Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation
Henri J. M. Nouwen
New York, NY: Image Books, 2000
Who might this book interest? I think that most Christians, who are serving Christ in some way, would benefit from reading Nouwen’s book, Clowning in Rome. It will especially appeal to those who are not serving in the spotlight, and help them to bring greater depth and understanding to their service to God and people.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Quick Summary: Before his passing in 1996, Nouwen was a Catholic priest, pastoral theologian and psychologist as well as a spiritual writer. In his teaching career, he taught at Norte Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School. After serving as a university professor for many years, Nouwen went on to serve the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada until his death. He had an immense literary output of over 40 books! Thus, Nouwen’s influence has continued well after his death.
Initially, I equated Nouwen’s title, “Clowning in Rome,” with something like “Goofing Off in Rome.” So, I did not really feel that it was a book that I wanted to read, but then, I read the Introduction, and I quickly became captivated by it. The idea is that clowns are in the peripheral and not a part of the main show, but they serve in so many ways out of the spotlight. Nouwen originally gave these as lectures to various religious communities in Rome.
Chapter 1: Solitude and Community seems even more relevant today than when it was originally written in 1978. We live in an “emergency-oriented society” where “fear and anger” are prominent features. Fear and anger may produce togetherness but not love for your neighbor. Solitude show us that community grows us with others. It teaches us dependence on God, which enables us to love others in spite of themselves. In solitude, we find our true identity and calling as part of our community and common call. If we do not structure time for solitude, we live in and of the emergency-oriented world, where we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. Solitude allows us to connect with our Creator and Redeemer. It strips away all of our false self-identity, and exposes our true self before the One who loves and guides us into community. In our day of false unity through fear and anger, we need true solitude and community more than ever.
Chapter 2: Celibacy and the Holy originally made me wonder if this chapter really had anything to say to me as a married person. We each have an inner sacred space which witnesses to God. Celibacy is a visible witness to that sacred space in all of us. Interpersonal relationships are important, but may overrun our sacred space in our desperation for intimacy. The meaning of celibacy is important for all states of life: marriage, friendship, etc. Celibacy witnesses that God is the source of love for all of us. The two pillars of celibacy are contemplative prayer and poverty. God comes to meet us in this prayer, and voluntary poverty is an outer expression of one’s inner poverty, which hopes and depends on God to fulfill. Sexual abstinence, contemplative prayer, and voluntary poverty witness to the inner vacancy “where we encounter Love, listen to the voice of Love, and celebrate the presence of Love in our midst.” Celibacy is a reminder not to attempt to fill one’s need for love completely in others, but in the true Source, God. Then, our interpersonal relationships can be energized with His love.
Chapter 3: Prayer and Thought challenges us in our prayer and thoughts. Many time, people want to make prayer a “part” of their life, but St. Paul makes prayer his whole life and encourages us to do the same. Pray is like breathing or our heart beating; ceaseless until physical death. What does it mean “to pray without ceasing”? The Jesus Prayer is one example. Nouwen continues to explore, “How can thinking become praying?” First, we need to stop thinking. Second, unceasing prayer is not unceasingly thinking about God, but thinking all of our thoughts in God’s presence. This is not introspection, but conversation and communion. This is a slow process. Surrendering all of our thoughts to God is difficult, especially when our thoughts feel inappropriate or embarrassing. Discipline provides support for constant communion. Attempt to be open to God in all circumstances. Nouwen suggests contemplative prayer as a means of waiting on God.
Finally, Chapter 4: Contemplation and Caring shows us the connection between these. Nouwen says, “To contemplate is to see, and to minister is to make visible, the contemplative life is a life with a vision, and the life of caring for others a life revealing the vision to others.” According to Nouwen, the contemplative life is moving from opaqueness to transparency in three areas: nature, time, and people. The contemplative life allows us to see beneath the outward and makes the world a sacrament which reveals God’s love. Nouwen comments, “The practice of the contemplative prayer is the discipline by which we begin to ‘see’ the living God dwelling in our own hearts.” God within us reveals God in nature, time, and people.
Evangelical Assessment: Nouwen seamlessly integrates psychology, theology and spirituality. There is a depth in his approach that is so often lacking in the evangelical perspective. His approach to solitude as a basis for true community. The discussion of celibacy in a context which highlights the centrality of God, while affirming marriage, gives a unique and needed perspective. The encouragement and challenge to make prayer your life, instead of a part of your life. The interconnection of contemplation to care in our relationship with God.
Nouwen was a Catholic priest and draws on the history of Christian spirituality, but he is also broad in his thinking. While there is occasional Catholic speak, it is not prominent, nor a distraction for the evangelically-minded reader. Once again, there is great depth in Nouwen’s writing.
He interacts with some current religious-based psychology, quotes philosophy, refers to Scripture as well as draws from the history of Christian spirituality. It is obvious that he has meditated and internalized much of what he teaches in this book. He is a thoughtful academic, who knows these writings, but he is also a contemplative, who has meditated upon them. If there is any draw back, it is the implicit use of Scripture when an explicit use could be helpful.
Inevitably, I end up reading the chapters multiple times before I feel like I understand what he is saying. On a purely surface level, Nouwen is accessible, but it really takes multiple readings to plunge the depth of his thought. Generally, I find myself reading the chapters three times each before I feel that I have a sufficient grasp on the content.
I believe that this book would be good reading for any Christian who is serving Him. It will especially be helpful for those who are not in the limelight. They serve in a way that is not noticed by others. They are the normal people that give us hope in our service to Christ. This book will nurture their inner life with God and outward service to Him.