Dr. Michael J. Christensen "The Spirituality of Discernment" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences right around the world. Today, I’m delighted to introduce you to a man who was a student of Henri Nouwen’s at Yale and who then went on to become a professor and who has over the years, taught many students about the spirituality of Henri Nouwen. Dr. Michael Christensen is my guest today, and he’s published 11 books, including The Heart of Henri Nouwen, and the famous Nouwen trilogy ‘Spiritual Direction’, ‘Spiritual Formation’ and ‘Discernment’ by Henri J.M. Nouwen with Michael Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. I might just add, for those of you who don’t know, Michael and Rebecca are partners, they’re married and they have done many book projects together.
Today, Michael and I are going to delve into this treasure called ‘discernment’. Phyllis Tickle writes in her endorsement of this book, ‘Christensen and Laird have seamlessly woven a luminous tapestry of both Nouwen’s published and previously unpublished work on discernment. The result is an even richer and more accessible Nouwen than most of us have ever seen before,’ and Richard Rohr says about this book, ‘Henri Nouwen, as always, makes seemingly complex things, personal, practical, intelligent, and very readable all at the same time. This book, Discernment, really is a rich and helpful book that addresses the most basic of questions. What should I do with my life?’ Michael, thank you so much for joining me today for this podcast. Let’s dive in. The premise of the book is that God is always speaking to us at different times and in different ways. How is God speaking to us?
Michael: Yes. So the premise of the book, as you say, is that God is always speaking to us. But we don’t always hear what God is trying to say, and we know from the scriptures that God speaks through prophets and sages and priests and people, dreams and visions, scripture, tradition, reason, all sorts of ways God tries to get through to us, and the task of the spiritual life is to tune in, to be quiet along enough, to pay attention, and then to discern is the biblical word, not just guidance, but presence of God and not just presence, but God’s great love for us, the inner voice of love. So yeah, what is God trying to say to us each and every day is, first of all, that God is here now, and how can we become present to the presence of God?
And then also that we are loved. ‘Great is my love for you this day’, the Psalmist declares, and when we can settle down long enough to hear that inner voice of love, then we can claim that for ourselves as Henri. So discernment is not just decision-making right. It’s not just going to God to say, what should I do next? Who should I marry? Where should I move? What job should I take or leave? Discernment for Henri and for those of us who understand from the scriptures and his teaching, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a spirituality of listening. So what is God trying to say? Both personally and to the church and to the world?
Karen: Do you find that there’s special disciplines that you need to practice in order to have discernment? Like what are the tools for discernment? How do we discern what God wants to say?
Michael: If God is speaking to us through the scriptures, then of course we read the scriptures, not just for knowledge and academic reflection, but devotionally, the Lectio Divina practice. We listen with our heart, what scripture is trying to say, but God is not only speaking to the scripture, other tools, other media, if you will, would be, what is the church teaching us? It’s an epiphany in this season of the church year. Christmas is over when the new season of Epiphany has begun, and this is a season of the disclosures of the revelation of the making known manifestation of God in the world. So let’s pay attention to what the church is teaching us about what is being revealed, what is being disclosed to us as individuals, as a church body, as a community of faith, but also as a world. As you know Karen, in Canada and here in America, in the United States, we’re facing tremendous, assaults on our democracy, insurrection. What is God trying to say to us? What is God calling us as a nation to in light of current events? So discernment tools are many: it’s scripture, it’s tradition, it’s church year, but it’s also reading the signs of daily life. What are critical events teaching us about God’s will for us, what are social events, current events teaching us, calling us to repentance and faith and prayer and change turning points. I’m speaking generally here, but we could be very specific about, January 7th, 2021 was a day in the United States that many of us who are trying to pay attention to what God is doing in the world, regard as a turning point, an opportunity, let’s say a Kairos moment where we have a new opportunity to humble ourselves, to pray, to seek God’s face, to turn from wicked, simple ways to repent, turn around and to find a new way of being together, new way of being unified or understanding the other. Henri was great about trying to read the signs in AIDS, in the civil rights and other current events, nuclear freeze movement, Henri was trying to pay attention and helping his community of faith, pay attention to current events, to signs of daily life, to repent and turn around and to discern, what is God trying to say? What is God asking of us in this moment and this season and this time? Discernment is really broad.
