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The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen

by davesandel on August 27th, 2011

The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, by Henri Nouwen, 1981

96 pages

With 14 men and women from nine different Christian denominations, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) co-led a seminar at Yale Divinity School in the late 1970’s on the spirituality of the desert.  Already he and his students were thinking of the coming new millennium and struggling to find appropriate values and lifestyle.  Rather than looking to contemporary thinkers, they chose to look back to the fourth and fifth centuries, to the desert of Egypt, to the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert.

“If the world was no longer the enemy of the Christian, then the Christian had to become the enemy of the dark world.  (For these men and women), the flight to the desert was the way to escape a tempting conformity to the world” (p. 14).

Their words as recorded were few, quiet, wise.  Their words issued out of the silence of their lives.  Nouwen points to three aspects of their life: their solitude, their silence and their prayer.  This becomes the structure of his short, sweet book.

Reading this book challenges two not-so-cooperative parts of me: the student and the contemplative.  Lately I’m reading and writing and thinking ABOUT relationship with God with more time and concentration.  At the same time I notice a rejoicing in my spirit during moments when I stop studying and do NOT start doing anything else.  That silence and unoccupied time nourishes my soul.

I want to read Nouwen’s own sources, both primary and secondary.  I want to know their place in the history of spiritual direction.  I want to understand This, and understand That.  Then again, Nouwen and the desert fathers call me into Being, which is most definitely NOT the doing of a student, thinker, writer.  Though it’s hard for me to embrace this goal, God my father may be very happy with his child David doing less thinking, less writing – less understanding even.

I read this book mostly in the morning and evening, not during the busier middles of the day.  The pages are thick, the typeface is fairly large.  I “ate” this book, as Eugene Peterson might have said.  I felt the pages in my hands.  They are precious enough to tear out of their binding just so that I could hold each one with some physical joy in my hands as I read it.

To illustrate his points, Nouwen chose profoundly simple stories from the Desert Fathers.  His reverence for their example and wisdom sits eloquently beside his efforts to offer clear and useful applications to ministers today.

Both his own words and the ones he chose from antiquity quiet my mind.  As Nouwen says, this kind of wisdom issues out of silence, and allows its listener to move back into the world far more peacefully than when he left.

The desert silence is far from empty.  As I become quiet, at last I begin to hear God.  I am not alone in my solitude; God is my companion at all times.  Solitude and silence are, consequently, the richest times of all.

When I pray out of this experience, my prayer is less wordy and more constant.  When I stop doing so much talking, God’s voice rises up in me.

Nouwen died before he moved into the earth’s twenty-first century, accompanying the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.  But as I read his book in 2011, these few quiet pages draw a compelling track for me to trace.  I don’t know until it comes what particular desert will parch my throat, dry out my energy, seem endless and dirty and old.  Crawling up yet another sand dune, waiting for direction … I can only imagine anger and despair and what feels like final surrender.  Waiting for nothing more than to die.

Is that the moment when God has me where He wants me?  Will that concept be worth anything if I can’t breathe and haven’t eaten and have no saliva left?  Will I discover the God who has been looking for his lost sheep and will never leave him?  Will He love me like He says he will?

In each of his books, and certainly in this one, Henri Nouwen speaks of God, and his own experience with God, and quietly assures me that all will be well.


Outline of The Way of the Heart:

  1. Prologue
  2. Solitude
    1. Introduction
    2. The Compulsive Minister
    3. The Furnace of Transformation
    4. A Compassionate Ministry
    5. Conclusion
  3. Silence
    1. Introduction
    2. Our Wordy World
    3. Silence
  1. Silence Makes Us Pilgrims
  2. Silence Guards the Fire Within
  3. Silence Teaches Us to Speak
  4. Silence and Preaching
  5. Silence and Counseling
  6. Silence and Organizing
    1. Nurtured by Short Prayers
    2. Unceasing
    3. All-Inclusive
    1. The Ministry of Silence
    1. Conclusion
  1. Prayer
    1. Introduction
    2. The Prayer of the Mind
    3. The Prayer of the Heart
    4. Prayer and Ministry

d.      Conclusion

  1. Epilogue

Some quotes from The Way of the Heart:

“The words flee, be silent and pray summarize the spirituality of the desert.  They indicate the three ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image and are thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.” – p. 15

“ ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self.  It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation.  Who am I?  I am the one being liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised … What matters is how I am perceived by my world.

