From Making All Things New by Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen’s books are widely read today by Protestants and Catholics alike. The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, The Life of the Beloved, and The Way of the Heart are just a few of the more widely recognized titles. After nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University, he went to share his life with mentally handicapped people at the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. After a long period of declining energy, which he chronicled in his final book, Sabbatical Journey, he died in September 1996 from a sudden heart attack.
For the background to this post, please first read Prayer—an inventor’s perspective.
The spiritual life is a gift. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who lifts us up into the kingdom of God’s love. But to say that being lifted up into the kingdom of love is a divine gift does not mean that we wait passively until the gift is offered to us.
Jesus tells us to set our hearts on the kingdom. Setting our hearts on something involves not only serious aspiration but also strong determination. A spiritual life requires human effort. The forces that keep pulling us back into a worry-filled life are far from easy to overcome.
“How hard it is,” Jesus exclaims, “… to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23, JB). And to convince us of the need for hard work, He says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of Mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24, JB).
The Still Small Voice
Here we touch the question of discipline in the spiritual life. A spiritual life without discipline is impossible. Discipline is the other side of discipleship. The practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God.
The prophet Elijah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the small voice (see 1 Kings 19:9-13). Through the practice of a spiritual discipline we become attentive to that small voice and willing to respond when we hear it.
From an Absurd to an Obedient Life
From all that I said about our worried, overfilled lives, it is clear that we are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when He is speaking to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us and unable to understand in which direction He calls us.
Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means “deaf.” A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, Who constantly speaks but Whom we seldom hear.
When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow His guidance.
Jesus’ life was a life of obedience. He was always listening to the Father, always attentive to His voice, always alert for His directions. Jesus was “all ears.” That is true prayer: being all ears for God. The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God.
The Concentrated Effort
A spiritual discipline, therefore, is the concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our lives, where this obedience can be practiced. Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen. A spiritual discipline sets us free to pray or, to say it better, allows the Spirit of God to pray in us.
A Time and a Space
Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God, and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that He is actively present in our lives—healing, teaching, and guiding—we need to set aside a time and a space to give Him our undivided attention. Jesus says, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to the Father Who is in that secret place” (Matt. 6:6, JB).
To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us.
This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.
We often use these outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.
This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are too many reasons not to be alone. Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude.
Stay tuned for Part 2 from Henri Nouwen coming next week…