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This is the final post in our series on Henri Nouwen’s The Way Of The Heart, looking at the final chapter of the book, concerning prayer.
This is the Chapter I was most looking forward to reading. I was intrigued by the ideas that would be presented about prayer and prayer life, especially in the routine of public ministry. How does one find the space and time to have a private prayer life whilst also ministering to others in such a public way?
The last chapter on silence was introduced with the account of Arsenius, and this chapter is introduced with a continuation of the account: ‘When Arsenius had asked for the second time, “Lord, lead me to the way of salvation,” the voice that spoke to him not only said, “be silent” but also “Pray always.”’
This highlights what the first two chapters have really been used for; they are the preparation for prayer, they are not themselves a way of salvation. However, without them our prayer life may be like planting seeds in soil not prepared, there aren’t the nutrients in the soil to support the seeds. However if we fill the soil with all the nutrients needed but never plant the seeds then soon weeds will grow. Nouwen briefly speaks about the results when silence and solitude are separated from prayer: ‘Solitude and silence can never be separated from the call to unceasing prayer. If solitude were primarily an escape from a busy job, and silence primarily an escape from a noisy milieu, they could easily become very self-centered forms of asceticism. But solitude and silence are for prayer.’ As the previous chapters explained, in relatively complex and round-about ways, solitude is not being alone, but rather being with God and silence is not a lack of speech but rather listening to God. It is through them that we make a stable foundation for our prayer life, they are what helps to remove the distractions of this world and focus us on what our hearts are telling us about who we are and what we need. In the story of Arsenius ‘the literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest”. Which for some may seem strange or unattainable, as prayer can be hard for some, it can be emotional, it can be a whole lot of things that quite often leave us tired. I’m writing this after just getting back of retreat and there is definitely an aspect of being tired there, however there is also a peace, the tiredness may just be from the travelling and the physical aspects of the retreat, not the prayer side. Nouwen also uses this point to highlight another common misconception: ‘This rest however has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.’ This rest we are given is not taking away our pains, our sufferings or our worries but rather it is a place where we are given the strength to face them. We must not expect to run away from our problems or have someone else fight them for us, we will never grow if we do this, and if we can’t stand firm in our own times of conflict how can we stand firm with others in theirs?
But why then do we find prayer hard? Mother Theodora makes clear one example, a quote from here is given in this chapter: ‘as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes through accidie [sense of boredom], faintheartedness… It also attacks your body though sickness, debility…so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.” This quote actually highlighted something for me, its something I think most are familiar with, when we feel off-colour and unwell, we become a bit more lax with our disciplines. When I thought about this, it got me wondering why? Why, when we need healing do we pull away from the one who is able to give it? This is quite a paradox, and one I don’t think anyone has the answer to. It’s like going to the dentist for regular check ups but when tooth ache or problems arise missing an appointment because “rest” is what you think is needed.
Sr Joanna: When I first looked at this book, I made a strange assumption; that the chapter on prayer would be the least interesting of all the chapters. Part of this was based on a vague idea that I already knew about prayer, after twenty-four years of faith. The other assumption was that any writing on prayer would be ‘woolly’, and lacking in concrete statements or arguments. There is a pitfall which many believers fall into when writing about prayer, which is to slip into metaphor and emotive language without offering realistic guidance on what prayer is, what happens during it, and how we go about it. This is a product of our unwillingness to limit what prayer may be, understanding that there are many different ways to approach prayer, and above all, a fear of putting words into God’s mouth. Our fear of doing this makes it hard to offer any definition of prayer beyond the blandest dictionary description: the communication with God. Whether this communication is from or to, in what form it goes and is received, and what we do to communicate with God, are all left unanswered.
Nouwen does not entirely avoid this trap, but he does go some way to responding to the vagueness of this kind of teaching with some helpful suggestions on the practice of prayer. Firstly, he points out that solitude and silence prefigure prayer, and exist to enable it. This prevents them from becoming ‘self-centered forms of asceticism’. In our previous blogs on silence and solitude, I found it hard to avoid discussing prayer; without prayer at their heart, they are empty disciplines.
At the moment, alternative spiritualities are on the rise in the West. Besides the revival of folk religions and fetishisation of non-western spiritualities, we are also seeing a rise of non-theistic spiritual practices, which often put self at the centre. My intention here is not to write a blanket criticism; I can respect and celebrate movements which promote positive mental wellbeing and openness to faith. But the fundamental difference between prayer and mindfullness, meditation or other such practices is the absence of God. If all of our efforts, our silence, our discipline, our solitude, do not extend towards God than then we are wasting our time. Reading this chapter, I suspect that Nouwen, like myself, can see how entrancing the thousands of aesthetic philosophical movements have been throughout history, and how the displaying of faith is easier to embrace than the achieving of it. And so he advocates a ‘holistic’ prayer, a ‘prayer of the heart’.
So what is this prayer? It is described best in its source, the heart, of which Nouwen says ‘refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and moral energies.’ To pray from the heart, then, is to reach out to God with one’s body, mind, emotions and desires. It is to long for God. And this perhaps is the closest we can get; to discover what the ‘meeting of hearts’ engenders we must experience it.
Reading this, I felt that I understood Nouwen’s meaning, but I wonder if it might seem intimidating or vague to a non-believer; an atheist reading this passage might easily take from this a picture of believers wrapping themselves in fuzzy feelings, rejecting any form of prayer which might prove or disprove God’s existence. And so it is important that this prayer of the heart is also a prayer of the life we live, so we do not satisfy ourselves with self-contentment. Although it is hard to capture the feeling of prayer in the moment of it, the prayer of the heart describes here is not just an emotional experience but a prayer of the life lived, a prayer of longing in our work, our solitude, our choices and actions.
Sr Jennii: Nouwen gives us an outline of this coming chapter and highlights that he is addressing three main points about prayer: how prayer is thought of today ‘we tend to see prayer primarily as an activity of the mind.’, what the hesychasts (a man or woman who seeks solitude and silence as ways to unceasing prayer) see prayer as ‘a prayer of the heart’, and finally how to make this prayer of the heart part of our daily ministry.
