Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

The other week my good friend Dan posted about how the missional movement will survive into the future. I think he is spot on in his pushing us away from individualism and into community.

Individualism is running rampant in our culture and the Church has fallen prey to its tendencies. We have lost vital connections between salvation and community. We push people into evangelistic practices all alone. The list goes on.

One area I have seen this individualism run free is in prayer. As with many areas, we have studies and programs describing and analyzing prayer which fills our informational warehouses. Yet when it comes to learning through imitation, we have produced anemic lives of prayer. As I’ve said before, many people intellectually agree and yearn for justice, but don’t know how to engage in it because they’ve never seen a community faithfully practice it. I think the same is true regarding prayer: many of us have never had a community patiently and persistently model, lead, and invite us into prayer. We know we need to live lives of prayer, but we get stuck in the gulf between “book” knowledge on prayer and real life, hearing with our ears, resounding in our souls prayer.

We need these communal rhythms to enrich and guide our everyday individual ways of life. And vice versa.

Our lack of communal prayer has left us bereft of any individual prayer. And our lack of individual prayer has left us shortsighted in the need for communal prayer. The relationship is cyclical.

This seems especially true in many of our current models of Church where entertainment is our mode of being and doing. Prayer is often a bewildering thing, riddled with emotion, and, at times, seemingly fruitless. Sometimes, it rattles us into a deepening sense of God’s absence. It takes time, honesty, and vulnerability. Let’s be honest: it isn’t always the most attractive thing.

Yet, it is what connects us as a “waiting community.”  “Prayer is the language of the Christian community” says Henri Nouwen. “Prayer is not one of the many things the community does. Rather, it is its very being…But when prayer is no longer its primary concern, and when its many activities are no longer seen and experienced as part of prayer itself, the community quickly degenerates into a club with a common cause but no common vocation.”

Prayer – both communal and individual – is the essence of community and mission.

Enough of me. Here is an extended quote from Henri Nouwen discussing the intimate connection between communal and individual prayer:

Much that has been said about prayer thus far might create the false impression that prayer is a private, individualistic and nearly secret affair, so personal and so deeply hidden in our internal life that it can hardly be talked about, even less be shared. The opposite is true. Just because prayer is so personal and arises from the center of our life, it is to be shared with others. Just because prayer is the most precious expression of being human, it needs constant support and protection of the community to grow and flower. Just because prayer is our highest vocation needing careful attention and faithful perseverance, we cannot allow it to be a private affair. Just because prayer asks for a patient waiting in expectation, it should never become the most individualistic expression of the most individualistic emotion, but should always remain embedded in the life of the community of which we are a part.

Prayer as a hopeful and joyful waiting for God is a really unhuman or superhuman task unless we realize that we do not have to wait alone. In the community of faith we can find the climate and the support to sustain and deepen our prayer and we are enabled to constantly look forward beyond our immediate and often narrowing private needs. The community of faith offers the protective boundaries within which we can listen to our deepest longings, not to indulge in morbid introspection, but to find our God to whom they point. In the community of faith we can listen to our feelings of loneliness, to our desires for an embrace or a kiss, to our sexual urges, to our cravings for sympathy, compassion or just a good word; also to our search for insight and to our hope for companionship and friendship. In the community of faith we can listen to all these longings and find the courage, not to avoid them or cover them up, but to confront them in order to discern God’s presence in their midst. There we can affirm each other in our waiting and also in the realization that in the center of our waiting the first intimacy with God is found. There we can be patiently together and let the suffering of each day convert our illusions into the prayer of a contrite people. The community of faith is indeed the climate and source of all prayer.

What does your community do in an effort to be “the climate and source of all prayer”?

How does this translate into your individual life and then back into the community?


Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent


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