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Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry

Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry
by Henri J. M. Nouwen 
Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005 
3 CDs, 178 minutes
Reviewed by David M. Denny

Henri Nouwen’s talks on desert spirituality remind me of Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s contention that the best way to move into the future is backwards. That is, instead of running toward a future that may be a rootless fantasy, we do well to look back in time to glean fruits we may have rejected along our pilgrim way. Nouwen, the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest who helped ministers recapture their vocations as wounded healers, plumbed the wisdom of the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries. In these three compact discs, Nouwen describes a malaise afflicting many ministers and spiritual directors. In a “mind-minded” world our religious lives are often driven by study and talk about God and the problems of life. But talk and thinking will not lead us through the fire of transformation to still waters. So Nouwen looks not to the thought, but to the disciplines and stories of the desert fathers and mothers who addressed the heart, the whole person, rather than the mind alone.

Nouwen ponders three fundamental desert counsels: flee, be silent, and pray always. Our activist, extroverted, earth and body affirming attitudes may tempt us to translate these commands as: escape, stifle your voice, and settle into self-righteous pietism. But Nouwen deftly helps us acknowledge the anger and greed that lurk within us. With a soft touch he allows us to admit that before we can “improve” we must die to our compulsive need for affirmation from outside ourselves. The desert monks’ flight, silence, and prayer, Nouwen insists, were a mature response to a human condition that is basically a shipwreck, as Thomas Merton put it. Is it selfish to swim for help instead of drowning in a kind of “solidarity” with our fellow victims?

This “swim” is a purifying pilgrimage into the humbling revelation of our human brokenness and a transforming encounter with forgiveness. It is an escape from a painful situation in order to move from fruitless suffering to fruitful, humanizing and healing suffering: the birth pangs of radical compassion.

If we make our way into this silent wilderness, Nouwen claims, we touch the mystery of the future, the Kingdom of heaven, and we may return to the present world’s problems, tragedies, and hopelessness without feeling impotent and overwhelmed. By the grace of God, we may grow through the discipline of simple daily prayer into a habit of deep listening to the Spirit. We may learn to speak, out of silence, awe, wonder, and wisdom, words that differ from the wordiness of advertising and propaganda. As Nouwen puts it, much may be said while little is spoken. What we say after we have been broken and revivified in the desert will not draw our friends’ or directees’ attention toward us but toward the Mystery dwelling within and beyond themselves. Such words transmit creative and recreative power.

David M. Denny is co-founder of the Desert Foundation in Crestone, Colorado, USA, a visiting professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA, and an outreach preacher for Cross International Catholic Outreach.

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