Inner Life

Nouwen classic fostered priest's 'inner work'

For Melbourne priest Dr Colleen O'Reilly, reading Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, first published in 1975, was a turning point, leading her to a "reaching inwards of the kind that transforms".

By Colleen O'Reilly

October 9 2020Early in that year, 1981, my mother died. I had just turned 32 a few days before, and so was now an orphan, my father having died when I was a teenager. I might have been “grown up”, travelled the world, lived overseas, and already the mother of two sons, but I had yet to truly become an adult. By the grace of God, I was in a context that made that shift possible. The inner “work” began that year. 

In 1981 I spent a year completing a diploma in Christian spirituality which was essentially a renewal program for older people in the vowed religious life, but the organisers were happy to welcome a few others into the group. It was the making of me. I had recently completed some diploma level studies in theology through my parish in Sydney where the Rector encouraged an informed and intelligent faith. I had acquired new knowledge of the Anglican Church and the Christian faith to which I had belonged all my life. I was an active member and a churchwarden. I had a deep and affective relationship with the God who chooses to be known to us in Jesus, risen Christ. But I was not yet the adult I began to become that year. 

The lectures, the reading and the interaction between people in the course all contributed. I started reading the spiritual classics for the first time and discovered the writings of a Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He will be well known to some readers of TMA as a theologian with strong credentials in psychology and a prolific writer of reflections that draw together his lived experiences, his ministry as a priest, his teaching at prestigious universities in North America, his discipleship of Jesus and his profound gratitude for God’s love for him and all humanity. From the rich convergence of knowing and loving, Nouwen left a body of writing that still speaks to millions today. 

I have read many of his books since coming across him, but the one I have returned to more than any other is Reaching Out. In this book, Nouwen explores what he calls three movements of the spiritual life: from loneliness to solitude; from hostility to hospitality; and from illusion to prayer. He tells readers at the outset this is a personal book, born out of his own struggles entered into rather than avoided. He identifies the many ways we try to do that: listening to one more lecture, accepting one more ministry assignment – all in the avoidance of “accepting the responsibility for my own life”. When I came to this book I did not realise that was the task ahead of me. The reaching out I needed to do first, was to myself. It was to be a reaching inwards of the kind that transforms. I did not know then that it is only as we “possess” ourselves that we have anything, indeed anyone, of value to offer to others in the Spirit of the risen, life-transforming Christ. 

Nouwen writes powerfully and compassionately of the inner loneliness that all feel, but many ignore. He is persuasive in arguing that by attentive living we can learn to move between the poles of loneliness and solitude. In truth, he says, we only begin a spiritual life as we develop the inner sensitivity to know the difference between the emptiness we rush to fill and the solitude of heart from which we can live without being “needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental”. Telling the story of a friend who came one day just “to celebrate some time with you”, Nouwen says it is only from this solitude that we can truly form community. It is from this deep place that true regard for the “otherness” of another is born. It is, I have come to experience, from this place within that we “can become detached from false ties and attached to God and each other in a surprisingly new way”. It is into this space between two or three that the risen Christ is able to enter and be known, as he promised. 

The second movement is from hostility to hospitality. Nouwen says that Christians are obliged to make this shift in order to offer strangers to us, whom we may fear as they fear us, the opportunity to become our fellow human beings. It is the shift by which an enemy becomes a guest, surely the dynamic Jesus intended when he told us to love our enemies. Hospitality means far more than polite conversation since it is a characteristic of God. There are many stories in the scriptures of those who welcomed strangers only to find that God was using the visitor to reveal God’s self to them. The most wonderful of stories is of the two travellers to Emmaus (Luke 24). They only know it has been their risen friend on the road with them when they invite the stranger to a meal. 

Moving from illusion to prayer is Nouwen’s third shift on the spiritual path. This is a reaching out to God, as God is, and not as we wish God to be. One illusion we entertain is our immortality. It takes only a small disruption to lay bare our illusion of immortality and being in control. Have we not all had a wake-up call this year! The illusion is that our lives, and those of others, belong to us, property to be defended, not a gift to be received. It is the illusion that lies behind violence and makes intimacy impossible. In speaking about prayer Nouwen reminds us, as all the great spiritual writes have, that prayer takes serious effort on our part and yet is received as gift. When we reach out to God in prayer, going beyond just our needs and concerns, then prayer becomes the great adventure that leads us away from familiar ground into a relationship with God that defies our calculations and predictions. He leaves us with three guidelines or rules for growing in the spiritual life. These are a contemplative reading of the scriptures, a silent listening to God (in my words, when you pray shut up – at least sometimes) and a trusting obedience that is an opening of yourself to a spiritual guide, usually called a “director”. 

Reaching Out is replete with practical examples that demonstrate the truth of Nouwen’s integration of living and loving in response to God’s love for us. If I had to sum up his writing in this book, I would offer Irenaeus’ famous dictum that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. My own maturity in Christ certainly owed much to following those three rules, those three movements that continue to enable this orphan to become a child of God. 


The Revd Dr Colleen O’Reilly is the Chaplain to Trinity College, Parkville. She was previously Vicar of St George’s Malvern.