The Way of the Heart – by Henri Nouwen

A review of The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. I hardly ever do this. But I’m going to critique one of the “greats” and prove that I’m certainly out of my depth…sorry Nouwen fans, you are going to hate this! I’ll try to find a friend who will give another opinion…stay tuned.
Henri Nouwen is to be respected as much as anyone who has ever written on Christian Spirituality. He is wise, learned and eloquent, and he put his money where his mouth was time and time again in his personal life. I love Reaching Out and The Wounded Healer. I reviewed Compassion on this blog a few months ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it. So, I really do love Henri Nouwen’s work and although I enjoyed reading The Way of the Heart, I found it to be quite a flawed work.
The book is a very basic devotional-type book, i.e., quick read, short sections, simple concepts – classic Nouwen. He recommends that Christ followers organize their lives around three disciplines: Solitude, Silence and Prayer. One can hardly quibble with the fact that these disciplines are vital to discipleship. But time and again, I sensed Nouwen running off the track in overly individualistic assumptions about Christian spirituality. Escaping the “secular” world through Solitude, Silence and Prayer reveals a latent dualism in Nouwen’s thought that I think is flawed. The overly individualistic view the Christian spirituality along with the latent sacred/secular and body/spirit dualism marks this work for trouble when it comes to how it actually works itself out. I’m just going to comment on a few of the issues.
Nouwen calls solitude the “furnace of transformation.” He pans the notion that solitude’s primary purpose is to be a place of respite in which we can gather new strength. I think that is a fair point. However, he writes, “it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born.” (p.17) I think this ignores the reality that most transformation happens in the midst of community. Only if one conceives of spirituality, transformation and conversion in overly individualistic terms can Nouwen’s line of argument be sustained. I embrace the role of solitude in helping us to, as Nouwen says, “die to the false self.” (p.18) However, I think he forgets that self-realization happens best in community, as other lives rub up against our own and soften the rough edges. Community is the place where one dies to one’s self, because oneness and unity demands it. How can one learn to serve in solitude? How can one learn to be humble in solitude? I would argue that the “furnace of transformation” is the body of Christ, the ekklesia – the church – not simply solitude. Solitude is vital, essential even, to Christian transformation. But it must work in tandem with Christian community, a point which Nouwen fails to recognize. I believe that solitude can actually be over emphasized to the exclusion of the body. This is what Nouwen is flirting with. I think that kind of Christian spirituality is deficient and will ultimately exacerbate the sectarian impulse.
Nouwen attempts to attach solitude to compassion, but I think he fails for the above reasons. At one point he wrote, “If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, ‘Because it makes us die to our neighbor.’” (p.25) I would argue that solitude is part of the process, but the real impetus to die to our neighbor comes when the neighbor is nearby and they dying is eminent.
Having studied the desert fathers only a bit, it seems to me that Nouwen fails to acknowledge the particular context of these first monastics. St. Anthony is held up as the model Christian in this work. But, St. Anthony escaped to the desert after the Empire made Christianity the official religion of Rome. He and the other desert fathers did so to protect the integrity of the faith as much as anything else. Their escape was a particular response to a particular time and issue. It was a calling. One could very well make the case that this sort of escape is needed for similar reasons in our day as well, but Nouwen does not make this point. Instead, Nouwen seeks to make the life of St. Anthony, which was a particular response to a particular historical event, normative for all Christians in all times and places. I think this is a troublesome move.
Monasticism is a particular calling, as is asceticism. It is not to be considered a normative life for all believers. Solitude should be a normative discipline for the Christian, but Nouwen argues beyond that. To construe one’s experience of God in these terms and then call it the norm for all walks of life will automatically mean that a large numbers of people who now feel very much a part of the body of Christ will cease to feel that connection. Ever recommend this stuff to people in your church only to have them look at you like you just asked them to get a tattoo? I have strong monastic and ascetic impulses and practice solitude, silence and prayer much in the way Nouwen describes it here. I even have some ascetic impluses and practice some of that in my rule of life. But I know it’s not for everyone. Some people will never get into this because it is not their bent, it’s not the way God created them and called them. In fact, some stations of life, physical disabilities, and socio-economic situations prohibit it. The impulse to make Nouwen’s vision of solitude and silence normative for all people is a very limiting move. It just seems to me that it would work better if he acknowledged that it is more like a spiritual pathway which is rich and vibrant for some, but not normative for all people across the board. Something we should strive toward but to do it, again, in community. Community is the key to the proper view of solitude for Christian spirituality.