Prayer of the Mind
Nouwen highlights that this is not a way for him to criticise the devoutness of other clerics but rather a guide of how to incorporate prayer into their busy lives, how to centre themselves before trying to centre others. ‘Few ministers will deny that prayer is important… but the fact is most ministers pray very little or not at all.’ This is the first point in this chapter I disagree with, I think most priests do pray and do make that time. However they, like all people, struggle with knowing how to pray, or they aren’t praying in the way Nouwen imagines prayer should be done, but as I have mentioned in sermons and blogs: there is no one size fits all when it comes to prayer. Actually if Nouwen could have seen the retreat I was just on, I think he would change his statement. ‘There is always one more phone call, one more letter, one more visit….Together these form an insurmountable pile of activities.’ Well this small section alone, brings so many points to mind, first of all, I would like to say that it is not just clergy that are guilty of this: I always want to be helpful, would go out of my way for anybody, I like being active and busy, however I know I do taken on too much a lot of the time but I don’t stop, as for me putting the Gospel into action is so important. However, I do it without taking time for myself, so naturally I get burnt out. That is why I believe retreats are important: they get you away from the parish and the expectations and desire to fix everyone’s problems and give you that time to just be with God, to focus on what you need and to restore yourself so that you can go out into the world and do the same for others. Many of the traditional monastic orders live by the maxim ‘ora et labora’ (prayer and work) which is attributed to St. Benedict although the phrase does not actually appear in his rule. However some monasteries even claim ‘laborare est orare’ (to work is to pray). This idea potentially comes from an anecdote from the Life of St. Gertrude the Great. Basically, she’s spinning wool into thread. She always dedicates all of her work to God, even the most menial of tasks. While she’s spinning, she’s distracted or not paying attention thinking about something else and ends up wasting some of the wool because of it. The devil gathers up the wool and shows it to God and says, “See what a wasteful creature she is!” And God rebukes him for finding fault with work that had been dedicated to him in the first place. Interestingly enough, St. Gertrude was a Benedictine.
So what is prayer? If prayer can be work, stillness, there seems to be no set pattern of what to do. That is exactly the point. In relationships with other people we don’t do the exact something, time and time again, that would get boring, we change, the way we interact changes on the situation, as a friend tells me all the time ‘Context is everything’. Nouwen tells us the flaws in this are that we think only of intellectual outcomes, we reduce God to concepts that we can understand. It has become more about us telling God things than us listening to him, we have become demanding, we pray for something to happen, we pray when we are scared. Rarely do people just sit and be, rarely do they pray just to spend time with God, with no ulterior motive. This leads to other problems, for when we only ask God for things, it can seem like he isn’t answering, when in reality he is just maybe not answering in the way we imagined he would.
I was raised a Christian from birth and I’m sure many of the people reading this will be fairly secure in their faith. One I definitely know is reading this is a clergyman in Devon, so answer me this: how do you teach someone to pray? If someone asked you to teach them to pray, not just say the our father or recite other words of prayers, but teach them to genuinely pray, could you do it? I think I would struggle. And that is because while in our minds we are filled with ideas of what God is like and who he is, and our minds work with rational and explainable concepts. Prayer shouldn’t come from rational concepts, it’s emotional, it comes from the heart, and each persons emotions are entirely individual and unique, so how can we tell people how to pray? We can give them guidelines and pointers but the emotion, the prayer must come from them.
The prayer of the Heart
I think this is my favourite section of the whole book. Nouwen gives us a quote from the Russian Mystic Theophan the recluse, to explain how we can get from prayer of the mind to prayer of the heart: “to pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.” So we use what we know to calm and transport ourselves to what we feel until we become one with our Lord. Prayer is not just a conversation with God, if it is I’ve been doing Holy Hour, exposition and adoration wrong! Yes, in that time I do speak to God but I also just sit and be with Him. Nouwen comments similarly ‘Prayer is standing in the presence of God…’ this reminds me of a well know story of St. John Vianney, in which a man asks him what he does all morning sat in front of the blessed sacrament and the reply came ‘Nothing. I look at Him and He looks at me.’ There is something intimate about being able to just be, to not have to fill the silence. And surely it is that intimacy with God we are all striving for?
It is only when our heart and our mind become one that our prayer taken on its true form, when we know what it is we need, who we are searching for and we take these emotions and we believe them, we bring them to the surface of our world ‘at that point of our being when there are no divisions or distinctions… God’s spirit dwells… there heart speaks to heart…’
But this is also the point where Satan makes his most planned and fierce attacks, knowing that it is the point in which if temptation is to take hold it will be there, so we must stand strong, we need to make prayer a fixed and routine part of our life, for it is that which is our greatest defense against such attacks as ‘By it’s very nature such prayer transforms our whole being into Christ…’
It does this by showing us our Lord, showing us who we are and showing us who we are in relation to him. If we look at the Parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), it was the man who knew he was in no position to be boasting before the Lord, the man who knew who he was and just how mighty the Lord is, that was looked on with mercy. It was because he acknowledged his weaknesses and repented and asked for mercy, rather than expecting mercy and favour based on the good things he may have done, which all pale in comparison to what Jesus did for us. He gave His life for us. Not for himself, it was nothing to do with Him, He had no sin. It was solely for us.
Sr Joanna: The most useful aspect of this chapter, to me, is that Nouwen offers some specific advice on how to pray, and what to avoid. He highlights two erroneous ways of praying: restricting prayer just to speaking about God (and easily becomes speaking at God) and prayer which is restricted to thinking about God, and intellectual musing. Importantly, he does not reject either as components of prayer, but he does insist on strong terms that either alone will leave the petitioner missing out. Both of these felt familiar to me as he described them. Every person has a personal history with prayer, and thinking through the moments of prayer that have helped me develop my faith, and those which have been less productive, I can see that sometimes I have attempted – and do attempt – to treat God as an intellectual problem or a magic-8 ball. Nouwen notes that people who pray this way eventually become tired of prayer, and even if we abandon prayer to other spiritual pursuits, it eventually erodes our faith.
But this advice does far more than restrict how we pray; they indicate how God wishes us to relate to Him. The suggestion hidden in Nouwen’s argument is that to pray deeply we have only to come as ourselves, without trying to force our own agenda into the conversation, or show off our abilities. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, which is far too beautiful to quote in part; you can find it here. We also learn about Nouwen’s image of God in his alternative description of prayer, as our resting place. Throughout this book the duality of labour and rest in the desert ran through my mind. It seems to me that what looks to the world like labour is revealed to us as rest in the desert. How else could the desert fathers and mothers be so content, and yearn so for that life, if their labours were not also rest in God?
Sr Jennii: This idea that we must develop a rule of prayer and a life of prayer is quite dandy, but practically speaking, in public ministry when the phone can ring with an emergency at any given moment does it work?
Simply put, yes. Just as I said with solitude and hinted at with silence, there is a way to take prayer with you. Prayer of the heart is ‘nurtured by short prayers’; think of arrow prayers, like the Jesus prayer or simply “Lord help.” Quick fire sentences that you can send up when needed. Just like the tax collector in the aforementioned parable, that one phrase was enough. The quiet repetition of a single word or phrase can help us ‘descend with the mind into the heart’ these short sentences can be a way to bring our mind back when we find it wandering during silent adoration, if we just sit and wait to hear we can become distracted thinking about what else we have to do, these can bring us back to where we are supposed to be.
Sr Joanna: The first suggestion is a reference back to the distractions and inadequacies of language, but it also reminds us that prayer is not dependent on our own verbal capabilities or ability to express our feelings in that moment. Prayer is not dependent on us getting the words right. It is also a reminder of the Biblical teachings on public prayer; where long, verbose prayers extol our own abilities, short, simple prayers are less likely to revolve around ourselves. In simplicity, we have no words to hide behind.