“These compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed.  They are the inner sides of a secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies.” – p. 22-23

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation.  Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.  Jesus entered this furnace.  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”).  There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”).  Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” – p. 25-26

“The idea of solitude has been distorted by our world.  We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives … Solitude most often means privacy.  We have come to the dubious conviction that we all have a right to privacy … We also think of solitude as a station where we can recharge our batteries … In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life.

“But that is not the solitude of John the Baptist, of St. Anthony … for them solitude is not a private therapeutic place.  Rather, it is the place of conversion …” – p. 27

“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 – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing.  It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.

“But that is not all.  As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images … jump about my mind … Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces.  I give long speeches and dream lustful dreams in which I am … very attractive or poor and ugly … Thus I try to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.

“The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone.  The “Isenheim Altar” painted by Grünewald shows with frightening realism the ugly faces of the many demons who tempted Anthony in his solitude.  The struggle is real because the danger is real.  It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness.” – p. 27-28

“This struggle is far, far beyond our own strength.  Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool.  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.  Alone, we cannot face the ‘mystery of iniquity’ with impunity.” – p. 28

“Only in the context of the great encounter with Jesus can a real authentic struggle take place.  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 that our Lord comes to us and says, as he said to the old man in the story: ‘As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you.’” – p. 29

“Our primary task in solitude is not to pay undue attention to the many faces which assail us, but to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine savior … As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away …” – p. 30

“We are responsible for our own solitude.  Precisely because our secular milieu offers us so few spiritual disciplines, we have to develop our own.  We have, indeed, to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.” – p. 30

“A real discipline never remains vague or general.  It is as concrete and specific as daily life itself.” – p. 31

“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.” – p. 32

“St. Anthony spent twenty years in isolation.  When he left he took his solitude with him and shared it with all who came to him … He had become so Christ-like, so radiant with God’s love, that his entire being was ministry.” – p. 32

“(For St. Anthony) the solitude that at first had required physical isolation had now become a quality of his heart, an inner disposition that could no longer be disturbed by those who needed his guidance.  Somehow his solitude had become an infinite space into which anyone could be invited.” – p. 32-33

“The point where ministry and spirituality touch each other is compassion.  Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry.” – p. 33

“In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.  In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity.” – p. 34

“In order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others … Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from being with the other.” – p. 35

“Often quite unconsciously we classify our people as very good, good, neutral, bad, and very bad.  These judgments influence deeply the thoughts, words, and actions of our ministry.” – p. 35

“Solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry.  In such a ministry there is hardly any difference left between doing and being.” – p. 37

“Three old men, of whom one had a bad reputation, came one day to Abba Achilles.  The first asked him, ‘Father, make me a fishing net.’  ‘I will not make you one,’ he replied.

“Then the second said, ‘Of your charity make one, so that we have a souvenir of you in the monastery.’  But he said, ‘I do not have time.’

“Then the third one, who had a bad reputation, said, ‘Make me a fishing-net, so that I may have something from your hands, Father.’  Abba Achilles answered him at once, ‘For you, I will make one.’

“Then the two other old men asked him privately, ‘Why did you not want to do what we asked you, but you promised to do what he asked?’

“The old man gave them this answer, ‘I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had no time.  But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, ‘The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,’ and so our relationship would have broken down.  But now I have cheered his mind, so that he will not be overcome with grief.’

“Here indeed is ministry in its purest form, a compassionate ministry born of solitude.” –p. 38-39

“It is very important for us to realize that Anthony concluded his life in total absorption in God.  The goal of our life is not people.  It is God.  Only in him shall we find the rest we seek.” – p. 40

“Silence completes and intensifies solitude … Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.  The Desert Fathers praise silence as the safest way to God.  ‘I have often repented of having spoken,’ Arsenius said, ‘but never of having remained silent.’” – p. 43

“Silence is a very concrete, practical, and useful discipline in all our ministerial tasks.  It can be seen as a portable cell taken with us from the solitary place into the midst of our ministry.  Silence is solitude practiced in action.” – p. 44

“Words, words, words!  They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence.  It has not always been this way.

“Words, my own included, have lost their creative power.  Their limitless multiplication has made us lose confidence in words and caused us to think more often than not, ‘They are just words.’

