This is the second part of a series on Henri Neuwen’s ‘The Way of The Heart’. You can find the general introduction and the first part in our archives, to the right. We continue the series with our reflections on the next subchapter, ‘The Furnace of Transformation’.
‘He had become so Christlike, so radiant with God’s love, that his entire being was ministry.’ So Nouwen describes St Anthony emerging from his decades of solitude.
I often pray variants of a prayer where I ask God to make me, or help me make myself, a better Christian. As we confront our sins at the start of the Mass, we are reminded of how far we fall from this ideal. And then in the Eucharist, we encounter the presence of Christ, and that radiant love, which can feel so far from the reach of our abilities.
Last month I wrote about the fuller’s soap and refiner’s fire metaphors used in Malachi (which you can find here). Solitude here is a space for being changed by deep encounter by God. Again, solitude and contact are placed together. Neuwen notes the more popular definitions of solitude as a place of privacy, and a space to recharge our mental and physical energies. Without criticising those who seek out solitude for these reasons, for they are hugely valuable, the solitude he advocates (‘the solitude of St Anthony or St Benedict, of Charles de Foucauld or the brothers of Taizé’) is a place of encounter and conversion. Neuwen makes no bones about how he describes it: it is the place where we ‘the old self dies and the new self is born’.
When I think and pray about the true transformation we are offered in solitude, it sometimes intimidates me. The secular world encourages slow building of the self like a monument. We are always adding on to our conception of who we are. We keep complete histories of outselves in photos, certificates, on social media. We sort ourselves into boxes and labels, add to our CVs. But in solitude none of this matters; everything can be changed. Everything we have taken for granted that we know about ourselves is open to God, and that includes the things we assume are fixed in ourselves. I realise that I am often very specific about what I would like God to change. My sense that I know who I am is often based on things I have decided about myself, rather a desire to become who God wants me to be. The undertone of my prayer to be changed is a request for God to change those parts of me which make me uncomfortable, and make me more content with myself. In solitude the barriers and false senses of self fall away, especially the constructions of self which depend on the validations of other human beings. We can choose to maintain a sense of self entirely dependent on our own ego, like a house built on shifting sand, or we can open ourselves to an identity in God and full of God, the house built on rock.
‘The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Whatever fears we may have, whatever reservations there are in our hearts, the desire to encounter Christ so deeply is like fire on dry wood. The wonder and joy of being made Christlike is stronger than any fear. What greater happiness, then to be made new by God!
St. Anthony ‘heard the word of Jesus…he took it as a call to escape… he moved away from his family, lived in poverty…. And occupied himself with manual work and prayer. But soon he realized that more was required…he had to face his enemies – anger and greed – head-on and let himself be transformed into a new being… for this Anthony withdrew into the complete solitude of the desert.
‘Solitude is the furnace of transformation.’ I don’t know about you, but the word furnace isn’t exactly conjuring up images of butterflies and rainbows for me. It sounds terrifying and painful. But isn’t it supposed to be look at Jesus life on earth, his end days were terrifying and painful… for Jesus to become his transformed and resurrected self he had to die! But before this Jesus entered into the desert and ‘there he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”).’ Jesus was tempted with the same temptations that we face every day and he overcame them by doing just one thing ‘he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“you must worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone”). And that is all we need do, I’m not saying it is easy, I have the desire to do that and I like to think I do and yet if I truly and honestly look at myself I can see I am still attached to this world and some of these temptation – maybe not in a secular way but in small seemingly insignificant things, and yet these small things are just as much of a barrier as the large things.
Nouwen speaks about how this idea of letting go of the world may sound like we are stopping ourselves from enjoying life (‘this might sound rather forbidding’) and here he uses what is such a spectacular way of saying it, which I’m not quite sure if its irony or not, ‘it might even evoke images of medieval ascetical pursuits from which Luther and Calvin have happily saved us.’ That is just such a beautiful image created by that sentence. And straight after that we are right back on track ‘once we have given these fantasies their due.’ The word fantasies here suggests that they are nice but ultimately unrealistic; we must ‘let them wonder off’ as with all fantasies they eventually die, and ‘we will see that we are dealing here with that holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace each other.’ It is the place called solitude. This is where I got so utterly confused, I thought how can you be in public ministry and in solitude…. That doesn’t work, I had yet to read the very next sentence ‘in order to understand the meaning of solitude, we must first unmask the way in which the idea of solitude has been distorted by our world.’ Still here I was just thinking along the lines of we see solitude as something bad, as being left out, as if being alone is a terrible fate, yet I personally like being alone, it’s great! Coming from a large family I know how even just five minutes alone can be worth so very much and help to stop you feeling like your drowning in a sea of people. In fact, as a small child I would quiet often disappear to my room say I wanted some ‘quiet and peace’ I hadn’t quite got the phrase peace and quiet right, however my own view of solitude was about to be shaken up by this next part ‘we say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we are really thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it maybe. For us solitude most often means privacy… in short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life.’ I was one of the people who thought this… this made me wonder if that’s not what solitude is, what is it?
