Faith & Thought

A Providential Book by A Secular Humanist

I have read many books since the pandemic began about three years ago. In some ways the pandemic provided me with time I previously did not have. The pandemic greatly limited my activities. For the last three years I have not been in a movie theatre, or given a talk in a parish other than celebrating the Sunday Eucharist. 

I chose the books I read carefully, choosing some because I thought reading them might help me in teaching philosophy a St. John’s University, others because of various interests that I have. 

I cannot say that I was disappointed with any of the books I chose to read. I think I profited from reading all of them. However, among all of them, one stands out in my memory for several reasons. That book is Henri J. M. Nouwen’s “Life 0f the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World” (New York: A Crossroad Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992, pp. 156, $17.95). 

There were several reasons why I had decided to read Nouwen’s book. One was the title. Occasionally readers of this weekly column suggest that I am too hard on secular humanists, that I am overly critical of them. I never intend to be. I do think that the philosophy of secular humanism, which is very influential in our society, presents problems for those trying to live as Christians. 

But I never wish to criticize people who sincerely embrace the secular humanistic view of reality and am ready to admit that such people may be very close to God though for various reasons they seem to be unable to believe in God. The subtitle of Nouwen’s book caused me to think that, by reading the book, I might gain new insights into secular humanism. 

I thought reading Nouwen’s book might help me to dialogue with secular humanists. Another reason I chose the book is because of the wonderful reputation that Nouwen has as a spiritual writer. 

A secular humanist who is a close friend of Nouwen’s suggested that Nouwen write a book for him and his friends who are not religious. Nouwen welcomed the suggestion and that’s why “Life of the Beloved” was written. 

Nouwen summarized the request of his friend, Fred, who wanted Nouwen to write the book, as follows: 

“Speak to us about the deepest yearning of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope; not about the many struggles for survival, but about trust; not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. 

“Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a voice deeper than the clamoring of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about…God”(pp. 22-23). 

The book that Nouwen wrote is almost like a long letter to Fred. But what is amazing to me is that the book touched me more deeply than any other book I have read during the pandemic. How mysterious are God’s ways? The Holy Spirit breathes where He will! 

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who often used a French expression when he wanted to suggest that a book appeared at just the right moment in history. I believe the expression was “un libre de circumstance.” 

Nouwen’s book appeared at just the right moment in my life. Nouwen could have written the book with me in mind. What has preoccupied me in my spiritual journey during the pandemic Nouwen sheds light on beautifully and powerfully. 

In his prologue, Nouwen writes the following: 

“I have chosen to speak directly – as I would in a personal letter. By keeping Fred and his friends at the center of my attention, I can best express what is in my heart. 

“I am not able to deal with all the burning issues of our time and society, but I am able to write to a dear friend whom I came to know and love as a fellow-traveller searching for life, light, and truth. 

“I hope that through my being so personal and direct many may want to ‘listen in’ and even join in this spiritual search” (pp. 25, 26). 

I am very glad that I decided to “listen in” and join in the spiritual search. 

What is so amazing to me is that I did not find any new ways to speak with secular humanists, which was one of the reasons the book initially attracted me, but I did find some of the most beautiful insights into our relationship with God. 

I think I learned once again that as we try to pursue God, we often find God pursuing us and waiting for us. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.