Karen: I love what you’re sharing. It’s really interesting. How do you, in the midst of this, distinguish spirits; distinguish the voices you’re hearing? I mean, you’re talking about a very poignant moment right now in history. How do we discern what voices to listen to?
Michael: Discernment of spirits is a biblical term. Discernment of spirits is a gift, the scripture says, where we as the body of Christ, not just individually, but corporately, are given deep understanding. We have spiritual access to the subtleties, to the signs of what’s happening in the world. We can actually distinguish between truth and falsehood. We have the capacity through our prayer life and through our worship and community of faith, together we have the capacity to discern evil spirits from Holy Spirit, from truth, from falsehood, from what is a helpful life-giving call, to what is distractive and would lead us down a path of dark into darkness. So light and darkness, good and bad, truth and falsehood. This distinguishing of the spirits, discernment of spirits, is a gift given to the body of Christ to help us find our way. So applied to the current moment, we can, as the people of God, can say, this is true. This is false. This is light. This is darkness. Not in a way that is judgmental because discernment is not for our judgment, it’s for our protection, Henri would say, and if it’s for our protection, then we need to listen to the inner voice that calls us into life and life-giving activities and love and affirmation, and not listen to the voices, inwardly and outwardly, that call us to conflict and hatred and despair. So that gift is given to us, and we can act on that, and again, Karen, Henri would say, discernment is not an absolute science, right? You can never say definitively, ‘this is 100% true and this is 100% false’, the signs are subtle.
Discernment is a process, and you have to live into that, distinguishing truth and falsehood, test the spirit as the scripture says, and then take it step by step. As you lean into the light, and as you walk in the light, then we are guided, we make a mistake. Christians make a mistake sometimes when they think they have a hotline to heaven, to God’s will, we’re not solo believers as if we don’t need anyone else or any other thing. So there’s no hotline to the voice of God. The voice of God is a still, small voice. The signs are subtle. We have to pay attention over periods of time, and then together we can find deep understanding.
Karen: I think you’re really on in that, and certainly that comes out in this book. Maybe I need to go back just to step and really say, how does this book get written? It came out in 2013, clearly, almost 20 years after Henri had died or 15 years after Henri had died. How did you and Rebecca find the contents of this book? Where did you draw from?
Michael: Well, of course we had previously developed two books with Henri Nouwen, one on spiritual direction and one on spiritual formation. Both of those books were gleaned from his lectures at Yale when I was his student and I had access to his lecture notes, and I had my notes in class and we had archives that were accessible to us, and we put together curriculum, for his courses on spiritual direction and spiritual formation, two courses that I took from him, and then we were able to put a course together, and weave it together as the book he never wrote in his lifetime, but it’s his material because he taught the material. So those two books in the three volume set were taken directly out of his coursework. Not so Discernment, this third book in the trilogy; he never wrote a book on discernment and he never taught a class on discernment. So where do we go to find how Henri Nouwen discerned? John Mogabgab, who was our friend and Henri’s teaching assistant at Yale, gave us the first clue. He told us that Henri discerned in his prayer life and in this journaling, Henri had a discipline of daily journaling, and in his journal, he would pray and discern, try to read the signs of daily life through what he was reading, what he was praying, what nature was teaching him, the people who came to see him, the people that were in his path, current events. He’s always journaling about these things in daily life, and if you keep a daily journal, as Henri did, he had an eye toward publishing some of his journals, and yet the published journals that we have only reflect about one third of what he was journaling from day to day.
