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Henri Nouwen believes that loving (or rightly relating to) God involves moving from illusion to prayer. And what is the illusion? Or more accurately, what are our illusions (plural)? We might think that we are in control, that it is our story we are telling, our drama we are living. Or that it is up to us to make things happen. Or that God is a hard task master, easy to displease. Or perhaps that God is like us and has our attitudes, prejudices, temperament, biases, limitations, etc. Or that our life and the lives of others must be defended as property instead of received as gifts. Regarding this last point, Nouwen says, "By acting on the illusion that the world belongs to us as private property which nobody ever can take away from us, we become a threat to each other and make intimacy impossible." Perhaps you can add a few other illusions to that short list, illusions which keep us from developing intimacy with God. Unmasking illusions is hard, ongoing work. Just this past Sunday, during our communal gathering, I spent most of the worship time battling the illusion that our humble faith community is falling apart because we are incapable of getting things right. This illusion relies on the assumption that we are the ones responsible for building the Church when in fact, Jesus indicates that he is the one who does this important work.
Some of us do not suffer much from nagging doubts or thoughts of incompetency and failure. Instead, we are prone to illusions of grandeur; we believe we are doing something great for God. Both extremes are distortions of the truth, a remaking of God based on our own perceptions. Nouwen states that, "The idols of our dreams ... are humbling reminders that we still have a long way to go before we are ready to meet our God, not the God created by our own hands or mind, but the uncreated God out of whose loving hands we are born." As followers of Jesus, we want to come out of the landscape of illusion and enter into meaningful, intimate communion with God. In other words, we want to learn how to pray.
So what is prayer? Once again I turn to Nouwen to offer some clarity: "The God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many 'safe' gods to the God whose love has no limits." The paradox of prayer is that while it is a gift, a communion which only God can initiate, it is also a skill which we must practice and as such, it can be challenging, demanding work. Nevertheless, communing with God is meant to be natural, as much a part of us as breathing. Nouwen states: "We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness (the Latin word for anxiety is angustus - narrowness) and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God's breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God's inner life, and by which we are born anew."
Moving from illusion to prayer is not only an internal posture; there are certain practices, readily observable in the lives of those who regularly pray and commune with God, which can guide us. Nouwen lists three:
1. A contemplative reading of Scripture (receiving the words as a seed). Nouwen explains: "Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil."
2. A silent listening to the voice of God (learning to be still). "Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner voices more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God." Nouwen notes that reading the Scriptures makes silence more fruitful and keeps it from being stale. Similarly, being still makes room for the God-breathed words of Scripture to do their re-creative work.
3. A trusting obedience to a spiritual guide (embracing submission within the community of God). Those of us within the Evangelical tradition might not be too familiar with the idea of having a spiritual director, but some type of ongoing, loving feedback is important if we want to make sure we are not deluding ourselves. On our own, we are tempted to equate our speculations and desires with the will of God. We need someone to guide and encourage us, as well as someone to discourage us when we are tempted to make rash and unwise moves. Spiritual guides can assist us in discarding our illusions and can also keep us from developing new ones. Spiritual guides come in many forms: trained spiritual directors, wise friends, trusted leaders, historical figures, traditions, even examples of prayer and the writings of the saints. It is up to us to look for them and to heed them. Spiritual guides are all around us if we but open our eyes and trust the Spirit of Jesus to lead us. In an age where individualism is over-emphasized, we must remind ourselves that we do not walk this path alone. We are part of a holy community and as such, we must learn to trust the Spirit of Jesus in the community to aid us, correct us, and teach us.
In Psalm 46 we read: "Our God says, 'Calm down [be still, be quiet, cease striving], and learn that I am God!" (Psalm 46:10, my additions). The Hebrew word which is often translated "be still" is raphad, and it comes from a word which means "to slacken." We can apply this idea of slackening to the image mentioned at the beginning, that of a rope being held by two people, one at each end. If we stop pulling on the rope and instead, take a step toward the person on the other end, the rope goes slack. The connection is still there, but the tension is gone, the pulling is gone, and the two parties are closer together than they were before. The illusion is that the connection between God and us requires a constant pushing and pulling, that it is a never-ending struggle (and at times it definitely can be). But prayer is not a tug of war, it is not a power struggle. When we are still, when we cease striving, when we let the rope slacken, we find that he is closer to us than we imagined.
This is part three of a series called The Three Interconnected Loves. You can read part one (Loving Yourself) here and the second part on Loving your Neighbour here. Many of the ideas are drawn from Henri Nouwen's excellent book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975).