One way of defining the spiritual life is to see it as a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own.
— Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ:
Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life
In 1981, Henri Nouwen wrote a series of articles for Sojourners magazine, which were published in book form in 2007 as The Selfless Way of Christ, now newly available in a small paperback edition. Illustrated with a collection of drawings by Vincent Van Gogh, it is an attractive book with content that is simultaneously inspirational and political/countercultural, revealing Nouwen as a master of integrating contemplation and action.
The key to this short book is the phrase found in the subtitle: “downward mobility.” Nouwen here is satirizing our “keeping up with the Joneses” culture — the culture of upward mobility — while suggesting that the spirituality of Christ, of kenosis (self-emptying) impels us to set aside the temptation to upward mobility and its attendant trappings of success, power, prestige and privilege. The path of downward mobility is the path of service, of humility, of self-forgetfulness.
It is perhaps best embodied in the story of Jesus’ sojourn in the desert and the devil’s three temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). Nouwen points out that the three temptations the devil offered to Jesus were the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular and to be powerful. Each of these is promised by the lure of upward mobility. Jesus resists the temptations by clinging to the word of God, by trust in God, and by prayer. These practices, along with immersion in community, participation in the sacraments, and the ministry of spiritual direction or soul friendship, are all tools that we who follow Jesus can use to resist the siren’s call of upward mobility and instead anchor our identity and sense of mission in the selfless way of Christ.
The book is filled with wonderful little jewels of wisdom. The quotation I chose to begin this post is not so much part of the book’s main argument, but I loved Nouwen’s insightful and unusual way of defining spirituality, and so I wanted to share it here. Spirituality really is the nexus point where each of our stories encounters, and becomes part of, the universal story of God’s creation and love.
This is a short little book but that does not mean it lacks depth or insight. Anyone who ponders the relationship between spirituality and ministry or the quest for justice will find much food for thought here.