Again and again Nouwen personifies the “secular life” and attributes to it certain poisonous attributes which are to be counteracted and subverted through discipline. He argues that the two main enemies of the “spiritual life” are anger and greed (contra the Pauline corpus and the gospels which, as I understand them, would argue the enemy of humanity to be sin and death). I’ve been far too influence by the work of people like John Milbank, Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock to just stipulate the validity of the “secular” out of hand. The ground of the secular is not a given, on the contrary, it is more hotly contested than ever. To acquiesce to the modern notion that there is space to which God does not have access, a purely secular realm in which God is not sovereign, this is not an assumption I’m willing to make. Granted, Nouwen is writing this in 1981. Theology was not yet freed from the tyranny of rationalism. But I’m guessing that at Yale and Harvard he was up to his eyeballs in the postmodern thought of that era. I think he was missing the boat here by embracing the idea of the secular self. It’s a dangerous dualism.
His section on silence is the worst of the book, in my opinion. He makes all sorts of assumptions about the nature of language that just don’t really hold up. Even solitude and silence are filled with thoughts which are impossible without words, or language, albeit internal. I’m compelled to argue that one of the best ways to truly figure out what you think and decide how you should actually live is to read, write, and discuss. He’s writing a book for heaven’s sake! John Wesley called Christian conversation a means of grace. Language is essential to what it means to be human. Language is not the enemy.
One could make the argument that the supremacy of reason or the lie of the objectivity of reason are enemies of Christian spirituality, but that is not what Nouwen is doing here. “Ideas of value always shun verbosity,” he writes. Maybe…maybe not. Was anyone more verbose than Karl Barth? Maybe Luther. Some great ideas are extremely complex and hard to explain. That does not detract from their value. The story of God is extremely complex. The bible is far from simple. I just think this notion is nonsense. Nouwen is right to criticism our chatty society. He is right to note that we make ourselves so busy with talking so as to drown out the voice of God…yes. We must embrace this reality and counteract it with silence. Silence should be a regular discipline. But we should not make that point at the expense of language, theology, philosophy, and Christian conversation or scholarship. Again, this section needed some balance.
Thankfully the final third of the book took a better turn. I have little to quibble with in this section. His notes on prayer of the heart and the Jesus prayer are great. I was able to really lean into this section.
I would say only one thing here. He neglects to warn people on what this will do to their lives. He tells the story of “The Way of the Pilgrim,” which is a great story. But he neglects to reveal the shadow side of this way of life. If you’ve ever read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Franny reads the way of the Pilgrim and begins to practice the prayer of the heart. She soon finds that she is untethered from her previous reality. She sees the world in all its connections, especially its connection to the divine, and is quite undone by the meaninglessness of nearly all of human ego and culture in which she previously participated. She eventually goes mad. This is the reality of the Jesus prayer; not some barefoot monk spinning circles on a mountaintop.
The story of “the prayer of the heart” is often of the social misfit who can’t keep quiet and toe the line of cultural normalcy. To give oneself over to the Jesus Prayer and prayer of the heart is hardly the path to serenity and peace – at least apart from community of like-minded support. For many people it is the road to madness. I’m bothered by people who describe this sort of Christian spirituality in serene, flannel-graph, euphemistic pleasantries – it’s not like that. Praying without ceasing makes you weird. Do this and be ready to feel shunned by family, friends…even most churches. You become the freak in the room who calls other people’s motives into question. You sit with Christ which means you sit in judgment on violence, selfishness, greed, and all stories that seek to define us over and against the story of God. Your very presence makes other people uncomfortable. You cannot hold your tongue but speak forcefully for the poor and the oppressed and against they folly of a culture which is based on a lie. You become homeless with Christ. You become the freak in every situation outside the body of Christ. Sure there is a peace that comes with this. But inasmuch as I’ve given myself over to this and I have become haunted by the reality of the nearness of God in every moment of life and in every situation. There is no way to sustain this life of prayer without close, integral, biblical community where others participate in the same activity because it will make you mad as a hatter. Nouwen knew this – he experienced this type of community…he experienced this type of madness – he’s written about it in other places. It should’ve been part of the equation here.
In a time where the integrity and unity of the body is the most essential attribute of the church, I think it is a wreckless thing to teach people to escape to the desert as a way of life unless that is their specific calling. And even then it must be done in connection to the body of Christ. It’s an important discipline but must be taught with a healthy emphasis on the church. It’s not that I don’t recognize the role of solitude, silence and prayer. On the contrary, they are essential modes of Christian reflection, recovery, growth and discipleship, ect. However, we must construe them in less individualistic terms. We must recognize God as sovereign, rejecting the notion of the secular. Most of all we must recognize that the church is the seat of Christian spirituality, not the individual or individual disciplines. If we learn anything from the life of Christ and the New Testament witness to the early church, we should learn this.
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  • Tim,
    I agree with your critique, especially regarding silence. Yes our lives in community shape us and help transform us. I also must add that the older I get the more I agree with Henri and think we need to keep his age in mind. This stuff is not going to be embraced by an 18 yr old like it will a 40+ follower.

