26/09/2012

Reaching Out (by Henri Nouwen)

It's some years since I first came across the writing of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who, in the latter part of his life, worked in a community for disabled people. I haven't read any of his books for a while, so it seemed like a good idea to re-read 'Reaching Out' which I first read in 2006.

There are in fact two books in my edition of this volume, with the cover as shown on the left. The main part, 'Reaching Out', explores three themes of Christian growth. Nouwen writes, often movingly, about his journey through life, growing in three ways related to himself, those around him, and God.

Re-reading six years after I first read it, I didn't find it quite as moving or inspirational as I did the first time; nonetheless, there's a lot to ponder. Nouwen writes well, in a thoughtful way. His first theme is that we need to move from inner, sometimes selfish loneliness into a what he calls solitude, a place where we can be comfortable on our own.  I found this section interesting, but as one who has always liked - even needed - time to myself, and who relishes entire days alone, I didn't find all that much to inspire me.

The second part of the book talks about the move from what Nouwen calls hostility towards true hospitality in every sense of the word. He suggests that it's too easy to see people - our families, our work colleagues, our Christian brothers and sisters - as nuisances, impinging on our time. Perhaps hostility is too strong a word; and yet it's far too easy to see our own concerned as more important, to want to change people, to have them fit in with us.

Hospitality, we're told, isn't just inviting people for meals but giving them a safe place to open up, to be themselves, to know that they are loved. Nouwen writes about the importance of treating our children, our students, our apprentices with the same courteous hospitality as we would treat important visitors, giving them the freedom to relax and grow in the way God has made them.

The final part of the book focuses on moving from our illusions to a deep form of prayer that is beyond simple petitions. While I'm not sure I fully grasped the kind of illusions that were mentioned, I found the section about prayer very encouraging. Nouwen writes about an ongoing, heartfelt communication that enters into the fibre of our being as we are filled with God's Spirit, and involve Him in every part of our lives.

It's not a book I could read quickly. I intended to read perhaps half a chapter every morning for a couple of weeks, but found very often that just two or three pages gave me sufficient food for thought. So I read it over several weeks, and thought about it a great deal. I hope that the ideas and suggestions within the book will remain with me for some time to come.

At the end of my edition of 'Reaching Out', there's also a much briefer book, 'Beyond the Mirror' that looks at how Henri Nouwen's life focus and attitudes changes as he faced the possibility of dying after a road accident. Also extremely thought-provoking, but I don't know if it's included in other editions of this book.

Recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 26th September 2012

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