A Pastor Trusts the Wonderful Counselor in His Dark Night
The most difficult trial that a pastor or any representative of Christ faces is to go through a Dark Night of the Soul. You’re helping others follow Jesus and connect with God, but you personally feel far away from God. You’re leading other people to drink in the living waters, but for you the well is dry as dust.
I’ve experienced this. When I felt alone and like I was failing I often thought about Henri Nouwen’s story and found great comfort. I was encouraged to follow his example of seeking pastoral counseling for myself.
His experience and testimony reminds us that though it doesn’t feel like it, God is caring deeply for me when I’m in a Dark Night of the Soul. Nouwen’s call from God to hiddenness shows us that our most significant ministry will come through giving ourselves to our own inner journey with Christ through darkness.
As Nouwen says, true spiritual healers are wounded healers.
Excerpts From Henri Nouwen’s Secret Journal
The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen is his “secret journal” that he wrote from December of 1987 to June of 1988. This was during the most difficult time in his life when he left the academic world of Harvard and Yale Universities where he’d been a seminary professor and took up residence in a community of developmentally disabled adults. It shares the painful journey that led him to write The Return of the Prodigal Son and In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.
The book consists of personal journal entries that he kept secret for eight years. He shares sixty-three “spiritual imperatives” that he wrote to himself immediately after his counseling sessions with the two soul guides that God provided for him. These words of comfort and wisdom carried him through his painful, dark season.
Pastors, counselors, and other helpers especially need to read Nouwen’s personal sharing in The Inner Voice of Love. In what follows I’ve summarized some of the key messages from this helpful little book and included quotes and short excerpts:
A Dark Night of the Soul
At this time Henri Nouwen experienced what seems to have been a Dark Night of the Soul. The famous Catholic priest, seminary professor, and author had helped millions of people grow into a more intimate relationship with God and yet he found himself in a period of “extreme anguish.” He felt “completely abandoned” by God. He wondered, Is God real or just a product of my imagination?
In The Inner Voice of Love Nouwen describes his spiritual crisis:
Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.
What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss. (p xiii)
Most pastors and other servants of the Lord eventually go through a dark, despairing, and lonely time like this. It’s part of the journey of taking up our cross to follow Christ Jesus. It’s part of devoting our lives to serve the Lord and care for other people.
The Bible talks about times of spiritual darkness and despair in which we feel distant from God, not because of sin, but because we’re in a season of testing. Will we trust in God and keep loving him even though he doesn’t answer our prayers? Will we, like Job, worship God when we’re not experiencing his blessings… suffering unrelenting pain??
To really trust God requires that we pour out our hearts to him like the Psalmist. David cries out to God in a Dark Night of the Soul: “How long, O LORD, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) Later he reflects, “O LORD… when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” (Psalm 30:7)
Why Nouwen Shared His Secret Journal
When Henri Nouwen got to the other side of his dark tunnel in 1988 he was asked to publish his secret journal, but he felt it was too raw, intense, and exposing. Besides, he says he couldn’t imagine it would help anyone but himself!
But eight years later in 1996, shortly before he died, he was asked again to publish his private reflections from his season of spiritual darkness. This time he felt he had enough distance to release his experience of fearful anguish to the public. He wanted others to know what he came to know: God does not abandon us during dark night trials.
In sharing his secret journal the beloved priest and wounded healer shows us that even great spiritual leaders may struggle with loneliness, insecurity, shame, and feeling far from God. What a gift Henri Nouwen’s vulnerability is!
The words of encouragement that buoyed his soul when he was tossed about on the seas of lonely despair read like the voice of the Holy Spirit to the wounded healer in all of us.
At Home But Feeling Homeless
I was deeply moved by Henri Nouwen’s story of leaving his many years of teaching in the seminaries of Harvard and Yale in order to become a member of L’Arche, a community of people with mental disabilities. Who does that? Why would he leave a prestigious academic life to care for the mentally ill?
Even though he was greatly respected as a seminary professor and Christian leader, he says he never felt at home in religious academia. At L’Arche he found a new home and a new family. He felt accepted with open arms, loved and cared for. He gradually let down his walls and opened his heart to be vulnerable and to truly trust others. And yet he in his secret journal he says:
Just when all those around me were assuring me they loved me, appreciated me, yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless, unloved, and despicable person. Just when people were putting their arms around me, I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for. Just when I had found a home, I felt absolutely homeless…
It was as if the house I had finally found had no floors. The anguish completely paralyzed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness.
Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons. (pp xiv-xv)
How could this happen? How could the man who had such a warm friendship with God and who ushered so many people into God’s loving presence now find himself so disconnected from God?
