Book Review – Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird  

by Mark Votava


This is a wonderful book full of wisdom and enlightenment from one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century.  Henri Nouwen frames spiritual formation into seven movements of the spirit as we progress through different stages of life.  Highly recommended!

The first stage of formation makes up the early movements in one’s life: from opaqueness to transparency, from illusion to prayer.  The second stage makes up midlife movements: from sorrow to joy, from resentment to gratitude, from fear to love.  The third stage makes up mature movements of the later years: from exclusion to inclusion, from denying to befriending death.

This book is one of Henri Nouwen’s best and was compiled by two of his students Micheal J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird after his death.  If you want to understand the depths of spirituality in the twenty-first century context this book is a great one to read.  It inspired me to greater depths, authenticity and understanding in my own process of spiritual formation.

The movement that really resonated with me is the one that talks about moving from resentment to gratitude.  This is a movement of the spirit that is alive in me right now.  I am trying to figure out the healing aspects of gratitude in my body that goes way beyond just my intellect.  Gratitude is an embodied practice that God’s life in me is revealing constantly.

This is where I want to live.  This is where I come alive.  This is where I find healing and wholeness in my context of life.  I have appreciated Henri Nouwen’s wisdom about the movements of the spirit.

  • Our everyday existence

“The spiritual life is not lived outside, before, after, or beyond our everyday existence.  No, the spiritual life can be real only as it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now.  Therefore, we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year, in order to become more fully aware of our hunger for the Spirit…”

  • The almost complete absence of silence

“One of the most depressing aspects of contemporary life is the almost complete absence of silence…”

  • God cannot be “caught” or “comprehended”

“God cannot be ‘caught’ or ‘comprehended’ in any specific idea, concept, opinion, or conviction.  God cannot be defined by any specific emotion or spiritual sensation.  God cannot be identified with good feelings, right intentions, spiritual fervor, generosity of spirit, or unconditional love.  All these experiences may remind us of God’s presence, but their absence does not prove God’s absence.  God is greater than our minds and greater than our hearts, and just as we have to avoid the temptation of adapting God to our finite small concepts, we have to avoid adapting God to our limited small feelings.”

  • We no longer have any time, but rather time has us

“Time constantly threatens to become our enemy.  Time enslaves us…  Indeed, it seems that we no longer have any time, but rather time has us.”

  • Characterization and labeling

“Characterization is common but narrow.  Labeling is always limiting. It reveals a lot about our own insecurities and gives us a false understanding of the real nature of our neighbors.”

  • The careful balance

“Somewhere we know that without a lonely place, our lives are in danger.  Somewhere we know that without silence, words lose their meaning; that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure.  Somewhere we know that without a solitary place, our actions quickly become empty gestures.  The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the spiritual life and should therefore be the subject of our personal attention.”

  • How you live your losses

“The question is not whether you have experienced loss, but rater how you live your losses.  Are you hiding them?  Are you pretending they aren’t real?  Are you refusing to share them with your fellow travelers?  Are you trying to convince yourself that your losses are little compared with your gains?  Are you blaming someone for what you have suffered and lost?”

  • Community and solidarity

“Community and solidarity are at the heart of the movement from sorrow to joy.  When you begin to feel the pain of your life in relation to other people’s pain, you can face it together…  And when you experience it with somebody else, you can be compassionate.  This is how healing begins.  Not by wonderful answers, not by ‘do this or do that.’  It starts by experiencing the powerlessness of not-knowing-what-to-do-together.  That is why it’s so important that we grow in compassion.  As we feel and live the pain of our own losses, our grieving hearts open to a wider world of suffering and loss – to a world of prisoners, refugees, AIDS patients, starving children, and the countless human beings living in constant fear.  Then the pain of our life connects us with the moaning and groaning of a suffering humanity.”

  • Resentment is one of the most vicious qualities of life

“Many of us live with cold anger – the deep feeling that life has let us down, that we suffer unjustly, and that nothing will be done about our complaints.  Resentment is one of the most vicious qualities of life because it makes human relationships and community life so difficult.  It prevents us from seeking forgiveness and robs us of our joy.  It takes away our inner freedom to act creatively and makes us cling to negative feelings as our only way to find an identity.  We then become what we are against and regress to the small satisfactions of unexpressed anger.  It is from this passion that we must be freed in order to live a grateful and Eucharistic – that is, a thankful – life.”

  • Gratitude enables us to let go of anger

“Gratitude is the attitude that enables us to let go of anger, receive the hidden gifts of those we want to serve, and make these gifts visible to the community as a source of celebration.”

What do you like most about the writings of Henri Nouwen?  What are your favorite books by this great writer?