Reaching Out : 
The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
Author: Henri J.M. Nouwen
Publisher: Doubleday (1975), 165pp.

               Here is another installment of my readings on spirituality.  My encounter with spirituality texts has not been all that positive.  I first read Merton some 30 years ago, and he did not seem very appealing.  Someone else gave me Henri Nouwen's The Genesee Diary about ten years back, and it didn't work either.

               Reaching Out is something else altogether.  I guess it appeals to me because it takes, as its starting point, the discipline of solitude.  I am what you might call the "lone wolf" type.  I work best alone.  And people who are comfortable with them-selves tend to be regarded as being "anti-social".  It was then a pleasant surprise to find Nouwen treating the whole theme of spirituality from the perspective of how people cope with the problem of loneliness - and how that coping mechanism (solitude) can affect our relationships with people (hospitality) and our attitude to God (moving from illusion to prayer).

               Henri Nouwen's book attempts then to help us reach out: first, to our innermost self; then to our fellow human beings; and then in prayer to God.  Each of these areas is of course fraught with difficulty.

               To begin with, most people are not in touch with themselves.  That's why we feel lonely.  In Nouwen's terms, it's a suffocating loneliness particularly because, in contemporary society, all relationships are tinged with that element of rivalry.  The best of friends and spouses "compete" - they argue about who is better at what.  Sometimes, in over-compensating, we commit the error in the other extreme.  We bare our souls to one another, and discover that we simply cannot bear that "stagnating closeness".

              The solution, if Nouwen could ever be perceived as prescribing solutions (!), lies in what he calls a "receptive solitude".  This is the idea of giving "space" to yourself.  We talk too much, and most of what we talk about - be it asking questions, giving advice or criticising somebody else - are expressions of self doubt.  In other words, most times, we don't know what we are talking about, and are seeking authentication (even when giving advice), by testing ideas with people.  The point is, we don't know who we really are.

              The implication is that we need to quit this quest for self-authentication, and learn to traverse the "holy ground" of silence.  Just think how often it is that the best part about the friends we have is the fact of their absence!  When they are not with us, our thoughts and memories of them are the most pleasant.  When we actually meet, we are often disappointed with them.  Why?  Nouwen quotes Kahlil Gibran here: "…that which you love most in him (your friend) may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain" (p.47).

             What we then need to do is to detach ourselves from what Nouwen calls "false ties."  This does not mean withdrawing from people.  If anything, it is engaging with people in what Nouwen identifies as the "wilderness of compassion."  It is a wilderness out there.  We have our web of relationships, but oh, they are so shallow.  We, and our relationships, are so shallow that we even pretend to care.  We want to prescribe solutions to people in trouble, but only because we can't bear to be involved with their plight and pain.

             This takes us to the next major dimension of relationships, or what Nouwen  describes as moving from hostility to hospitality.  Essentially, this means giving people space.  "Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life-style of the host, but a gift of a chance for the guest to find his own."  This will, of course, open new vistas of relating between parents and children, between teachers and students, and between healers and patients.  It will call for abandonment of our paradigm of control and manipulation to one of listening and voluntary poverty.  Nouwen calls for a poverty of mind that accepts life's incomprehensibility that will reduce us to a patient listening for the voice of God through the people and events we encounter.  He also calls for a poverty of heart that leads to real openness, or we shall fail to encounter the mysterious sacredness of the "other", and remain confined to the paltry shadows of our own existence (Matt.10:39).

           The book climaxes in a profound and almost paradoxical discussion on prayer.  He describes our attempts at reaching out to God as moving from illusion to prayer, hinting that most of that movement belongs more to the realm of illusion than truly of  prayer.  Why, because prayer is a reality hard to touch.  The awesome truth is that God is often nearest when he seems furthest away!  "Where God's absence was most loudly expressed, his presence was most profoundly revealed" (p.127).

          According to Nouwen, we are so desperate for divine intimacy that not only do we fail to detect this divine presence in the depths of our spiritual deprivation.  What is worse, we construct our own spiritual events and become consumers of commercial items (think "praise festivals", healing rallies, and spiritual communes).  In other words, we can be most profoundly lost spiritually in the midst of our most zealous of spiritual endeavours.

