This week's 'thought' comes to you from the late Henri Nouwen (1932-1997). It is found in "Devotional Classics," edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, and consists of small excerpts taken from Nouwen's book, "Making All Things New." It has to do with the need for the spiritual discipline of solitude in our prayer lives. I share it with you because as I read it this morning it spoke both a corrective and encouraging word to me. I pray it will do so for you as well. Enjoy.
"Our worried, over-filled lives... are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when he is speaking to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us, and unable to understand in which direction he calls us. Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word 'surdus' which means 'deaf.' A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear. When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word 'audire' which means 'listening.' The spiritual discipline of listening is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance...
A spiritual discipline, therefore, is the concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our lives where this obedience can be practiced... Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists, but also that he is actively present in our lives -- healing, teaching and guiding -- we need to set aside time, and set aside a space, to give him our undivided attention. Jesus says, 'Go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place." (Matt. 6:6 Jerusalem Bible).
To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make [and we could add, texts to answer, Facebook posts to respond to, or computer games to distract us] an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again.
Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in greater force. We often use those outer distractions of life to shield us from the interior noises. For this reason it is not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontations with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to bear.
Yet this makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Entering into solitude doesn't come naturally to an occupied and preoccupied life... Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude into our schedule. Five or ten minutes a day may be all we can tolerate... an hour, an afternoon, a day, a week every year... The amount of time will vary for each person according to temperament, age, job, lifestyle, and maturity. But we do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to him. We may have to write it in black and white in our daily calendar so that nobody else can take away this period of time. Then we will be able to say to our friends, neighbors, students, customers, clients, or patients, "I'm sorry, but I've already made an appointment at that time and it can't be changed."
Once we have committed ourselves to spending time in solitude, we develop an attentiveness to God's voice in us... The pains and struggles we encounter in solitude become a way to hope, because that hope is not based on something that will happen after our sufferings are over, but on the real presence of God's healing Spirit in the midst of these sufferings. The discipline of solitude allows us gradually to come in touch with the hopeful presence of God in our lives, and allows us to taste even now the beginnings of the joy and peace which belong to the new heaven and new earth."
Three things hit me when I read his thoughts:
1.) The hardest "work" I may have to do in my whole day is the work of forcing myself to do nothing but sit, stop dwelling on what needs to get done, and listen! For most of us it is an intense struggle to become still and attentive toward God, since as Americans we wrestle with feeling "lazy" and "unproductive" if we spend more than 10 or 15 minutes a day in prayer. Culture has taught the little voice of conscience in our heads to function like an alarm clock that says: "Get up off your knees and DO something for goodness sake!" "Hurry," as Samuel Chadwick once said, "is the death of prayer."
2.) Realizing this is true I must set boundries and limits to my labor, activities and interactions with people in order to protect my time alone with God. I may get a lot done through constant activity and busyness, and that feels good, but without significant times of quiet prayer my spirit will shrivel and atrophy over time. As one book title reminds us, we are "Too Busy Not To Pray."
3.) To my shame I realize I have rarely broken an appointment with any person in order to spend time with God, but I have frequently, at a moments notice, broken set appointments with God to spend time with people -- even when there was no urgency involved. I need to take Nouwen's advice to heart and "say to (my) friends, neighbors, students, customers, clients, or patients, "I'm sorry, but I've already made an appointment at that time and it can't be changed."