He says that his spiritual crisis was triggered by the loss of a “deeply satisfying friendship.” He had become especially close to one of his many friends at L’Arche. “Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for,” Nouwen writes. “It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace.” (p xv)
But when this friendship was interrupted it left a gaping space in Nowen’s soul. He felt rejected and utterly alone. He found himself needy and possessive.
The accomplished seminary professor and writer knew intellectually that only Jesus Christ could satisfy the longing of his heart and fill his void. But that didn’t help him in his pain — he needed a new and deeper personal experience of the Lord.
Nouwen Needed Pastoral Counseling
Pastors need to ask to be pastored. Leaders need to submit to another leader. Servants need to let themselves be served. Ministers who aren’t vulnerable to receive ministry from others in the Body of Christ are a danger to others and themselves. (Many studies of “Pastor Stress Statistics” demonstrate this.)
When Henri Nouwen was in anguish God provided a “unique grace” for him to go on an extended retreat where two guides provided the intensive psychological and spiritual attention he needed. He says that like parents holding onto a wounded child, they cared for him. Yet he described as a time of “exile” in which he desperately missed his community.
He felt he wouldn’t have survived this crisis if not for the two guides and writing every day in his journal. “Writing became part of my struggle for survival,” Nouwen writes. “It gave me the little distance from myself that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair.”
In psychotherapy or any process of emotional healing or deepening spiritual growth we often feel worse before we feel better. This was Nouwen’s experience. “My anguish only intensified,” he reflected later. “Very old places of pain that had been hidden to me were opened up, and fearful experiences from my early years were brought to consciousness.” (pp xvi-xvii)
After six months of being cared for by his guides in a season of spiritual healing he returned to the L’Arche community that he loved. To help him overcome his apprehension at re-engaging with his community he re-read his journal of spiritual imperatives.
The Spiritual World is Your Solid Place
What a surprise! In the empty abyss of a spiritual exile you can find a solid place. That’s what Nouwen discovered. (This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ description in The Great Divorce of the solid souls of the people in heaven.)
In a time of danger when all hope seemed lost the Psalmist sang, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…” (Psalm 46:1)
Along with the earthquakes there is war between nations. It’s a time of great social unrest. So why isn’t the Psalmist afraid?
He hears the still small voice of God: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at the break of day.” (vv 4-5).
But where is this unshakable city of God with the happy river? Is this the Jordan River in Israel? No. It’s a spiritual city, an ever-present refuge and help. It’s the Kingdom of the Heavens that Jesus made available to anyone who puts their confidence in him (Matt. 4:17).
In his secret journal Nouwen records the way the divine whisper came across to him:
You have to trust the place that is solid, the place where you can say yes to God’s love even when you do not feel it. Right now you feel nothing except emptiness and the lack of strength to choose. But keep saying, “God loves me, and God’s love is enough.” You have to choose the solid place over and over again and return to it after every failure. (p 8)
For Pleaser Pastors
As a pastor I like to please people. So do many of the pastors and other soul shepherds that I care for. Henri Nouwen also was a pleaser.
Pleasers are very sensitive to other people’s pain and quick to offer help. They orbit around other people to serve them. They can be so focused on the needs of the people they care about that they lose their own selves.
In his time of darkness, after a pastoral counseling session, Henri heard the Holy Spirit’s loving voice whisper within:
For as along as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self. (p 5)
There is part of you that too easily gives in to others’ influence. As soon as someone questions your motives, you start doubting yourself. You end up agreeing with the other before you have consulted your own heart. Thus you grow passive and simply assume that the other knows better.
Here you have to be very attentive to your inner self… You have a solid inner base from which you can speak and act — without apologies — humbly but convincingly. (p 44)
In The Way of the Heart Henri Nouwen teaches us that we can break the power of the pressure to please other people by making a practice of periodically spending half day or more in solitude and silence with Jesus. (A short excerpt of Nouwen’s words is in my article: “Solitude and Silence.”)
Befriend Your Emotions
Most personal problems that we struggle with come in part from denying our emotions. The path to healing, freedom, and empowerment opens up to us when we get help learning to befriend our emotions.
In his secret journal Henri Nouwen admits that he didn’t like being emotional and so he would repress his insecure feelings. You wouldn’t think that a brilliant seminary professor, successful author, and extremely popular pastor would feel insecure around people. And yet he shares that when interacting with people in public he often became disillusioned with feeling emotionally unsure, clingy, and small.
