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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Towards an Understanding of Solitude

Henri Nouwen titled his chapter on solitude ‘The Furnace of Transformation’ because that’s where ‘stuff comes up’ according to a speaker I heard recently. Here’s how Nouwen himself explains what solitude is in The Way of The Heart and why we need it:

“In order to understand the meaning of solitude, we must first unmask the ways in which the idea of solitude has been distorted by our world. We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives.

“What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us solitude most often means privacy. We have come to the dubious conviction that we all have a right to privacy. Solitude thus becomes like a spiritual property for which we can compete on the free market of spiritual goods.

“But there is more. We also think of solitude as a station where we can recharge our batteries, or as the corner of the boxing ring where our wounds are oiled, our muscles massaged, and our courage restored by fitting slogans. In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life.

“But that is not the solitude of St. John the Baptist, of St. Anthony or St. Benedict, of Charles de Foucauld or the brothers of Taize. For them solitude is not a private, therapeutic place.

“Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages14-15).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Way of The Heart

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.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Timely Invitation

"Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything."

This is Eugene H. Peterson's rendition of Psalm 46:10 in The Message (NavPress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2002). A timely reminder for us all.

God's Word speaks today.

The New International Version rendering captures the timeless quality of this personal invitation: "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

Selah. Stop and think about it.

Step out of the traffic! Take a short break for meditation on God's Word today. Take a long, loving look at your God, high and exalted over the nations.

Above politics, above everything.