Liberation Spirituality: Henri Nouwen and Gustavo
Gutierrez in Dialogue

Lecture Notes:

Presented by Michael J. Christensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Practice of Spirituality and Ministry, Drew University;  and International Director, Communities of Shalom, The United Methodist Church


“There is a little man in Peru, a man
without any power, who lives in a barrio with poor people and who wrote a
book.  In this book he simply
reclaimed the basic Christian truth that God became human to bring good news to
the poor, new light to the blind, and liberty to the captives.  Then years later this book and movement
it started is considered a danger by [the USA, or Rome], the greatest power on
earth.  When I look at this little
man, Gustavo, and think about [the President of the US, or the Pope], I see
David standing before Goliath, again with no more weapon than a little stone, a
stone called
A Theology
of Liberation
(Henri Nouwen, Gracias!,1983,
pp. 174-75)

This seminar draws water and
wisdom fromGustavo Gutierrez,the “Father of Liberation Theology”, and one his most famous
students, Henri Nouwen, acclaimed writer on the spiritual life, as they engage
and reflect together on an emerging “liberation spirituality” for the people of

Here are three Notions of

1.     “’Everyone has to drink from his own well’,observed St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who
inspired many monastic orders.  Simply stated, each one of us must find
our own well and drink the water of life that is right for us, both inside and
outside the Cloister.

.     2. ’Everyone has to drink from his own well’… Yet no one drinks
alone,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We all have drunk from wells we did not dig and
enjoyed fresh water that is not entirely our own.”
Hence the need for community
Nouwen, Discernment).  Simply stated: spirituality is not essentially personal,
private or the product of individual pursuit and practice; rather, authentic
spirituality is corporate and connected to all the people of God and practiced
in community and compassionate ministry.

3.     “Spirituality is like living water that springs up in the very depths
of the experience of faith,” writes
Gutierrez.  “To drink from your
own well is to live your own life in the Spirit of Jesus as you have
encountered him in your concrete historical reality.”
Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells).  Simply
stated: spirituality is not essentially personal, private, individualistic, or
even the expression of community life; rather, authentic spirituality emerges
from the struggle of the people of God and from the particular social context
of that struggle for liberation.

So, how do we draw water and wisdom from our own personal experience
of God, and our community of faith, and from the larger struggle of the people
of God in the world as we seek the liberation of all?

Gustavo Gutierrez emerged as a popular
theologian in Latin America in the late 1960’s, and represented Christianity as
a “preferential option for the poor.” He became known as the “Father of
Liberation Theology”–a practical theology and active faith born out of
solidarity with common people and their struggles.  His books and courses
became prophetic in liberation theology movements in Latin America and around
the world.

Henri Nouwen attended one of Gustavo’s
popular courses in Lima, Peru, in 1982. “I remember this course as one of the
most significant experiences of my six-month stay in Latin America,” Nouwen writes
in his journal.  What he learned from Gustavo was that “liberating
spirituality” must be rooted in an active and reflective faith, and not a
passive, private or privileged contemplative experience.

Although Nouwen remained critical of some
aspects of Liberation Theology, what impressed him most was how Gustavo
Gutierrez integrated mysticism and activism, the struggle for spiritual growth
with the struggle for political freedom.  Although Gustavo remained
critical of a purely personal, private, individualistic spirituality, he centered
his own activist faith in a deeper spiritual and theological reflection. In the
dialectic of Gustavo’s more activist faith and Henri’s more contemplative
spirituality and, a new kind of liberationist spirituality was articulated
which is reflected in Gustavo’s We
Drink from Our Own Wells 
and Henri’s Foreword to the book.

Together, these two priests offer the
world fresh perspectives on the “primordial waters of spiritual
experience”–from oral tales and written texts, concrete lives and communities
of faith–in the common struggle for freedom. “By dipping deeply into the well
of our own lives [as the people of God], we can discern the movements of God’s
Spirit in our lives,” writes Nouwen in Discernment (p.

Liberation Spiritualityis experienced in the
creative tension, the life-giving dialectic, the quest for balance of praxis and
theoria, action and contemplation.

In a nutshell, that’s my seminar!  But it will take more time to crack
that walnut.

Recommended books for this Seminar:  Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink for Our Own WellsHenri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, editors

PRESENTATION: Liberation Spirituality

by Dr. Michael J. Christensen, Ph.D.


Check in

One:  We Drink from Our Own Wells

STORY  (Discernment:  pp 171-172)

Social Analysis and Biblical Reflection  (Exo 3)

PPT:  7 Elements
of Liberation Spirituality

TWO   Discerning Vocation

Vocational Choices

  • What’s your Spiritual Type? 
  • Where are you on your journey?

Rule of One:  Action—Contemplation

Rule of Two:  Action
Or Contemplation Dualism

Rule of Three:  Action-And-Contemplation

  • ·     
    Contemplative Action
  • ·     
    Committed Contemplation

Conclusion:  Micah 6:8