When he was feeling especially insecure during his dark, depressing years God spoke to his heart through his pastoral counselors:
Don’t whip yourself for your lack of spiritual progress. If you do, you will easily be pulled even further away from your center. You will damage yourself… It is obviously good not to act on your sudden emotions. But you don’t have to repress them either… Acknowledge them [and] befriend them so that you do not become their victim.
The way to “victory” is not in trying to overcome your dispiriting emotions directly but in building a deeper sense of safety and at-homeness and a more incarnate knowledge that you are deeply loved. Then little by little, you will stop giving so much power to strangers [who make you feel insecure]. (pp 42-43)
Despite what we hear from today’s gurus, befriending your emotions is not a self-help project. Your arms aren’t long enough to wrap around yourself! The love you and I need must come from God — first from above us and then also from within us as we trust in Christ. In The Inner Voice of Love Nouwen writes:
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, even if only for a moment…
But no human being can heal that pain. Still, people will be sent to you to mediate God’s healing, and they will be able to offer you the deep sense of belonging that you desire and that gives meaning to all you do.
Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you. (pp 47-48)
This encouragement reminds me of my Life Verse in the Bible: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God… Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.” (2 Cor. 5:20, NIV and MSG)
It’s common in our secular world to think that we need to love ourselves more. But in our Christian world we often say that we need to love ourselves less and focus only on loving God and other people! Which is it? Is self-love good or bad? The Bible is often used to trumpet both messages. For instance, Jesus, following the old law, teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But he also says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it” (John 12:25).
As is often the case, the truth is in the middle. Biblical self-love is really a matter of trusting in and agreeing with God’s love to us in the Word made flesh, perfectly in Christ and imperfectly in Christ’s representatives (2 Cor. 5:20 above). If love is not in us than it can’t flow out of us to other people — no matter how hard we try to keep putting our focus on serving others.
Many of us struggle to ask for what we need, share our emotions, and receive care and empathy from others. Maybe we think that’s selfish. Or too vulnerable and risky. So rather than befriending our emotional self or inner child we turn it away. Then we try to act in kindness and compassion for other people, but we soon fail. If we reject our true, inner self — rejecting Christ’s love for us! — then we will end up rejecting other people, despite our best efforts.
You may feel like even though you struggle to ask for you need emotionally that you don’t “reject” other people, but think of it this way: If you’re not receiving empathy for your hurts and needs then you won’t have it inside of you to share with the people around you. People don’t feel truly accepted and cared for by us (in other words, they’ll feel more or less rejected) if we don’t offer them emotional validation and compassion.
Henri Nouwen struggled mightily with the pain of self-rejection. He shares his inner dialogue with God. His self-rejecting emotions say, “It isn’t going to work. I’m still suffering the same anguish I did six months ago. I will probably fall back into the old depressive patterns of acting and reacting. I haven’t really changed.”
But God’s reply was winsome and warm: “I love you. I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit…” (p 113)
Nouwen wants us to receive the divine words of grace that comforted him: “Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.” (p. 115)
God Beckons us Into Hiddenness
Jesus spent most of his adult life on earth in the obscure and poor village of Nazareth. It wasn’t until age thirty that he began his world-changing public ministry. Why the wait? Jesus looked pretty good outwitting the Pharisees in the temple at age 12! Why wait another 18 years?
The Nazarene carpenter was practicing a life of loving God and neighbor while working as an ordinary “blue collar worker.” He dignified common manual labor. He worked hard to provide food for his family. He served complaining customers with a smile. He prayed and meditated on Scripture while he worked. He kept loaning out his tools even though they weren’t always returned. He blessed those that cursed him.
Jesus shows us how to live with and for our Father in secret. Then what he did in his village he did before the world in his public ministry of preaching the availability of God’s kingdom, healing the sick, and making disciples who would follow his example of taking up a cross of love.
Henri Nouwen calls this “Downward Mobility.” (See his little book, In the Name of Jesus.) When he traded his world famous seminary podium for participating in the L’Arche community of mentally handicapped adults he was following God’s call to lower himself, serve the least, and live in hiddenness. There his theological insights meant nothing — these people simply needed his hugs and laughter. It was in this season that Henri fell into the abyss of a Dark Night of the Soul.
So he went into seclusion to receive pastoral care. The Lord called the famous spiritual writer to keep a secret journal — to write his experiences and insights for no one to read but God and himself. As we mentioned above, his friend told him that the world wanted to read his personal writing. No! This season of “greater hiddenness” was a time not to produce anything, not to help others — it was only for the love of God. It was time for Henri to be on the receiving end.