Sr Jennii: The second characteristic of prayer of the heart is that it is ‘unceasing’. Now this does not mean we just sit all day looking at the blessed sacrament or talk to God constantly but like St. Benedict and St. Gertrude, we can offer all we do up to God, we can talk to Him whilst we do other things, how often at work do you talk to friends and colleagues whilst working? The multi tasking diminishes neither task. How much more apt then to speak to God, to listen, to be. We can also use the idea of arrow prayers, or the daily office in this as the more you repeat the sentence or psalm the more it descends from mind to heart, so that as it is put in account the way of the pilgrim ‘it seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the prayer within each beat… I gave up saying the prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying.’
Sr Joanna: Secondly, prayer is to be ‘unceasing’. Nouwen describes unceasing prayer in this way: ‘The prayer continues to pray within me even when I am talking with others or concentrating on manual work. The prayer has become the active presence of God’s spirit guiding me through life.’ Even when body and mind are engaged elsewhere, the intention and will to pray makes them prayerful. It is this which inspires the monastic idea of prayer straight before work, so the work becomes a continuation of that prayer. (Sr Jennii has explained this much better than I have above – I love that this came to both of us separately as we reflected on this chapter.)
Sr Jennii: The third characteristic given is that it is ‘all-inclusive’ that is, it includes all our concerns, not just those we feel would be validated but the smallest to the biggest, ‘when we enter with our minds into our hearts to stand in the presence of God, then all our mental preoccupations become prayer.’ All we worry about and stress about is brought with us into God’s presence so we may find our rest in Him and He may see and help us with our load.
Sr Joanna: Thirdly, prayer is to be ‘all-inclusive’: rather than wrestling through specifics, or limiting what we chose to give to God, prayer must mean the opening of all on our heart to Him (even if we are praying with specific intentions). The whole of our hearts must be open to the Lord. In this point, although I see the value of the condition, I want to add my own qualifiers; I believe that there are times when focus on specific prayers or situations are useful. My understanding here is that Nouwen is suggesting that in prayer in its purest form, we need no such limitations. And yet I do feel that along the pathway of discovering God, we are not expected to take in the whole of God at once, even as He takes in the whole of Us. Knowing that we can bring all of our concerns to God does not make it easy to deal with them all at once! I’m not sure I always feel strong enough to pray as wholeheartedly as Nouwen would like; at times, as a weak human, the best we can do is bring a few little pieces to God, and I believe that God is there with us even in the smallest and most insignificant prayer.
Sr Jennii: Nouwen then remarks about the comment so frequently made ‘I will pray for you’ and how for most people this is just nothing more than a kind word to say, it has no impact and they don’t follow through. For me, it’s so much more than that, if I say I will pray for you, I will be praying for you, and not just that day but frequently and until I feel God telling me that my prayers aren’t needed anymore, that whatever the issue was is resolved. This idea of praying for others really hit home while I was on retreat, just me surrounded by between 160-170 clerics, and I was asked to offer the ministry of laying on of hands. I had priest and deacons coming to me for prayer, and yet strangely I was calm about this, it highlighted that priests and deacons are people, with lives and worries and prayers of their own. I believe that the reason this didn’t really phase me is because whenever I am asked to do (I was asked a lot as part of YR4GOD) I pray that God may work through me and my hands, that bring to the forefront what I am doing, and who it is that is actually working, it isn’t me or my hands that our being laid on these people, it’s God’s love through what ever instruments He works through, be that my hands, the oils, or the water. I then pray when I am finished that God may take these petitions and use them, work with them and care for them, I hand it all over to God. Jesus met me at the cross; he took our suffering when he met us, we aren’t meant to pick them back up. ‘Through prayer we can carry in our hearts all human pain and sorrow… not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.
Sr Joanna: The Way of The Heart is one of Nouwen’s shortest works, but it has given us a considerable amount of time reflecting (and reading, for those of you who have accompanied us to the end). From being unfamiliar with Henri Nouwen at the beginning of the book, I’ve become rather a fan, and am planning further reading of his work; it was a great delight to me to discover his connections with the l’Arche community, as I have also been reading and reflecting on the writing of Jean Vanier. Although at points I have disagreed with some of the ideas in this book, the sense of the whole was of a writer whose yearning for Christ eclipses his own life, and who sees the Desert Fathers and Mothers as clearly as if they sat in the next room. In whatever terms we structure it in our own lives, the search for God which Nouwen frames around solitude, silence and prayer is a truly lovely prospect, and I would encourage any readers who are reflecting on their own search for God to look to the desert, and in all our busyness, to the God in whom we find our rest.
I think this chapter on prayer concluded itself greatly: it’s only through meeting God heart to heart in prayer that we can minister to others effectively. As for the book, I see what it is trying to get across, and it reaches the conclusion that I had hoped it would, however not how I expected it too. But for me this book isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts – it is more of a explanation and a theory of how the spirituality of the desert fathers can be used today.
I want to say thank you to everyone who has read this blog, but to a few people in particular, to Bishop Richard and Julie for getting us both a copy of this book, I have actually loved it. And to that cleric from Devon, whom after seeing on retreat last week, sort of inspired me to really press on with it and search deeper for things in here, even if he doesn’t realise it so thanks farv. xx, but to everyone else a massive thank you too.
This is the second part of our reflections on silence, from Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Way of The Heart’. The first part can be found here.
Silence Makes Us Pilgrims, Guards the Fire, and Teaches Us To Speak…
If Silence was a person, it would be risking burnout. If solitude creates the space for us to be transformed, silence protects it. But for Henru Nouwen, silence is also the active component of our journey to transformation, and in ‘teaching us to speak’, the spiritual heart of any act of evangelisation. A great burden is placed on silence as a discipline.
Here Nouwen is speaking about what we are to do with the silence, how we are to use it. But before silence becomes a tool in our spiritual kit, we must enter silence, and use it effectively.
On Friday evenings, the Holywell Community keep a Holy Hour. Besides a few prayers at the beginning and end, this is mostly a chance to sit in silence, looking at the Blessed Sacrament which is exposed on the altar. All we have before us are the candles and the monstrance – a decorated cross with a space to hold a wafer – and the Host within. In the silence, we share that hour of sustained prayer and hope that we will encounter God. But focusing on silent prayer for an hour at a time – let alone the days, weeks or years demanded by the Desert Fathers – can feel nigh on impossible. I was fortunate to have encountered sustained silent prayer as a teenager; I remember being fifteen and amazed at myself that I had survived ten minutes silence in the evening service at Taizé. Nouwen is writing for an audience who are seemingly used to silence, and who can easily still their minds. However, as Nouwen has reminds us at the end of the chapter, modern Christian worship often reduces silence to the bare minimum, and so many Christians encounter it on few occasions. And so we enter silence as strangers. For those of us who love silence, but find our minds and hearts wandering, I want more from Nouwen than an assurance that this, often unreachable, state will improve our faith: I want instructions and assistance in reaching it. Silence makes us pilgrims – but what must we do to make the pilgrimage into silence, and through it?
