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The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom by Henri Nouwen

September 7, 2018

Henri Nouwen’s ‘secret journal’ was written during the most difficult period of his life, when, following, the breakdown of a close relationship, he suddenly lost his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved and even his hope in God.

The introduction of the book explains that the short writings do not need to be read in order and it is not recommended many are read at one sitting an I adopted this approach and can see why it is necessary so as to have time to reflect on each in turn.

Some dislike a journal saying “Trust your friends- forgive yourself – accept yourself – accept your limits….”. “You… you… you…”.

He goes on about trusting our own, inner voice and not asking others – but what about the deluded?

Quotations:

A key theme for Nouwen is “acceptance” and he devotes several entries to simply learning to live with the changes and current situation in one’s life. He suggests the path forward is one that requires the pilgrim to take specific “action” and the titles of the sections are all verbal imperatives. For example, “cling,” “stop,” “trust,” “give,” go,” “acknowledge,” “seek,” “claim,” “live,” call forth from the reader an action that is grounded in response to God’s goodness and presence, even if this is unable to be recognized in the present moment.

This is a key point for spiritual directors. The trigger event for many people to initially seek spiritual direction is when they enter a time of loss, grief, or crisis. Nouwen’s journal is the account of his own passage through a time of intense suffering and is helpful to inspire hope and confidence that “this too shall pass.” However, from the perspective of this director, times of grief/crisis are not the ideal time to begin direction with a first timer. It would seem reasonable that once the person has moved beyond the initial shock of the crisis, some internal processing is required before one is capable of appropriating the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit in daily life. Nouwen’s own experience supports this: “The anguish completely paralyzed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments…all had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons” (xiv).

Your own growth cannot take place without growth in others. You are part of a body. When you change, the whole body changes. It is very important for you to remain deeply con­nected with the larger community to which you belong.

When people show you their boundaries (‘I can’t do this for you’), you feel rejected. You cannot accept the fact that others are unable to do for you all that you expect from them. You desire boundless love, boundless care, boundless giving.

Part of your struggle is to set boundaries to your own love ­something you have never done. You give whatever people ask of you, and when they ask for more, you give more, until you find yourself exhausted, used, and manipulated. Only when you are able to set your own boundaries will you be able to acknowledge, respect, and even be grateful for the boundaries of others.

Your community needs you, but maybe not as a constant presence. Your community might need you as a presence that offers courage and spiritual food for the journey, a presence that creates the safe ground in which others can grow and develop, a presence that belongs to the matrix of the com­munity. But your community also needs your creative absence.

You might need certain things that the community cannot provide. For these you may have to go elsewhere from time to time. This does not mean that you are selfish, abnormal, or unfit for community life. It means that your way of being present to your people necessitates personal nurturing of a special kind. Do not be afraid to ask for these things. Doing so allows you to be faithful to your vocation and to feel safe. It is a service to those for whom you want to be a source of hope and a life-giving presence.

For a person to be journeying with a spiritual director and for the experience to be fruitful it usually means that issues like these have been at least initially addressed and begun to be incorporated into one’s life first. Spiritual direction and grieving both call for much inner and personal work, but ordinarily not at the same time. This director believes it will be more productive to allow someone who is trained in facilitating healing/overcoming grief and trauma to do some initial work with the directee and for the spiritual director to come along a few steps behind in a supporting and clarifying role.

The most fundamental tasks of the director are helping the directee pay attention to God as he reveals himself and helping the directee recognize his/her reactions and decide on his/her responses to God. This is all present tense stuff, which requires us to have an awareness of this movement in the present moment. Nouwen writes: “Whatever you are doing—watching a movie, writing a book, giving a presentation, eating or sleeping—you have to stay in God’s presence…where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain” (23).