“The word no longer communicates, no longer fosters communion, no longer creates community, and therefore no longer gives life.” – p. 45-46

“When our words (as ministers) are no longer a reflection of the divine Word in and through whom the world has been created and redeemed, they lose their grounding and become as seductive and misleading as the words used to sell Geritol … The Word of God is born out of the eternal silence of God, and it is to this Word out of silence that we want to be witnesses.” – p. 47-48

“Silence is the home of the word.  Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word.  We can even say that words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come.” – p. 48

For the Desert Fathers, the word is the instrument of the present world and silence is the mystery of the future world.  If a word is to bear fruit it must be spoken from the future world into the present world.” – p. 49

“Speaking gets us involved in the affairs of the world, and it is very hard to be involved without becoming entangled in and polluted by the world.” – p. 51

“How seldom have long talks proved to be good and fruitful?  Would not many if not most of the words we use be better left unspoken?  … We speak about people and their ways, but how often do our words do them or us any good?  We speak about our ideas and feelings as if everyone were interested in them, but how often do we really feel understood? … Words often leave us with a sense of inner defeat.” – p. 51-52

“Words often make us forget that we are pilgrims called to invite others to join us on the journey.  Pregrinatio est tacere.  ‘To be silent keeps us pilgrims.’” – p. 52

“Since protects the inner fire, guards the inner heat of religious emotions, the life of the Holy Spirit within us.  Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.” – p. 52

“Diadochus of Photiki says, ‘The soul in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good … Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy.” – p. 52-53

“Sharing has become one of the greatest virtues.  We have been made to believe that feelings, emotions, and even the inner stirrings of our soul have to be shared with others … Let us at least raise the question of whether our lavish ways of sharing are not more compulsive than virtuous; that instead of creating community they tend to flatten out our life together.” – p. 53

“As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words.  They weaken our faith and make us lukewarm.  But silence is a sacred discipline, a guard of the Holy Spirit.” – p. 56

“Silence teaches us to speak.  A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.  A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it.  It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence, … the divine silence in which loves rests secure.” – p. 56

“As soon as we begin to take hold of each other by our words, and use words to defend ourselves or offend others, the word no longer speaks of silence.” – p. 57

“We have become so contaminated by our wordy world that we hold to the deceptive opinion that our words are more important than our silence.  Therefore it requires a strenuous discipline to make our ministry one that leads our people into the silence of God.  That is the task Jesus has given us.  The whole of Jesus’ ministry pointed away from himself to the Father who had sent him … Our ministry must also point beyond our words to the unspeakable mystery of God.” – p. 58-59

“In our chatty world, silence has become a very fearful thing … (Our task is to) gently and carefully convert empty silence into a full silence, anxious silence into a peaceful silence, and the restless silence into a restful silence, so that in this converted silence a real encounter with the loving Father can take place.” – p. 59-60

“There is a way of preaching in which the word of Scripture is repeated quietly and regularly, with a short comment here and there, in order to let that word create an inner space where we can listen to our Lord … This meditative preaching is one way to practice the ministry of silence.” – p. 60-61

“Human counselors should see as their primary task the work of helping their parishioners to become aware of the movements of the divine Counselor and encouraging them to follow these movements without fear … into the silence of God … and to feel at home there.” p. 62”

When a word from Scripture is spoken by a counselor at that particular moment when the parishioner is able to hear it, it can indeed shatter huge walls of fear and open up unexpected perspectives.  Such a word then brings with it the divine silence from which it came and to which it returns. – p. 62-63

“Ministers are tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy … But our task is the opposite of distraction … how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.” – p. 63

“Let us not be too literal about silence.  After all, silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth … It leads to ever-growing charity … Charity, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry.” – p. 64

“Silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even in our conversation with others.  It is a portable cell that we carry with us wherever we go.  From it we speak to those in need and to it we return after our words have born fruit.” – p. 65

“It is not whether we say much or little, but whether our words call forth the caring silence of God himself … Words are the instrument of the present world, but silence is the mystery of the future world.” – p. 66

“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.” – p. 69

“The Desert Fathers did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God.  They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God.” – p. 69

“The literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’  The Greek word for rest is hesychia, and hesychasm is the term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.  A hesychast is a man or a woman who seeks solitude and silence as the ways to unceasing prayer.  The prayer of the hesychasts is a prayer of rest.  The rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain.” – p. 69-70

“One demonic ruse is to make us think of prayer primarily as an activity of the mind that involves above all else our intellectual capacities.  This prejudice reduces prayer to speaking with God or thinking about God … a quite one-sided affair … to whom am I really speaking, God or myself?” – p. 72

