Popular spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote a series of letters to his nephew, Marc, who was facing the challenges of young adulthood. In the last of these letters—published as
Letters to Marc About Jesus—Nouwen gives some simple and enduring advice for fostering a deep faith that can withstand outside pressures.
You and I both are called to be disciples of Jesus. The differences between us in age, circumstances, upbringing, and experience are small matters compared with the calling we have in common.
Copyright © 1987, 1988 by Henri J.M. Nouwen. English translation copyright © 1988 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
What counts is being attentive at all times to the voice of God’s love inviting us to obey, that is, to make a generous response. How can we keep listening to this voice in a world which does its best to distract us and get our attention for seemingly more urgent matters? In this last letter I want to put before you, by way of a conclusion, three forms of listening that for me have proven to be the most productive.
Listen to the church
First of all, listen to the church. I know that isn’t a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the church is often seen more as an obstacle in the way than as the way to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m deeply convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the church. The church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus there can be no church; and without the church we cannot stay united with Jesus. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the church. To listen to the church is to listen to the Lord of the church. Specifically, this entails taking part in the church’s liturgical life. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost: These seasons and feasts teach you to know Jesus better and better and unite you more and more intimately with the divine life he offers you in the church. The Eucharist is the heart of the church’s life. It’s there that you hear the life-giving gospel and receive the gifts that sustain that life within you. The best assurance that you’ll go on listening to the church is your regular participation in the Eucharist.
Listen to the book
Second, listen to the book. By that I mean read the Bible; read books about the Bible, about the spiritual life, and the lives of “great” saints. I know you read a good deal, but a lot of what you read distracts you from the way that Jesus is showing you. The secondary school and university offer you little in the way of “spiritual reading.” That’s why it’s very important for you to read regularly books which will help you in your spiritual life. Many people are brought to God through spiritual literature that they chance or choose to read. Augustine, Ignatius, Thomas Merton, and many others have been converted through the book. The challenge, however, is not to read a “spiritual” book as a source of interesting information, but rather to listen to it as to a voice that addresses you directly. It isn’t easy to let a text “read” you. Your thirst for knowledge and information often makes you desire to own the word, instead of letting the word own you. Even so, you will learn the most by listening carefully to the Word that seeks admission to your heart.
Listen to your heart
Finally, listen to your heart. It’s there that Jesus speaks most intimately to you. Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus, who dwells in the very depths of your heart. He doesn’t shout. He doesn’t thrust himself upon you. His voice is an unassuming voice, very nearly a whisper, the voice of a gentle love. Whatever you do with your life, go on listening to the voice of Jesus in your heart. This listening must be an active and very attentive listening, for in our restless and noisy world Jesus’ loving voice is easily drowned out. You need to set aside some time every day for this active listening to Jesus, if only for 10 minutes. Ten minutes each day for Jesus alone can bring about a radical change in your life. You’ll find that it isn’t easy to be still for 10 minutes at a time. You’ll discover straightaway that many other voices—voices that are very noisy and distracting, voices which are not God’s—demand your attention. But if you stick to your daily prayer time, then slowly but surely you’ll come to hear the gentle voice of love and will long more and more to listen to it. These three ways of listening will guide you to an ever-deepening spiritual life. They will help you to get to know Jesus in a very intimate way, make you aware of the unique manner in which he is calling you, and give you the courage to follow him even to places where you would rather not go. Living with Jesus is a great adventure. It’s the adventure of love. When you admit Jesus to your heart, nothing is predictable, but everything becomes possible. I pray that you will venture on a life with Jesus. He asks everything of you, but gives you more in return. With all my heart I wish you much hope, much courage, and abounding confidence.