For spiritual directors guiding directees through difficult periods, it is important not to confuse the emotional upheaval connected with loss/grief with the “dark night” experience. What distinguishes the dark night from depression is that a person in the dark night normally has an intuition that these trials are going someplace. One perceives at times the fruits of the dark night in changing perceptions such as the growth of a non-judgmental attitude, greater detachment from things and persons, greater humility, deeper trust in God. This is clearly Nouwen’s experience. “You know that something totally new, truly unique, is happening within you. It is clear that something in you is dying and something is being born. You must remain attentive, calm, and obedient to your best intentions” (17).  Those in the dark night, like Nouwen, although they may be feeling inwardly that their world has collapsed, will generally continue to function in their jobs and relationships.

Throughout the book, Nouwen explains how his crisis changed his relationship with God. This is a wonderful question for spiritual directors to propose to their directees. Is your faith stronger? Or do you have more questions than before? How are you and God getting along right now? Are you on speaking terms? At peace? Angry? Nouwen believes that in order to move forward, one must “believe in the yes that comes back when you ask, ‘Do you love me?’ You must choose this yes even when you do not experience it” (8).

From this foundational understanding of God’s love and presence, even when not able to be perceived, Nouwen’s journal can help spiritual directors and directees to recognize and understand the spiritual experience of “desolation.” Nouwen devotes numerous entrie to the simple idea of remaining and returning to previously consoling places.

This is sound advice. When the directee is weighed down by a certain desolation, the director cautions them not to try to change too much, but to hold fast to decisions which guided them during the time before the desolation came. On the other hand, Nouwen does not advise simply sitting back and throwing in the towel. He provides numerous exhortations to do as St. Ignatius of Loyola also advised, “to intensify our activity against the desolation. This can be done by insisting on prayer, meditation, frequent examinations, and by increasing our penance in some suitable manner.” Spiritual directors can encourage directees to fight off whatever is making them less than what the Lord has called them to be. The classic remedy is to suggest he/she undertake some service or good works, particularly for those that are in need. Spirituality starves desolation.

Finally, Nouwen’s journal can be used to encourage directees to explore their own situations through journaling. This can be a wonderful new experience for a directee to begin keeping a spiritual journal. This director often suggests directees attempt two-way, dialogical journaling with the Lord, based on the model of Morton Kelsey. While Nouwen doesn’t directly address his own journal regimen, directors can remind directees that is can be helpful to begin each journaling period by writing out a question to God on the top of the page rather than staring at a blank sheet of paper. Centering Prayer, quieting exercises, or icon gazing as a prelude, are all helpful.

“Everything came crashing down – my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.

Just when all those around me were assuring me they loved me, cared for me, appreciated me, yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless, unloved, and despicable person.”

 

“”wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down–my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything.””

“When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don’t say to yourself “All is lost. I have to start all over again.” This is not true. What you have gained you have gained….When you return to the the road, you return to the place where you left it, not to where you started.”
“I have also learned to catch the darkness early, not to allow sadness to grow into depression or let a sense of being rejected develop into a feeling of abandonment. . . . What once seemed such a curse has become a blessing. All the agony that threatened to destroy my life now seems like the fertile ground for greater trust, stronger hope, and deeper love.”

 

“When people show you their boundaries (“I can’t do this for you”) you feel rejected…part of your struggle is to set boundaries to your own love. Only when you are able to set your own boundaries will you be able to acknowledge, respect and even be grateful for the boundaries of others.”

“There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to Like

 

“The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give. As a result, you will feel frustrated, and those you wanted to help will feel confused, disappointed, or even further burdened.”

“You keep listening to those who seem to reject you. But they never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. They confess their poverty in the face of your needs and desires. They simply ask for your compassion. They do not say that you are bad, ugly, or despicable. They say only that you are asking for something they cannot give and that they need to get some distance from you to survive emotionally. The sadness is that you perceive their necessary withdrawal as a rejection of you instead of as a call to return home and discover there your true belovedness.”

