The Way of The Heart: The Compulsive Minister

Continuing our series on Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of The Heart. The introduction to this project can be found here


St Anthony in the desert

Sr Jennii:  Nouwen introduces the way of the desert fathers by speaking about St. Anthony, ‘the father of monks’. He is described as ‘the best guide in our attempt to understand the role of solitude in ministry’. We hear about Anthony’s life and how he came to live in the desert. ‘When he was eighteen years old he heard in church the Gospel words, “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor… then come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony realized that these words were meant for him personally.’ This struck me as these are words that we have all heard many times and it shows just how we all take something different from the message of the Gospels, God speaks to us all as a group and as individuals, our calls are all similar and yet personal. Anthony’s transformation was both sudden and gradual, the desire to withdraw and follow these words was instant and he went and lived at the edge of his village as a poor labourer for some time, but it then became apparent this wasn’t enough for him and ‘he withdrew into the desert, where for twenty years he lived in complete solitude.’ And during this time, he began to become closer to God; to live as God wanted him to; to become the man he was meant to be, but as I stated earlier, for me ministry isn’t meant to be easy and this is shown in Anthony’s journey as well, ‘During this time Anthony experienced a terrible trial.’ What was this trial? It’s the same that we all must go through, the denial of our self, or at least or preconceptions of who we are. ‘The shell of his superficial securities was cracked, and the abyss of iniquity was opened to him.’ Why must be destroy these versions of ourselves? The versions of ourselves where we seem to be successful, worth something? Ask yourself this, are these achievements worldly or spiritual? Are they your achievements or are they gifts given through God? It is only when we see that we can do nothing without the help of God we can do nothing, and this feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness is something many of us struggle with. So how did Anthony get through this and come out victorious? ‘Because of his unconditional surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.’ Anthony didn’t stay in this desert for the rest of his life but what happened was that by meeting his true self he changed and ‘people recognised in him the qualities of an authentic “healthy” man, whole in body, mind, and soul.’ But then in his old age he returned once again to his solitude and ‘to an even deeper solitude to be totally absorbed in direct communion with God.’ This story of St. Anthony is a way of showing that we all ‘must be made aware of the call to let our false, compulsive self be transformed into the new self of Jesus Christ.’ Christ lives in each one of us, some of us bury him deep inside us and others allow his Glory to shine brightly from within us to the rest of the world, but he is present in all of us, even the most violent of people, we just need to give them their chance to find him. ‘Solitude is the furnace in which this transformation takes place.’ I believe this is because our transformation is personal to each of us, and different for each of us therefor we cannot do it as a group, we can support each other in our own journey’s but one man is not moved forward by another man’s steps. Nouwen suggests that ‘it is from this transformed or converted self that real ministry flows.’ I agree with this statement, as even the most genuine and caring person cannot efficiently and truly minister to others without first ministering to themselves, those who try quickly find themselves burnt out and in need to recharge.


Sr Joanna: So often the accounts we have of the lives of Saints are the accounts of ‘doings’ – of the ministry, and active life, of the holy men and women. Yet what we know of St Anthony is an account of ‘being’ – of who he was in Christ, and of how he became more Christlike. His is an account for the weary soul, in need of reassurance of God’s presence, rather than the nagging reminder of all the tasks we could be doing. The time he spent in active ministry was far more valuable because of his time in solitude. So often we go straight into action without time to prepare and permit ourselves to stop and listen to God. The patience of St Anthony is a great encouragement. As the prophet Micah says: What does the Lord, our God, require of us? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Let us not forget the last instruction, and take time to walk in the presence of the Lord.

The Compulsive Minister

Sr Jennii: Nouwen begins this sub-chapter with a quote from Thomas Merton’s ‘the wisdom of the Desert’ in which society is described as ‘a shipwreck from which every single individual man has to swim for his life’. He also comments that the desert fathers ‘were men who believed to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.’ What I picked up from this quote was the use of the phrase ‘drift along’; to me this shows that it is not just the leaders and those who fight for this society to stay as it is who will end badly, but those who do nothing to change it, those who think ‘it’s not my job to question’ or ‘anything for an easy life’ or even ‘what can I do, I’m only one person?’ You may not be able to change the fate of the world, but you are able to change your own personal fate and maybe by doing that you will find that God grants you the gifts to help others change the world. Nouwen states that ‘our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ’. I would go one step further and say our society is not a Community. People are out for themselves, if they are okay that is all that matters. Compare this to the church, where we are called the FAMILY of God and the ONE body. Yet these days I don’t see that, we have our own cliques and friendship groups and too often measure how good a Christian we are based off what we do in comparison to what others do, usually pointing out how much more we do than others. What has happened to the family aspect?

