Journeying With Henri Nouwen: Solitude Part 2

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. – Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline

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Back in March I began blogging about loneliness. Then in April I followed it up with a post – the first part – about solitude. This is the second part of that post centering on solitude. The thoughts aren’t my own, but are the result of my reading and teaching of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I mention teaching because I am teaching/dialoguing through this book with a group of my friends-turned-family. As a small community, we’ve been yearning to attend to the relationship between God and ourselves through prayer, listening, and acting. Nouwen has been a most welcome voice in our communal journey. I say all this to bring out the reality of this being practiced; it is not an exercise taking place in a book, on a blog, or in some other excarnational manner. Rather, it is being worked out in messy, real life ways. I encourage you to do the same.

Interruptions and Opportunities

The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of a growing withdrawal but is instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude can make it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response. (p. 49)

I have three beautiful daughters, ages 4, 2, and 7 months. Cliche warning: their lives have been life changing for me. (Funny how the cliches are mere sayings until you’re living them.) Each one of them has added immensely to my life.

They have added love.

They have added joy.

They have added frustration.

They have added stress.

Yet their greatest addition to my life – beyond themselves – has been their gift of allowing me to recognize the need for solitude, in general, and, more particularly, the need to lovingly respond to life.

For Nouwen, this is the heart of solitude: living life as a continuous chain of loving responses instead of anxious reactions.

The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to quick, often spastic reactions which make us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly ‘formulate,’ give form to, a response that is really our own. In solitude we can pay careful attention to the world and search for an honest response. (p. 50)

We all live busy lives; it has become the ubiquitous nature of our lives. One of the dangers of this – and there are many – is that we move from “anxious response” to “anxious response” based on the ever-changing, busy world we have created.

A tendency within this frenetic pace of life is to dismiss interruptions as incidents getting in the way of “real life.” We have become gluttons for efficiency, productivity, and ease; interruptions break this up and make us, in this consumer-driven, mechanistic world, less human. Protest and anger boils within as we incessantly attempt to refocus on the task at hand, often to the relegation or rejection of this perceived interruption.

I know I do this. I know I do this with my children.

But what if our interruptions are in fact our opportunities, if they are challenges to an inner response by which growth takes place and through which we come to the fullness of being? What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people? What if all the unexpected interruptions are in fact the invitations to give up old-fashioned and outmoded styles of living and are opening up new unexplored areas of experience? And finally: What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment? (p. 53)

Wouldn’t things be different if we took this approach? If we would develop the solitude of heart Nouwen speaks of, we might begin to cultivate ears urgent to listen and mouths patient to respond. Instead of despair in these interruptions, we may find hope; hope of constant opportunities to convert our loneliness into solitude, our hostility into hospitality.

This is why I am thankful for my children: they have taught me to respond in love, not in anxiety.

The Weight of the World, Solidarity, & Compassion

Another aspect keeping us locked in the closet of loneliness is the felt weight of the world. The daily news has become a terrain of the abysmal and terrifying. We are bombarded with a litany of the world’s woes on a daily basis; no, in our world, it is a minute-by-minute basis. The news changes as quickly as we can hit refresh.

In the midst of this world of instant knowledge of worldwide pain, it is easy to pull away in retreat. We find ourselves feeling helpless or, perhaps more common, we see ourselves as Masters of our own Universe denying ourselves to be fully present to much pain. “This will not effect us” is a common mantra muttered today as we anonymously pass by each other.

What keeps us from opening ourselves to the reality of the world? Could it be that we cannot accept our powerlessness and are only willing to see those wounds that we can heal? Could it be that we do not want to give up our illusion that we are masters over our world and, therefore, create our own Disneyland where we can make ourselves believe that all events of life are safely under control?

But life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heard a creative response can come forth. (p. 57)

In response to heartache, either around the world or across the cubicle, we “anxiously respond” and depend upon our minds and hands, but not our hearts.

When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. (p. 58)

The older I have gotten and the more I have actually listened to the words and actions of others, the more I have become aware of the anguish common to us all. The Christian world I grew up in viewed the spiritual life as a detachment from the world. There was the invisible bubble around us, impenetrable by the world. Being human was being free from the world, its pain and torment included. “Good Christians” didn’t face adversity; we were a happy people. Yet, I have found as I have emerged from this bubble, that the divisiveness, lack of connection, and struggle isn’t merely found in the “world.” No, it is part and parcel of life, for both those who identify as Jesus-followers and those who don’t.