Practical applications of silence: Preaching, Counselling, and Organizing
Having made the case for the importance of silence, Nouwen gives three examples of places in our ministry where he believes silence may be introduced. It is a useful reminder that this text was written as a tool for ministry, rather than just as a general guide. Nouwen is attempting to demonstrate, I believe, that it is not counter-intuitive to seek a place for solitude and silence in our relationships, and that in finding a place for them we make a place for God. In preaching, for instance, Nouwen suggests repetition of a word of scripture, and that the preacher accepts and encourages the listeners to move from direct attention on the preacher to a space of personal reflection. In counselling, the counsellor must ‘be sensitive to the words of Scripture as words emerging from God’s silence’; in organisation, ministers are to help others create space for silence in their lives, or to create spaces for others to be silent in.
To a degree, I feel that the word ‘silence’ here is serving a multitude; Nouwen stretches it to include active listening, the ability to balance one’s work life, lectio divina, and simple caution in our choice of words. It is not enough to define silence as the absence of sound and speech; Nouwen expects the pilgrim to discover that entering silence is an active path, and that they find themselves listening more attentively to God, Scripture and other humans. My own feeling is that, at least in English, the word ‘silence’ does not do justice to his concept; Nouwen isn’t asking for the absence of sound, but of internal and external distractions from God’s voice. The struggle to absent ourselves from distractions whilst engaging with others, and serving them in God’s silence, is a real one for Christians of every vocation, from the worship band leader to the contemplative monk.
‘What needs to be guarded’, Nouwen writes, ‘is the life of the Spirit within us.’ It seems to me that this is the crux of Nouwen’s argument; Silence as a vehicle for the Spirit. The strength of Nouwen’s argument, it seems to me, is if we take his interpretation of the silence of the desert as a message about dedication to listening to the Holy Spirit, inviting Her into our lives.
The Ministry of Silence
Nouwen here tries to impart a suggestion on how we can use silence to its full potential and for the good of others. He begins with a question asking to practice a ministry of silence with the power of reflecting God in all his fullness, he highlights the difficulties involved when ‘we have become so contaminated by our wordy world’. But he also tells us that this difficult task is ‘the task Jesus has given us’ and gives us an example of how this can be done. ‘To His disciples Jesus said “The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself; it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work” (John 14:10) So if Jesus, who is the Word made flesh was here showing that the words he speaks are not his own but those of the Father, how much more so must we strive to make sure our words also come from God living within us. The words He ‘spoke not to attract attention to himself but to show the way to his Father… In order to be a ministry in the name of Jesus, our ministry must also point beyond our words to the unspeakable mystery of God.’ I find this an interesting concept as I am preparing to put myself forward for ministry it speaks greatly to me; on how I must insure that I always hold this in the forefront of my mind, and believe with my heart God will guide me in this ministry.
Nouwen speaks about how silence in today’s society is a terrifying idea. ‘Silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow…As soon as a minister says during a worship service, “let us be silent for a few moments” people tend to become restless…’ In a blog from last year I wrote about prayer and why silent prayer can seem scary for most people ‘Praying can be hard. Praying is a conversation with God, which is why different people find different ways that they are more comfortable with, it’s a personal relationship with God and that relationship will be different for each of us, talking to God should be the simplest thing in the world but it’s difficult and emotional. And why is that so? Simply because for prayer to be done correctly the only thing that is needed is to be open and honest with God. That makes us vulnerable and no one likes feeling vulnerable. I know I don’t, it’s something I struggle with…Think of a person who you love, could be a partner, a parent, sibling, a child or even a friend. That person knows you love them. And you know they love you and yet you still tell each other this. Why? Because we as humans need that intimacy we need the closeness that comes from sharing our emotions. But think of a person whom you love and would you still tell them you loved them if you weren’t sure they felt the same way? That fear of rejection; the anxiety of opening up to someone. This is what makes prayer difficult. Putting ourselves in a position where our emotions are on show is hard because once it’s done there’s no going back. Hopefully the other person in the situation meets your vulnerability and builds you back up and this is what happens with prayer but so often what we pray for is not the root of our needs, it’s a cure of the symptoms not the illness.’ It this vulnerability and openness before God that is present in silence which causes us to be nervous, fearful or anxious, also it is when we take away all those distractions that surround us every day that we see ourselves for who we are, not the mask we show in public.
The full post can be found here.
So does this mean that we abandon silence as a ministry? ‘It is quite understandable that most forms of ministry avoid silence precisely so as to ward off the anxiety it provokes.’ Yes it is understandable, but is it necessary? Here at St. Mary’s the numbers in a our register of services doesn’t show the full number of people who would say they are regular worshipers as many people come in during the week, not to services but to sit and pray in the quiet. As we in the community pray the office three times a day at st. Mary’s we can attest to the vast number of people who will just sit and pray. Nouwen does also go on to make the point that although it is understandable it isn’t necessary in fact its more harmful than helpful, ‘isn’t the purpose of all ministry to reveal that God is not a God of fear but a God of love?’ He also suggest that instead of removing the silence ministers should ‘gently and carefully’ convert ‘the empty silence into a full silence, the anxious silence into a peaceful silence…so that in this converted silence a real encounter with the loving Father could take place?’
Nouwen then looks at how silence can affect three different systems and activities, and it isn’t a case of silence affecting one at a time but rather the very essence of this silence allows the discipline of each to grow and reflect the silence they come from. However when I looked at the three, I found them to be linked and yet distinct, and I can see how each person of the Godhead influences certain aspects.
The three are: Preaching; Counselling; Organising.
Silence and Preaching
‘Our preaching, when it is good, is interesting and moving… It stimulates mind and heart.’ However whilst a vastly detailed sermon may work on a Sunday with a large congregation, in small groups it may not be the best tact. An alternative is given: ‘There is a way of preaching in which the word of Scripture is repeated quietly and regularly, with a short comment here and there, in order to let that word create an inner space where we can listen to the Lord.’ This is very similar to the devotion of Lectio Divina, or divine reading, in which a short passage of scripture is read a few times then there is a period of silence, although it would appear to only consist of two steps, reading and silence, there are actually four or sometimes five steps, those being: Lectio (reading, what is the text); Meditatio (mediation, what does the text say to me); Complatio (contemplation, what is the Lord asking of me through this text); Oratio (reply, what is my answer to the Lord); Actio (action; what can I do to carry out what the Lord is saying to me). This way of reading the scriptures is very personal, we hear the scripture as a group but those words will be holding a different message for each of us, so in the silence we are able to listen and respond to God personally, if you are interested in this, the community prays Lectio every Wednesday morning.
Nouwen then goes on to describe how scripture can ‘become like a hedge around a garden in which God’s shepherding can be sensed’. The way this was described in the book instantly made me think of the daily office we pray as the community, in which we recite the psalms quietly and persistently until they become a part of our being and we focus more on the Word of life they ignite within us rather than just reading them from a page, they become tangible and moving. ‘These words, which at first might seem to be no more than a metaphor, can slowly descend from the mind into the heart. There they may offer the context in which an inner transformation…take place’.