Nouwen asks ‘whether we ministers have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people’s fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.’ This is a very big question with very large consequences as if those who lead us and teach us have given up the fight and started drifting alone, who is there to motivate us? This to me emphasis the need and requirement for minister to go on retreats. These are not holidays as some people think, they are time in solitude, absorbing scripture and re-energising oneself so that they can carry on helping others, a quick rest against the rocks out at sea to gather strength to keep swimming. And it is easy to see why these spiritual journey’s our needed when a cleric’s day is so full ‘our calendars are filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects’ they become more like business managers, their days look so very similar to the secular world ‘there is seldom a period when we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest…we simply go along with the many “musts” and “oughts” that have been handed on to us.’ These things become our priorities ‘people must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised…we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought….’ The list is endless and on the face of things this does look what a cleric should be concerned with and I hear these comments all the time from cleric and from parishioners and, yet I seldom hear I must go out and take the Gospel with me, I ought to make sure I explain how the Gospel impacts us today. This isn’t to say cleric are not concerned with that but the pressure they are under from all sides to do this, that or the other makes it hard for them to find time for their own needs Nouwen states ‘we are busy people just like all the other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are given to busy people!’ ‘all this is to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be.’ I’m glad I read this part of the book now, as I prepare for what will hopefully be a future as a Deacon, its gives me time to reflect on what my priorities should be, and gives me an insight of how hard it can be to make that happen, but why is it so hard for clerics to switch off as it where? ‘our identity, our sense of self, is at stake.’ Just as St. Anthony had to battle his false self so must we, an in a society where our sense of self is measure by how we are perceived by others, and that in turn is measured by how busy we are and how much of an impact we make, our false self is not just the version of ourselves we want to be but the version of our self we want other to see. ‘the secular or false self is the self which is fabricated as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions’ this ‘points to the need ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who I am? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised… the compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.’ And although these may seem like very attractive ideas, the reality is we can’t take them with us when we die. So, we should work at building up those things which will be with us, our faith, our relationship with God and our family that is the church.

Nouwen speaks about how these compulsions are the basis of two ‘main enemies of the spiritual life’ or to be put another way two of the deadly sins, anger and greed. ‘what else is anger than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is quite a natural reaction to a critical word.’ I am terrible for this, not so much a critical word about my work or the like but a critical word about myself, me personally. I have gone through enough in my years on this earth and yet this still is one of the few things that are likely to set me off, however through my time in the community and family that was built here, not just Holywell, but there are people here in the parish that I have come to love and rely on this instinctive reaction isn’t as strong. I now stop and pause when I feel personally attacked and I have come a long way thanks to certain people and when these things occur all I have to remember is “does this say more about me or the other person” and “I can’t control what others do or think but I can control my reaction”. But anger isn’t the only sin that was mentioned ‘when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus, greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self-fabricated by the social compulsions of an unredeemed world’.

Nouwen speaks of how clerics are more likely to give in to anger than greed and I can see how, ‘Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm…. This is not an open blatant, roaring anger’ although I have seen it sometimes where it is blatant ‘but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face and the polite handshake. It’s frozen anger… which settles into a biting resentment’ this make me wonder if therefore, priest don’t stay at the same parish for the length of time they used to, is it because this resentment builds up until they no longer feel they can honestly minister to the people they hold in resentment? When we look at it this way it is easy to see how in fact ‘it is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenet and values of society.’ I think anyone can now see how hard it is not only for us individually but also the church as a body to separate itself from those temptations of the secular world. Just look how the church today is so wrapped up in politics, and how the church is so split in denominations and which denominations agree with the latest political campaign for one thing or another… the church and the state are becoming intertwined and people are looking to the church for its views on certain things, but they never actually come through the doors to see where this viewpoint comes from. St. Anthony and companions escaped that sinking ship and found themselves in the desert, for them it was a literal desert, for us it is whatever space we can find to be in solitude with God so that we may find our true selves.the complusive priest

Sr Joanna: Nouwen begins his thoughts on solitude with the first, most obvious, question about the Desert Fathers and Mothers: why the desert? Why would Christians choose to flee from the world, rather than trying to be Christian witnesses in it?

The ‘compulsions’ of this subchapter are negative behaviours brought about by society. But this isn’t an argument for a complete retreat from the world (although Nouwen goes on to make a strong case for this being a valid calling). One phrase jumped out at me: ‘Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.’  Our society is not a community – so a retreat from society is not a retreat from other people, but an opportunity to search for a community. Some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers lived in silence and complete solitude, but they were also a community, supporting and sharing each other in faith.

                Sometimes the longing to escape the pressures of society and walk alone into the desert, to God, is overwhelming. And yet St Anthony came back from the desert and witnessed to Jesus after his time alone, returning at the end of his life to that isolation. I wonder if community can be the bridge between people called to life physically in ‘society’, and those called to live the contemplative life. As I’ve thought about what ‘community’ means over the last few months, I’ve realised how consciously trying to create ‘community’ – people united by their shared love for God and mission, over and above themselves – is fundamental to our growth as people of faith. However and wherever we are called to live, we can make our relationships with the people around us ‘community’ rather than ‘society’ – sharing in faith and love, rather than pressured to compete and compare.

St Anthony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers ‘swam from the shipwreck of society’ to solitude – but solitude shared as a community, even in the long days, weeks, years spent entirely alone.

There are still monks and nuns today who choose the life of the hermit, often living alone in the grounds near another community. They are called to a life of solitude, but they still pray for their community, and are prayed for in turn. Solitude is not exclusive of relationships, but filters out the clamour of society. In the rule of St Benedict monks are advised to avoid needless chatter. This works not to the redaction of our relationships, but to their eventual deepening. Physical and spiritual solitude encourages us to make the time we do have in company a time of shared solitude – of connection where each participant listens deeply and prays continually for the other. And as solitude changes our relationship with other people, so it must also change our relationship with God. For the solitude of faith never means being alone; we are always in the company of the Divine. To choose solitude is to open the door of your heart to that company, to say: Come in, sit down, stay with me.

2 thoughts on “The Way of The Heart: The Compulsive Minister

  1. Pingback: The Way of the Heart: A Compassionate Ministry | Holywell Community

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