And it is precisely in this mutual experience of pain that solidarity comes forth. It is here that compassion is birthed as we come face to face with what it (partly) means to be human. Loneliness evaporates as we tether our lives together in efforts to move past adversity and into community. “It is this inner solidarity which prevents self-righteousness and makes compassion possible.” It is difficult to respond spitefully or flippantly towards others when we realize the suffering we share in together.

Compassion born in solitude makes us very much aware of our own historicity. We are not called to respond to generalities but to the concrete facts with which we are confronted day after day. A compassionate man can no longer look at these manifestations of evil and death as disturbing interruptions of his life plan but rather has to confront them as an opportunity for the conversion of himself and his fellow human beings. (p. 60)

Instead of solely offering solutions, we need to offer ourselves. Solitude of heart opens our eyes to see what our hearts have been keeping us from. Rather than keep pain – and the people experiencing and perpetuating said pain – at an arm’s length, we are called to see it as part of our life and within the category of what it means to be human. Our efforts “to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt.”

This conversion from “anxious reaction” to “loving response” is a challenge for me. I often fool myself into thinking life is much easier practicing anxiety. Yet, again and again, I find Nouwen’s words to ring true: a life of anxious responses only leads to loneliness. I’ll leave you with his final summation of this solitude of heart:

The movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings. And so, the movement from loneliness to solitude leads us spontaneously to the movement from hostility to hospitality.

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What and/or whom are you “anxiously reacting” to instead of “lovingly responding”?

Are you living in solidarity and compassion with those in your life?

I encourage you to get together with your community and prayerfully and gracefully ask each other these questions.

Journeying With Henri Nouwen: Solitude: Part 1

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. – Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline

A few weeks ago I posted about Loneliness taking my cues from Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. There he urges us to become aware of our aching loneliness and how we anesthetize ourselves through busyness in our searching for recognition and success. Living out of our loneliness tends to push us into competition and rivalry with others, even within our most intimate relationships. And, again, most of us aren’t aware of this posture and its practices. Yet, if we are ever to move towards the other and towards God, we must learn to transform this loneliness into solitude.

This isn’t a solitude of place where one rejects the world by moving into the desert. Our imaginations often picture a hermit living in utter isolation due to an oath of isolation. Rather it is, as Nouwen explains, a solitude of heart that is not dependent upon location. He states,

It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center.

By attentive living we can learn the difference between being present in loneliness and being present in solitude…When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.

This inner life of loneliness and solitude makes up the moments of every day. It isn’t as if we can decide to stay honed in and living out of solitude at all times. We constantly fluctuate between these two poles as we live our lives. The beginning of the spiritual life is attending to this tension and intentionally moving deeper into solitude.

Analogous to living a hermit-type life of isolation is the fright surrounding the solitude of heart resulting in individualistic, escapist lives. This is not necessarily true. Nouwen discusses, “Solitude does not pull us away from our fellow human beings but instead makes real fellowship possible.” It is possible because it is in solitude that we begin to find our true selves. In a life where we are constantly bombarded by a cacophony of voices all competing for a chance to form our identities, it is in the silence of solitude that we begin to hear the voice of our true identity. It is here that we develop the ears to hear the gentle whisper of our souls as we tend to the questions we are asking of ourselves. Solitude opens up space for us to deal with ourselves and our areas of loneliness as we converse with God and hear, perhaps for the first time, the questions he poses to us. 21st century life tells us to run full speed after the answers and so we frantically search for comprehension from every available source. Beginning with an attention to the questions of our own souls and the questions God is allowing us to rest in, we then can deconstruct the need to see people as means to an end, namely our own needs.

Living out of a solitude of heart enables us to reach out to our fellow human beings recognizing both our own uniqueness and the tendency we have to see them solely as people who effectuate our wills.

Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.

Solitude of heart cultivates the individuality of “me” as I love the individuality of “you.” This reciprocity of love between individuals living out of solitude forms creative communities solidified by their mutual respect and encouragement of each person made in God’s image. When we live out of places of loneliness, we force a homogeneity based on competition, rivalry, and cynicism where we all are alike in our pursuit of our own agendas. Trust, promise-making, and commitment don’t exist because hostility is just under the surface of our relationships due to us becoming atomized wielders of power.

And so solitude of heart allows us to clear the space where we can accept friendships and community as gifts, not as opportunities of personal fulfillment through exploitation of others. As we recognize the beauty of ourselves through the God who created us, we begin to see the same beauty in others. Recognition of this beauty paves the way for the further recognition that my exploitation of them is actually an exploitation of myself as well. It is attentive listening to the other, myself, and the God who binds us together that allows us to move past our loneliness and exploitative ways.

Loneliness can be transformed into solitude. In the upcoming part on solitude, I’ll discuss Nouwen’s “creative response” to moving deeper into solitude and out of loneliness.

