Reaching Out (44)

I’ve always admired Henri Nouwen for his “question-provoking life”. Anyone who abandons a teaching position at a prestigious place like Harvard to live and serve in a community for mentally handicapped persons takes the idea of service very seriously. So, I’ve been reading Reaching Out: The Three Movements of Spiritual Life. This is a discussion of the spiritual life in the context of the tensions between three pairs of ideas: loneliness and solitude; hostility and hospitality; and illusion to prayer. There’s lots to chew on here.

Regarding loneliness, he notes that loneliness is almost the universal human condition in modern society. Our relationships are tainted by competition rivalry, and that increases loneliness. Our language says otherwise (e.g., “good to see you”) and we seek solutions to our loneliness – often in misguided and destructive relationships. True openness requires also some boundaries: “Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be closed.” This is why solitude is so important – the ability to be alone, but not lonely. This is the ground of real community, not built on the need to cling to others (Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love…consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”).

In the move from hostility to hospitality, Nouwen notes that hospitality is a fundamental attitude of welcome toward fellow human beings. We live in an age of suspicion and distrust of the stranger and even our formal politeness sometimes masks backstage hostility. Hospitality instead creates a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend rather than an enemy. It is not to change people, but to offer them a place in which they can change. It creates emptiness, but not a fearful emptiness. Preoccupation (and busyness) is the enemy of hospitality.  Nouwen highlights three relationships where hospitality could come in: parents/children; teachers/students; and healers and patients. Let me highlight one section on teaching (of some relevance to me, I suppose!):

Thus, revelation and affirmation are two important aspects of the relationship between teachers and their students. Both aspects show that students are not just poor, needy, ignorant beggars who come to the man or woman of knowledge, but that they are indeed like guests who honor the house with their visit and will not leave it without having made their own contribution. To look at teaching as a form of hospitality might free it from some of its unreal heaviness and bring some of its exhilarating movements back into perspective.

Teachers don’t “own” students, but are only temporary visitors. We can only offer a supportive presence to help them develop the patterns of thought for their life. This should free the teacher from anger or discouragement when students don’t get it. And one more comment on hospitality (which is dependent on poverty of mind and heart – both of which concepts deserve enlargement!):

Once we have become poor, we can be a good host. It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host. Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, “Please enter–my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,” we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.

One other side quotation I thought intriguing (though not entirely on target, perhaps – still making an important point):

Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness.


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