Craig Bosnick reviews Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom and Silence (Ballantine Books Revised and ed. edition, 2003).
Henri Nouwen looks back to the practices of the desert fathers when a number of Christians fled to the desert to preserve the way of Jesus in the midst of Christianity becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. They fled to embrace what they understood to be truer, more holy practices and become be a voice of witness to the age of Roman Christendom.
We can see parallels in our time as we talk about church and culture, centre and margins and where the place of the church is. Nouwen offers three practices that the desert fathers embrace that will help us today connect with God and be a witness to our world. Those practices are solitude, silence and prayer.
Nouwen rightly critiques the practice of solitude today as a practice that seeks personal refreshment, time for myself, alone time, respite or to gather new strength. He equates this more with a practice of personal privacy than a spiritual practice that renews our soul.
Nouwen suggests that true solitude is a furnace of transformation and connects us deeply with the person of Jesus. It is a place where we die to ourselves and receive the life of Christ. Nouwen rightly reminds us that sound spiritual practices are concrete and specific and not vague or general. He encourages us to set apart specific times and places of this practice of removing ourselves from the “world” and being transformed by Jesus.
I think there is another side of our transformation that happens in community and with
God’s people. As inspiring and tempting as this practice of literal solitude is, I think that the “furnace of transformation” can also exist (or I might argue exist more) in the midst of community and living in—but not of—the world. Yes, I think we need to visit places of solitude at times, but I also think the Spirit dwells in us constantly and there is always a place of “solitude in our soul” we can visit in community, in the world and in the noise.
Nouwen specifically names two enemies of our world that solitude helps us fight against: anger and greed. These keep us from ministering with compassion and generosity and are definitely good issues to deal with in our practice of solitude.
Henri Nouwen’s section of silence can feel mystical or philosophical, but I wonder if this practice of silence has much to say to us, especially in our day of social networking.
Nouwen describes his world at the time as “overly chatty” and full of advertising and promotional rhetoric from all directions. If he thought the world was chatty then I wonder what he would think of it now?
Jesus Himself teaches us that it is hard to speak without sinning. Our words come from our
hearts, and our hearts are divided and deceitful. Nouwen invites us into a practice of silence so that when we do speak our words call forth the goodness of God. The goal of silence is not only self-control but more so a life of honouring God with our minds and reflecting that in our words.
Silence at times can help guard our heart, help us to consider our words our actions just one last time before we speak or act. Silence creates a quality in our hearts where can can become good listeners and good watchers of God at work in our world. When we are good listeners and good watchers, then we become good storytellers of God’s work in our world.
I wonder if Nouwen were writing today what spiritual practices he would encourage is towards with all our smart devices and social media. We are bombarded with promotional material and information. Our words easily become preoccupied with this information or worse, they turn into self promotion.
We would be wise to guard ourselves against how we contribute to the noise of words and
chatter in our world.
Finally Nouwen reflects on prayer and that solitude and silence are both for prayer. Solitude is not being alone but being with God. Silence is not not speaking but rather listening to God.
Nouwen first reflects on the shallowness of prayer when it is simply a monologue, a series or requests to be answered or simply an exercise of the mind that simply thinks or muses about God with words. Prayer for Nouwen is a much more holistic practices and as he encourages us to practice prayer of the heart he is both talking about out desires and emotions and the place of our will and where we make good decisions. It is prayer that takes us into a deep encounter and rest with God so that we are compelled to live faithfully, make good decisions, love God and love others.
Nouwen gives us three characteristics of prayer that help foster this discipline:
1. The prayer of the heart is nurtured by short simple prayers
2. The prayer of the heart is unceasing
3. The prayer of the heart is all-inclusive
The first two characteristics simply mean what they mean. The third is a reminder that we need to share with God in prayer all of our life, all of our concerns and all of our world. It is an encouragement to continually expand our prayer vocabulary and our prayer focuses. We will not grow in prayer if we pray easy or familiar prayers but we will grow as we struggle in prayer with Jesus.
Nouwen argues that these three practices will help us to stand firm, to speak words of salvation and to approach the future with hope, courage and confidence. He is probably right, but this book falls short in the way that is is lived out in community and with the church. Nouwen’s core concern seems to be that we are constantly remodelled into living witnesses of Christ and these are three of the practices that will help us become that.
Southside Community Church