Henri Nouwen: A Creative Response (from Loneliness to Solitude)

Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life</em. Reissue edition. Image, 1986.

Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Reissue edition. Image, 1986.

I’m concluding my series on Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life with the final chapter from his first section, which deals with the movement from loneliness to solitude. For several days before I began reading this chapter, I had not responded well to events at home, such as my children acting like children, for goodness’ sake. Nouwen’s words at the beginning of this chapter (entitled “A Creative Response”) caught me up short:

As long as we are trying to run away from loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy. We become the passive victims of a world asking for our idolizing attention. We become dependent on the shifting chain of events leading us into quick changes of mood, capricious behavior and, at times, revengeful violence. Then our life becomes a spastic and often destructive sequence of actions and reactions pulling us away from our inner selves. (34)


Nouwen calls this a “reactionary life style,” and it certainly can be easy for me to let myself slip into this pattern. (An “inexhaustible need to be entertained”? It was less than 48 hours ago that I stayed up until 1 a.m. watching the first season of Downton Abbey!) Because our inner lives are unmoored, and the distractions of life pull us in many directions, we think that we need to withdraw from distraction in order to be truly spiritual.

True solitude, however, pulls us in the opposite direction.

The movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which create the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible. (43)

If I understand Nouwen correctly, it’s not the distraction or the circumstances of life that cause us to be lonely, distracted, capricious, etc. He gives the example of the newspaper, which for one person can a wasteful use of time, but for another an opportunity for prayer and service. He returns again to Thomas Merton, who found himself becoming more engaged with the world as he gained a deeper solitude himself.

How do you respond to Nouwen’s suggestion that solitude draws us into a “a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time”?

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Click here for Part 1 of the series, entitled Henri Nouwen: From Loneliness to Solitude.

Click here for Part 2 of the series, entitled Henri Nouwen: What’s the cure for loneliness?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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