The Way of The Heart: Prayer

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. 

Sr Jennii: 

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.

Sr Jennii: 

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.

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