The cover is faded. The broken spine carefully taped together. The 78 pages (plus three pages of notes) are now yellowing with age. But my personal copy of The Way of The Heart by Henri Nouwen (Ballantine Books, 1983) is a favorite book that often accompanies me when I travel and almost always comes along when I take some personal time off. This may be the book I’ve recommended more than any other to friends and family members.
Each time I open my battered and heavily underlined paperback copy, Henri Nouwen’s gently probing questions and quiet reflections spark a desire to travel back in time with him into the fourth century to listen to what the Desert Fathers and Mothers have to say to us regarding the spiritual disciplines of Solitude, Silence and Prayer.
Nouwen recalls how this book originated in a seminar he taught at the Yale Divinity School on the spirituality of the desert. Five women and eleven men from 10 different denominations “gradually came to see the ‘way of the heart’ as the way that united us in spite of our many historical, theological, and psychological differences” (The Way of the Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page vii).
When he penned his prologue, he set the context with these timeless words:
“It seems that the darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever. During the last few years I have been wondering what it means to be a minister in such a situation” (The Way of the Heart, pages1-2).
The Way of The Heart is written especially to women and men called to minister to others in Christ’s name “to bring light into the darkness, ‘to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor’ (Luke 4:18-19).” (The Way of the Heart, page 2).
“In this fearful and painful period of our history we who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons are having a difficult time fulfilling our task of making the light of Christ shine into the darkness.” Here are some of the questions Nouwen invites us to consider in light of the contexts in which we live and seek to minister:
• “What is required of a man or a woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope?”
• “How can we expect to remain full of creative vitality, of zeal for the Word of God, of desire to serve, and of motivation to inspire our often numbed congregations?
• “Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength?
• “How can we alleviate our own spiritual hunger and thirst?”
Reading and re-reading The Way of The Heart is one way to begin a search for personal and lasting answers. But the path Nouwen maps out may be as challenging as your most rigorous workout regime. Concluding the prologue he writes:
“The words flee, be silent and pray summarize the spirituality of the desert. They indicate the three ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image and thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.
“My first task is to explore what it means for us to flee from the world. This raises the question of solitude. My second task is to define silence as an essential element of a spirituality of ministry. Finally, I want to challenge you with the vocation to pray always” (The Way of the Heart, page 4).
May you discover the radical personal benefits of solitude, silence and prayer.