Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 3

July 2, 2006



Movements of the Spiritual Life, Part 3 (7/2/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning we will conclude our three part series on the movements of the spiritual life. This series is based on a book entitled Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, written by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a mystic. He served as a priest, a Trappist monk, and a professor at Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale.

The question is, what does it mean to be spiritual? We all have a spiritual side to us. What makes one person more spiritual than another? Nouwen attempts to answer that question. He claims there are within each human being three areas of spirituality. Each of these three areas of spirituality can be thought of as a line we move along over the course of our lives.

So picture these three lines. The first line symbolizes the relationship of a person to himself or herself. There is a pole at each end of this line. One pole is loneliness, the other is solitude. In our lives we move along this line, hopefully moving from loneliness to solitude. This is the movement that brings us closer and closer to our true inner self, the person we are called to be, the person we are meant to be. And that is the first movement of the spiritual life.

While the first movement of the spiritual life involves our relationship with ourselves, the second movement of the spiritual life involves our relationship with other people. Again, envision a line with a pole at either end. One pole represents hostility, and the other pole represents hospitality. Over the course of our lives, we become more and more spiritual as we move from an attitude of hostility to an attitude of hospitality.

And so those are the first two movements of the spiritual life. The first can be thought of as a reaching out to ourselves, and the second can be thought of as a reaching out to our neighbor. We covered those two movements in the first two weeks of this series. Today we move on to the third movement of the spiritual life, which is a reaching out to God.

Again, we can envision a line along which we move over the course of our lives. One pole of this line is illusion, and the other is prayer. As our spiritual life develops, we move from illusion to prayer.

All three of these lines, all three movements of the spiritual life, are closely related. Nouwen admits that loneliness and hostility are easy to understand. We can acknowledge that we need to attempt to move away from loneliness and toward solitude, and away from hostility and toward hospitality. But to accept that some of our basic attitudes toward life, toward existence, toward God are illusions is much more difficult. Nouwen writes,
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…it is only in the lasting effort to unmask the illusions of our existence that a real spiritual life is possible. In order to convert our crying loneliness into a silent solitude and to create a fearless place where strangers can feel at home, we need the willingness and the courage to reach out far beyond the limitations of our fragile and finite existence toward our loving God in whom all life is anchored. The silence of solitude is nothing but dead silence when it does not make us alert for a new voice sounding from beyond all human chatter. Hospitality leads only to a congested home when nobody is traveling anywhere.

Nouwen says that real prayer is the most human of all acts, although it can easily be perceived as being superfluous or superstitious. But he claims that if we do not stay in touch with the very center of our spiritual selves through prayer, we lose touch with all that grows from it. Our life loses its depth.

Our greatest illusion, according to Nouwen, is the illusion of immortality, the illusion that we are somehow ultimately in control. We “eternalize” our own little worlds. We view our personal, individual lives as being ultimate. But the majority of the sadness and despair we feel in life comes from being too serious about our individual lives. We are mortal, and God is eternal. That is the starting point in the movement from illusion to prayer. Nouwen writes, that to reach intimacy with God,

…we have to understand our illusion of immortality, fully accept death as our human destiny, and reach out beyond the limits of our existence to our God out of whose intimacy we are born…

Patiently but persistently we must slowly unmask the illusions of our immortality, dispelling even the feeble creations of our frustrated mind, and stretch out our arms to the deep sea and the high heaven in a never ending prayer. When we move from illusion to prayer, we move from the human shelter to the house of God.

Nouwen then talks about what he calls the paradox of prayer. How can we learn to pray? How can we experience prayer as something very real at the very center of who and what we are? The paradox is that while we have to discipline ourselves to learn to pray, true prayer happens when the spirit of God within us is actually doing the praying. True prayer does not happen unless we discipline ourselves to be open to prayer; but when true prayer happens, it is a gift from God. It is not something we can force to happen.

Obviously, Henri Nouwen is not talking about praying for the money to buy a new car, or for your favorite sports team to win the big game next weekend. Prayer, ultimately, is intimacy with God. Intimacy with God. Nouwen likes to think of prayer as God’s breath. Prayer is God choosing to breath within us, allowing us to experience God’s presence.

All of us know what it is like to try to pray, and to feel like we are talking to the wall. We feel as if there is no connection made at all with God. We feel as if God is completely absent. Listen to Nouwen as he talks about the absence of God in prayer:

God is beyond our heart and mind, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, beyond all the events and experiences that make up our life. Still God is in the center of all of it. Here we touch the heart of prayer since here it becomes manifest that in prayer the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence no longer really distinguishes. In prayer, God’s presence is never separated from his absence, and his absence is never separated from his presence. God’s presence is so beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. God’s absence, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of his presence.