So what John Mogabgab told us is that the book he had done for Henri, Genesee Diary, was three volumes in its original form when it was called ‘On Retreat Genesee Diary’. So John took the three volumes of Genesee Diary and turned it into one third of the size and published it. They published it as Genesee Diary where there’s two thirds of that journal that had that work published. So what we found was that there was a lot of unpublished journal entries, daily reflections on life where Henri is actually discerning what to do, who to see, where to go, what’s next, what’s my vocation, am I loved, do I sense God’s presence? So Henri discerned in his journals, his journals were not published in their entirety. Some of his journals like the ‘Ukraine Diary’ were not ever published, and those that were published were only a portion of them. So we took the journal entries, his discernment process in those pages, added to that weave together, some lecture notes, some sermons and some unpublished manuscript reflections, and wove together into a coherent whole an entire book on discernment, not as a systematic way of discerning, but as vintage Henri. How do we read the signs of daily life? How do we look at nature as God’s first language and read and discern what nature is teaching? We discern what people in our path have to say to us about our own life.
Karen: I find it such a sensitive and insightful book. I really enjoyed it. It’s very intimate and that helps explain the intimacy because it is Henri’s journal, and you realize what he’s struggling with, what he’s trying to understand, what he’s trying to be. He’s almost always asking God, ‘Where do you want me to be?’ I mean, that really is the deep question of all our lives. Am I in the center of your will? Am I where you want me? I also found it very insightful in terms of his struggles with depression, the insights into that, and I find one thing, which is kind of a core thing, Henri’s understanding of self-rejection as our very biggest temptation. It’s interesting. There’s an intimacy to this book that makes it so valuable. I think as we go and say, ‘How do I discern what direction you’re calling me in God?’, this book kind of uncovers those questions we might be asking that maybe even getting in the way of getting to the heart of what God wants to say to us, but I find it so rich. It must’ve been a treat for you folks to go at it.
Michael: Yeah. It was a three-year labor of love and all these books have been. It takes about two or three years to cull through the material and then not just compile it, because otherwise it’s just an anthology, but to weave it together as a book that is Henri Nouwen with the developmental editors. It’s fun and it’s labor intensive, but to get vintage Henri out of it and to get a book that he didn’t write in his lifetime, but he taught and lived is a tremendous reward to make that available to his audience today.
Karen: You and Rebecca have done a beautiful job with this book. I just really want to encourage people to pick up this book and pick up the series. I think from what I’m learning, it’s probably as a series, one of the things that’s being most used in seminaries and schools of theology, they’re really enjoying all three of the books, but this Discernment book is a treasure. One of the things which I felt the book really addresses is how much Henri was influenced by the writings, teachings and life of Thomas Merton. It really helps me understand how Merton influenced Henri.
Michael: Indeed, the influence of Merton on Henri was tremendous. The influence of Henri on Merton, of course, was minimal. When the young Henri Nouwen in 1967, before getting to Notre Dame before his first teaching job, he went to visit the great Thomas Merton who he had looked up to, he had learned from and who he had read, and he shows up at the monastery and, they have a conversation and it was a huge influence on Henri. So for Merton, he just writes in his journal on that daily entry, “Met a Father Now.” For Merton it didn’t quite register with him, but for Henri, he left that conversation and wrote an entire book on Thomas Merton in Dutch that’s now in English.
