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The Trusting Heart & the Primacy of the Mystical Life


By Henri J.M. Nouwen | October 1986
The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen is a spiritual writer and Contributing Editor of the NOR. He is the author of numerous books, his latest being Lifesigns. He is currently a priest-in-residence at Daybreak, the l’Arche community in Toronto.

Ed. Note: During the 1985-1986 academic year, Henri J.M. Nouwen was a priest-in-residence at the l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France (a Catholic/ecumenical community serving disabled persons). This article is the second installment in a series of articles reflecting on that year. The series is adapted from his diary for the year.


Thursday, October 17, 1985

At 9 a.m. I went to Père Thomas for spiritual direction. I asked him about my need for affection. I told him that getting older had not lessened that need, and that I feared it might prevent rather than help the development of my spiritual life. It took me about five minutes to express my problem. Père Thomas responded with a two-hour long answer! After half an hour I was so tired from trying to grasp fully the meaning of his words, as well as his difficult French, that I interrupted him by saying, “Thank you so much, that gives me enough to think about for a long time.”

But the good Père gave me another hour and a half of profound ideas and insights that will keep me going forever! At first I felt overwhelmed by this long theological reflection, but now I realize that Père Thomas wanted to give me a new context within which to raise the questions that have been dominating my emotional life. It seemed as if Père Thomas wanted to help me think differently be­fore helping me feel differently.

He started by saying that for many of us in this highly psychologized culture, affection has be­come the central concern. We have come to judge ourselves in terms of the affection that is given or refused us. The media — television, magazines, and advertisements — have strongly reinforced the idea that human affection is what we really need. Being loved, liked, appreciated, praised, recognized, etc. — these are the most desired “prizes” of life. The withholding of these forms of affection can throw us into an abyss of loneliness, depression, even sui­cide. We have developed great sophistication in analyzing the many nuances of our affections, and developed a rich language which allows us to express how we feel about ourselves and others at dif­ferent times and in different situations. We have become highly developed psychological beings, and the range of our emotions and feelings has become increasingly wide.

I very much agree with Père Thomas. During my recent years at Harvard I saw much attention given to love in its many expressions as well as to the withholding of love through anger, resentment, and indignation. Even at the Divinity School, psy­chological language often made spiritual and theo­logical language sound irrelevant, superficial, and even offensive.

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