When I think about this way of learning the scriptures so that they become a part of one’s own heart and using the scriptures as a way of teaching others, I am remind of various points of Jesus’ own ministry and the way in which He often did this, and out of the three persons of the Godhead, He is the one who is most thought of preaching and teaching.
Silence and counselling
Nouwen gives us a modern day interpretation of what counselling is: ‘Counselling is understood by many to be a way in which one person listens to another and guides him or her to better self-understanding.’ This seems to echo the workings of prayer, where God listens to a person and guides him or her to better self-understanding. This relationship can be built up by the guidance of a priest; as Nouwen suggests ‘the relationship between pastor and counselee as a way of entering together into the loving silence of God and waiting there for the healing Word.
For me as well as many others, just this idea of a counsellor would bring to mind the Holy Spirit; this is also true of Nouwen as he states ‘the Holy Spirit is called the Divine Counsellor. He is actively present in those who come together to discern God’s will.’ This is where spiritual directors come in. Spiritual Directors are men and women, lay and ordained, and who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and Christian churches, who share a calling to support others on their journey into the love of God. Spiritual direction is a rather old practice though it has not always had this name or the structured format that we have today of one on one meetings, in fact many people sought out the Desert Fathers and Mothers to help them deepen their own unique relationship with God. Since that time the ministry of Spiritual Direction has developed. Nouwen seems to notice this too and comments that ‘human counsellors should see their primary task the work of helping their parishioners to become aware of the movements of the Divine Counsellor and encourage them to follow these movements without fear.’ As mentioned above, silence can be intimidating and Nouwen suggested that clergy should gently introduce their parishioners to it, this is one way of doing so as they can ‘lead fearful parishioners into the silence of God, and help them to feel at home there, trusting they will slowly discover the healing presence of the Spirit.’ Maybe when parishioners become relaxed and at peace in silence outside of worship they will begin to welcome it within services without the anxiety they currently have?
This role of the minister as a counsellor is more like a travelling companion, they accompany the parishioner to the true counsellor and sit with them in the silence that they find, both parishioner and minister using the silence to listen to what they are being told, and hear the direction they are given.
Silence and Organising
This idea of organising isn’t just a case of managing time and work desks: it’s more of a system or rule of life, it’s a process of being, of knowing who you are in your core: ‘I would like to stress the importance of silence in the ways a minister organises his own life and that of others.’ Nouwen uses this section to discuss how ministers need to be aware of what they are actually meant to be doing in their ministry, not in a practical sense but the reasons behind why. He compares our society today and the motivations behind activities with the role of the church ‘In a society in which entertainment and distractions are such important preoccupations….Our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives.’ Often a church can be just as bad at offering distractions feeling they are ‘in fierce competition with people and institutions who offer something more exciting’ or a better distraction, so churches put on events to help combat this, but often these too are just distracts and ways of keeping people busy, but Nouwen speaks of a new way of planning events where the motivation behind the event ‘is not how to keep people busy but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.’ This very idea of calling people together into something counter cultural to show them the depth of the hidden wonders of their beings and the plan that is there for them strikes me as the Father speaking through the silence, the same Father whom spoke to Moses through the burning bush in order to reveal to Moses the hidden aspect of himself and express his wishes for Moses to be the one to rescue His people; or with Abraham where God revealed to him, just how faithful and loyal Abraham was, then told him of the plan He had to make Abraham the father of the nations.
This idea of organising then is more than just management but revealing and building trust, Nouwen talks about it as being a community ‘calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting worldliness…to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other and God. Thus organising can be seen as the creation of space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.
Through the three examples of preaching, counselling and organising we are given a glimpse of the Trinity at work in the silence, all though the three are separate, one would not work without the others. They are the parts that come together to build the function ‘these examples of silence in preaching, counselling, and organising are meant to illustrate how silence can help determine the practical shape of our ministry.’ We are called to minister in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Not just one. Our ministry is a threefold ministry.
Nouwen here goes to finally speak of the importance of silence of the heart over the silence of the mouth, giving a quote from Abba Poemen: ‘A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent,’ It is through our heart we hear the Lord, and it will be the inner stirrings of our hearts on which we our Judged when the day comes. And that is because; the deepest desires of our hearts are what motivates what comes out of our mouths: ‘Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity.’
This sentiment is echoed in the story given of a visitor and a hermit, in which the ‘visitor said to the hermit “sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered “my rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace” This for me sums up the purpose of silence, it is a tool to be used to bring us closer to God so that we may grow into his image more and more each day, refusing to answer someone because it is a period dedicated to silence is counteractive to this communion with God, never once did Jesus turn people away, no matter what he was doing, he made the time to minister to all who came to him.
This chapter of The Way of The Heart pulls at the tensions between literal and metaphorical interpretations of silence, causing considerable debate for us as a community as we puzzled over our feelings on silence. Are we sometimes called to speech, and how does spiritual silence impact on our call to communicate and share our faith? May we never regret staying silent? Is it possible to aspire to speech without the corruption of evil? In short, is silence as good as Nouwen promises?
A little part of me feels disappointed that the conclusion Nouwen offers is a compromise between the two positions. His argument is neatly summarised in this sentence from the conclusion:
‘[…] A more important message from the desert [than the value of not speaking as a spiritual practice] is that silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even on our conversation with others.’
I find myself agreeing with Nouwen, but uncertain how I bring this to fullness in my life as he leaves it. To make sense of his conclusion I have to turn to the Rule of St Benedict, which guides our life here, and look for times in the day which can be devoted to silence, unless hospitality demands otherwise. I’m not convinced that the Desert Fathers and Mothers would have chosen the life of isolation if it was possible to achieve silence as a ‘quality of heart’ without some very literal strictures on when to keep silence, and when to speak or communicate. So before we can achieve this quality, we have to go through the grind of living it as a literal part of our lives. What this means for each of us will vary, but my sense is that this is no gentle, reassuring theology, but a challenge to radically alter the structure of our lives.
So what conclusion do I draw for myself? I can’t reject language as emphatically as Nouwen does, although his words on the regret caused by speech struck home. Silence, and the space to listen, has been a place I have found through words and after words, rather than in moving away from them. But I hope that as I seek to find ways to bring silence into my life, I will find silence in my heart as Nouwen so clearly does. It seems to me that in our efforts to describe silence, we are reaching for a way to describe our longing for God to fill the whole of us, and for the peace of being reunited with Him.
‘Silence can also give us concrete guidance in the practice of our ministry.’ It is through silence we hear God speaking to us. When I was discerning what it is God is calling me to, I went to spiritual direction, I spoke to Clerics but more importantly I spent time in silence, asking God with my heart what it is I am meant to be doing, and praying that he would reveal his plan to me. This process didn’t stop when I discerned a call to the diaconate, I know pray for God to walk with me and help me to discover and build the skills and qualities needed for this.
