Why bother with spiritual things?
Henri Nouwen wrote Life of the Beloved to answer that question. He had developed a close friendship with a sophisticated, non-religious urbanite. This friend, Fred, was a part of an intellectual society that had lost all resonance with the forms of religion. Yet Fred saw in Nouwen a deep rootedness, a conviction that arose from his spiritual moorings in Christianity.
“Why don’t you write something about the spiritual life for me and my friends?” Fred asked.
He was looking for something that his clever circle “could hear”, something in their language, something relevant. “You have something to say, but you keep saying it to the people who least need to hear it … What about us young, ambitious, secular men and women wondering what life is all about after all? Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your language and your vision?”
Nouwen took up the challenge.
After the manuscript for Life of the Beloved was complete, Nouwen sent it to Fred, who shared it with two of his secular friends. While they all admired the simplicity of the style and the passion of the work, none of them felt any resonance. “Fred had always liked my writing,” Nouwen says, “but never as writing that spoke directly to his own needs. For him it was writing for the ‘converted’ and not for truly secular people.”
There’s a point where spiritual things can’t be further explained – they must be experienced. One must experience a spiritual rebirth. Becoming “born again” isn’t about cognitive comprehension of concepts; neither is it intellectual assent to statements. Being born again is the experience of a dead soul coming alive to the grace and reality of the Living God. Of course you can’t persuade someone into it. You can only describe the experience. People will either be drawn to it, or they will listen to you with polite bafflement.
And that’s where Nouwen’s book is interesting.
Life of the Beloved is a lovely statement of the experience of Christ’s call upon our lives. Oh, I have doctrinal problems with the book, make no mistake. Certainly there are places where I think Nouwen is off in some thinking.
But taken as an exploration of the experience of being chosen by God, of being beloved by God, this book is a spiritual classic. Fred was right, it’s not a book that invites people to the spiritual life. Rather it is a book that tenderly and passionately explains what has happened to you when you are brought by grace into the spiritual life. When we are tired and weary, it is a book that reminds us of the lavish grace of Christ. When we are flabby and lazy, this book nudges us to offer the gifts that God has given us. When we are smashed and broken, it is a book that reminds us that we are not abandoned or destroyed. When the world tells us we are small and worthless, this is a book that reminds us that we are instruments in the redeemer’s hands, and we still have something to offer.
Nouwen offers a fourfold reflection on what it is to be chosen of God: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given. I hope to reflect on these elements over the course of a few posts. I hope you’ll join me for it.
Soli Deo Gloria
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One thought on “Explore the Spiritual Classics: Life of the Beloved (pt 1)”
I’ve not read any of Nouwen’s books, but come across his name frequently–at the end of eloquent quotes used by other authors! I’ll look forward to your upcoming reflections based on his work.