“Often love is offered to you, but you do not recognize it. You discard it because you are fixed on receiving it from the same person to whom you gave it.”

“Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain.”

“Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name.”

“You can only seek God when you have already found God. The desire for God’s unconditional love is the fruit of having been touched by that love.”

“Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God. These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them.”

“There is within you a lamb and a lion. Spiritual maturity is the ability to let lamb and lion lie down together.”

“I have also learned to catch the darkness early, not to allow sadness to grow into depression or let a sense of being rejected develop into a feeling of abandonment. Even in the renewed and deepened friendship, I feel the freedom to point to the little clouds and ask for help in letting them pass by.”

“Not being welcome is your greatest fear. It connects with your birth fear, your fear of not being welcome in this life, and your death fear, your fear of not being welcome in the life after this. It is the deep-seated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived.”

“Every time you close another door—be it the door of immediate satisfaction, the door of distracting entertainment, the door of busyness, the door of guilt and worry, or the door of self-rejection—you commit yourself to go deeper into your heart and thus deeper into the heart of God.”

“You have an idea what the new country looks like. Still, you are very much at home, although not truly at peace, in the old country. You know the ways of the old country, it’s joys and pains, its happy and sad moments. You have spent most of your days there. Even though you know that you have not found there what your heart most desires, you remain quite attached to it. It has become part of your very bones.

Now you have come to realize that you must leave it and enter the new country, where your Beloved dwells. You know that what helped and guided you in the old country no longer works, but what else do you have to go by? You are being asked to trust that you will find what you need in the new country. That requires the death of what has become precious to you: influence, success, yes, even affection and praise.

Trust is so hard, since you have nothing to fall back on. Still, trust is what is essential. The new country is where you are called to go, and the only way to go there is naked and vulnerable.

It seems that you keep crossing and recrossing the border. For a while you experience a real joy in the new country. But then you feel afraid and start longing again for all you left behind, so you go back to the old country. To your dismay, you discover that the old country has lost its charm. Risk a few more steps into the new country, trusting that each time you enter it, you will feel more comfortable and be able to stay longer.”

“Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.”

“Isn’t it important for your friends close by and far away to know the high cost of these insights? Wouldn’t they find it a source of consolation to see that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear are never very far from each other, and that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle?”

“Do not tell everyone your story. You will only end up feeling more rejected. People cannot give you what you long for in your heart. The more you expect from people’s response to your experience of abandonment, the more you will feel exposed to ridicule. You have to close yourself to the outside world so you can enter your own heart and the heart of God through your pain. God will send to you the people with whom you can share your anguish, who can lead you closer to the true source of love.”

“You have to acknowledge where you are and affirm that place. You have to be willing to live your loneliness, your incompleteness, your lack of total incarnation fearlessly, and trust that God will give you the people to keep showing you the truth of who you are.”

“Still, as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist. This might be partly true, but”

“There is a place far down that is like a turbulent river, and that place frightens you. But do not fear. One day it will be quiet and peaceful. You have to keep moving, as you are doing. Live a faithful, disciplined life, a life that gives you a sense of inner strength, a life in which you can receive more and more of the love that comes to you. Wherever there is real love for you, take it and be strengthened by it. As your body, heart, and mind come to know that you are loved, your weakest part will feel attracted to that love. What has remained separated and unreachable will let itself be drawn into the love you have been able to receive.”

“Your way of being present to your community may require times of absence, prayer, writing, or solitude. These too are times for your community.”

“A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support.”

“Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community. The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you.”

“Your true identity is as a child of God. This is the identity you have to accept. Once you have claimed it and settled in it, you can live in a world that gives you much joy as well as pain. You can receive the praise as well as the blame that comes to you as an opportunity for strengthening your basic identity, because the identity that makes you free is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. You belong to God, and it is as a child of God that you are sent into the world.”