The main aspect of this chapter that I struggled with was that although I understand the importance of silence, I believe that the practice and way in which it is implements is personal, as with those who offer a public ministry. It isn’t always practical to set aside specific times for silence, I feel that it needs to be similar to solitude, there needs to be a way of taking silence with us, as in a parish setting, the phone can ring at any time day or night with a parishioner in need of pastoral care. In that respect sectioning off time of silence would be difficult as you never know if something is going to happen – maybe sectioning off time where no meeting or other distractions are taking place, where they can enter into the silence but be available should anything come up, then carry that silence in their hearts.
How do you use silence in your daily life? Leave us a comment with your thoughts!
This post is a continuation of a series written by Srs Jennii and Joanna on Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of The Heart. For a general introduction to our project, click here.
I found this chapter hard to relate to than the previous one, which probably comes as no surprise to some people. However it wasn’t just the diverse and complex relationship me and silence have, it was more that I found it hard to understand how the points made about silence in this book can be worked into a way of life that is still compatible with the practicalities of the different lifestyles of this day. Not everyone is called into religious communities, and even less to trappist monasteries, so the call for complete silence in this day isn’t as prevalent.
However some of the points I could relate to, some I disagree with or have misunderstood but others I can see how they are important. I think it is so important for each and everyone one of us to have some regular period of silence where we can just be with God, where we can process and address anything that is weighing on our hearts and where we can offer them to God, but in our society silence is difficult, people run from silence, they distract themselves for it is in this silence we find our truest self. ‘Silence completes and intensifies solitude.’ This chapter opens with the account of the Roman educator, Arsenius, who left his status and wealth for solitude and upon praying to the Lord to be lead in the way of salvation heard a voice calling him to be silent. ‘Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.’ Arsenius is quoted to have said ‘I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.’ I understand the point that is being made here, that quite often we say the wrong things, or we use our words to hurt people in the heat of the moment. However, I personally regret some of the times I didn’t speak up, I feel that if we see injustice in this world we are called to speak up, to shed light onto it; for me, the fathers of the church would have done us and themselves a disservice if they hadn’t wrote, spoke or taught. Think of what may have happened if the apologists and defenders of our faith had never defended our faith and had remained silent in the face of persecution. This is where my alignment with this book stops, where as silence is being held as this remarkable quality which we should always strive for, I see it in the same way I see everything else: there is a time and place for silence and a time and place for words.
In this central section of the book, Henri Nouwen makes a case for silence as a spiritual practice, and the practical part of solitude. In words, especially spoken words, he sees the potential for evil, and finds examples from the saints and desert fathers and mothers of advocates for silence.
Most of the examples Nouwen draws from advocate literal silence, the silence of the hermit, but Nouwen also advocates a figurative silence, understanding that social isolation is not a reality for most Christians. This silence consists primarily of silent, wordless prayer, where the petitioner makes mental space to listen to God. The nature of this silence means that it challenges description, because to be figuratively silent is to reject words, and the noise of constant language.
The noise of language was a preoccupation for me in my time studying poetry. There are as many ways of taking a language apart as there are linguists and etymologists, poets and philosophers, but none of them make a language quieter. How is a word loud? Firstly, there is the soundwave, the physical effect of the sound, the opposite of (literal) silence. But each word is also a network of associations, which resound when the word is written or uttered. For instance, the word ‘scarlet’. The first association, of course, is ‘red’, and with that thought – one word roughly synonymous to another – we hear other synonyms and close associations. Crimson. Blood-red. Ochre. We may also hear other connotations of the word – I hear ‘the scarlet pimpernel’, ‘scarlet fever’,and am also reminded of all the people I have known called Scarlet. In the sound of the word I hear other words – ‘scar’ jumps out, and then rhymes: partlet, harlot, starlet. And it carries linguistic baggage that we may or may not be aware of, but which we pass on every time we use that word, such as its etymological roots (Latin via medieval French). And every use of the word scarlet is connected, meaning is passed from speaker to speaker. I can fully understand the assertion that even our simplest use of language is almost violently loud. Language forces definition and association: it is a reasonable argument that at some stage in our search for God, this might become spiritually restrictive.
And yet I find myself uncomfortable with Nouwen’s evocation of silence as anti-word. My experience of the two has been of a creative relationship between them as opposing sides of a coin. In 2016 I wrote a collection of devotional poetry for my university studies, exploring how through poetry – through words – I could reach out to God. It wasn’t a collection of beautiful poems about God being perfect; it wasn’t a set of instructions for prayer; it was a sequence of broken attempts to identify the absence of faith in myself and the presence of God beside me. It struck me that in the last few poems the conclusion I was reaching for (although it wasn’t evident to me at the time) was a longing for silence; in the silence at the end of the poem, I found God waiting for me. But that silence wasn’t antithetical to speech. In my research I found theologies of the word, inspired principally by the logos of John’s Gospel. I wrote about the place where poetry and prayer meet, and discovered a fundamental belief in the word, written and spoken, as a place where we encounter the divine.
Despite our differences, I find I am still drawn to the deep silence that Nouwen evokes as a firm part of solitude. But silence should not be sought from fear of speaking becoming sinful, as Nouwen suggests. I often keep silent because I am not yet able to discipline myself in my speaking, and in casual conversation find it easy to say things that I later regret. But the best silence – and here I think Nouwen and I are in complete agreement – is not the absence of our words, but the presence of God’s, and that makes much of what we have to say unnecessary. Where we do speak, in the knowledge of God’s spirit, our words are not ours.
Our wordy world
Our world today is full of noise. ‘Words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colours, or many forms….’ I do find it amusing that it is not just spoken word that this chapter is pervading to but all forms of word, and I find it ironic that I am now sat writing words, about a book of words in which the chapter addresses why we should be silent and not use words. All the words we see, hear and think each day are just distractions; can you sit in complete silence and stillness? No background music, nothing to see, a complete void? Or would that make you uncomfortable?
These days we are subjected to adverts everywhere, we hear them, we see them, we cannot get away, we are told what to think, what to wear, what to say, what to eat, what to drink, we don’t need to think for ourselves anymore, it’s all done for us. This maybe a reason why we find silence so uncomfortable, because we are not used to just being. But this onslaught of words has ‘made us lose confidence in words’. How many times do we excuse people or make excuses for ourselves saying ‘they are just words’? The function of the words has been lost, our way of communicating is lost.
