Journeying With Henri Nouwen: Solitude Part 2

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. – Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline


Back in March I began blogging about loneliness. Then in April I followed it up with a post – the first part – about solitude. This is the second part of that post centering on solitude. The thoughts aren’t my own, but are the result of my reading and teaching of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I mention teaching because I am teaching/dialoguing through this book with a group of my friends-turned-family. As a small community, we’ve been yearning to attend to the relationship between God and ourselves through prayer, listening, and acting. Nouwen has been a most welcome voice in our communal journey. I say all this to bring out the reality of this being practiced; it is not an exercise taking place in a book, on a blog, or in some other excarnational manner. Rather, it is being worked out in messy, real life ways. I encourage you to do the same.

Interruptions and Opportunities

The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of a growing withdrawal but is instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude can make it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response. (p. 49)

I have three beautiful daughters, ages 4, 2, and 7 months. Cliche warning: their lives have been life changing for me. (Funny how the cliches are mere sayings until you’re living them.) Each one of them has added immensely to my life.

They have added love.

They have added joy.

They have added frustration.

They have added stress.

Yet their greatest addition to my life – beyond themselves – has been their gift of allowing me to recognize the need for solitude, in general, and, more particularly, the need to lovingly respond to life.

For Nouwen, this is the heart of solitude: living life as a continuous chain of loving responses instead of anxious reactions.

The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to quick, often spastic reactions which make us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly ‘formulate,’ give form to, a response that is really our own. In solitude we can pay careful attention to the world and search for an honest response. (p. 50)

We all live busy lives; it has become the ubiquitous nature of our lives. One of the dangers of this – and there are many – is that we move from “anxious response” to “anxious response” based on the ever-changing, busy world we have created.

A tendency within this frenetic pace of life is to dismiss interruptions as incidents getting in the way of “real life.” We have become gluttons for efficiency, productivity, and ease; interruptions break this up and make us, in this consumer-driven, mechanistic world, less human. Protest and anger boils within as we incessantly attempt to refocus on the task at hand, often to the relegation or rejection of this perceived interruption.

I know I do this. I know I do this with my children.

But what if our interruptions are in fact our opportunities, if they are challenges to an inner response by which growth takes place and through which we come to the fullness of being? What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people? What if all the unexpected interruptions are in fact the invitations to give up old-fashioned and outmoded styles of living and are opening up new unexplored areas of experience? And finally: What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment? (p. 53)

Wouldn’t things be different if we took this approach? If we would develop the solitude of heart Nouwen speaks of, we might begin to cultivate ears urgent to listen and mouths patient to respond. Instead of despair in these interruptions, we may find hope; hope of constant opportunities to convert our loneliness into solitude, our hostility into hospitality.

This is why I am thankful for my children: they have taught me to respond in love, not in anxiety.

The Weight of the World, Solidarity, & Compassion

Another aspect keeping us locked in the closet of loneliness is the felt weight of the world. The daily news has become a terrain of the abysmal and terrifying. We are bombarded with a litany of the world’s woes on a daily basis; no, in our world, it is a minute-by-minute basis. The news changes as quickly as we can hit refresh.

In the midst of this world of instant knowledge of worldwide pain, it is easy to pull away in retreat. We find ourselves feeling helpless or, perhaps more common, we see ourselves as Masters of our own Universe denying ourselves to be fully present to much pain. “This will not effect us” is a common mantra muttered today as we anonymously pass by each other.

What keeps us from opening ourselves to the reality of the world? Could it be that we cannot accept our powerlessness and are only willing to see those wounds that we can heal? Could it be that we do not want to give up our illusion that we are masters over our world and, therefore, create our own Disneyland where we can make ourselves believe that all events of life are safely under control?

But life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heard a creative response can come forth. (p. 57)

In response to heartache, either around the world or across the cubicle, we “anxiously respond” and depend upon our minds and hands, but not our hearts.

When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. (p. 58)

The older I have gotten and the more I have actually listened to the words and actions of others, the more I have become aware of the anguish common to us all. The Christian world I grew up in viewed the spiritual life as a detachment from the world. There was the invisible bubble around us, impenetrable by the world. Being human was being free from the world, its pain and torment included. “Good Christians” didn’t face adversity; we were a happy people. Yet, I have found as I have emerged from this bubble, that the divisiveness, lack of connection, and struggle isn’t merely found in the “world.” No, it is part and parcel of life, for both those who identify as Jesus-followers and those who don’t.

And it is precisely in this mutual experience of pain that solidarity comes forth. It is here that compassion is birthed as we come face to face with what it (partly) means to be human. Loneliness evaporates as we tether our lives together in efforts to move past adversity and into community. “It is this inner solidarity which prevents self-righteousness and makes compassion possible.” It is difficult to respond spitefully or flippantly towards others when we realize the suffering we share in together.

Compassion born in solitude makes us very much aware of our own historicity. We are not called to respond to generalities but to the concrete facts with which we are confronted day after day. A compassionate man can no longer look at these manifestations of evil and death as disturbing interruptions of his life plan but rather has to confront them as an opportunity for the conversion of himself and his fellow human beings. (p. 60)

Instead of solely offering solutions, we need to offer ourselves. Solitude of heart opens our eyes to see what our hearts have been keeping us from. Rather than keep pain – and the people experiencing and perpetuating said pain – at an arm’s length, we are called to see it as part of our life and within the category of what it means to be human. Our efforts “to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt.”

This conversion from “anxious reaction” to “loving response” is a challenge for me. I often fool myself into thinking life is much easier practicing anxiety. Yet, again and again, I find Nouwen’s words to ring true: a life of anxious responses only leads to loneliness. I’ll leave you with his final summation of this solitude of heart:

The movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings. And so, the movement from loneliness to solitude leads us spontaneously to the movement from hostility to hospitality.


What and/or whom are you “anxiously reacting” to instead of “lovingly responding”?

Are you living in solidarity and compassion with those in your life?

I encourage you to get together with your community and prayerfully and gracefully ask each other these questions.


One thought on “Journeying With Henri Nouwen: Solitude Part 2

  1. Definitely one of my favorite books. I believe it was his section on hospitality that helped me come to the realization that holiness is all about my capacity to show hospitality to others. If I’m riddled with addictions and idols, I can’t be present to other people. The more pure I am, the more I can give others my full presence.

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