         And what might be a way back from the vacuous state?  Nouwen recommends a return to the reading of the Scriptures, a silent listening to the voice of God, and a trusting obedience to a spiritual guide.

         This is no fail-proof remedy, however.  Nothing is.  And nothing can be.  For we are not perfect.  For as long as life lasts, our illusions about ourselves, others, or even God, will remain to dog our quest for spirituality.  So long as we are aware of them, that awareness will offer hope, as Thomas' awareness of Jesus' wounds gave him (and us) a real promise of hope.

(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)


               Chapel this week had an Anglican flavour to it.  It was divided into two parts.  The first half consisted of a string of Scripture readings, with set prayer responses taken from the prayer book of the Anglican Church of Canada.  And the second half was a time of general intercession using the Litany from the Alternative  Service Book (1980) of the Church of England.

               The theme set for the service was "Prayers at Midday".  The three readings centred upon the three of God's acts of revelation at midday: redemption upon the cross (Luke 23:26-46), the vision given to Peter for the Gentile mission (Acts 10:9-23), and the conversion of Saul/Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 26:4-19).

               The tone was one of reflection.  The service began with the hymn, "There is a place of quiet rest."  It hints at the need for meditation, foreshadowing the idea of meditation at noon (BGST chapel hour!).  And the service ended with the singing of "Beneath the cross of Jesus", alluding to the possibility of appreciating the sunshine of God's grace only from the shadow of the cross.

              The message may be summed up in one sentence from the worship leader at the conclusion of the service.  "The brightest that this life and universe can offer may be overshadowed even at midday when God intervenes."

(Chapel speaker: Rev Ng Seng Chuan)

Next week's Chapel:  Personal Revival Asia (PRASIA), a music missionary team will be presenting their song items and sharing their ministry with us. See you at the Sanctuary, Zion BP Church, 4 Bishan St 13, at 12 noon!

Chapel speaker for 5th March is Dr Ng Peh Cheng



We  continue our presentation of our recent graduands. Praise God with us for Wong Lea Choung, Matthew Yap Kian Hua, and for others to be presented next week.


Wong Lea Choung
MBBS, University of Melbourne
FRCR, Royal College of Radiologists
Diploma of Palliative Medicine, University of Wales
FAMS, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
Dip CS, Biblical Graduate School of Theology

Lea Choung works as a radiation oncologist at the National Cancer Centre. He attends Adam Road Presbyterian Centre. After graduation he aims to study towards the MCS either at BGST or at Regent College, Vancouver, and will continue as a tentmaker where he works. His life verse is 2 Cor. 2:14: 'But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.' 

Matthew Yap Kian Hua
Diploma in Electronics, Ngee Ann Polytechnic
Dip CS, Biblical Graduate School of Theology

Matthew works in IT and Administration at Promised Land Evangelical Centre, the church where he is also a member. After graduation he intends to study towards the MCS at BGST. His life verse is Mk. 11:24: 'Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.'


Please be informed that the construction work to install a new lift has commenced this week. The areas affected are the triangular garden plot next to the Fellowship hall, a portion of the corridor and a few carpark lots. For your own safety, please keep clear of these areas. The lift installation project is estimated to complete by July 2003. Please bear with the noise and the inconveniences caused.

God's Richest Blessings To Our Birthday Stars!

Mr Ahn Tae Yoon 17/2
Dr Teo Chye Chwan 17/2
Ms Sharon Khoo 18/2
Mr Kessler Soh 20/2
Mr Chris Chin 20/2
Ms Phyllis Sng 21/2
Ms Christine Tey 21/2
Mr Leow Theng Huat 21/2
Mr Lim Ching HOck 22/2
Ms Rosy Wong 22/2
Mr Simon Wong Kok Hon 22/2
Mr Ivan Lee Yuan 23/2
Mr Ivan Liew 23/2

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This page is updated on 21 Feb 2003 by Leong Kok Weng
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