Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Henri Nouwen and His Ministry of Companioning with Wil Hernandez Part I

Just as spirituality itself is irreducibly communal, so is our entire journey. Far from a picture of a solitary odyssey, we navigate through our spiritual life with the help of people coming alongside and companioning us. This series will spotlight Henri Nouwen’s ministry of soul companioning. Together we will take a closer look at how he journeyed with others. Hopefully, as a result, this can trigger a desire in us not only in terms of how we can be better companioned by others but more so, how we can be better companions for others on their journey.

Henri Nouwen was keenly aware of the danger of journeying without a trusted companion and called attention to the fact that “our way to God is always a human way, and that without a guide our spiritual journey can entangle us in introspective self-preoccupation instead of helping us to become empty for God.” Indeed all of us can profit from having spiritual companions who can tend to our souls. Elsewhere, he articulated this great need:

“We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, to just walk away in despair. We need someone who discourages us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal. We need someone who can suggest to us when to read and when to be silent, which words to reflect upon and what to do when silence creates much fear and little peace.”

Unwavering in his attention to the spiritual dimension of soul care, Nouwen acknowledged the need “for diagnosticians of the soul who can … guide people to an active and vital transformation of soul and body, and of all their personal relationships”—the kind who promote real change through repentance and faith, confronting and inspiring the people to whom they minister. He explained the dynamics involved: “Confrontation challenges us to confess and repent; inspiration stirs us to look up again with new courage and confidence.” Nouwen exercised both, with great care and delicate balance and he companioned people always with their spiritual well-being as his ultimate concern.

To be sure, we have a great deal to learn from Nouwen’s creative and elastic approach to spiritual accompaniment. In fact it is difficult if not impossible to peg down Henri Nouwen into one exclusive image or role—be it a pastor, a priest, or a prophet—for he assumed various roles as he ministered to the varying needs of people. Depending on the particular need or situation, Nouwen displayed enormous flexibility in his ministerial style and approach. Nouwen was definitely not one who was chained to any particular role. He was not what you would call a specialist. Rather, Nouwen functioned more as a generalist when it came to the ministry of formation, integrating with ease various aspects of companionship—whether as a friend, a guide, a mentor, or a spiritual director. It could be said that, instinctively, Henri Nouwen operated integratively in his overall ministry.

The contemporary world of Christian soul care covers an entire gamut of intersecting approaches to spiritual formation ministry. Soul care by itself alone cuts across the various categories of professional counseling, lay care giving, spiritual guidance and direction, and pastoral care and counseling, to mention some. In this series we will specifically focus on spiritual friendship, spiritual guidance, spiritual mentoring, and spiritual direction—four distinct but overlapping companioning approaches which Henri Nouwen no doubt employed in his ministry.

Along with being an author and spiritual director, Wil works with the Leadership Institute in partnership with the Denver-based Spiritual Formation Alliance Network as coordinator of the Southern California Spiritual Formation Partners. He also teaches courses on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen at Fuller Theological Seminary, Haggard Graduate School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University, and the Center for Religion and Spirituality at Loyola Marymount University. You can find his two books, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection and Henri Nouwen and Soul Care on Amazon. You can also visit the website he hosts called Nouwen Legacy.

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