Walking With Henri Nouwen To Easter: The Way of The Heart

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Friends! A more personal note today; I hope that’s alright.

Nouwen’s The Way of The Heart has been one of the books with the most spiritual impact on my life. been one of my favorite of his book’s for a long time. When I first read it a decade or so ago,

IMG_0715 - Version 2Out of all the spiritual formation books I’ve read, written by Nouwen or anyone, The Way of The Heart has had some of the most impact in my life. I’m grateful for it, and find it challenging and clarifying in all sorts of ways. What I’ve appreciated so much about it is that reading this book at different points in my life, in the different situations I find myself in, has meant different insights each time.

The most recent time I opened it I was struck by a number of things, but as I read the passage below I felt as if it was written about me. Nouwen is writing on “solitude” here, what he calls “the furnace of transformation”–that is, the place where we fight against “the three compulsions of the world”: to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful (25). It’s a great concept, a great chapter. But Nouwen says this soon after, as a corrective:

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…[or] a station where we can recharge our batteries…[or] the corner of the boxing ring where our wounds are oiled” (The Way of The Heart, pp.26-27). 

What is solitude, if it’s not this:

“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” (27).

So, so often, and to my embarrassment, I don’t want solitude–the opportunity to have my world-shaped compulsions reshaped by God’s Spirit, by the simple fact of staying put, with God, when what I’d rather do is check my phone, check the web, check out from the moment. What I really want is privacy; the ability to do whatever I want by myself. Frankly, this has only grown since having a little one, but it’s always been something I’ve sought out.

I think, frankly, privacy is solitude’s cheap, sugar-instead-of-nutrition craving that I have. I should eat dinner; what I want is a Coke and some Reese’s Cups.

I think most of us are more honest than Nouwen gives us credit for. We say “I just want some time alone,” and that’s what we mean: time by ourselves, without anyone nagging us, and definitely not time in which we challenge our “false selves.” But I could be wrong.

What is your relationship with solitude? Privacy? Alone time or whatever way you talk about this? Do you think what Nouwen says about what we really want rings true? What’s your relationship with these things?

Comment if you want…

(Today’s book, which I completely recommend, is available from the Henri Nouwen Society’s Amazon Book Store: http://astore.amazon.com/hennousocusab-20/detail/0345463358

~Post written by Rich Hagopian

Alone…And Not Alone

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As a petulant child, I can remember saying “leave me alone!” Yet I might have silently added in my head, “but not too long.” This Sunday, Pastor Rich talked about the Christian alone and how rare it actually is to be alone. Some of this has to do with the myriad distractions in our lives–our work, families, and an ever more ubiquitous technology. The latter is sometimes a paradox as we are connected to the world digitally and more socially cut off than ever.

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Alone often seems to equate with loneliness. And yet sometimes I’ve felt most lonely in a crowd of people, and not at all lonely by myself. What is harder though is being alone, and unplugged. For ten seconds, there is the blessed silence of alone–and then the thoughts come. Sometimes it is recalling a task that I need to accomplish and it is relatively easy to add that to a “to do” list and return to silence. Sometimes it can be a fairly constructive process of mentally chewing over a problem or thinking through an upcoming presentation and beginning to experience the gelling of my thoughts.

What can be harder are some of the other kinds of thoughts. At least for me, and this may reveal my own dysfunctionality, the thoughts can be of shortcomings or failings–the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” kind of accusations that remind me that I could be a better person than I am. Or it can be thoughts of the tempting sort as I become aware of hunger and other desires. No wonder it is easy to open up the computer or turn on the radio.

What sometimes seems to help is remembering that I am alone…and not alone. I am not just with my thoughts but with the God who knows my thoughts, and neither runs away in horror or hammers me into oblivion. Instead he invites me to confess them, the word “confess” meaning “to agree with.” Somehow, acknowledging my failings, my frustrations, my desires, my anxieties seems to bring me to a place where i can let go of them into God’s care–kind of like telling your dad about something that was really bugging you as a kid, and then somehow knowing it would be all right. Dad knew.

Sometimes just to get to this point is blessed relief. But sometimes we might experience something more. That is when silence and aloneness leads to stillness. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes, I believe there is a point in aloneness where no words are needed, where our clamoring thoughts for just a moment are stilled, and we are just being with the God who is “I am”. We are both in wonder in the presence of the Holy One, and basking in the delight of being the beloved of the Father.

And this perhaps is the point where we might “hear” God. It might be a scripture that comes to mind. Perhaps a person comes to mind to call, or pray for, or visit. Sometimes there is nothing but being alone in the Presence, and attentive to whatever may come in the hours ahead. Rich observed that when we’ve been attentive to our thoughts and attentive to God, then we are best prepared to be attentive to others and truly enter into community.

Where do I get alone? Rich’s suggestion that if no where else we might find aloneness in the toilet might be the answer for some. For me, it is getting up in the early morning and sitting in a rocker with my first cup of coffee. Sometimes, it is a long meandering walk. And sometimes, it seems to be working out my thoughts in writing–with the “new mail” sounds muted. Wherever and however it is, somehow aloneness and stillness seems to be health for us and for our communities.

A good friend of ours teaches me much about the wonder of being alone, quiet, waiting. She writes a blog called QuietKeepers. I would commend it to give you a taste of the riches of coming to the place of quiet.