundly personal and confessional. Yet that very personal touch leads to community. Is it true that the more personal we are, the more universal we become?

NOUWEN: That’s very true. One way I express it is through the famous example of Jesus going onto the mountain for prayer. In the morning he gathers his Apostles and calls them all by name, and in the afternoon with his Apostles he goes out to minister. This is the spiritual order of things. Where does it all start? In intimate community with God. If you meet God in solitude, you discover the God you meet is the God who embraces all people. Once you are in communion with God, you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear other people in whom God has also found a dwelling place.

I feel strongly that the God we meet in solitude is always the God who calls us to community. On the other hand, if you start with community and want to be faithful to community, you have to realize that what binds you together is not mutual compatibility or common tasks, but God. In order to stay in touch with that call to community, we always have to return to solitude.

So, community always calls us back to solitude, and solitude always calls us to community. Community and solitude, both, are essential elements of ministry and witnessing.

Ministry is about witnessing. I witness to the one I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears and touched with my own hands. I touched that person, first of all in my solitude, but secondly in my life with others. And so I find myself speaking about Jesus out of my solitude but also out of my community.

This is very much what the life of Jesus was about. Jesus ministers out of his communion with God. “All that I heard from my father I say to you, all that I am doing is what the father sent me to do.” Jesus’ ministry comes out of a very intimate relationship with God.

At the same time Jesus always acts with others. The first thing he does is call people around him, and together they go out and minister. It’s not just Jesus alone. It’s Jesus with his Apostles from the very beginning. When he sends them out, he sends them two by two.

Ministry is witnessing to a God whom I meet in solitude and community. Many people create a false tension between the two, as if some people are for solitude and others are for community. If you want to know anything about community, you have to realize that the contemplative side is essential. Community without retreating and quiet time never survives.

TIPPENS: Most people who read your works are very busy. Many are married with children, and they feel extremely pressed for time. What do you say to people who think that your ideas about solitude are a wonderful, but unattainable, ideal?

NOUWEN: First, I want to say that solitude is an essential element for the spiritual health of a child. If we only stimulate our children—keep them busy with endless stories with no space to be alone—that’s not good.

A sense of solitude is one of the most beautiful things that parents can give a child. It doesn’t mean leaving the child alone, but it does mean creating safe spaces where the child can be with other people. It does mean directing their attention to God.

My grandmother was very strong on this point. She would say to me, “If you can just shut up for 15 minutes—or just 15 seconds. If you are not able to be silent, you will not be able to speak well.” She would say, “Life is not entertainment. Life is not distraction.” Obviously a child can never conceive solitude if his parents aren’t living it somewhere themselves. I don’t mean that to be alone you have to get down on your knees for an hour in a yoga posture. I’m not saying that.

I am talking about an atmosphere where people are safe together even when they don’t entertain each other. Reading with children is also an enormous gift to them. It’s a great honor to invite children to read with adults.

Secondly, I want to stress that there is nothing so important in the family as the sacred quality of the meal. Few families know much about meals. At Daybreak the meal is the most communal place. After the meal we pray together and we share some music.

Community means that people come together around the table, not just to feed their bodies, but to feed their minds and their relationships. Good families always ritualize the table. You can say, “This is a Christmas meal; this is a birthday meal.”

What are the rituals? How do you set the table? Are there candles on the table? Does someone say a prayer before the meal? Do you turn off the television? Do you say, “No telephone calls, we’re just going to be together even if for an hour?”

We should say, “We will prepare the meal together. You set the table. You do the dishes. You set flowers on the table.” I’m talking about the whole culture of the meal. How do we eat? Do we just get it over as soon as possible, or do we say there’s a first course which we finish first, then a second course, and so forth? The table has to be ritualized.

My mind is filled with memories of special meal times. At Christmas we went to church at midnight, and afterwards we had breakfast in the middle of the night. And it was always a tradition to invite one or two guests who didn’t have a family.

Just a few weeks ago my father invited us all to Holland. After I celebrated the Eucharist, we visited my mother’s grave, then he took all of us to a restaurant. During the meal my father welcomed us formally and said, “We’re glad you are here. These are some of the things we are grateful for, etc.” That is community.

A third point I want to make concerns how families spend their time. Television is obviously an enormous intruder. Quite often people say they have no time, but in fact they waste a lot of time on things that are not healthy. They go to bed much too late. There’s no discipline concerning the stimulating things that come into the home—telephones, television, and people who just walk in. What kind of structure is there? You cannot say. “Anybody who wants to interrupt me can do so.” In my family we were not allowed to receive a phone call during dinner. Disconnect the phone. People can call back.

There are very simple, contemplative rituals. To busy people I suggest a little booklet of daily readings from Scripture. I say to them, “Every morning before you get up, read the Gospel of the day. That’s all you have to do. Spend just two minutes thinking about it, and say, ‘This is the Gospel of the day. I will pray for the people that I will meet today.’” I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Or, you can say, “Let’s read the Gospel together at the table.” Or, you can take it to work. You can read it at noon time or just before your lunch hour, alone or with a friend. If you are a businessman or a medical worker, you and a colleague can come together for five minutes to read the Gospel. After half a year, your life will have a different tone to it. It’s simple, but it will keep your spirit focused. Solitude, community, and ministry are certainly not just for celibates! Celibates also have a hard time keeping up.

