Pastoral Psychological Essays

by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Fides Publishers Inc., 1969, 164 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

I was married the year this book came out. Looking back, I regret that I did not have access to this book at the time – it would have helped put the various stages of my personal and religious development into better perspective. But having discovered it later in life it has, even now, enriched my understanding of the pathways toward maturity I still attempt to traverse.

This book consists of eight essays written during a two-year visit to the University of Notre Dame. In them, Nouwen attempts to enter and understand the world of typical university students during this turbulent era of North American history. They include a wide range of topics centered around the broader themes of sexuality, prayer, community and ministry, but are inter-woven with an awareness of the common thread of the human search for intimacy.

While all of the chapters were interesting and I was able to identify with much of what he said as I reflected on my student years, it was his opening chapter entitled, From Magic to Faith that grabbed my attention most profoundly. Indeed, it would be worth buying the book for this chapter alone. It is worth the weight of the book in computer chips. Perhaps this chapter is one of Nouwen’s finest examples of bringing together his training in psychology and his deep understanding of Christian spirituality.

Drawing on his in-depth understanding of various stages of psychological development, Nouwen suggests that for mature faith to develop in a person these stages should be accompanied by similar developments of religious growth and experience. However, he notes that this is sadly often not the case, creating the anomaly of otherwise mature and successful people living with a faith that is quite juvenile or even infantile.

For instance, he suggests that during the first 18 months of life infants discover that they are not the center of the world, that mother is an other. But for many, God has not become the Other, remaining instead the magical pacifier whose existence depends on theirs. And in normal development, says Nouwen, toddlers learn that while language is powerful, it can not be used to manipulate the world around them. But for many whose spiritual development has not kept pace, he argues, their prayers remain tools to manipulate God in their direction instead of becoming a true dialogue with God. And further, instead of the normal development of conscience by the interiorization of the values of adults around them, many transfer their notion of an “omnipotent” daddy onto God. So religion becomes a means of living in a magical world in which they don’t have to face the hard and harsh realities of life.

Without going into detail, I will summarize Nouwen’s thoughts about further maturation of faith in the various stages of human development. Mature faith must be able to synthesize new information and experiences into life, which means a constant willingness to shift gears, to integrate new insights and to revise one’s position. It must come to terms with the fact that life outside and inside of oneself is complicated, not simplistic. Mature faith requires one to be sure of oneself without being “cocksure” – thus allowing freedom to take some risks as a “searching believer”. Mature faith gives us the freedom to move beyond our comfort zones, is the basis for creative community, and is a constant incentive for an on-going renewal of life.

Of course any, and sometimes all, of these natural faith developments can be arrested along the way of growing up. So that while we might have become quite mature and realistic in other areas of life, our faith experience and expression might indeed be characterized more by notions of magic than by real faith.

This short chapter in a relatively short book has given me many new insights with respect to my own spiritual pilgrimage and those of many of my friends. Even if you don’t read the whole book, you owe it to yourself to read the first chapter, From Magic to Faith.