See you then.

*All Henri Nouwen quotes are from Chapter 2 “A Receptive Solitude,” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent

You might have felt it as a little child when your classmates laughed at you because you were cross-eyed or as a teenager when you were the last one chosen on the baseball team. You might have felt it when you were homesick in a boarding school or angry about non-sense rules which you could not change. You might have felt it as a young adult in a university where everyone talked about grades but where a good friend was hard to find, or in an action group where nobody paid any attention to your suggestions. You might have felt it as a teacher when students did not respond to your carefully prepared lectures or as a preacher when people were dozing during your well-intentioned sermons. And you still might feel it day after day during staff meetings, conferences, counseling sessions, during long office hours or monotonous manual labor, or just when you are by yourself staring away from a book that cannot keep your attention. Practically every human being can recall similar or much more dramatic situations in which he or she has experienced that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, ‘I feel lonely.’

Loneliness is a universal human condition. It is something that we all go through at one point or another. For some, the duration of their loneliness is longer than others. Regardless, if we are honest with ourselves, loneliness has been or is a part of our existence and has shaped our identities.

Henri Nouwen calls our attention to this aching aspect of our lives in an effort to move us deeper within ourselves. It is this moving inward that then allows us to move outward towards others and towards God. There is always overlapping and intertwining; each area is not cut off from the other, but always remain as a whole. Within his beautiful book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, he urges us to transform our loneliness into solitude as we move inward; our hostility to hospitality as we move towards the other; and our illusion to prayer as move towards God. He says,

The more we come to the painful confession of our loneliness, hostilities, and illusions, the more we are able to see solitude, hospitality, and prayer as part of the vision of our life.

Yet, he urges us to begin with the transformation of our loneliness to solitude because “it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”

He is referring to our ever-present attempts to anesthetize our pain. We often times busy ourselves into chaos as we seek to run from our loneliness. If we can only work enough hours, drive the kids to enough practices, take enough courses. The inner void is constantly trying to fill itself with busyness.

If you are like me, you aren’t even fully aware of this busyness that is covering the loneliness. It becomes engrossing in many areas of our life until it becomes our life. The longing for wholeness drives us and also exposes our hopes. We don’t fill ours lives with that which we don’t think will fulfill our hopes.

So we recklessly seek recognition and success. We want to be known as the hard worker so we bury ourselves with work; we want to be recognized as the “Mother of the Year” so we buzz around town putting our kids in every activity we can; we want success as the scholar so we expend our time, money, and effort into multiple degrees. The examples are endless because this covering over of loneliness is endemic to humanity.

As we seek recognition and success as the anesthesia to our loneliness, we often do this to the rejection of others. It doesn’t take much looking around to see how even our most intimate relationships can be tainted by competition and rivalry. The loneliness within me pushes me away from others and their loneliness does the same to them. We build up walls of self-protection and self-defense in efforts of keeping ourselves safe. This comes at the detriment of community as we continually isolate ourselves. If we are not going to be recognized and successful, no one will.

Or we do this by throwing ourselves into relationships that we think will be the end all. If only we can find the perfect spouse. If only we can find the perfect social club. If only we can find the perfect church. The list goes on. Quickly these relationships devolve into groups of lonely people. Where their affinity once seemed to be the glue holding them together, they find strangers instead of community. Again Nouwen states,

Indeed, it seems that the desire for ‘final solutions’ often forms the basis for the destructive violence that enters into the intimacy of human encounters. Mostly this violence is a violence of thoughts, violating the mind with suspicion, inner gossip or revengeful fantasies. Sometimes it is a violence of words disturbing the peace with reproaches and complaints, and once in a while it takes the dangerous form of harmful actions. Violence in human relationship is so utterly destructive because it not only harms the other but also drives the self into a vicious circle asking for more and more when less and less is received.

Living out of our loneliness is what moves us in hostility towards the other.

This journey from loneliness to solitude  starts with an awareness of what we have used or are currently using to cover our loneliness. Busyness and relationships are the avenues we walk down in our longing for recognition and success, and as such, are good starting points. Jean Vanier says we only become aware of our loneliness at times when we cannot perform.

Lent is a season where we can intentionally explore these longings and our loneliness through self-denial. As we deny ourselves activities, busyness, and, perhaps, relationships we are able to clear away the fog hiding our loneliness. The void we often fill becomes apparent as we find ourselves longing for recognition and success now denied. Perhaps these questions can help in this journey:

What do you busy yourself with?

What part of your life would cause you stress, anxiety, and pain if you couldn’t “perform”?