The book goes on to look at theological education stating that ‘the goal of theological education [is] to bring us closer to the Lord our God so that we may be more faithful to the great commandment to love him with all our heart’ As in theological education we get to know Our God better and we begin to cultivate our personal relationship with Him, as how can we say we love Him if we never get to know Him? ‘Seminaries and divinity schools must lead theology students into an ever-growing communion with God, with each other and with their fellow human beings.’ For how can we know and love God without knowing and loving His creation? This theological education brings us closer to thinking with the mind of Christ, and seeing with His eyes, ‘so that our way of praying and believing will be one.’ And I agree that a lot of this growth is done in silence. However I also still believe that there is a time for community and group reflection on these ideas which would require some discussion and a sort of peer system of supporting, encouraging and growing together, as our relationship with God is called to yes be a personal and private one but also a corporate and public one as well. It is private in the way that each persons relationship with God is entirely individual and there are aspects of it which will be incredibly personal to each of us, but there is also that aspect of showing this relationship to the world, showing people the good things that can be achieved through it, showing them how it makes us feel and this doesn’t have to be a great public proclamation but at the same time we shouldn’t be ashamed to show it. If we take scripture to guide us on this :“Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand and it gives light to the whole house.’ Matthew 5:15. This book then goes on to challenge what is actually being taught at seminaries, stating that we ‘find ourselves entangled in such a complex network of discussions, debates and arguments about God and “God-issues” that a simple conversation with God or a simple presence to God has become practically impossible.’ This I once again disagree with in some ways, but in the aspect that these discussions are not just taking place in seminaries but throughout all the church, and while I do agree they are taking up a lot of time and creating a lot of tensions, I don’t see them taking away from prayer life; it is up to the individual to develop their own discipline there. Furthermore, when speaking about God, how can one speak with conviction unless we truly believe what we are saying, and how can we truly know what we are saying about God unless we spend that time getting to know him? As such, I don’t see these as mutual exclusive but rather as two sides of the same coin.
But why do we study and speak about such things? Well, to be an effective witness: ‘The word of God is born out of the eternal silence of God, and it is to this Word out of silence that we want to be witnesses.’ This sums up what I have been trying to say throughout this section: that silence is important as in the beginning there was a vast nothingness, and that is where God was, so if we want to get to know God we must enter into this nothingness as fully as we can through silence, and yet the Word also came out of the Silence, to bring people to the Silence to show them to way, so we to must take this example and use our mouths to speak His words to bring people to Him.
The beginning of this chapter offers an insight from the Chuang Tzu, a Taoist philosopher, in which he says ‘the purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, when the fish is caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey Ideas. When the ideas are grasped the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.’ I think this perfectly sums up this idea of silence, however, how can this man pass on the ideas he has grasped without communicating them? If he forgets words there is no use in talking to him. Yes, I believe that once an idea is grasped we no longer need to use words for ourselves but we do need to use them for others to pass these findings on. Nouwen uses this to give an understanding into the minds of the desert fathers as ‘For them, the word is the instrument of the present world and silence is the mystery of the future world’. Yes, we should all be looking to the future but I don’t think we should disregard the present as it is through our actions in the present that we shape our futures. ‘If a word is to bear fruit it must be spoken from the future world into the present world.’ This echoes my statement as we should all be conscious of how our actions and words will affect the future and the consequences thereof. So how do we process this idea of speaking from the future? Well we must take time to meditate and pray about what we are called to do, how we should react and listen to what we hear or feel to be the answer coming from God. ‘The Desert Fathers therefore considered their going into the silence of the desert’ where they could pray and meditate and be in constant conversation with God ‘to be the first step into the future World. From that world their words could bear fruit, because there they could be filled with the power of God’s silence.’ It seems to me that as this chapter builds and progresses there is a building upon what is meant by silence, it is not just simple a permanent state to be in, but a tool to focus our minds, on the what the future may hold, on what God’s plan for the world may be and also what God’s plan for us may be. It’s providing the space we need to meet God in the nothingness, where we strip away all our ideas and our words so that we can hear and be rebuilt with God’s ideas and God’s words. I find this an interesting idea when compared with an opening that some preachers use to begin their sermons ‘May I speak in the name of the Living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Or ‘let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer’ the second of these introductions coming from the Psalm (Ps. 19:14) these two sentences do more than just announce to the congregation that the sermon is about to begin, they also remind the preacher who it is they are speaking in place of, which when taken into the heart of the preacher can actually be quite intimidating, I know the first time I preached I used the former as a way of introduction, and just saying it, I felt an indescribable pressure of the severity of what I was about to do which was quickly overcome, which bring me to my third point, they act as a prayer, the preacher is asking God to guide what they say, to place His words into their mouth, so maybe this is a good idea to start saying when coming to sit down to write a sermon.
As I said the chapter seems to be progressing this idea of silence and building on it. At first just the idea of silence was presented and then how it should be used and why is present and this structure goes to reflect the aspects of silence, that we can distinguish from the sayings of the Desert Fathers ‘All of them deepen and strengthen the central idea that silence is the mystery of the future world. First silence makes us pilgrims.’ A pilgrimage is basically a journey of some significance, and although there are many site of pilgrimage around the world, all of which offer their own systems of helping with the spiritual journey and offering unique additions to the experience, pilgrimage can actually be done without leaving one’s own home, it can be a journey into one’s own faith and beliefs, and there are many books and resources out there that can help deepen ones faith, I personally would suggest the writing of the church fathers but everyone is different and everyone will find something out there that helps them.
‘Secondly, Silence guards the fire within.’ Silence helps to fame the flames that are built in solitude, it provides the space to take our solitude with us where ever we go, and help to prevent us backsliding. ‘Thirdly, silence teaches us to speak.’ Only through silence can we hear God’s words, in our busy world it is so easy to become distracted, but through silence we focus on our relationship with God and He can break through the noise so that we can be guided on what to say, like how a child learns to understand words and to listen before they learn to talk, only through hearing the words the people they come into contact with say do they learn them. The chapter then goes on to address these three ideas in more detail.
Silence makes us pilgrims
This section opens with two quotes, one from Abba Tithoes: ‘Pilgrimage means that a man should control his tongue.’ And then a second, from which the source is not given, ‘peregrinatio est tacere’. The English is given here as to be ‘to be on pilgrimage is to be silent’. I do agree with both of these as most group pilgrimages will be silent retreats, but there are some that are not silent and some that combine the two, with silence in the mornings, and tan individual choice to continue it in the afternoons. I find a time for both works best for me as it gives the time for fellowship as well, and also allows time for the groups to discuss the ideas that they are presented with. This section then goes on to give various scriptural examples of why silence is important most linking to the idea that speaking leads to sin ‘this connection is clearly expressed by the apostle James: “…every one of us does something wrong over and over again; the only man who could reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong – he would be able to control every part of himself” (James 3:2)’ this does not explicitly say that to speak is to sin but rather that speaking without sinning is hard, so the best way to remain untouched by sin is to remain silent. Nouwen then focuses on Saint Benedict and his rule, the rule that we follow the spirit of in the Holywell community, as he states ‘St. Benedict, the father of the monastic life in the west and the patron saint of Europe, puts great emphasis on silence in his rule.’ He does, the very first word in his rule is “Listen” ‘he quotes the Psalmist who says, “I will keep a muzzle on my mouth… I will watch how I behave and not let my tongue lead me into sin” (Psalm 39:1)’ this is not the only Psalm to suggest this idea, Psalm 51 states “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise”(psalm 51:15) this verse of the psalms is used frequently, it’s used at the start of Vigils which is the first monastic office of the day, the idea is that the first words out of our mouth each day is a prayer of sorts that God may give us what we need and the words to speak and in return we shall thank Him, it is also used at evensong, once again at the beginning. ‘St. Benedict not only warns his brothers against evil talk, but also tells them to avoid good, holy, edifying words’ which may seem strange as sure good words can build people upon when they are feeling down however ‘it is written in the book of Proverbs, “A flood of words is never without its faults” (Proverbs 10:19)’ so there are many examples of holding ones tongue to be found in scripture and that is because ‘Speaking is dangerous and easily leads us away from the right path’. So how are we to know when we have said enough or when we have said too much? Jesus himself gives us an answer to this “But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:34-37) so we are given the instruction here to keep our words as short as possible. Nouwen then goes on to present a theory as to why it is speech is thought to lead to sin: ‘speaking gets us involved in the affairs of the world, and it is very hard to be involved without becoming entangled in and polluted by the world.’ I can see what is trying to be portrayed here, but I would also like to point out he says ‘very hard’ not impossible, and we are called to be in the world but not of the world, but we must be present in the world in order to be Christ representatives on earth. We must have some level of engagement with the world if we are going to be effective witnesses and evangelist, and as I hope that my future holds being ordained to the diaconate, that means I am to become “the bridge” between the world and the church, to encompass the incarnation ministry of Christ the servant.
