The Spiritually Formed Person: Mind & Heart

I just finished reading Henri Nouwen’s “Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit”; this is a fabulous collection of Henri’s work in the area of Spiritual Formation. Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird have done a wonderful job bringing Henri’s work together in a clear and concise way. Anyone who has read Henri before, knows that he advocated “movements” rather than “stages” or “steps” in growing spiritually.

“Instead of progressive stages of development, it is about movements – from things that enslave and destroy to liberation and life.” In the introductory chapter, Henri clarifies the distinction between the “head” and the “heart”. Too many of us (myself included) remain “Head Christians” rather than “Heart Disciples”. Henri helps paint both the problem and the solution well in this introduction:

“A little boy was watching a sculptor at work. For weeks this sculptor kept chipping away at a big block of marble. After a few weeks he had created a beautiful marble lion. The little boy was amazed and said: “Mister, how did you know there was a lion under that rock?

Long before he forms the marble, the sculptor must know the lion. The sculptor must know the lion “by heart” to see him in the rock. The secret of the sculptor is that what he knows by heart he can recongnize in the marble. A sculptor who knows an angel by heart will see an angel in the marble; when the sculptor knows God by heart he will see God in the marble. The sculptor certainly has to know the trade, because without skills and techniques the marble will not reveal the knowledge of the heart. But skills and techniques alone won’t suffice unless the heart is formed by the right knowledge. The great question for the sculptor is, What do you know by heart?

The story of the boy and sculptor helps us to see spiritual formation as formation of the heart. What is the value of well-trained and well-informed Christians and spiritual leaders when their hearts remain ignorant? What is the value of great theological erudition or great pastoral adeptness or intense but fleeting mystical experience or social activism when there is not a well-formed heart to guide a well-formed life?

Whether the knowledge of the mind leads to God or to despair depends on the heart. When the word of God remains of a subject of analysis and discussion and does not descend into the heart, it can easily become and instrument of distruction instead of a guide to love. When our heart knows only evil or selfish thoughts it will evoke evil and selfishness, but when our heart is formed by the living word of God in Christ it will discern the face of God in all it sees.”

Two questions I hope we can all learn to ask ourselves over and over again: “What do I know by heart?” & “How do I move from the mind to the heart?”

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