“You feel overwhelmed by distractions, fantasies, the disturbing desire to throw yourself into the world of pleasure. But you know already that you will not find there an answer to your deepest question. Nor does the answer lie in rehashing old events, or in guilt or shame. All of that makes you dissipate yourself and leave the rock on which your house is built.”

“Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God. These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them. But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart and find rest there.”

“When you experience a great need for human affection, you have to ask yourself whether the circumstances surrounding you and the people you are with are truly where God wants you to be. Whatever you are doing—watching a movie, writing a book, giving a presentation, eating, or sleeping—you have to stay in God’s presence.

If you feel a great loneliness and a deep longing for human contact, you have to be extremely discerning. Ask yourself whether this situation is truly God-given. Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain.”

“The great task is to claim yourself for yourself, so that you can contain your needs within the boundaries of your self and hold them in the presence of those you love. True mutuality in love requires people who possess themselves and who can give to each other while holding on to their own identities.”

“When you let your wounded self express itself in the form of apologies, arguments, or complaints—through which it cannot be truly heard—you will only grow frustrated and increasingly feel rejected.”

“There is great pain and suffering in the world. But the pain hardest to bear is your own.”

“Every time you reject yourself, you idealize others.”

“When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give.”

“It is quite understandable that you are afraid of this place. You have so little knowledge of it. You have caught glimpses of it, you have even been there at times, but for most of your life you have dwelt among your emotions, passions, and feelings and searched in them for inner peace and joy.”

“There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You will never succeed in filling that hole, because your needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it so that gradually the abyss closes.”

“Acknowledge your anguish, but do not let it pull you out of yourself. Hold on to your chosen direction, your discipline, your prayer, your work, your guides, and trust that one day love will have conquered enough of you that even the most fearful part will allow love to cast out all fear.”

“For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self.”

“Just when all those around me were assuring me they loved me, cared for me, appreciated me, yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless, unloved, and despicable person. Just when people were putting their arms around me, I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for. Just when I had found a home, I felt absolutely homeless. Just when I was being praised for my spiritual insights, I felt devoid of faith. Just when people were thanking me for bringing them closer to God, I felt that God had abandoned me. It was as if the house I had finally had no floors. The anguish completely paralyzed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”

“To live a disciplined life is to live in such a way that you want only to be where God is with you. The more deeply you live your spiritual life, the easier it will be to discern the difference between living with God and living without God, and the easier it will be to move away from the places where God is no longer with you. The great challenge here is faithfulness, which must be lived in the choices of every moment.”

“Your main question should always be whether something is lived with or without God. You have your own inner knowledge to answer that question. Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God. These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them. But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart and find rest there.”

“Isn’t it important for your friends close by and far away to know the high cost of these insights?”

Think of a medieval castle surrounded by a moat. The drawbridge is the only access to the interior of the castle. The lord of the castle must have the power to decide when to draw the bridge and when to let it down. Without such power, he can become the victim of enemies, strangers, and wanderers. He will never feel at peace in his own castle.

It is important for you to control your own drawbridge. There must be times when you keep your bridge drawn and have the opportunity to be alone or only with those to whom you feel close. Never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will. You might think that you are being generous in giving access to anyone who wants to enter or leave, but you will soon find yourself losing your soul.

Over the years you have allowed the voices that call you to action and great visibility to dominate your life. You still think, even against your own best intuitions, that you need to do things and be seen in order to follow your vocation. But you are now discovering that God’s voice is saying, e.g. Stay home, and trust that your life will be fruitful even when hidden:

Success, notoriety, affection, future plans, entertainment, satisfying work, health, intellectual stimulation, emotional support — yes, even spiritual progress — none of these can be clung to as if they are essential for survival. Only as you let go of them can you discover the true freedom your heart most desires. That is dying, moving into the life beyond life. You must make that passage now, not just at the end of your earthly life. You cannot do it alone, but with the love of those who are being sent to you, you can surrender your fear and let yourself be guided into the new land.

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