“Another viewpoint can lead to similar frustrations, the viewpoint that restricts the meaning of prayer to thinking about God … Prayer requires hard mental work and is quite fatiguing … Successful prayer leads to new intellectual discoveries about God.” – p. 73

“Both these views of prayer are a product of a culture in which high value is placed on mastering the world through the intellect.  The dominating idea has been that everything can be understood and that what can be understood can be controlled.  God, too, is a problem that has a solution, and by strenuous efforts of the mind we will find it.  It is therefore not so strange that the academic gown is the official garb of the minister, and that one of the main criteria for admission to the pulpit is a university degree.” – p. 74

“During the last decade (the 1970’s), many have discovered the limits of the intellect … The charismatic movement is an obvious response to this new search for prayer.  The popularity of Zen and the experimentation with encounter techniques in the churches are also indicative of a new desire to experience God.  Suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by people saying, ‘Teach us to pray.’ … The crisis of our prayer life as ministers is that our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from him.  Real prayer comes from the heart.” – p. 75

“We find the best formulation of the prayer of the heart in the words of the Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse: ‘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.’  … There God’s spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place.  There heart speaks to heart, because there we stand before the face of the Lord, all-seeing, within us.” – p. 76

“The word ‘heart’ in the Jewish-Christian tradition refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and moral energies.  From the heart arise unknowable impulses as well as conscious feelings, moods, and wishes.  The heart, too, has its reasons and is the center of perception and understanding.  Finally, the heart is the seat of the will … Our heart determines our personality, and is therefore not only the place where God dwells but also the place to which Satan directs his fiercest attacks.  It is this heart that is the place of prayer.” – p. 77

“The most profound insight of the Desert Fathers is that entering into the heart is entering into the kingdom of God.” – p. 77-78

“By its very nature such prayer transforms our whole being into Christ precisely because it opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves as well as to the truth of God … sinners embraced by the mercy of God … The prayer of the heart challenges us to hide absolutely nothing from God and to surrender ourselves unconditionally to his mercy … It unmasks our many illusions about ourselves and about God” – p. 78-79

“This truth is what gives us the “rest” of the hesychast.  To the degree that this truth anchors itself in our heart, we will be less distracted by worldly thoughts and more single-mindedly directed toward the Lord of both our hearts and the universe … restful in the midst of a restless existence.” – p. 79

“There are three characteristics of the prayer of the heart that help us formulate a definite discipline, a rule of prayer:

  • The prayer of the heart is nurtured by short, simple prayers
  • The prayer of the heart is unceasing
  • The prayer of the heart is all-inclusive.” –p. 80

“From John Climacus”: “Wordiness in prayer often subjects the mind to fantasy and dissipation; single words of their very nature tend to concentrate the mind.  When you find satisfaction or compunction in a certain word of your prayer, stop at that point.” – p. 81

“This is a very helpful suggestion for us, people who depend so much on verbal ability … When we simply try to sit silently and wait for God to speak to us, we find ourselves bombarded with endless conflicting thoughts and ideas.  But when we use a very simple sentence or a single word, it is easier to let the many distractions pass by … it can be like a ladder along which we can descend into the heart and ascend to God.” – p. 81-82

“We can take this prayer with us into a very busy day.  When, for instance, we have spent twenty minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day.” – p. 82

“(After thousands and thousands of repetitions day after day of the ‘Jesus prayer’: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’) ‘it seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Prayer … I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying.” – p. 86

“Prayer as understood by the hesychasts helps us to discern which of our ministerial activities are indeed for the glory of God and which are primarily for the glory of our unconverted ego … thus to become much less ambiguous witnesses of Jesus Christ.” – p. 90

“When we have found our rest in God we can do nothing other than to minister.  God’s rest will be visible wherever we go and to whomever we meet.  Before we speak any words, the Spirit of God, praying in us, will make his presence known.” – p. 90

“Our compulsive, wordy, and mind-oriented world has a firm grip on us, and we need a very strong and persistent discipline not to be squeezed to death by it.  By their solitude, silence, and unceasing prayer the Desert Fathers show us the way.” – p. 94

“Abba Anthony said to his visitor, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough to see you, Father.’

“ … By the time people feel that just seeing us is ministry, words such as these will no longer be necessary.” – p. 94 (last sentence of the book)

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