By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). Part Four of Wicks’ book is entitled “Praying with Classic and Contemporary Spiritual Guides.” In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the tradition of Henri Nouwen.
Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch Catholic priest, is among the most prolific and revered spiritual writers in the Christian tradition. His work has touched thousands of people around the world. Nouwen lived much of his life as an academic at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. Despite his incredibly powerful intellect, Nouwen wrote about prayer and the spiritual life in simple, direct language. Undoubtedly, Nouwen strove to make his works accessible to everyone, but he also wrote this way because he believed that true spiritual connection is always made from the heart, not from the head.
In his books on prayer and spirituality, Nouwen does not advise the reader to follow any particular prayer method or practice. Rather, he awknowledges that many methods of prayer can facilitate the kind of intimacy with God that is the goal of spiritual life and, in fact, he explored several methods of prayer himself. Nouwen does recommend, however, that whatever approach we take, it should include reading of scripture, quiet time or silence, and the companionship of a spiritual guide or community.
Nouwen was convinced that each of us is called to appreciate our individual belovedness. He used to joke that his middle initials, J. M., stood for “just me,” and he prayed as a person who struggled, as all of us do, to become the person he felt God was calling him to be. Praying with Nouwen means going on a journey. He often uses metaphors of motion such as “from here to there” and “from this to that.”
Our journey toward God begins wherever we are right now, with a deep and honest look at our own lives, so that the person we bring to God is our whole self, not a mask or a disguise constructed by fear. In Can You Drink the Cup, he writes, “We are tempted to say: ‘Let’s just live life. All this thinking about it only makes things harder.’ Still, we intuitively know that without looking at life critically we lose our vision and our direction.” (388) Self-examination is not the same as prayer, but it can lead us into prayer when we bring our inner life to God.
Nouwen notes that when we focus too much on the concrete details of any prayer technique, we can convince ourselves that we can “reach any level of prayer by just hard work and perseverance.” (391) However, prayer is not about making our weaknesses disappear so that we can be transformed into perfect people. It is about allowing our failings to be held in the all-embracing arms of the one who loved us before we were born and trusting in his power to make us living witnesses to his love.
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