Henri Nouwen and Ronald Rolheiser are two well-known and loved Catholic writers on spirituality for our time. My own spiritually has been deeply affected by their thoughts. I recently discovered some interesting parallels in their writings that I’d like to share.
In his book Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser outlines four “nonnegotiable essentials of Christian spirituality.” They are: private prayer and morality, social justice, participation in a community of faith and mellowness of heart.
In a series of sermons on YouTube (You Are Beloved), Henri Nouwen outlines Jesus’ example for a healthy spirituality from Luke 6 beginning with verse 12: “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Jesus displays his need to be in relationship with God by withdrawing to a mountainside to pray privately. This passage would parallel Rolheiser’s first essential for a healthy spirituality; private prayer.
The passage in Luke 6 continues with verse 13: “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them.” One needs others to have a healthy spirituality, and Nouwen goes to great length to explain the need for community that choosing his disciples represents, in spite of its messiness. This parallels the essential that Rolheiser calls participation in a community of faith.
Finally, Nouwen shows that, after Jesus gathers his disciples together, he teaches them the importance of ministry and service. “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.”
Ministry and service parallel Rolheiser’s essential called social justice. One could spend one’s entire life praying on the mountain concentrating on one’s personal relationship with God, and over the centuries many have done this. One could meet with like-minded disciples and live beautifully in community basking in the support and love it provides, and over the centuries many have done this. But concentrating only on the first essential eventually leads to egotism and concentrating only on the second essential leads to ethnocentrism. So in order to combat these natural human tendencies, the third essential is necessary; outreach. Sharing the Good News with others.
Both Rolheiser’s and Nouwen’s outreach program contain word and deed. My own Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage emphasizes this as well. Not so with too many churches at both ends of the conservative/liberal divide. When one does acts of ministry and service like those mentioned in the Luke 6 passage, inevitably one runs into issues of oppression and injustice. This is where social justice intersects with ministry and service. And this is where things get messy. (See my blog post Good News for the Rich or the Poor?) This is where we need Rolheiser’s mellowness of heart to keep us from taking on all the evils of the world and taking ourselves too seriously.
When I first compared this list, I thought Nouwen’s spirituality was missing a piece. Where is the mellowness of heart? In discussing this exclusion with my friend Paul Souder, he pointed out that Nouwen’s all encompassing idea for the video series is, “you are beloved of God.” You are a child of God, made in his image and likeness. As God’s child, we receive the same blessing as Jesus did at his baptism: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” According to my friend, “Rohleiser’s ‘mellowness of heart’ would equate to ‘Living as a beloved child of God,’ Nouwen’s Big Idea.” Yes! There is no missing piece!
Nothing could make us more mellow than truly believing that we are beloved of God. Nothing could ease the pain of our loneliness better than knowing that we are beloved of God. Nothing could ease our restless hearts dashing from one vacuous activity to another better than knowing that we are beloved of God.
Pray, relate and serve; all with a mellow heart as a beloved child of God.