It’s now called Encounters with Thomas Merton, originally it was ‘Pray to Live: Encounters with Thomas Merton’. So what Henri learned from the great Thomas Merton, his idol, his mentor, was discernment. He learned from Merton that nature speaks God’s name, God’s love, God’s direction and presence. He learned from Merton that there are basically four signs of God’s presence and love that we can read in daily life. First, being nature. Second, being the books we’re reading, the poetry we’re reading, the scripture, whatever we’re reading, or maybe even viewing or visual art images, whatever we are putting into our minds and hearts through the written word or visuals. God’s speaking through that. God is speaking like a medium, like the media, the channels, the very presence and love and even guidance and connections that we’re making, illuminations of God. So nature, the books we’re reading, and then the people that God puts in our path, Thomas Merton said pay attention to the people that God brings to you, and the people who are right there in front of you, maybe they’re family members, maybe they’re friends, maybe they’re complete strangers, maybe even angels unawares. And then if you pay attention to those people, they will teach. They will teach and reflect and reveal the things of God. And then we’ve already talked about the current events and critical events in our life; what you go through in critical events which you go through, even crises, even traumas can be reflected upon in retrospect, and then God’s presence, love, direction, truth can be revealed to us. We can discern it, and Henri didn’t learn that on his own as he got the first clues from when Merton wrote a book about it, and then he really did live that he really did learn how to read the signs of daily life. It’s a beautiful thing. That relationship.
Karen: It’s interesting. I did a documentary called ‘Hidden Heroes’ and it was based on people within the Netherlands who had during the Second World War, chose to hide Jewish children and keep them from the Nazis. What I learned out of that was the responsibility for the people that God brings on your way. That was very much a concept within that, that in a way you might not be responsible for everybody, but if God brings somebody on your way, there’s a responsibility in that. That’s an aspect of that discernment. One of the things that comes out of this is that I found in the overall book, I understood Henri’s process of discerning his call to go to l’Arche. I mean, it tells the story of him going to Latin America, and I mean, he was really looking, ‘God, are you calling me here? Are you calling me there?’ But then ultimately going, ‘That isn’t it’, and then making this unique choice and feeling this call to go to l’Arche Daybreak and be the pastor of a community of people with developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities. I thought that was quite fascinating. The other thing that comes through in this and I always quite love it, is Henri’s incredible, it’s always kind of a central theme to him, and this is the two voices that are competing for his attention, the voice to succeed versus the voice that says stay close to Jesus. It’s interesting to see that within this whole book where we’re talking about discernment, and that is still, I think, a center point in Henri.
Michael: Yeah, indeed. When he was at Yale, when I was his student, one of many who followed him around between classes and all the way to Mass, and he was discerning during that final year at Yale, was it to stay or was it to go? You’re right. He’s always trying to discern what’s next’ what’s the next step I need to take to be faithful, to follow the light, to follow God’s will. He says about his experience at Yale that last year, 1981, before going to South America, he said, ‘I was not just overwhelmed with all my teaching, all of the writing, the travel, but I was also starting to feel indispensable.” And that led to perhaps to some spiritual pride, because he had been accomplished, he was successful. He had fulfilled his father’s expectation to make something of himself. So that inner voice that was often his father’s voice to succeed. And he succeeded at Yale. He went back to visit his father when he was at Yale, and his father said, ‘Henri, you really have amounted to something.’ He felt really good about that, but also he felt spiritually in danger, maybe even a little puffed up because he was getting invitations to the White House. He was getting a lot of speaking engagements. He had his full staff, he had secretaries and student assistants and lots of appointments, and yet he was afraid that if he had one day of unstructured life, he would be lonely and he hated being alone and alienated. He felt that self-rejection if he wasn’t propped up with people around him and important things to do.
And so avoiding the loneliness and embracing the busy-ness, he discerned that this was not good for him, and so he announced his departure my last semester at Yale. He said ‘I’m leaving Yale for a pilgrimage’, and he gave up tenure, academic tenure. It was an amazing thing to watch that happen. No other professor I knew would do that. And yet he let go on to downward mobility and embraced the poor in South America. But even there we know the story because it’s in ¡Gracias!, his journal. We published in Discernment some of the excerpts or non-published portions of the ¡Gracias! journal. He was discerning all during those six months and then a full year in South America, ‘Am I called now to live and pray among the poor?’ So he paid attention to Gustavo Gutierrez, to the mothers, and to the peasants, and to the folks who lived in the Barrios that he lived in. ‘Am I called?’ he would ask himself – and them – to pray and live here among the poor. He asked the Jesuits, ‘Should I join you as an order or join you as a member and be involved in the missionary work you’re doing?’ Well they helped him understand that, ‘Henri, you’re on a retreat here, you’re on a pilgrimage, but this may not be your vocation. Your vocation may very well be to go back to North America and to announce what you have seen and heard here and what you’ve learned here and raise consciousness in North America about the plight of the poor in the south.’ So he read that and that’s how he got to Harvard. He went back and had a fine large pulpit and a tour to call attention to what was happening in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the South, and raised a lot of consciousness in those years.
