Friday, March 23, 2018

prayer as relationship...

One of the recent insights I have gleaned from my reconnection to the writing of Henri Nouwen is this simple but transformative insight: the mystical life, our communion with God born of prayer, is fundamentally a relationship. "Even in the case of Jesus... when we are told that he spent a whole night in communing prayers with God it means: Jesus spent the night listening to the Father calling him the Beloved." This night of prayer was about meditation and contemplation. Resting in a growing awareness of God's grace. Being filled from the inside out with God's presence that is as intimate as our breath and as transcendent as the stars.

For decades I had assumed that these prayers of solitude were super-human acts of liturgical discipline. But Nouwen asserts, and it resonates in brilliant sense to me, that these times were not about reciting well-crafted prayers, assuming traditional postures of piety, or even expressing holy words, songs or thoughts. Rather, Jesus was claiming a quiet, contemplative and mystical relationship with the Source of sacred love. These prayers are about nourishing a relationship with God as Beloved. They are not petitioning a distant or separate Lord, but rather opening our hearts to the intimacy of grace. In this Jesus practices what he preaches: "come unto me all ye who are weary... and I will give ye rest."

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message)

In The Road to Daybreak, Nouwen notes that trusting God's beloved tenderness is not easy for us. "Jesus wants us to receive the love he offers. He wants nothing more than that we allow him to love us and enjoy that love (just as he has let himself be loved and cherished.) But this is so hard since we always feel that we have to deserve the love offered to us." (p. 193) In this, Brother Henri is confessional, never asking us to go where he has never gone. To be as a little child, he writes, "I must become little." Not puffed up. Neither impressed by degrees, status, or personal acts of generosity, but small and receptive. 

Jesus said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and a servant of all." (Mark 9:35) Am I willing to become the servant of a beggar...? It is becoming clear to me that I still have not understood that Jesus revealed his love to us by becoming our servant and calls us to follow him in this way. (Daybreak, p. 190) 

By owning his own insecurities and wounds, Nouwen helps us do likewise. Over time, he let go of his abstractions and academic aloofness and communicated in simple ways soul to soul. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser got it right when he wrote that the later works of Henri Nouwen were able to "carry deep sentiment without being sentimental; to be self-revealing without being exhibitionist; to be deeply personal yet profoundly universal; and to be sensitive to human weakness, even as he strove to challenge us to seek what's more sublime." (Mere Spirituality, p. viii)

My Lenten journey has been wildly uneven this year. What continues to ground me in the season, however, is my abiding relationship with grace. The more quiet time taken to rest into this relationship, the more trust I sense in my heart. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, a liturgical collection of bold contrasts highlighting the marriage of faith and doubt, wisdom and trust, light and darkness, constancy and distraction. May the Paschal Mystery unfold in little ways within and beyond me.

+ James Lumsden

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