Henri Nouwen provides great insight into the spiritual dynamics of grief, loss, and coping with death in The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. For spiritual directors guiding grieving people and those experiencing various personal crises, Nouwen’s journal can be a great tool to open the directee to expressing what he or she is experiencing deep within one’s being.
However, Nouwen cautions the reader not to become completely absorbed within it nor to become distracted and numb to it. He has numerous entries that detail his feelings of being unable to cope and simply feeling overwhelmed. Engaging directees who are mired in constant crying, fatigue, tremendous feelings of sadness, inability to concentrate, anxiety, irritability, etc. can make direction difficult. Some directees may be tempted to turn to drugs, alcohol, become suicidal. Nouwen’s journal provides encouragement and comfort for people who are suffering in these ways and can be a useful tool for reflection and discussion.
A key theme for Nouwen is “acceptance” and he devotes several entries to simply learning to live with the changes and current situation in one’s life. He suggests the path forward is one that requires the pilgrim to take specific “action” and the titles of the sections are all verbal imperatives. For example, “cling,” “stop,” “trust,” “give,” go,” “acknowledge,” “seek,” “claim,” “live,” call forth from the reader an action that is grounded in response to God’s goodness and presence, even if this is unable to be recognized in the present moment.
This is a key point for spiritual directors. The trigger event for many people to initially seek spiritual direction is when they enter a time of loss, grief, or crisis. Nouwen’s journal is the account of his own passage through a time of intense suffering and is helpful to inspire hope and confidence that “this too shall pass.” However, from the perspective of this director, times of grief/crisis are not the ideal time to begin direction with a first timer. It would seem reasonable that once the person has moved beyond the initial shock of the crisis, some internal processing is required before one is capable of appropriating the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit in daily life. Nouwen’s own experience supports this: “The anguish completely paralyzed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments…all had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons” (xiv).
For a person to be journeying with a spiritual director and for the experience to be fruitful it usually means that issues like these have been at least initially addressed and begun to be incorporated into one's life first. Spiritual direction and grieving both call for much inner and personal work, but ordinarily not at the same time. This director believes it will be more productive to allow someone who is trained in facilitating healing/overcoming grief and trauma to do some initial work with the directee and for the spiritual director to come along a few steps behind in a supporting and clarifying role.
The most fundamental tasks of the director are helping the directee pay attention to God as he reveals himself and helping the directee recognize his/her reactions and decide on his/her responses to God. This is all present tense stuff, which requires us to have an awareness of this movement in the present moment. Nouwen writes: “Whatever you are doing—watching a movie, writing a book, giving a presentation, eating or sleeping—you have to stay in God’s presence…where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain” (23).
For spiritual directors guiding directees through difficult periods, it is important not to confuse the emotional upheaval connected with loss/grief with the “dark night” experience. What distinguishes the dark night from depression is that a person in the dark night normally has an intuition that these trials are going someplace. One perceives at times the fruits of the dark night in changing perceptions such as the growth of a non-judgmental attitude, greater detachment from things and persons, greater humility, deeper trust in God. This is clearly Nouwen’s experience. “You know that something totally new, truly unique, is happening within you. It is clear that something in you is dying and something is being born. You must remain attentive, calm, and obedient to your best intentions” (17). Those in the dark night, like Nouwen, although they may be feeling inwardly that their world has collapsed, will generally continue to function in their jobs and relationships.
Throughout the book, Nouwen explains how his crisis changed his relationship with God. This is a wonderful question for spiritual directors to propose to their directees. Is your faith stronger? Or do you have more questions than before? How are you and God getting along right now? Are you on speaking terms? At peace? Angry? Nouwen believes that in order to move forward, one must “believe in the yes that comes back when you ask, ‘Do you love me?’ You must choose this yes even when you do not experience it” (8).
From this foundational understanding of God’s love and presence, even when not able to be perceived, Nouwen’s journal can help spiritual directors and directees to recognize and understand the spiritual experience of “desolation.” Nouwen devotes numerous entries to the simple idea of remaining and returning to previously consoling places.
This is sound advice. When the directee is weighed down by a certain desolation, the director cautions them not to try to change too much, but to hold fast to decisions which guided them during the time before the desolation came. On the other hand, Nouwen does not advise simply sitting back and throwing in the towel. He provides numerous exhortations to do as St. Ignatius of Loyola also advised, “to intensify our activity against the desolation. This can be done by insisting on prayer, meditation, frequent examinations, and by increasing our penance in some suitable manner.” Spiritual directors can encourage directees to fight off whatever is making them less than what the Lord has called them to be. The classic remedy is to suggest he/she undertake some service or good works, particularly for those that are in need. Spirituality starves desolation.
Finally, Nouwen’s journal can be used to encourage directees to explore their own situations through journaling. This can be a wonderful new experience for a directee to begin keeping a spiritual journal. This director often suggests directees attempt two-way, dialogical journaling with the Lord, based on the model of Morton Kelsey. While Nouwen doesn’t directly address his own journal regimen, directors can remind directees that is can be helpful to begin each journaling period by writing out a question to God on the top of the page rather than staring at a blank sheet of paper. Centering Prayer, quieting exercises, or icon gazing as a prelude, are all helpful.
 “The Dark Night” is a term from the writings of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Discalced Carmelite priest who set down a cartography of the spiritual journey through the classic stages of the apophatic path of purgation, illumination, and union in poetic form with commentary on the stanzas. John divides the “Dark Night” in two major movements, the “Night of the Senses” and the “Night of the Spirit.” Each of these major nights is further divided into “active” and “passive” phases.
 "Desolation is darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord." David L Fleming, Draw me into your friendship: A literal translation and a contemporary reading of The spiritual exercises (Series IV--Studies on Jesuit topics), 5th ed. (St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 250
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Image Books, 1998), 4, 8, 23, 45, 57, 74, 86, 95, 113
 Ibid., 3, 11, 19, 21, 32, 40, 49, 51, 59, 80, 84, 88, 91, 98
 Fleming, 251
 Morton Kelsey’s classic book on journaling is Adventure Inward. See bibliography.
Fleming, David L. Draw me into your friendship: A literal translation and a contemporary reading of The spiritual exercises (Series IV--Studies on Jesuit topics). 5th ed.: Institute Of Jesuit Sources, 1996.
Kelsey, Morton T. Adventure Inward. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. New York: Image Books, 1998.