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Reflections | Dr. Leighton Ford (Mentoring)

The Contemplative Who Couldn’t Sit Still (Leighton Ford)

August 23, 2016

henrinouwen skateboarding

The writings of the late Henri Nouwen often speak to the condition of my own heart, and to countless others, not least because he opened up his own inner struggles. Yet the man who ministered peace to so many was himself a restless soul.

His friend Parker Palmer recalls an experience with Nouwen at a retreat:

“I was conscious of being in the company of a world-class contemplative and I was expecting to have an extraordinary experience sitting next to him in worship. But as we sat….I realized that the bench was jiggling. I opened my eyes…and saw Henri’s leg working furiously…As time went on, the fidgeting got worse. I opened my eyes again only to find him checking his watch to see what time it was”

Sometimes Nouwen would become so desperate for companionship that after he spoke to an attentive crowd, if his hosts did not invite him out for a late supper he would go to his room and stay on the phone for hours calling friends in distant places.

In one of Nouwen’s first books he described the movement from restlessness to restfulness. There is first the admission of being incomplete, the owning of our own pain. But then, he writes, we need to give up our illusions, our ‘Messianic expectations’ that anything in this world will complete us.

“To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt, and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dream world”.

What then is the cure for our restless souls?

Not to move outward but to take the difficult road of conversion from loneliness to solitude. Can I sit still long enough for restlessness to turn into restfulness?

Can we?


Adapted from Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life (2008, InterVarsity Press)

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