Saturday, November 29, 2014

With Open Hands

Title:  With Open Hands
Author:  Henri J. M. Nouwen
Publication Information:  Ave Maria Press. 1972 (first edition). 125 pages.
ISBN:  1594710643 / 978-1594710643

Book Source:  I read this book based on the recommendation of a friend who was kind enough to lend me her copy.

Favorite Quote:  "Ultimately, I believe what is most personal is most universal."

Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic priest who wrote over 40 books on leading a spiritual life. He was ordained at the age of 25 and then complemented his religious training with training in psychology. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame and the divinity schools at Yale and Harvard. He culminated his career working with a Canadian community to support those with intellectual disabilities. He died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 64. Even today, his work is widely used by Catholic and Protestant clergy.

With Open Hands was Henri Nouwen's first published book on prayers. It was originally published in Dutch in 1971 and translated into English in 1972. It begins with the image of clenched fist; goes through the ideas of prayer with silence, acceptance, hope, compassion, and criticism; and ends with the image of open hands. The central concept is that through prayers and the ideas of silence, acceptance, hope, compassion, and criticism, an individual progresses from fear and clenched fists to the hope and faith of open hands:

  • Silence both from the distractions in our world and from the thoughts and emotions within our own hearts and minds.
  • Acceptance of our own vulnerabilities and of all others leaving no room for prejudice.
  • Hope in someone and something no matter what as different from a wish for a specific something or someone.
  • Compassion for ourselves and for others as we realize that we are not alone and that we are all the same.
  • Prophetic criticism as we venture into the unknown and become open to new answers.

The best way to describe this book is that it is a framework. It is a framework to show the necessity of prayer in our lives and to show the characteristics by which we should approach prayer. As such, it presents a broad, general paradigm. The ideas are presented in short reflective writings, most of which bear reading more than once. In that respect, the structure of the book is similar to books of devotionals or daily readings.

The book, however, does not go beyond the framework. The metaphor of the clenched fists and open hands repeats throughout; the image anchors the book. That image will stay with me for a long time.  The text, however, is very general and gets more and more so towards the end of the book. The book presents no guidelines for application and no other stories to ground it. If you are looking for a how to guide, this is not it. It is a gentle reminder and a gentle nudge towards a set of guidelines for living.

The book is, of course, based in Christian theology. However, it provides no Biblical references - actually no references to religious texts at all. The idea of prayer as living open to what comes your way is spiritual in nature and can be applied across different religious lines. The belief in the need for prayers and in living open to life is one shared by many, many traditions around the world. The value of the book lies in what an individual can use and apply in his or her own life. As with other books in this genre, take what works for you and leave the rest. Take the framework and look for more details elsewhere.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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