US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Henri Nouwen on prayer and discernment

By Michael J. Christensen | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Guest blog

“Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission,” writes Henri Nouwen in his latest book entitled Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life (HarperOne, 2013).

In one of Nouwen’s earlier discernment journals, Gracias, the author records his spiritual struggle to ascertain whether God was calling him to join the Maryknoll missioners in their solidarity and ministry among the campesino in Peru. He had left his tenured professorship at Yale Divinity School and was “in discernment” for nine months seeking to discover a new calling for his next season of life. Finally, he was able to discern that his vocation was not to live among the poor in Latin American but to witness to their spiritual, social, and political struggles in Central and South America. He found a new place to do this in North America as professor of divinity at Harvard.

Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch psychologist-priest who taught pastoral psychology at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. Author of 40 books on the spiritual life, he died in 1996 without writing a book specifically on discernment. What we are left with are five discernment journals that my wife (Rebecca Laird) and I, in partnership with the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust, culled, developed, and edited into a posthumous book published in June 2013.

In Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Nouwen writes: “Living a spiritually mature life requires listening to God’s voice within and among us. To discern means first of all to listen to God, to pay attention to God’s active presence, and to obey God’s prompting, direction, leadings, and guidance. Discernment of spirits is a lifelong task. I can see no other way for discernment than to be committed to a life of unceasing prayer and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the Spirit of God.”

In the new book, Nouwen details how to distinguish spirits of truth and falsehood; how to discern God’s guidance in books, nature, people, and current events; and how to discern personal vocation, divine presence, spiritual identity, and knowing the right time (kairos) for action or waiting.

Discernment is the third volume in a trilogy of posthumous books which we developed in conjunction with the Nouwen Legacy Trust. In Spiritual Direction, Nouwen guides his readers in living the questions of the spiritual life; in Spiritual Formation he helps us follow the movements of the Spirit. The human heart is restless and requires spiritual direction, formation, and discernment. Otherwise it becomes distracted, immature, and unable to access the deeper things of God.

For Nouwen, discernment is hearing a deeper sound beneath the noise of ordinary life and recognizing the interconnectedness of all things to gain a vision of “how things hold together” (theorik physike) in our lives and in the world. “Discernment is a life of listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat, a life in which we become ‘all ears’.”

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life can be found in bookstores and is available for purchase online by clicking here. For excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s most recent book on discernment, see HarperOne's News and Pews.

Image: iStock/kulicki; Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne