Surviving painful experiences in life such as a depressive episode can, in Henri Nouwen’s words, “make you more compassionate and understanding toward others.” It also changes those around you who experience it with you. As long as you are rooted in a Christian community, “the journey you are choosing is Jesus’ journey, and whether or not you are fully aware of it, you are also asking your brothers and sisters to follow you. Somewhere you already know that what you are living now will not leave the other members of the community untouched. Your choices also call your friends to make new choices.” For seven months in 1987/88 Nouwen went through one of the hardest periods of his life. He say that “this was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down – my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God … everything.” During this time he withdrew from his community and sought the help of two spiritual mentors who counselled him through it. The Inner Voice of Love contains advice that he wrote to himself during this period. Nouwen’s short chapters are intimate and deeply personal, yet universal in the heartache and the longing for healing that they express.
Nouwen’s rapid spiral into depression was caused by the breakdown of a relationship that he had great hopes for. When he found that the other person could and would not fulfill his deepest needs everything came crashing down around him. As he began working his way through his pain, Nouwen told himself that other people “do not say that you are bad, ugly, or despicable. They say only that you are asking for something they cannot give and that they need to get some distance from you to survive emotionally. The sadness is that you perceive their necessary withdrawal as a rejection of you instead of as a call to return home and discover there your true belovedness.” This was not an abstract, philosophical crisis for Nouwen, and his lonely confusion had a lot to do with a lifelong discomfort and anxiety about his own body. A highly successful scholar and spiritual writer, Nouwen had lived with his body for decades without it causing him undue concern. But when this relationship collapsed all of his fears and uncertainties came rushing to condemn him all at once. Step one involved admitting that “your body needs to be held and to hold, to be touched and to touch.” But Nouwen was aware that this was only the beginning because, he told himself, “you have to keep searching for your body’s deeper need, the need for genuine love. Every time you are able to go beyond the body’s superficial desires for love, you are bringing your body home and moving toward integration and unity.”
What makes this book profound is that while Nouwen acknowledged the power that fears about relationships, service, success, and community have over us and admits that they need to be dealt with, he also insistently pushed beyond them. Nouwen saw his pain as symptomatic of a deeper crisis and believed that it was calling him to complete spiritual renewal. He wrote that “a split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. You call is to let those two parts of yourself come together again.” Death is terrifying, Nouwen said, but dying when one has lived out one’s days will be easier if we go through the equally terrifying experience of dying to ourselves here and now. Nouwen understood that the only way he could overcome his pain would be if he let it kill his old self so that he could be born again. “The real death – the passage from time into eternity, from the transient beauty of this world to the lasting beauty of the next, from darkness into light – has to be made now,” he wrote. In many ways, this book is a record of his attempt to reconstruct himself as a new creation after his old self had passed away.
“Spiritual maturity is the ability to let lamb and lion lie down together,” Nouwen wrote as he tried to work out what a balanced Christian life should look like. “Your lion is your adult, aggressive self. But there is also your fearful, vulnerable lamb, the part of you that needs affection, support, affirmation, and nurturing. … The art of spiritual living is to fully claim both your lion and your lamb.” One must be both an adult and a child, able to live in the world while also being intimate and vulnerable. Learning how to do this is a delicate balancing act, and Nouwen worried constantly that he was losing as many battles as he was fighting. “Keep your eyes on Jesus,” he kept reminding himself, trusting that God would work out the details and that his job was just to hang on and to keep seeking Him. Focusing on God helped Nouwen put his suffering into perspective as part of a cosmic battle between good and evil that works itself out in all of creation. “Healing means moving from your pain to the pain,” he said. “When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive. You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge. But real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realization allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.” Depression, pain, and illness should be a gateway into new life, Nouwen tells us. Refusing to be conquered by it, pray that God will transform us through it, making us newer and more perfect children in His image.