There’s one aspect of discernment that you hinted at the very beginning about discernment of spirits. And I think this is helpful to us as individuals because we all struggle, and Henri struggled with loneliness and rejection, et cetera. So here’s the thing about discernment: Given the fact that we struggle in our daily life with self-image, with affirmation, with rejection, with temptations, Henri says there is a way to discern and distinguish the spirits and to identify which of the many spirits are trying to lead us astray and which voice is the Holy Spirit calling us to new life. So he tells the story in ¡Gracias! and we repeat it in Discernment, about being in Cochabamba, right? And he’s there in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to study Spanish and learn Spanish better with the Jesuits and their Institute of English and Spanish. He finds himself living with a family in Cochabamba, in the city, and he’s alone a particular day and he’s riding a little bike down to the stores. He sees a bookstore and he is wandering aimlessly, h says, around town. This is not in his published works, this is in his journal, now published. He’s walking aimlessly around and he goes inside the bookstore and he sees all this terrible media, foreign media, international media, local media, pictures, sex, exploitation, sensationalism, and he’s very tempted. He’s in anguish about all that he is seeing, and he’s struggling with loneliness and alienation, temptation. He decides to pay attention to what’s happening here and discerns that the spirits that he is being lured by are not holy, are not life-giving, but they would bring death, spiritual death. So he finds himself in his wandering around going to the Carmelite monastery, common lighthouse, I should say, and to a chapel there, and going to the chapel to pray. In that chapel, he has this overwhelming sense that this chapel is blessed because of all the prayers that have been prayed by the sisters over all the years.
And he discerned in that chapel, in his prayer, truly the presence of the Lord is in this place, and he had this overwhelming sense that he was now in the right place at the right time being present to the presence of God. And that’s just a little parable of our daily life. We are every day, we have a choice, we can be and listen to the signals and signs that would lead us down a dark path, or we can pay attention and be available to the presence of God in whatever forum, in nature, in a poem, in a scripture, in a vision, in a visual, in an icon even, in a chapel. And so Henri showed us the way of how to deal with our personal struggles. I find that very inspiring.
Karen: I think one of the things that I find inspiring actually in that story, in that aspect was, he was all in, I mean, giving up tenure, he was all in, he was willing, he didn’t go with, ‘maybe this is the right thing’, but also being able to hear ‘this isn’t it’, being able to go ‘good, but not best.’ I think discernment is something that when we want to know what God wants for our life, he wants it too, he loves us so much, and I feel God met him in ways that he helps us understand how we can hear that voice within us. It’s not just for Henri Nouwen, it’s for everyone. I love your book. It helps people with the very deep, very intimate questions of: ‘Where am I right now? What does God want of me? Where am I going?’ Those are important central deep questions.
Michael: We don’t always hit the mark in our discernment. My intention every day is to try to see the sunrise and the sunset and then discern the presence and then pay attention during my day to the people and being sensitive and what are people going through and where do I need to be, and how do I keep my divine appointments given to me each and every day. But some days like just two days ago, I was off. I missed the sunrise, I missed the sunset. I didn’t journal, and I wasn’t sensitive during the day. At the end of the day, when you look back on the day and do a daily Examen and say, where did I meet the mark? Where did I miss the mark? In my revelation, I saw many points along the way in my day that I could have named the reality, been present to a person, to a family member, to a friend, made a call. I should have checked in with someone, I didn’t check in. I missed every single opportunity that, in retrospect, I recognized as a divine moment appointment potential, but I missed it. I just totally wasn’t paying attention to it. And so discernment is something that you practice every day. You don’t reach a point where ‘Now I’m a discerning person’, as if you no longer have to work at it. Every day is a new day to try to be present first to God, and then to each other, even to ourselves and not every day are we going to meet the mark, and Henri knew that too.
