Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932 - 1996) taught a course in spiritual direction at Yale Divinity School. Michael J. Christensen, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Henri Nouwen Society and teaches spirituality at Drew University, took that course. Now along with Rebecca J. Laird, the Associate for Spiritual Formation at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey, he has used those course lecture notes with previously unpublished reflections, homilies, and recommended exercises by Henri Nouwen to fashion this excellent and edifying book.
Nouwen lays out the basics to help us focus on what will follow:
"The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation — the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice, and accountability. There are many spiritual disciplines. Almost anything that regularly asks us to slow down and order our time, desires, and thoughts to counteract selfishness, impulsiveness, or hurried fogginess of mind can be a spiritual discipline.
"For me, at least three classic disciplines or spiritual practices are particularly useful in the spiritual direction relationship. They can help create space for God within us: (1) the discipline of the Heart, (2) the discipline of the Book, and (3) the discipline of the Church or community of faith. Together, these spiritual practices help us overcome our resistances to contemplative listening and active obedience to God and free us to live an embodied and fulfilled spiritual life."
A spiritual director is not a counselor or a therapist but a friend of our soul who accompanies us on our spiritual journey with wise counsel and the support that sustains us in times of doubt or difficulty. The quest for meaning is very important, Nouwen asserts, and it calls for us to discern God's presence in the midst of our daily activities. He acknowledges that many of us have trouble with the spiritual practice of listening — especially in a culture with so many distractions and so much noise. That is why silence is "the royal road to spiritual formation."
Nouwen shines in his assessments of key elements of the spiritual life — introspection, contemplative prayer, devotional reading, meditation, community, service, and forgiveness. An added treat is the inclusion of ten teaching stories from different religious traditions. Here is one of them, "Three Monks on An Island" by Leo Tolstoy, dealing with the true meaning of prayer:
"Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn't even know the Lord's Prayer. So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the 'Our Father' and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water — in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, 'Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.' "