Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude

One could make the argument that the most powerful things in life are simple and brief – a passing word of encouragement from a friend, a glance from one’s spouse, a child’s laugh, a moving quotation from an esteemed leader, or a teaching of Jesus. In short, human beings are never truly moved by the mind boggling and the complex. We are moved by powerful simplicity. The greatest spiritual teachings have never needed an interpretive flow chart.

With this in mind, I would like to recommend to anyone reading this review that they purchase Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude and read this short and simple little book – not because of its shortness and simplicity, but because of its power. I was given this book by a friend who recently rediscovered the importance of solitude in his own walk with the Lord. His only instruction was that I read it more than once. I have just finished my second time through it. It will not be the last time.

This book consists of three sections that were originally delivered by Henri Nouwen as sermons at the United Church of Christ at Yale University. Section one deals with solitude. Section two deals with care. Section three deals with expectation. Through introductions and conclusions to each section, Nouwen shows that these three facets of the spiritual life (solitude – care – expectation) stand together and, properly understood, progress into each other. The book also includes photographs by Ron P. van den Bosch that mirror the content of the text in their subtle strength.

Nouwen makes a compelling case that solitude served as the primary component of Jesus’s ministry. He contends that it was in His moments of solitude that Jesus reveled in His “oneness” with the Father. Consequently, all other facets of His earthly ministry sprang from this solitude. He then contends that solitude is no less important in our lives. Without it, Nouwen argues that we will live our lives in constant search of success, affirmation, and the pleasing of others over and against unity with God. Solitude therefore stands as the cornerstone of our spiritual lives – “A life without a quiet place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive.” (p.21)

It is only of out solitude that we will learn to care. As a pastor, I found this section to be perhaps the most powerful. Nouwen states that we are more consumed with fixing people’s problems than with caring for them. He notes that “care” essentially means “to suffer.” Who can deny that we are a results-oriented society? This is a very real temptation in ministry (i.e., to want to fix but to forget to care) but it is a truth that is no less applicable to all Christians.

Lastly, Nouwen points to the Christian’s eschatological hope as that which keeps care from becoming “a morbid preoccupation with pain” (p.51). In his discussion of expectation, he highlights two aspects: patience and joy. His discussion of patience is particularly moving. In it, he notes that we will not understand what it is to truly live until we understand that life’s unexpected surprises, calamities, and joys are themselves opportunities for living and growing in patience and hope. He ends with reminding all of us that the expected consummation of all things in the coming kingdom of God is the only basis for true joy.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to reexamine the most basic aspects of their walk with Jesus. Nouwen shows us that solitude, care, and expectation are much more difficult to attain and achieve than we had imagined. He also shows us that we simply cannot know what it is to be a Christian and a human until we do attain these things.

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