TIPPENS: I want to mention some words that characterize your books for me: confessional, honest, relevant, psychological, truthful about the human condition, incarnational, imitation of Christ, holy. Would you agree with these descriptions?

NOUWEN: Yes, they are very true. These words are really there in my works. But for “the imitation of Christ” I tend to use the word “discipleship.” We are called to follow Jesus, to be disciples of Jesus. “Psychological.” I am a psychologist by training. I definitely hope to have integrated some of that training into my writing. I try to identify the spiritual movements; but if you call it “psychological,” then you might think that I am primarily focusing on the relationship between people and the emotions.

Obviously I do use a lot of psychological insights, but I try constantly to show how the Spirit works in us. I try to stay close to a “spiritual dynamics” rather than a “psycho-dynamics.” People in the Western world are very sophisticated, but they know very little about the movements of the Spirit in us.

Now the movements of the Spirit obviously deeply affect our emotions and our body, but the heart has its own separate, spiritual territory. That’s why I wrote Life of the Beloved which tries to describe a spiritual dynamics according to these four words: taken, blessed, broken, and given.

What is the life of those who call themselves the children of God? We are the beloved of God. What does the life of the beloved of God look like? The beloved is chosen by God; he is blessed by God; he is broken, and he is given to the world. You can identify these movements every day. You can go through a day and ask, “Where did I feel chosen today? When did I feel blessed? Where was I broken? Where was my pain today? Where did I become a gift to others?”

If you are sensitive to these things, you realize that the Spirit of Jesus is at work in you in every relationship, in every movement, when you eat, drink, play, or whatever you do in the name of Christ.

TIPPENS: There is currently a debate, especially among Evangelicals, over the “triumph of the therapeutic” in religion. Is this a concern?

NOUWEN: I am very concerned about this issue. I have a doctoral degree in psychology. With it, I went to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. I remember how I spent a lot of time helping people see that Scripture has its own language that shouldn’t be replaced by psychological language. We finally end up talking about different things.

The word covenant, for instance, is a very beautiful word, but it’s different from the word contract. In psychology we talk about a “contract” with a patient. Other biblical words are very powerful: patience, endurance, perseverance, fortitude, and presence. These words have very deep roots. We have to let these concepts touch us very deeply.

I have a problem with the word “relevant.” I want to be relevant, but not in the wrong way. I don’t want to be a “relevant” writer. I want to be fruitful. I want my work to create space where people can meet God, rather than give them something they can “apply” to their daily life.

If you make religion “relevant” by showing how spiritual truths are affecting your daily life, you might end up commercializing things. In a strange way the spiritual life isn’t “useful” or “successful.” But it is meant to be fruitful. And fruitfulness comes out of brokenness, you know.

The soil becomes fruitful when you break it up with the plow, and the human heart bears fruit when it suffers. A child is born when two people are vulnerable to each other. Jesus on the cross is vulnerable, and out of that vulnerable body comes blood and water. Jesus is not a relevant figure at all. That’s the temptation of the devil: “Turn stones into bread! Be relevant!”

The attempt to be relevant can be misunderstood, as if religion works in the service of society, when religion is really a criticism of society.

TIPPENS: What are your projects and interests today?

NOUWEN: I am a member of the community of Daybreak which is very committed to my writing. I am leaving today for Germany in order to write. The community sends me formally. They don’t just give me a half-year off. They bless me. They say, “We send you in the name of this community to write.” My writing continues to be a central part of my vocation.

Currently I am working on a yearbook, one meditation for each day of the year. These short meditations give me a chance to reflect on my own life and struggles. Writing is not just a job. It helps me to pray. It’s a way of being.

I also want to write a small book about these three words: solitude, community, and ministry. Now I’ve talked about them all the way through my career. But I am eager to write this text.

Some of your questions about family are really very good. How do you practice solitude, community, or ministry when you are busy with kids, changing diapers or whatever? It’s very important to reclaim these three terms not just as nice concepts for monks, priests, or ministers, but for people who are lawyers, doctors, and those with families.

I am also becoming very close to a group of trapeze artists in a German circus. I travel with them a week or two each year. I went to the circus with my 90-year-old dad and became a fan. I was very impressed by this group of five South African artists. [Pointing to a photograph]. Those three are fliers; those two are catchers.

I learned that the trapeze is like an icon for the spiritual life. It has a lot to do with trust, friendship, discipline, community, and skill—all the things you talk about in the spiritual life. If you really want freedom, flying through the air is incredible freedom, but it demands enormous discipline!

[Continuing to comment on the photo] This man has to trust the other totally. He’s just keeping his hands open, and the catcher has to find the flier. The flier is not allowed to find the catcher. The catcher has to be there for him. This makes me think that in the spiritual life we have to trust that God will catch us when we have the courage to choose the freedom to fly. In the spiritual life you have to trust that, if you let go, God will be there to catch you.

