Wil HERNANDEZ. Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012. pp. 142. $16.95 pb. ISBN 0809147416.
Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618

Wil Hernandez writes Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, as the final book of a trilogy, following from preliminary ideas outlined in his previous two books, Henri Nouwen a Spirituality of Imperfection (2006) and Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration (2008). This third book, emerges most directly from Hernandez’s PhD dissertation, and as the title suggests, treats Nouwen’s nondualistic mindset and lifestyle. Hernandez explains: “To issue a claim that Henri Nouwen espoused a nondualistic consciousness in the way he lived out his spirituality and journey is to underscore the fact that he possessed an innate capacity to see life not in strictly black or white, but in a black and white; thus he was able to function in a gray zone, revealing his nuanced creative skill” (xx).

Following the threefold structure of his two previous books, chosen because it was commonly used by Nouwen himself, Hernandez organizes the theme of tension around the dynamics of psychology, ministry, and theology in respective relation to the inward, outward, and upward dialectics of Nouwen’s spirituality. Hernandez thus names the divisions of his study as follows: Part I, Living with Inward Polarities (Psychological Tensions); Part II, Living with Outward Polarities (Ministerial Tensions); Part III, Living with Upward Polarities (Theological Tensions). Therein, in each part, the author treats three carefully chosen spiritual polarities, so that each of the nine chapters of his study focuses on one such polarity. For example, Chapter One of Part I is entitled “True Self and False Self.”

The focus of each chapter is Nouwen’s spiritual writings. Hernandez’s analysis of these primary sources is descriptive and interpretive; it is also deepened by the many years Hernandez has spent interacting with retreatants, friends, and students of Nouwen over the years—albeit never Nouwen himself (xxii). Hernandez writes with the aim of engaging the reader directly in his/her own analysis of these polarities and the way they work themselves out in his/her own life. He begins each chapter with a relevant quotation from Nouwen’s writing, introducing the reader to the polarity at hand, and then proceeds to unpack how the tension was creatively dealt with in Nouwen’s life and thought. The beginning quotation in Chapter Four on “Solitude and Community”, from Nouwen’s Making All Things New, makes the point especially clear: “Through the discipline of solitude we discover space for God in our innermost being. Through the discipline of community we find space for God in our life together. Both disciplines belong together precisely because the space within us and the space among us are the same space” (47). Hernandez then devotes his chapter to describing how Nouwen worked out an exemplary balancing act between the poles to solitude and community.

Learning from Nouwen’s writings and life examples, Hernandez wants to invite others into the thrust and source of their own tensions in a way that stimulates personal transformation. Therefore, after describing and interpreting the creative dynamics of Nouwen’s polarities and tensions, Hernandez concludes each chapter with a series of questions for personal reflection. For instance, in Chapter One on the “True Self and False Self”, Hernandez asks questions such as: “What specifically would it mean for me to embrace and claim my authentic self?” “What difference would that make in my personal journey?” “Can I name accurately and honestly the many false selves I have constructed in my life?” “Am I able to detect how they manifest themselves in the way I relate to others? In the way I relate to God? (21). Some chapters, such as Chapter Four on “Solitude and Community” even move beyond the reflective questions into prescribed exercises, such as suggesting one draw or watercolor a symbol of one’s own rhythm (or lack thereof) in the “continuum between the polarities of solitude and community” (58).

Although part of a trilogy, Hernandez’s Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, may be read on its own, especially given its description of foundational concepts, terms, etc. With its breadth of primary source readings and in-depth descriptive-interpretive analysis and its questions for personal reflection, the book is appropriate for academic work and/or personal interest in the life and work of Henri Nouwen, as well as for personal development.


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