Nouwen then uses the saints ‘St. John the Baptist…St. Anthony or St. Benedict’ with that last one I felt a bit of a sting, I’ve been a Benedictine over a year now, how could I still be getting it wrong? ‘Charles de Foucauld or the brothers of Taizé’ to show what real solitude is ‘For them solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion…the place of the emergence of the new man or new woman.’ This still doesn’t sound like a furnace, still sounds fairly tranquil. But then it continues ‘in solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me…. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude’ for some people this won’t sound too terrifying, but it makes me think of my days off and how I just can’t help myself, I have to fill my time, I’ll create projects to do, if I could get away with it I would come into work… I am terrible at nothingness, I don’t like being idle. ‘a nothingness so dreadful that I have to run to my friends…. Make myself believe I am worth something.’ There we go, back to this idea of having to be useful to be worth something. The is why solitude is hard, once the first part is over it will get easier it’s just breaking past these fears of being a burden if you don’t pull your weight. But Nouwen continues about the other challenges that must be faced, ‘confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies and weird associations jump about in my mind’ yep just like when I’m trying to get to sleep, my mind chooses that moment to bring these things to me, but we must persevere to ignore these thoughts to put them to bed once and for all.
The next paragraph in the book talks about the “Isenheim altar” which neither of us had ever heard of so we decide to look it up and it is truly stunning and show that we are not alone in our struggles. St. Anthony struggled as did our Lord and it is only by going through these struggles we can grow into the glories that await us. At this point I was reminded, God could have taken away all our struggles and our pains instead he came to share in them. ‘The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after or beyond the struggle with our false self and its demons. No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle our Lord comes to us’.
So, if Solitude can be hard and comes with its own battles what is the purpose? Nouwen tells us ‘Our primary task is… to keep the eyes of our minds and heart on him who is our divine saviour. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin’ but even with this explanation of solitude I was still struggling to see how one can be in public ministry and in solitude, it is here that Nouwen begins to explain this concept, stating that for those who ‘are not called to monastic life, or do not have the physical constitutes to survive the rigors of the desert, we are still responsible for our own solitude’ This doesn’t mean we have to retreat into ourselves but rather we have to find a way that works for us and for our lifestyles without encroaching on our spiritual lives ‘because our secular milieu offers so few spiritual disciplines, we have to develop our own… fashion our own desert’ where we go every day to ‘shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.’ For me, I have regular practices of attending mass, of frequent daily prayer, I pray the rosary, I find my own space to be with God. ‘For without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the Gospel to others.’ All these practices work for me, but they won’t work for everyone, the way I pray will be different from how everyone else prays, this is building up a relationship with God, and just as our relationships in this world, no two are the same, so we find what works for our relationship and by creating ‘such a spiritual abode, we will become increasingly conformed to him in whose Name we minister.’ So, solitude isn’t retreating away from the world, it’s taking time for this group develop a personal relationship with God, so that we can more openly and fervently encourage the mass relationship of the whole body. As I said above, I have my own routine as it were for my personal time with God, I gave but brief overview but in reality, it works out much more detailed and as time goes on it will become more and more precise in a way and Nouwen reflects this when he says the ‘shape of this discipline of solitude will be different for each person depending on individual character… but a real discipline never remains vague or general. It is as concrete and specific as daily life itself.’ Upon reading this section the word discipline hit me, it makes it sound laborious and difficult and not exactly fun, but it also struck me how similar the word discipline is to disciple, and so I did a bit of research, the word discipline comes from the word disciple in a way, they both share the same root word, in Latin the word for disciple is discipulus which is literally translated to pupil whereas discipline in Latin is disciplina which literally means teaching or learning, the two have the same root of discip… which in itself relates to study. Nouwen rounds off this sub-chapter by stating ‘solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image…it is the place of our salvation.’ So, solitude is the place in which we are personally saved, but as Christians we are not only concerned with ourselves being saved but with those we love being saved, so how does solitude help with that?
This series will continue with our reflections on Neuwen’s chapter ‘The Compassionate Minister’. We would love to hear your responses, so do leave a comment below.