Nouwen then goes on to say how we use too many words and the words we use don’t change anything. The irony here is that the way he chooses to express this idea is very broad and repetitive, a mass of words most of which are not needed, as he just expresses the same idea with different words. One of the ways he expresses it is with the question ‘How seldom have long talks proved to be good and fruitful?’ I agree sometimes when people go on and on you switch off, and then their words are wasted, but then there are times when long conversations are exactly what’s needed and can be fruitful. There are some great speakers in the Christian community such as Bishop Rowan Williams, Bishop Dominic Walker OGS or the church fathers; a lot of their writings are actually sermons they gave. Also many pilgrimages or retreats will be lead by someone and this person will often give talks on particular topics and they may be long or short but they can provide so much insight.
He ends this first section as he started it with the Latin quote ‘Peregrinatio est tacere’ which this time the English translation is given as ‘to be silent keeps us pilgrims’ which is similar to the start but slightly different with a slightly different inference. This highlights one of the greatest problems with our words, we cannot effectively translate them between languages to mean exactly the same, therefore a single phrase can have many translations which all slightly alter the meaning – just look at how many translations of the bible there are and how different a single sentence can be.
This section seems to echo a quote attributed to St. Francis: “preach the Gospel everywhere, when necessary use words.” This quote is used to show that we should live the Gospel and show it in our lives not just speak it, however it does not say never speak, but when necessary speak so from that we can take that there is a time for words.
Silence Guards the Fire within
Nouwen says that this second meaning of silence is a more positive meaning, however I don’t see the first meaning as being negative, or less positive than this one. To be a pilgrim is not a negative thing, it is the constant study and development of the relationship with God; I wouldn’t say that it was more positive than the second reason. They are equal as is the third (‘silence teaches us to speak’). They are separate aspects that have their own value and impart uniquely into the relationship we have with God. I can see why this is inferred when reading on, as God Himself is brought into this reason as the motivating factor. ‘Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us.’ So for this reasoning alone one could give preference to this aspect of development through silence. However, I believe that our preparation and desire to know God is just as important as Gods desire to know us: relationships have to be two-sided.
Nouwen then offers us a quote from St. Diadochus which is rather substantial and makes the point that if one keeps breaking their physical silence, then that in turn has an effect on their inner silence of their heart. I disagree in part as with my previous points, things aren’t always as black and white as that; for if we keep our physical silence all the time how may we portray the silence in our hearts to others? I do agree that we need that silence in our hearts and I agree to the principle being put forward which does ‘go against the grain of our contemporary life-style, in which “sharing” has become one of the greatest virtues. We have been made to believe that our feelings, emotions and even the inner stirrings of our soul have to be shared with others…let us at least raise the question of whether our lavish ways of sharing or not more compulsive than virtuous.’ Yes, I believe that in this day and age, especially with social media, there is a culture of over sharing. However I think that as Christians need to be walking alongside each other and those not yet aware that they are part of this family and we cannot walk alongside each other effetely if we are not open to sharing in each other’s pains and sorrows as well as joys and celebrations. Empathy is one of our greatest gifts. Also, Christ came to earth not just to wipe away our sins but to shatter the hold sin had on us by sharing in our humanity, our feelings and our emotions. If our feeling and emotions are worthy to be shared with God then surely they are worthy to be shared with others.
Nouwen then goes on to say: ‘it is no wonder that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died…’ I agree that many clerics are becoming burnt out; however I don’t think this is because they are speaking and sharing experiences, I think it has more to do with the amount of meetings and other work they add on to themselves on top of their ecclesiastical duties. And this phrase ‘in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died’ – surely being there for others, welcoming them, preaching and so forth is part of their ministry, in which the spirit was called down upon them at their ordination and so is not what would be killing the spirit – over exerting themselves with countless meetings is more likely.
Nouwen comments ‘As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words. They weaken our faith and make us luke-warm. But silence is a sacred discipline, a guard of the Holy Spirit.’ This instantly made me recall many a sermon which had gone on for a conceivably long time, the ones in which a cautionary glance at the congregation can tell you that the vast majority have switched off. Too many words can be dangerous and make people feel as though they are being lectured or called out, but too little and people may not necessarily understand the lessons they read in the Bible. It’s a delicate balance, but one that can be damaging if it swings too far one way or the other.
Silence teaches us to speak
‘A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.’ I agree with this, it’s the words we speak when we are free from distraction that echo our hearts and the workings of God with us, more so than words formed by the influence of pop culture and other peoples influence on us.
In this section Nouwen speaks in more detail about the type of silence we must strive for. This productive and living silence is ‘not emptiness and absence, but fullness and presence, not the human silence of embarrassment, shame or guilt, but the divine silence in which love rests secure.’ Silence for the sake of silence and nothingness will achieve exactly that, nothingness, but a silence as a journey into God’s grace will produce God’s grace in return. ‘Here we can glimpse the great mystery in which we participate through silence and the Word, the mystery of God’s own speaking. Out of his eternal silence God spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world.’ God spoke everything into existence, you only have to read the opening of Genesis to see how God said “let there be…” and it was done. Then he made His Word into flesh, in the form of our Saviour Jesus Christ, of whom we are told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5) What I personally take from this section of the Gospel according to St. John is that if we speak with the words that come from God, nothing evil can come from that as in verses four and five we hear: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Nouwen then goes on to talk about how silence isn’t necessarily a permanent physicality but the silence of our hearts can be passed on through our words. ‘Words only create communion and thus new life when they embody the silence from which they emerge…when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its own silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken.’ This again links into the quote from St. Francis mention earlier.
Sr Joanna: What part does silence play in your life? Do you find words distracting, or do they help you pray effectively? In the next chapter of this blog, we’ll be looking at some examples of how silence can be used in ministry, and offering our final reflections before moving on to look at Henri Nouwen’s thoughts on prayer.