BOOK REVIEW: Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen
How often do we long for someone to walk beside us, as Jesus did with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and interpret scripture for us…tell us how to apply it to real everyday lives? We ponder the words from the Bible. We read interpretations by theologians and spiritual seekers. We flinch when we feel condemned. We’re comforted when we feel our lives are, at least for a moment, in synch with our understanding of God’s will. Yet we remain hungry…hungry for spiritual truth and guidance. This book was, for me, spiritual nourishment to help assuage that hunger.
Thanks to my friend, The Very Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail, I recently discovered Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996) (pronounced Henry Now’-in), prolific spiritual writer, priest, professor, and pastor, and his teachings are like water for a thirsty soul. A recent blog post I wrote called “I Am Beloved By God” was inspired by a video in which Nouwen espouses the same message as this book’s theme: We are beloved by God, and if we truly understand and believe that, it will change the way we live our lives.
The book was intended to be a letter to a Jewish New York intellectual friend of Nouwen’s named Fred, whom he met when Fred interviewed Nouwen while teaching at Yale Divinity School. They formed an unlikely bond and became lifelong friends, sharing each other’s deepest longings, fears, and doubts. After some years of knowing each other, Fred asked Nouwen to say something about the Spirit that his friends and he “could hear.” As Nouwen stated in his prologue: “He was asking me to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exist in countless people who walk the streets of big cities.” This book is the result of Fred’s request, and its tone is indeed that of a dear friend talking intimately and warmly to a “fellow-traveler searching for life, light and truth.”
The heart of Henri Nouwen’s teaching in this book is his conviction that regardless of our religious tradition, we are beloved by God, but our ability to share that gift of belovedness with others is only as great as our ability to claim it for ourselves. Why is it always easier to believe someone else is beloved by God than to believe I am? Nouwen believes “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life, because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” He speaks of listening for that voice and believes once we hear it, we will keep trying to hear it ever more clearly. “Like discovering a well in the desert, once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.”
So Nouwen believes the most important spiritual journey of our lives involves claiming the truth of our belovedness and living into that truth by becoming the beloved…”letting truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do.” To do this, we must explore ways the Holy Spirit moves in our lives. He believes we become the Beloved of God when we:
1) claim that we are taken.
2) know that we are blessed.
3) acknowledge that we are broken.
4) submit to being given.
Each of these four ways is explored beautifully and helpfully in simple terms, with real life examples. He speaks in the context of natural cycles and has a truly moving reflection on the relationship between life and death. “As the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving.” He distinguishes between a “good death” and a “bad death.” Without being syrupy or unrealistic about the pain of death and loss, he speaks convincingly of our lives being like a seed that must die to bear fruit. “How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away! How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply as long as there are people to receive it…and that—even then—there will be leftovers!”
One fascinating insight I gleaned from this book’s pages is the notion that there is a distinction between talents and gifts, and that sometimes—perhaps often—our true gifts are buried beneath our talents. “We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust, and many others. These are the true gifts we have to offer to each other.” That is something I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Ironically, as Nouwen relates in the epilogue, the book did not seem to resonate with Fred and his friends as much as Nouwen had hoped it would. For him, “it was writing for the ‘converted’ and not for truly secular people.” It did, in fact, appeal to thousands of Christian pilgrims who struggle through life trying to apply the Christian principles they’ve learned to the situations they encounter day in and day out.
It certainly resonated with me.
So without Fred, he would never have written the book, but it turned out to be more helpful to believers than to non-believers. “It is the mystery of God using his secular friends to instruct his disciples.”
Have you read any of Henri Nouwen’s work? What books of his have you most enjoyed? I’ve included a link below. Click it if you want to order Life of the Beloved from Amazon.