  • I hadn’t really thought about that. I wonder will the 18 year old more easily embrace it when they are 40?

    I also think about this book being written over 25 years ago at a time when French linguistic thought and post-modern thought was still stuck in the academy. Nobody was entertaining this on seminary campuses, much less Christian colleges. It was too fringe. But now, even at a very conservative place like NTS, the critiques of postmodernity are a part of every conversation. They are not ignored, they are assumed. Nouwen was writing this book in a completely different era. But his writing here doesn’t seem to hold up like, say, Thomas A Kempis’ “Imitiation of Christ,” or Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”

    For my money, it doesn’t get any better than Nouwen’s “Reaching Out.” I return to those 3 movements over and over in my devotional life and just as a pastor!

    Thanks for stopping by. Me & Nick pray for you and Piper every single night. He’s done wonders for my prayer life!



  • Thanks Tim,

    I've been assigned to read "The Way of the Heart" in a Transformation group I'm participating in. I look forward to coming back to this Post after finishing reading the book.


  • Thanks Tim,

    Your comments on "The Way of the Heart" touched a chord with me. I too appreciate "Life Together". I am currently in a spiritual transformation community and have been assigned to read Nouwen's "The Way of the Heart". I look forward to coming back to your post after I finish reading the book.


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  • I just came across this review [three years after you posted it] and found it thought-provoking and helpful. Like you, there is much in Nouwen's work that strikes a chord with me [I've just finished his "Inner voice of Love".] But as you say, it's dangerous to take his experience or his views as normative. Perhaps he was such a people person that he needed the corrective of solitude. For me as a natural hermit, I find community to be my stretching place.

  • Anonymous

    "Out of his eternal silence God spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world" p. 56-57. I found this rather presumptuous that Nouwen believed there was an eternal silence before man existed. I doubt angels and the Trinity of God never spoke, especially as angels worship God continually.

    I was disturbed that he mentioned a Unitarian was in his Bible study (in Acknowledgements)- a religion that believes all paths lead to God. He also quoted the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu in p. 48-49. Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that embraces pantheism and belief that we are one with the universe.

    "The popularity of Zen and the experimentation with encounter techniques in the churches are also indicative of a new desire to experience God" p. 75. Zen is a Buddhist practice on attaining enlightenment. This is yet another example of compromise.

    He also quoted the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh on p. 55. This man went crazy and shot himself in the chest and died two days later. I would prefer not to attain any spiritual insight from a man like this. His last words were "the sadness will last forever".

    Henri Nouwen based much of his book on the Desert Fathers' lives and did not use much Scripture to support it. It would have been better had he chosen to write a book on biblical characters rather than who he believed to be true spiritual fathers.

    And I agree, his section on Silence was the worst. He seemed to forget that it is "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt. 12:34). The reason that words are so meaningless today is because the heart of man without Christ is wicked and unrenewed, not because words themselves are evil. The section of Prayer was alright though.

    ~Diane Osborn

  • Tim,Tim,you give yourself away with the evangelical meme *social misfits*. Christ,and all who followed him,were social misfits. You,poor soul, need to put down the hair spray and pick up the Gospels. A little Dostoevsky would also help.

  • Tim,Tim,you give yourself away with the evangelical meme *social misfits*. Christ,and all who followed him,were social misfits. You,poor soul, need to put down the hair spray and pick up the Gospels. A little Dostoevsky would also help.

  • Tim, I’m not familiar with this book– or much, even, with the author –but I am curious: How does all this seems to you NOW?