He wrote in his secret journal:
Don’t be afraid of this invitation [to hiddenness]. Over the years you have allowed the voices that call you into action and great visibility to dominate your life. You still think, even against your own best intuitions, that you need to do things and be seen in order to follow your vocation. But you are now discovering that God’s voice is saying, “Stay home, and trust that your life will be fruitful even when hidden.”…
There will be people who will tell you that you are wasting your time and talents, that you are fleeing from true responsibility, that you fail to use the influence you have. But don’t let yourself be misled. They do not speak in God’s name. Trust the few who know your inner journey and want you to be faithful to it. They will help you stay faithful to God’s call. (pp 89-90)
When is a Minister’s Self-Disclosure Helpful?
If you have a ministry of preaching, teaching, leading Bible studies, or sharing your faith with others then you need to decide how much self-disclosure is helpful to people. Our Christian world today puts great value on speakers being “real” so you’ve probably found that being personally vulnerable as a speaker or writer enables you to connect more powerfully with the people you help. This is good, but it’s dangerous!
To be vulnerable as Christian spokesperson is helpful to people — as long as you’re not needing them but are giving them hope and strength through your story — but it’s not taking a real risk and it’s not facilitating true intimacy for you or meeting your personal needs. Some pastors I talk to have no trouble getting emotionally naked in front of thousands of people that they’re preaching to, but they avoid reaching out for personal care from one pastor, counselor, or friend.
In his secret journal Henri Nouwen asks whether it was good for him to share his struggles with the people he ministered to. He knew he wanted “to be a fellow traveler, not a distant guide.” In his season of withdrawal from public ministry he practiced depending on his two counselors for the care and help he needed. He learned to focus on taking ownership of his emotional pain:
When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give. As a result, you will feel frustrated, and those you wanted to help will feel confused, disappointed, or even further burdened.
But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about it in true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.
For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart. You will always need people who do not need you but who can receive you and give you back to yourself. You will always need people who can help you own your pain and claim your struggle. (pp 72-73)
To share personal struggles publicly in a way that serves other people we need to first do the inner journey work of being vulnerable in private with someone who can assist Christ in the shepherding of our own soul.
Accept Your Limitations
When you have a ministry to other people that’s helping them to connect with God and grow personally it’s hard to stop working! The needs keep coming. It’s important work. And it feels good to help people in Jesus’ name. But if you don’t set boundaries and put priority on the care of your body and soul under God then you’ll burn out.
In his time out from active ministry Henri Nouwen focused on his personal needs. He sensed the Lord speak to him through his guides:
You have so many options and are constantly overwhelmed… What of all this truly deserves your time?
Start by not allowing these people and issues to possess you… Much of their urgency comes from your own need to be accepted and affirmed. You have to keep going back to the source: God’s love for you…
You have not fully surrendered yourself to God’s guidance. You keep fighting with God over who is in control.
Try to give your agenda to God. Keep saying, “Your will be done, not mine.” Give every part of your heart and your time to God and let God tell you what to do, where to go, when and how to respond. God does not want you to destroy yourself. Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving…
Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name. (pp 105-106)
Accepting my limitations — that I can’t meet everyone’s needs, that I have needs to rest and play and let other people care for me, that ministry is God’s work and not mine — is a death. Have I taken the journey of dying to self? Have you? To take up our cross is where Jesus leads us — it’s the way to true and eternal living (Luke 9:23-25).
The Word of God to Henri Nouwen Before He Died
The Inner Voice of Love concludes with Henri sharing personal words about his fear of dying alone and what God was saying to him about that.
You are afraid of dying alone. Your deeply hidden memories of a fearful birth make you suspect that your death will be equally fearful…
Maybe the death at the end of your life won’t be so fearful if you can die well now…
God has sent people to be very close to you as you gradually let go of the world that holds you captive. You must trust fully in their love. Then you will never feel completely alone… you are surrounded by a safe love… those who let you move away from them will be there to welcome you on the other side. The more you trust in the love of those God has sent to you, the more you will be able to lose your life and so gain it.
Success, notoriety, affection, future plans, entertainment, satisfying work, health, intellectual stimulation, emotional support — yes, even spiritual progress — none of these can be clung to as if they are essential for survival. Only as you let go of them can you discover the true freedom your heart most desires. That is dying, moving into the life beyond life.
You must make that passage now, not just at the end of your earthly life. You cannot do it alone, but with the love of those who are being sent to you, you can surrender your fear and let yourself be guided into the new land. (pp 107-108)
Sadly, eight years later, shortly after these words were published, on September 21, 1996 Henri J. M. Nouwen died. He was 64 years young. We missed precious years with this great spiritual teacher. Our loss was heaven’s gain.