This relationship between the presence and absence of God is central to the Christian message. When Jesus hung from the cross, he recited the 22nd psalm. It begins, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Listen to a little more of that psalm, lamenting the absence of God:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted, they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Nouwen says that it was in this moment of total emptiness that God’s presence was most profoundly revealed thought Christ. When God, through Jesus, experienced the full pain of God’s absence, God became most present to us, to human beings. And it is this mystery that we enter when we pray. Nouwen writes this about prayer:

Although at exceptional moments we may be overwhelmed by a deep sense of God’s presence in the center of our solitude and in the midst of the space we create for others, more often than not we are left with the painful sense of emptiness and can only experience God as the absent God.

Those are extraordinary words, coming from a man who devoted his life to prayer. And after that amazing confession—that even a man who dedicates his life to prayer almost always experiences God as being absent—Nouwen turns to the act of prayer itself.

Nouwen says we should not think of prayer as something we occasionally do, but rather as an attitude toward life. We should dedicate some time to prayer in solitude, but prayer itself transcends the time we spend on our knees alone before God. And each of us has a prayer of the heart we must discover, a special way of praying that is unique to us, to our own history, our own character, our own way of approaching life. But where do we go, what do we do, to discover that special prayer? Nouwen writes,

It seems possible to establish a few guidelines. A careful look at the lives of people for whom prayer was the only thing needed shows that three rules are always observed. A contemplative reading of the word of God, a silent listening to the voice of God, and a trusting obedience to a spiritual guide. Without the Bible, without silent time and without someone to direct us, finding our own way to God is very hard and practically impossible.

First, Nouwen says we should read scripture with an open heart, allowing the words to shape us, not bringing too much analysis to the process. Try to find which words of scripture are spoken directly to our hearts, to our own history, to our own character. And let those words mold us into more spiritual beings.

Second, it is essential to set aside some time for God alone, whether that be a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a month. We must be willing to sit there and do nothing. We must be willing to be useless and powerless in the presence of God in order to enter into communion with God.

And third, we need a spiritual guide to lead us, to make sure we are not developing our spiritual lives around ourselves instead of around God. According to Nouwen, no matter how much we have learned, no matter how deeply we have developed as spiritual people, everybody still needs a personal teacher.

Nouwen discusses the most famous and popular prayer of the heart. It works for many people. It can be used as a sort of mantra in private prayer to still the mind and keep focused on the subject of God. The simplest form of that prayer is this: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Another popular version goes, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. You can say it over and over again in prayer until it becomes a part of you. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Some claim that around those few simple words countless thousands have entered into the deepest knowledge of the Christian faith. Nouwen quotes Bishop Theophan the Recluse:

I will remind you of only one thing: one must descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you. The prayer takes firm and steadfast hold, when a small fire begins to burn in the heart. Try not to quench this fire, and it will become established in such a way that the prayer repeats itself: and then you will have within you a small murmuring stream.

That deep prayer of the heart lies at the center of the movement from illusion to prayer. We know we are becoming spiritually mature when we give up our notions of self-control and reach out to God. But here is the truth of things. As we learn more and more how to pray, we learn more and more how to love. And the more we love, the more we suffer. Nouwen writes,

To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity. To the degree that we have descended into our heart and reached out to God from there, solitude can speak to solitude, deep to deep and heart to heart. It is there where love and pain are found together.

And this is why the community of faith is so important. Because prayer is so personal, because it arises out of the very center of who we are, it is to be shared with others. It needs the constant support of a faith community to blossom into fullness. Prayer cannot become an individualistic expression of our individualistic emotions. It must be embedded in the life of a faith community. It is there, in community, that the longings we discover in prayer can be confronted and affirmed. It is there, in community, that we move from illusion to prayer together.

Nouwen says that “prayer is the language of the faith community. In prayer the nature of the community becomes visible because in prayer we direct ourselves to the one who forms the community. We do not pray to each other, but together we pray to God, who calls us and makes us into a new people.”

Well, it is time to bring this little series to a close. I think these have been some demanding sermons. Spirituality, mysticism, these are not easy subjects to discuss. But there is no greater reward in life than living a spiritual life, and Henri Nouwen does a good job of analyzing that which cannot be analyzed, of putting into words the world of the mystic. I leave you with the words of Henri Nouwen:

We are living in this short time, a time, indeed, full of sadness and sorrow. To live this short time in the spirit of Jesus Christ, means to reach out from the midst of our pains and let them be turned into joy by the love of him who came within our reach. We do not have to deny or avoid our loneliness, our hostilities and illusions. To the contrary: When we have the courage to let these realities come to our full attention, understand them and confess them, then they can slowly be converted into solitude, hospitality and prayer.