How is loneliness keeping you hostile towards others? 

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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

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

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Humility, Place, and the Everyday: Lessons in Mission from John the Baptizer: Lent Day 7

This morning’s Lenten reading was the entirety of Luke 3. Here we find Luke’s version concerning the beginnings of John the Baptizer’s public ministry. I was struck by its missional attributes of humility, place, and the everyday.

Humility

John takes up some prominent space in the gospels. He has an angelic proclamation to his parents in preparation for his birth. Zacharias, his father was a priest, which made him known in their region. And his mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin. He even had his own group of followers, disciples, living and learning with him. If someone was looking for an impressive CV, you wouldn’t have to look much further beyond John.

Yet when it comes to wielding this recognition and authority, John deflects to Jesus. For the sake of mission, John understands his role as one pointing to Jesus. This comes to a head when he is asked if he is indeed “the Christ.” “No, but he is coming and he is mightier than I.” Personal limitations were well-known to him.

This stood out to me because I know I am a competitive person. Henri Nouwen says of our current culture,

We are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry.

How true and frequent this is. Unfortunately, it happens within Christian community – read: family – and puts mission at a stand still.

It takes humility to know that we have a role within the family of God. We are not all called to be hands. No, some of us are called to be feet. We have different skill sets, giftings, and personalities, that together allow for the mission of God to flourish.

When we give into power and pride, we often assume roles that we have no part in taking. We bad-mouth, become overly critical, and, typically, ragingly jealous. I wonder how badly John wanted to say, “Yes” to the crowds’ question of him being Christ.

Humility isn’t merely a private posture; its effects are communal as we either live into humble love or arrogant power with others.

I wonder how often we assume the role of Christ – in our own lives or the lives of others – when we should humbly point beyond ourselves to Jesus and his unifying mission.

Place

John had an astute understanding of the role of place. It wasn’t by coincidence that he was meeting people and baptizing them in the Jordan River. The Jordan had (has) a special place in the social imagination and memory of the Jewish people. It was the geographic boundary the Israelites crossed over as they entered into the Promised Land. Found in the wilderness, John called people to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Now, we shouldn’t think of this as personal salvation, but as a renewed call to be the community of people they were meant to be. And this would have been obvious to the people there as they knew how place was intimately linked to themselves and their story.

John evokes a dual call to both coming judgment and hope by placing himself in the wilderness and baptizing in the Jordan. It was this rootedness within his place that allowed him to enter the social imagination and memory of his people. He didn’t just know his role, his people, and his story. Rather, they all combined with his knowledge of place to make one coherent proclamation.

With his humble call to the One Coming After Him, he offered this hope and called into being a picture of (finally) entering into the true Promised Land. Through his recapitulation of the ancient Israelites’ dealings in the wilderness, he was calling people to a life of justice and peace. It began with an understanding of the role of place in the mind of his people. From there, he called them into the continuing mission of God.

I wonder how we might understand place in our own contexts and by doing so tap into the social imagination and memory of the people around us as we join God in his mission.

The Everyday

I have found over and over again how enamored people are with the glamorous and the spectacular. We like things done big and done well. We’d rather make a huge splash than tiny ripples.

I’ve heard many times of peoples’ dreams of going big. People chase after the title, the organization, the complex social issue. Within the Church world, I have heard many people say they want the title of Pastor, the Homeless Shelter non-profit organization, and that they’re going to stop the social issue of human trafficking.

We tend to chase after the grandiose while missing out on the everyday. We reach for the stars, but forget the dirt we’re standing in. We’d rather flirt with the universal and reject the particular.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think we often lose sight of where God has us now in lieu of pursuing something else. If we don’t start with the small, we will have a much, much more difficult time attaining the character and skill required for the large.

This was a temptation for John’s listeners as they heard and saw ancient words coming true before them. Their longings were finally being met and now the show could get started. Let’s do it big and do it now.

Our participation in the mission of God, however, always begins where we are in the everyday. 

John reminds us of this when he tells his questioners to start with themselves in the regularity of the everyday. “If you have two tunics, give one of them to someone who has none.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than what you’ve been ordered to.” To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t take any money by force; be happy with your wages.”

N.T Wright says,

What we discover at this point is that the sorting-out process begins here and now. We’ve come to hear about the big picture, about the whole world being put to rights. But we are brought down to earth with a bump by the questions people are asking and the answers they’re receiving. People ask: ‘What are we to do?’ Answer: ‘Straighten your lives out in the simplest, most direct way.’

And by doing so, they would begin to be the people they were created to be with Jesus as their Christ.

I wonder what would happen if we began to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear God’s missional movement in the everyday.

