Over the next few blog posts, Sr Jennii and Sr Joanna will be reflecting on The Way of The Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henri Nouwen (HarperOne, 1981). Both of us were given a copy of this lovely text for Christmas (with grateful thanks to its’ giver!!), and have been inspired to look into how the lives of the desert Fathers and Mothers, and their wisdom, can impact on our lives.
The Way of The Heart by Henri Nouwen looks at the modern Christian and how we have changed and what is to come. He asks questions which I think we all should be asking ourselves each day, but he also gives us a way of deepening our own spiritual beings and making the journey that we all share a personal one to us whist still being a community journey.
In the first paragraph of this book Nouwen asks about the future of the church ‘Will there be anything to celebrate?’ This is not to necessarily critique the way the church is being run and to tear it down but more of an observation, he goes on to say, ‘Many voices wonder if humanity can survive its own destructive powers.’ With increasing poverty and hunger; hatred and violence; ‘our world has embarked on a suicidal journey.’ Nouwen states that these days ‘the darkness is thicker… the powers of evil are more visible than ever… the children of God are being tested more severely…’ I find myself questioning if that is really the case or are the ways in which the darkness and the powers of evil are shown just different to before? Is it an increase or just a new way of presenting? Are the Children of God being tested more or does it seem that way because there are fewer people taking an active stand?
So, what does it mean to minister in this environment? ‘What is required of men and women who want to bring light to the darkness…what is required of a man or woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope? This is what we are all called to do: it’s not just the job of the clergy, it’s the role of each and everyone of us, and we may find it easier to separate ourselves from the bad influences and degenerates of our time, but that is not the way of God. God didn’t shout what we should do from a distance; he came as a baby and entered into the turmoil, so we too must share in that incarnational ministry and enter into the world of those we are trying to reach. But how can we enter into these areas without being affected? ‘We who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals and prisons are having a difficult time… making the light of Christ shine into the darkness.’ Our shouts of joy fall onto deaf ears, or more aptly, ears that are tuned into headphones these days. ‘The pressures in the ministry are enormous, the demands are increasing, and the satisfactions diminishing.’ This sentence fills me with such hope for the future I have discerned that I personally am being called to but, for me ministry isn’t meant to be easy, it’s not meant to be smooth sailing.
These are what Nouwen addresses in this book. He mentions that we can turn to the doctors of the church, and the writers such as Thomas Merton and his fellow modern authors. But in this book, we look at the way of the desert fathers, a ‘primitive source of inspiration’. The desert fathers and mothers ‘searched for a new form of martyrdom’ as it was growing less possible ‘to witness for Christ by following him as a blood witness.’ When the persecution of Christians decreased, yet still to this day people are being killed for their faith but it is less frequent than in the first and second century. But even though the persecutions had slowed it ‘did not mean the world had accepted the ideals of Christ and altered its ways’ just merely tolerated us. The desert fathers and mothers sought to become ‘witnesses against the destructive powers of evil, witnesses for the saving power of Jesus Christ.’ They wrote spiritual commentaries, gave counsel to visitors, and Nouwen states that ‘their very concrete ascetical practices form the basis of my reflections about the spiritual life of the minister in our day.’ And after reading this book, I am now also using it to develop my spiritual life and my spiritual growth. In my opinion, we can learn so much from those who come before us and adapt their methods to the world we live in now. ‘Like the desert fathers and mothers, we have to find a practical and workable response to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not model yourself on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.”’
Nouwen gives lots of stories about the desert fathers and mothers in this book which he uses to show how we should care for ourselves and for each other. He looks at why the desert fathers fled to the desert, why they had to escape society, and hat that means for us today. ‘This raises the question of solitude.’ When I saw this I was confused, I didn’t see how I could make solitude a large part of my life and go into public ministry, as the two seemed to be opposite, but the book addresses this in its first chapter. The second is dedicated to silence, a idea that many of us struggle with and finally the third chapter is about prayer, and as in a previous blog, I have said that prayer should be the simplest thing to us and yet many if not all of us struggle with prayer at some point in our lives.
Our reflections on the three chapters will follow over the next few weeks, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts, and hearing your reflections on how solitude, silence, and prayer affect or challenge your faith.