Meditation Monday – Discerning With Henri Nouwen

by Christine Sine

by Christine Sine

January is a month for discernment. Over the last few days many of us in North America have been confined to the house by icy blasts and snow. It’s a great time to curl up with a good book, spend some time in prayer and listening to God. My go to book is always Henri Nouwen’s Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life.

In the introduction he gives a great definition of  discernment:

Discernment is about listening and responding to the place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desires. As discerning people we sift through our impulses, motives and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away. (xv)

This week it was the second section of the book “Discerning Guidance in Books, Nature, People and Events” that really caught my attention and has expanded into what is becoming a new series on discernment. His chapters: Read the Way Forward; Read the Book of Nature; Pay Attention to People in Your Path and Discern the Signs of the Times are each worthy of at least one post. Today I will start with books.

“What books have shaped your life, your history with God?” Nouwen asks, a little daunting in this day and age when many of us read at least one book a month. Even more daunting when one realizes, as I do, that I have read hundreds of books since I became a Christian as a teenager. However, as I sat and reflected on this, a pattern emerged. The kinds of books that influenced my thinking and shaped my faith changed as I grew and matured, a healthy progression for all of us. It was great to reflect back on these trends and how they influenced my view of God and the spiritual practices that drew me close to the Divine.

In my early years, scripture study held my attention and scripture union resources in particular created a rich foundation for my faith. Then I developed a passion for missionary biographies , and was inspired by books like Ten Fingers for God about Dr Paul Brand who pioneered tendon transplants through his work with lepers in India, and One Vision Only: The Biography of Isobel Kuhn. It was books like this that set the trajectory of my life, convincing me that I was called to serve God on the mission field and propelling me to join Mercy Ships in 1980. My time on the ship and working with refugees on the Thai/Cambodian border turned my life and faith upside down.  When I was married in 1992 I needed a whole new array of books to lead my journey as I struggled to make sense out of my experiences. Three streams of books helped shape the next stage of my journey.

The concept of shalom, which I first heard about in James Metzger’s book Saigon to Shalom and then introduced to the wonderful works of Walter Brueggemann and a life long commitment to social justice. The study of this concept became a growing passion for me and eventually came together in my booklet Shalom and the Wholeness of God.

However this did not meet all the spiritual cravings in my life. It was also at this time that I was exposed to books on contemplation and monasticism, beginning believe it or not with a series of novels on the life of Brother Cadfael, a 12th century monk who lived on the Welsh/English border. The first book in the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones  introduced me to a rhythm of life that was very intriguing for me. Henri Nouwen: The Wounded Healer and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and other books by these wonderful authors soon followed. Then came the discovery of more contemporary contemplatives like Christine Valter’s Paintner whose book The Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice introduced me to the possibility of spiritual practices beyond the traditional forms of prayer and Bible study.

On our honeymoon Tom introduced me to Celtic Christian spirituality, and this continues to be a strong passion of mine. Through authors like Phillip Newell and his book Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul I continue to find inspiration for my spiritual practices and view of faith.

Last but not least are the books on gardening and spirituality and nature. Such a wonderful discovery in the last ten years. Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating was particularly valuable as a book for framing my own journey, though many others have added practices and ideas that continue to enrich me.

Why am I sharing this you may ask? First because I think it is good for all of us to look back on what has shaped us in the past as this often holds clues to what will shape us in the future. Unfortunately with the incredible array of books out there it is very easy to read something and then forget about it completely. Looking back and reflecting on what we have read gives us the ability to be intentional in what further shapes us. Sometimes we need to be educated in fresh ways, and what we read is a good place to start.

Nouwen encourages us to read attentively. I was fascinated by his comments on Thomas Merton whom he says was introduced to asceticism by Aldous Huxley, encouraged in everyday spirituality by Therese of of Lisieux and brought into contemplative prayer by Ignatius of Loyola. Reminded me of my own introduction to monasticism by Brother Cadfael. Don’t despise the novels that also often shape our thinking.

My current reading incorporates a lot of black and indigenous authors as I grapple with the challenges of how white Western theology contributed to genocide of indigenous people in many parts of the world and the enslavement of others. I am also reading a lot of garden books – 2 fascinating ones I got for Christmas The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired the World’s Great Authors, a fascinating look at the gardens that inspired writers around the world like Robbert Burns and Agatha Christie, and Gardening Can be Murder: How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels and Grim Gardens Have inspired Mystery Writers which interweaves plant information with mystery books by some of my favourite authors. Yes you guessed it I love a good mystery story, though my current light reading is more sci-fi and urban fantasy.

What have you read in the last few months that has most strongly shaped your beliefs and your practices? As you sit and discern, what other directions might God prompt you to do more reading in? How could these decisions change the shape of your life and your faith?

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