I do not want to use the trapeze act too much for spiritual applications; I just want to tell the story. These trapeze artists do not think primarily in religious terms, but they are spiritual people—very loving, caring, forgiving, fun-loving, but also disciplined and faithful. I want to describe their lives and show their beauty in a story.

TIPPENS: Most universities have abandoned any notion of spiritual roots. Having taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame, do you have thoughts about higher education today? Is an authentic Christian university possible?

NOUWEN: First of all, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone through the university. I am very grateful for my own education as well as for my years of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. I still believe that the university is a place where people can develop their minds and learn skills, but also they can develop their personalities and their spiritual life.

For me the university has always been an ideal context for spiritual formation. I always felt that if you want to offer spiritual formation at the university, you can. It is not that the university as such is against spiritual formation. It is just that often the university does not know how to integrate spiritual formation within its academic disciplines.

I must also say that the university is an enormously competitive place. It lives by an ethic of upward mobility. It says, “You have to make it in life. You have to be better. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, and you have to show that you can do it.” That’s the world. The university has become a place that prepares you for the fights in the world.

But a university with a Christian or a spiritual side to it is good when it allows the people to realize that the deepest human values are beyond competition, that Jesus was into “downward mobility.” He took the descending way. He talked about humility, forgiveness, and healing.

A university education is very important. Here in our community, I work hard to get people into higher education, so that some of our people take degrees in theology or social work. I am not anti-intellectual. Just the opposite! I’m not saying, “Go to a nice little community and spend the rest of your life there.” When a young man comes to work with us, after a few years I say, “Why don’t you go and get a degree?” You have to be as prudent as snakes and gentle as doves.

Now some universities, more than others, are able to live with the tension between downward and upward mobility, the tension between ambition and humility, and so forth. Next fall I’ll be teaching at the university, and I feel very welcome there.

The people there are good and caring people who love Christ and the gospel. But also they have to raise scholarships, give grades, compete, and get students. It’s also a very worldly operation. I don’t think it’s so bad that the tension exists.

The great teachers are always those who can live the tension. They are not criticizing everybody, they’re not complaining. They give young people a vision. In my own family my father was always saying to me, “Be sure that you make a difference in the world. Be sure that I can be proud of you.” And my mother would say, “Be sure you stay close to Jesus.” (And my father agrees with my mother!) Yes, it’s a competitive world, but where is your heart?

TIPPENS: Could you comment on the importance of spiritual direction and mentoring in your life? Who were the key people who gave you spiritual direction?

NOUWEN: My first experience of mentoring was at the Menninger Clinic. I was very deeply shaped by the experience of being mentored through supervision. I probably would never have become the kind of teacher that I became if I hadn’t been at the Menninger Clinic. Just the fact that they took me so seriously! I wrote two pages, and they wrote four pages of notes in response. I suddenly realized that people took me seriously, that I had something to say.

Secondly, Jean Vanier became an extremely important figure in my life when I met him in 1981. I didn’t go to L’Arche because of the movement. I didn’t know anything about the L’Arche community. But I met Jean Vanier, and the man radiated something and he gave me a lot of his attention. Suddenly I felt I had a teacher. Now, after many years, our relation is a little less intimate. We don’t see each other that much. But, again, he was transparent and full of the love of Christ.

Another man was Pere Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest and co-founder of L’Arche. He died last year. He was my spiritual director in the strict sense of the word. When I went through very difficult periods and had to deal with feelings of depression, rejection, abandonment and inner anguish, he was there to guide me. I only saw him a few times a year, but those occasions were very important.

People have filled an enormously important role in my life—more than books! For me, it’s not the formal advising or the therapy that meant so much. It was more the fact that someone committed himself or herself to me. They were really interested in my life;; they wanted to know what I was doing; they followed me; they dared to confront and challenge me.

The people who most affected me were the ones who got right in there with me, who cried with me, but who also had a certain authority, who dared to say what needed saying.

In this community I find enormous spiritual support through a group that I am part of. There are two or three who really help me think about my life. I am very influenced, dependent upon, and inspired by people who are with me. And I also try to be that for others, to hang in there with them.

TIPPENS: Dorothy Day has written a book called The Long Loneliness. Is that an apt description of ministry? Or does community solve the problem of loneliness?

NOUWEN: The best of community does give one a deep sense of belonging and well-being; and in that sense community takes away loneliness. But on another level community allows you to experience a deeper loneliness. It is precisely when you are loved a lot that you might realize a second loneliness which is not to be solved but lived. This second loneliness is an existential loneliness that belongs to the basis of our being. It’s where we are unfulfilled because only God can fill us.

The paradox is that quite often in community you get in touch with this second loneliness. In community, where you have all the affection you could ever dream of, you feel that there is a place where even community cannot reach. That’s a very important experience. In that loneliness, which is like a dark night of the soul, you learn that God is greater than community.

And it’s good because that kind of suffering makes me realize that the community is not the final destination.Wineskins Magazine

Darryl Tippens

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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