Henri Nouwen: From Loneliness to Solitude


This photo from Flickr is titled “Loneliness,” but I don’t think this church is lonely in the same way that Nouwen describes loneliness.

Henri Nouwen is one of those authors whom I have heard praised for many years, but have never gotten around to reading. His biography — an accomplished intellectual and Catholic priest who left the academy in order to live in a L’Arche community with developmentally disabled adults (influenced by his friend and fellow Catholic intellectual, Jean Vanier) — has long struck me as compelling, but until this year, the only thing I had read by him was a short booklet called “A Spirituality of Fundraising,” which InterVarsity encourages staff to read. The booklet has often given me comfort and strength during difficult stretches of funding work, but for some reason, I had never been motivated to seek out any of his longer works.

Somewhat randomly, I claimed an old copy of Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life from my church library’s discard pile last fall. I began reading it a couple of weeks ago. I had expected it to be good, but I hadn’t expected it to speak so directly to some of the emotional and spiritual struggles I have occasionally faced, and which some of you may be facing as well.

Do you find graduate school or faculty life to be lonely? When you have experienced loneliness, how have you dealt with it emotionally and spiritually?

The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

What are the three movements referred to in the title?

  • From loneliness to solitude
  • From hostility to hospitality
  • From illusion to prayer

I may blog through the whole book, but it’s this first movement — from loneliness to solitude — that I felt may be most appropriate for our emerging scholar audience. Graduate school is often described as a time of loneliness. For many disciplines, graduate degrees require long periods of solitary study, but, as we’ll see in a minute, loneliness is not a product of how many people are in the room with you.

From Loneliness to Solitude

In InterVarsity, we often speak of community and fellowship. It’s right there in our name, after all — InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — and older staff and alumni will often refer to us as “the Fellowship.” The opening clause of our purpose statement states that we “establish and advance…witnessing communities,” and “Community” is a core value of both our ministry as a whole and our Graduate and Faculty Ministries in particular.

Merely being with other people, though, is not what we mean by “community” or “fellowship.” Nouwen notes that being with other people can actually make us more aware of our loneliness. He reflects on a moment on the New York subway, crowded with people, but separated from them all:

The contemporary society in which we find ourselves makes us acutely aware of our loneliness. We become increasingly aware that we are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry. (15 – I’m quoting from the 1975 edition)

Early in Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that life together is only one part of the Christian experience, that one cannot live together unless one is also able to live alone. Nouwen writes of false expectations of finding satisfaction in others:

When our loneliness drives us away from ourselves into the arms of our companions in life, we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces. To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld. No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. (19)

As another Christian intellectual put it 1,500 years earlier:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (Augustine, Confessions, 1.1)

Seeking Solitude

Nouwen began Reaching Out as a lecture series at Yale Divinity School, but he completed the book during a long retreat at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee. If being around others in this busy life contributes to loneliness, then being alone must be the answer, right? Not exactly, as we’ll examine next week.

Do you find graduate school or faculty life to be lonely? When you have experienced loneliness, how have you dealt with it emotionally and spiritually?


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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  • boedym@mailbox.sc.edu'
    matt boedy commented on February 14, 2012 Reply

    It is interesting, having read and/or own the Nouwen corpus, to note that this book on loneliness vs. solitude was written, as you note, at the monastery he visited for some months. There is a book about that visit which you will find illuminating because he journals about his struggle with celebrity (he was one!) and being alone. So in one sense this book about the movements is his teaching on the matter all the while his life reflected in some ways little of his “ideals.” But that is the grand thing about Nouwen – the more you read, the more you understand these were not ‘theory’ or ideals, things to ‘reach for’ – but agonisitc encounters, battles, emergences (or emergencies) in faith. I would find time to read him.

  • barnardrach@gmail.com'
    Rachel commented on October 14, 2013 Reply

    “Out of Solitude” is my favorite Nouwen work, and very high on my list of favorite non-fiction ever. I’m glad this is getting exposure on the Emerging Scholars Network – I’ve found the book very helpful in my ongoing graduate studies. Peace.

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