Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen–Book Review

Henri Nouwen doesn’t see the spiritual journey as a ladder, with continual movement up toward greater maturity.  Rather he describes it as movement from the mind to the heart through prayer.  The movements he discusses in this book are:

  • From opaqueness to transparency
  • From illusion to prayer
  • From sorrow to joy
  • From resentment to gratitude
  • From fear to love
  • From exclusion to inclusion
  • From denying to befriending death

Spiritual formation takes time, it’s personal and inward, and it is best done with the support of others.  It involves moving inward and moving outward.

Each chapter begins with one of Henri’s favorite stories, or parables and also an image.  There are suggestions for both lection divina (meditative reading of Scripture) and visio divina (meditating on a sacred image).  Reflection questions at the end of each chapter are good for journaling and applying the material to your own spiritual life.

VERDICT:  5 STARS.  As usual, Henri Nouwen does not disappoint.  His work resonates deeply with me, and I enjoyed doing some of the exercises provided.

For more about Henri Nouwen see:

Henri Nouwen on the Blessing of Poverty

Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh by Carol A. Berry–Book Review

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen & Rebecca J. Laird–Book Review


Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh by Carol A. Berry–Book Review

In 1972 Carol Berry attended a class given by Henri Nowen at Yale Divinity School.  It was called, “The Compassion of Vincent van Gogh.”  He began his first lecture with these words:

“Here we are — people who want to prepare for the ministry.  What do we want to do as ministers?  Well, one thing is sure:  we want to give strength to people in their daily life struggles.  Many people have done this, and we often reflect on their lives for inspiration.  I should like to introduce to you a man you may have often heard of, but not as a giver of strength, not as a minister … it is the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.”

Carol audited this class, not because she was training to be a pastor, but as an artist.  She and her husband became friends with Henri, and after his death, she was approached to write a book using the notes from the class.  She has studied van Gogh’s life for years, traveling throughout Europe to retrace his steps.  She has also given presentations and led retreats focused on his works.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • Solidarity
  • Consolation
  • Comfort

Each section is further subdivided into three parts:

  • Henri (giving some details about Nouwen and the course)
  • Vincent (centering on a segment of van Gogh’s life)
  • My story (the author relates some of her experiences with her husband in ministry)

There are pictures of van Gogh’s work throughout.  The narrative of his life dwells on his compassion and desire to live following the example of Jesus.  Nouwen described him as “one who saw and wanted us to see with him.”  He saw beauty in the ordinary life, often used biblical parables as themes, and used the symbolism of light to remind us of God’s presence in nature.

VERDICT:  4 STARS.  Short, but meaty.  You’ll get an education in understanding and “seeing” art if you read it.

For more on Henri Nouwen see:

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen & Rebecca J. Laird–Book Review

Henri Nouwen on Traveling

Henri Nouwen on the Blessing of Poverty

For more on Vincent van Gogh see:

At Eternity’s Gate –Movie Review

At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson — Book Review

Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review


Contemplative Vision by Juliet Benner–Book Review

I’m not an especially visual person, and I haven’t had much training in art, so this book was a bit of a stretch for me, but a good one.  Author Juliet Benner worked for years as a docent in an art gallery, where she felt her work was “teaching people how to really see what they were looking at.”  When she subsequently became a spiritual director, she realized the potential benefit in showing people how to “read” works of art — especially religious art–as a meditation on a passage of Scripture.  This book features ten different paintings with a chapter on each one which walks the reader through this process

Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer

Each exercise includes reading the biblical text slowly, looking at the painting, trying to notice and enter into the scene, and concluding with questions for reflection. I used the questions for journaling.  At the end of the book there are suggestions for leading a discussion group with this method, or using it as part of spiritual direction.

I have to admit, I was amazed at how much I missed in examining a painting.  Ms.  Benner’s interpretations are very detailed.  She really does “read” the art.  So, it was an education for me in a technique that doesn’t come naturally.

VERDICT:  3 STARS.  I’m not sure this would ever become an easy or frequent method of prayer for me (I’m more of a word person);  but if you’re an art lover you may really enjoy using this as a form of prayer.  I would encourage everyone to at least give it a try–it’s always good to expand our horizons!

For more on art as prayer see:

Praying with Art

My Favorite Icon


Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review

If you enjoyed Garlough’s Sensible Shoes series, you’ll love this book also.  It centers around Wren Crawford, a young woman suffering from anxiety, depression and panic attacks.  She lives in Kingsbury, about ten years after the events of Sensible Shoes.  You will once again meet Hannah, Mara, and Charissa and get some updates on their lives.  You will also learn the back story of their spiritual director, Katherine, who turns out to be Wren’s Aunt Kit.

If you or a loved one has suffered from mental illness, you will be able to emphasize with Wren and her family.  This is another story about surrendering to God — surrendering when life spirals out of control, or when we feel helpless to change the suffering and anguish experienced by someone else’s pain. How do we come alongside, yet still establish boundaries?  It’s also about unanswered questions and how to go forward in our lives when difficult circumstances lack closure.

Wren’s story is interwoven with excerpts from the letters, art and life of the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, as well as the biblical concept of Jesus as “the man of sorrows.”  It introduces the spiritual practice of visio divina –inviting God to speak to our heart as we contemplate an image.

I was disappointed that this book did not include any specific spiritual exercises or a study guide at the end.  There is a list of recommended resources with organizations that can help with mental illness as well as books on suicide, grief, the art of Vincent van Gogh and spiritual formation.

VERDICT:  5 STARS.  This book spoke to me on so may levels.  I highly recommend it.

If you haven’t read the other books by Sharon Garlough Brown see these reviews:

Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown — Book Review

Two Steps Forward by Sharon Garlough Brown — Book Review

A Book about Surrender

An Extra Mile by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review