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Spiritual Formation

by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird
New York, NY: Harper One, 2010
192 pages
Reviewed by Toni Stone

The readers of Presence journal need no introduction to the late Henri Nouwen (1932–1996), spiritual master, prolific writer, and chronicler of the inner life. Spiritual Formation is a posthumous work, the second of a planned three-volume series on the spiritual life that draws on Nouwen’s published and unpublished manuscripts, audio and video recordings, and lecture notes.

“Spiritual formation,” Nouwen writes, “is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves” (xvi). Being able to name these movements is vital, for “people who can identify and articulate the movements of their inner lives, who can give names to their varied experiences … are able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the Spirit from entering” (xx).

Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, who refer to themselves as the editors of this book, have brought together in one place the seven movements of spiritual formation that Nouwen used most frequently in his writing and teaching. These are the movements from opaqueness to transparency, from illusion to prayer, from sorrow to joy, from resentment to gratitude, from fear to love, from exclusion to inclusion, and from denying to befriending death. For Nouwen, opaqueness and transparency, illusion and prayer, and so forth, constitute the poles that we “move” between in our lives. Progress in the spiritual life occurs not when we resolve or conquer these polarities but when we are able to more easily make the move from one to the other (e.g., from exclusion to inclusion) in the daily encounters of our lives. The book dedicates a chapter to each of these movements, each beginning with a parable that Nouwen used in his teaching and ending with reflection questions and a visual meditation (visio divina) on an icon or image, color plates of which are included in the book.

I must admit to approaching this new book by Nouwen, published fourteen years after his death, with some skepticism. However, Christensen and Laird have done a masterful job of distilling Nouwen’s thoughts on the movements that constitute adult spiritual growth. All of the sources for Nouwen’s words are carefully documented in footnotes, and the editors clearly identify the material they have adapted or added. They include helpful suggestions for how this book might be utilized by a group as an extended study. While Spiritual Formation is intended for a Christian audience, Christensen’s appendix article, “Nouwen’s Place in Spiritual Development Theory,” would be of special interest to spiritual directors of all faiths who wish to learn more about Nouwen’s conception of spiritual formation as “dynamic movements … in contrast to classical ‘stage theories’ as the context of adult spiritual development” (128).

Toni Stone is a spiritual director living in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. She has the privilege of helping others "identify and articulate the movements of their inner lives."


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