Connecting the Dots

I have found that these three qualities intersect and overlap in mission. Often it is our lack of humility that pushes us into seeking after the grandiose. This seeking often results in a relegation of our everyday and our place as we yearn for the prideful position, organization, or eradication of the social ill. It takes humility to realize our placedness and to begin there by seeking God’s voice and movement. I think John was on to something as he deliberately prodded his community into humility, place, and the everyday.

May we do the same as we participate in God’s mission.

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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

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

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?

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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

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

If there is any hope for the Church in the future, it will be hope for a poor Church in which its leaders are willing to be led.

– Henri Nouwen in The Name of Jesus

This morning’s Lenten readings were from Luke 2. It is a passage often recited and heard during Christmas; not a usual story that comes to mind during Lent.

The focus zeroed in on the shepherds watching their flocks and their response to the message given to them by the angels. N.T. Wright describes this episode in way I hadn’t thought about before. In many ways, it corresponds to what I wrote about yesterday regarding longings, presence, and vulnerability.

Shepherds were considered as lowly people in the time of Jesus. Not many people listened to them or respected them. The only ones who trusted them enough to actually follow after them were their sheep. Trustingly, the shepherds’ sheep take their cue from where their leader goes. Traipsing through the arid climate of the Mediterranean, the sheep end up at water and grass only after following the footsteps of their shepherd.

Ironically, the shepherds in Luke 2 are presented with a message where the tables are turned and they are asked to follow. Their destination? A feeding trough where animals eat. The ones who do the leading to sustenance are  now to do the following. The ones who lead are now being called to the vulnerable state of being led.

“So we have to be sheep, now, do we? Why is that?” says Wright of the shepherds. “Back comes the answer, sung to music the like of which you’d never imagined before: ‘The great Shepherd himself has been born! The King is here, and you are his sheep, his people! Come and find him!'”

And off they go to find him as they were told. Instead of giving into the social voices of segregation and second-class citizenship, they followed the gentle voice of God.

Wright asks us, “Pause and pray about the quiet messages you get from time to time; perhaps not angels singing, but a soft whisper that tells you to go somewhere unexpected, to do something you hadn’t planned, to visit someone you were previously thinking about.”

In a world of competing voices, how do you posture yourself to hear God’s voice? What practices help you cultivate an attention to the presence of God?

One of the practices I have incorporated for some time now is the carrying around of my little notebook.

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As you can tell from the duct tape, I always have it in my pack pocket regardless of where I am. If it is a trip to the grocery store, all day at work, on family trips, at other peoples’ homes, it doesn’t matter. I have learned God is always present, so I need to be attentive to hearing his voice where ever and when ever. And I’ve found this to be true as I have had to stop and write down thoughts, remembrances, people’s names, and a host of other things in a host of different places. As Nouwen continues,

In short, they [Christians] have to say ‘no’ to the secular world and proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has made even the smallest event of human history into Kairos, that is, an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ. The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained – through prayer, study, and careful analysis – to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of their time.

Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.

Writing things down helps me remember what I believe God is saying to me. If I don’t, I tend to forget it rather quickly. Writing things down is also helpful in recalling what God said a day, a week, a month, or even a year prior. I always date every book and every day’s page, so I can easily maneuver back and forth between the present and the past for the sake of the future. I don’t write things down just for the sake of writing them down; no, I write things down so I know where I am being led instead of venturing out on my own. It is a book of action, not just memory.

Within this notebook, I have a practice I learned from my friend Ben. I ask three questions in the morning:

Father, what are we going to do together today?

Is there anything I will miss or need to remember that you need to tell me?

Are there any people I need to connect with who aren’t on my schedule?

These questions have given me a posture and a practice of being attentive through listening for and to God. I don’t always write an “answer” to each question and what I write isn’t always perfect. What they do allow for, however, is open space for my longings and presence to be readjusted by Jesus’ voice leading me. It is then my call to follow through with what he is saying. After all, the basis of discipleship revolves around the questions of “What is God saying to me?” and its follow-up, “What am I going to do about it?”.

What practices do you incorporate for listening to the voice of God?

Are there things you are denying yourself in order to create open space to hear God more clearly?

I’d love to hear as we learn together.

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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

Henri Nouwen and Hospitality

“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

…if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that  guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host…When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity.

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Indeed, more often than not rivalry and competition, desire for power and immediate results, impatience and frustration, and most of all, plain fear make their forceful demands and tend to full every possible empty corner of our life. Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. ‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion. From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence. Hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain then with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressive than revealing.”

– Henri Nouwen in the chapter “Creating Space for Strangers” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life