Karen: I want to hear how people can get involved in some of the courses you and Rebecca are teaching. Tell us a little bit about that because I bet there are people. It’s a new year, they’d love to dig into something, tell me a little bit about what is available. You have some fabulous courses on Henri Nouwen. Let me hear what you have to offer.
Michael: I’m teaching Henri Nouwen’s spirituality now in three different institutions. The Nazarene theological seminary has a doctoral program in spiritual formation. People can apply to that, and Rebecca and I co-direct, co-convene, the cohorts in a doctoral program in spiritual formation. That Henri Nouwen course, “Reading Henri Nouwen with His Sources” is one of the courses in that program. So that’s available as a doctoral program. So is the Episcopal School for Ministry, here in San Diego, has people discerning a call to the priesthood or the diaconal to what their role in the church and in the community is, and there are people who can, if you’re local anyway in California, actually it’s online now. So the Episcopal school for ministry is offering “Reading Henri Nouwen with His Sources” that I’m the professor for. But anyone can take the Northwind Seminary courses. And we have three of them at Northwind Seminary, which is a hundred percent online. The three courses are the three books: Henri Nouwen on spiritual direction, Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation and Henri Nouwen on discernment. Three different courses with video lectures. It’s open enrollment. You go at your own pace, your own time, your own place, your own device. The pedagogy of these courses is what we call guided education, where a faculty mentor like myself guides the individual student in mastering four topics per course, so that you become competent in four topic areas of that subject matter. It’s the Oxford-style tutorial with guided learning geared toward the individual. Sometimes we have group discussions, but mostly, it’s a self-paced, self-motivated way of learning. You can enroll in those courses through the Northwind Institute for certificate credit for continuing education, or you can apply for a degree program at Northwind, either a masters or a doctoral degree in spiritual formation, and then take the courses for academic credit. That’s a new offering just this year or just past 2019 and 2020. This past academic year is the first time we’ve been able to offer the courses for academic credit, as well as the certificate program at Northwind. You’ve been sending people our way already. There’ve been a number of people from the Henri Nouwen Society network that have enrolled either in this certificate program or in a degree program in Henri Nouwen’s unique approach to formation.
Karen: I’m delighted, and I have to say to our audience, Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird are trusted teachers. They’re very good, and they also had the privilege of living and knowing Henri Nouwen, so they bring that to any kind of course that they’re teaching along with a thorough academic knowledge of Henri’s work. These are excellent courses to get involved in. Go to our website and we’ll have all the details and the links so that you can sign up and get involved. I would just encourage you to take a look at this and certainly I’d go back and say, I want you to take a look at the book Discernment, I loved it. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve found things in it that I haven’t found anywhere else about Henri Nouwen, so it’s been very precious for me over the last week to prepare for this and to read it in preparation. Michael, I appreciate you. I appreciate the depth of your knowledge and your wisdom. You’re obviously a good professor, but also somebody who’s been a very good friend over the years to the Henri Nouwen Society, and I’m grateful for that as well.
Michael: Great to be with you again, Karen. This is always a joy.
Karen: Thank you, Michael. I want to thank all of you for taking time to listen today. I hope you come away from this interview with Michael Christensen as inspired as I was. Michael and Rebecca have captured some wonderful things they found in Henri’s journals on the subject of discernment. If you’d like to get this book on discernment, go to our website and you’ll find links to the books and courses that we’ve discussed today in the podcast. What a great opportunity to study more of Henri Nouwen in one of the courses being offered through Northwind Institute. If you did enjoy the podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give us a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share this with your friends and family. Thank you again for listening, until next time.
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