December 5, 2020

IM Book Review: Spiritual Direction

By Chaplain Mike

Two of Henri Nouwen’s students, Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, have taken their late teacher’s course in spiritual direction and supplemented it with his unpublished writings to create a “new” work presenting Nouwen’s thoughts on the Christian life.

The result? A series of books filled with the characteristic simplicity and wisdom of this tender-hearted man whose spirit burned with love for God and his neighbors.

The first book is called, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. It is not about giving spiritual direction, it contains spiritual direction. Reading it is like having Henri Nouwen as one’s spiritual friend and mentor.

At the outset, let me say that this series of books is a gift. Having read through the first volume and having perused the second, I know that I will be returning to them again and again for personal contemplation and pastoral guidance.

The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice, and accountability. There are many spiritual disciplines. Almost anything that regularly asks us to slow down and order our time, desires, and thoughts to counteract selfishness, impulsiveness, or hurried fogginess of mind can be a spiritual discipline. (xv-xvi)

In Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen suggests that there are three classic disciplines: (1) the discipline of the Heart, (2) the discipline of the Book, and (3) the discipline of the Church.

These three disciplines—the Heart, the Book, and the Church—call for spiritual discernment, accountability, and direction in order to overcome our deafness and resistance, and to become free and obedient persons who hear God’s voice even when it calls us to unknown places. (xx)

The bulk of Spiritual Direction is organized around these three practices. Within this broad outline, Nouwen deals with ten fundamental questions people have about life, God, themselves, and what it means to live with God and for others in the world. Each chapter begins with a short story or folk tale that causes the reader to ponder the question at hand. The book is also infused with Nouwen’s characteristic transparency in sharing his own life and experiences. There are suggested spiritual disciplines, exercises for writing, journaling, and reflecting on Scripture that wrap up the chapters, encouraging the reader to make the material his or her own.

This approach captures Nouwen’s belief that living a spiritual life involves honestly facing our deepest questions. We accept the quest. We embark on the journey. With Jesus as our Guide and Companion, we set out, not knowing where we are going or how we will get there or what we will face along the way. New experiences raise new questions, prompt additional choices, awaken previously unrecognized doubts and uncertainties. We “live the questions,” trusting that God is with us even when there is mystery and no easy answer.

In the chapter, “How Can I Be of Service?” Nouwen writes,

But what if we cannot solve the problems or change the circumstances of those we seek to help? Alleviating pain and suffering may sometimes be the fruit of our being with those who suffer, but that is not primarily why we are there. Ministry takes courage to be with the sick, the dying, and the poor in their weakness and in our powerlessness. We can’t fix their problems or even answer their questions. We dare to be with others in mutual vulnerability and ministry precisely because God is a God who suffers with us and calls us to gratitude and compassion in the midst of pain. You cannot solve all the world’s problems, but you can be with people in their problems and questions with your simple presence, trusting that joy also will be found there. (136)

On the human level, what we need most on our journey of questions, doubts, and uncertainties is a wise, loving friend like this. Though Henri Nouwen no longer walks among us, he can still walk with us through his written words.

I know this book will be my friend for life. I can give no higher recommendation.


  1. As I thought about Nouwen’s book (haven’t read it – it’s now on my list), I couldn’t help but think about the irony of the grace / works debate. Spiritual disciplines are a lot of work, and they are intended to get us to that place where we just hang out with God (“living in the questions” as Nouwen puts it). I had a great laugh about the centuries of ink about works. When I thought of all the theological and denominational debates, the craziness of this world, the joys and disappointments in our own lives, the questions this blog raises, there is so much paradox. God is in the paradox, and God is in those unexpected moments in our lives, like a conversation with a friend, worship or just driving to work.

    And after all that rushing through my head, I had a brief moment of unexpected time with God. I smiled and thought how delightful He is in all the paradox. We had a great time hanging out with each other for just that one fun, delightful second. Thanks for the unexpected meditation.

  2. Clay Knick says

    Another for the list! Thanks, Mike.

  3. I’ve read “In the Name of Jesus” and “Behold the Beauty of the Lord”…Remarkable books.

  4. Thanks, Chap Mike for the review and recommendation. A book that is a friend is an apt description. Praise GOD for words that live on.


  5. @2 the discipline of The Book and @3 the discipline of The Church…
    I like Nouwen and many here do he was one of us after all… but as to those disciplines…
    The church of which Henri Nouwen was a priest does not allow practising homosexuality and even hasn’t female priests…
    The good book also has a lot to say…
    Being a dutchman I won’t be silenced here. All I could see some days ago was a convo about young americans allegedly leaving churches because of the ‘culture war’ of some over the top reactionary evangelicals giving those young ppl a bad feel about the whole Jesus thingie…
    In some western nations it’s the reverse: over here it’s politically incorrect to even utter anything at all against the gay lifestyle or even to suggest one ‘religion’ (christianity) might be superior to another religion (islam)…
    Ppl can sue you for that.
    Since this is the WORLD WIDE web…. I keep repeating this. No matter how painful certain american cultural parafernalia might be for some reading this blog, there is a wholly different world out there.

    • It is good to keep a global perspective about the things you mention, but they don’t really affect the message of this book. One can walk with Jesus faithfully in any cultural context.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Thanks for reviewing this book. Along with others that have been mentioned and reviewed here, I am adding it to my list and will probably get this one soon.

  7. Based on just the excerpts you posted, I’ll be getting this one with the B&N gift card my husband gives me every Christmas. Thanks, Chaplain Mike!