“How to devote yourself to prayer? Begin to hear the voice that makes all things new.”
I was sitting listening to Peter Misselbrook preaching at the 6.30 service in November. It was the end of the series on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and one verse hit me so hard that I have not been able to get it out of my mind since. “Devote yourselves to prayer, with all thankfulness and watchfulness.” Colossians 4: 2. It was one of those rare times when I knew deep down that this was God’s word to me and I felt compelled to take action. What does being devoted to prayer look like in my daily living?
One thing I did was to go back to one of the most formative books I know – Devotional Classics, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith. This brings together excerpts from 52 different Christian writers, from Julian of Norwich to CS Lewis, from Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer arranged in themes that ‘seek to touch the heart, to address the will and to mould the mind.’
As I was reading Henri Nouwen’s writings on the significance of solitude during the quiet period between Christmas and New Year I felt again the Spirit whispering to share these insights with the church. After all, the words of Paul in Colossians were not written to an individual but to a Christian community. So as a preparation to our week of 24/7 prayer at Christ Church beginning on 15th January, I am intending to quote one of the 11 sections that come from Henri Nouwen’s Making All Things New: an invitation to the Spiritual Life – a book written in 1989 which addresses the twin questions of, ‘What does it mean to live a spiritual life?’ And ‘How do we live it?’
I will try to offer a question for reflection or suggest an action that may be useful for any who want to explore and apply this teaching. These could be considered within a life group or written about individually in a journal.
May the Spirit lead us all this year into a deeper devotion to the God who is fully devoted to us.
Excerpts from Making All things New by Henri Nouwen (from Devotional Classics, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith)
The spiritual life is a gift. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who lifts us up into the kingdom of God’s love. But to say that being lifted up into the kingdom of love is a divine gift does not mean that we wait passively until the gift is offered to us.
Jesus tells us to set our hearts on the kingdom. Setting our hearts on something involves not only serious aspiration but also strong determination. A spiritual life requires human effort. The forces that keep pulling us back into a worry-filled life are far from easy to overcome.
“How hard it is,” Jesus exclaims, “… to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10; 23). And to convince us of the need for hard work, he says. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16: 24)
How has your journey been like receiving a gift? In what sense has it been hard work?
The Small, Gentle Voice
Here we touch the question of discipline in the spiritual life. A spiritual life without discipline is impossible. Discipline is the other side of discipleship. The practice of a spiritual disciple makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God.
The prophet Elijah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the small voice (see 1 Kings 19: 9-13). Through the practice of a spiritual discipline we become attentive to that small voice and willing to respond when we hear it.
Recall a time when you have been attentive to that still, small voice and reflect on how you have responded.
From an Absurd to an Obedient Life
From all that I said about our worries, overfilled lives, it is clear that we 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. A spiritual discipline 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.
Jesus’ life was a life of obedience. He was always listening to the Father, always attentive to his voice, always alert for his directions. Jesus was “all ears.” That is true prayer: being all ears for God. The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God.
Turn distractions into prayers! Keep a note pad by your chair as you relax in solitude. When distractions come, write them down and then later, commit it to prayer and action if appropriate.
The Concentrated Effort
A spiritual discipline, therefore, is a concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our lives, where this obedience can be practiced. Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen. A spiritual discipline sets us free to pray or, to say it better, allows the Spirit of God to pray in us.
What does ‘listening to God’ look like for you? How would you describe that to another person if they asked you how they could learn to listen to God?
A Time and Space
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 a time and a space to give him our undivided attention. Jesus says, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to the Father who is in that secret place.” (Matt. 6: 6)
Henri Nouwen’s words, ‘Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life’ are some of the most frequently quoted in teaching on prayer. To what extent would you agree with this? What about those personalities who are very active by nature and who find it ‘virtually impossible’ to be still?
To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also one of the 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, 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 to us in full force.
We often use these outer distractions for shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.
This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are too many reasons not to be alone. Therefore, we must begin by carefully planning some solitude.
What effect do you think practising the discipline of solitude more regularly might have in your life?
Write it in Black and White
Five or ten minutes every day may be all we can tolerate. Perhaps we are ready for an hour every day, or an afternoon every week, a day every month, or 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 on black and white on our daily calendar so that nobody else can take away this period of time. Then we will be able to say to our friends, neighbours, students, customers, clients or patients, “I’m sorry, but I’ve already made an appointment at that time and it can’t be changed.”
Put ‘appointments with God’ in your diary/calendar for the coming week. It is better to have shorter times regularly than attempt longer times that are not realistic to keep to. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for a specific time slot on the 24/7 Prayer board in church.
Bombarded by Thousands of Thoughts
Once we have committed ourselves to spending time in solitude, we develop an attentiveness to God’s voice in us. In the beginning, during the first days, weeks, or even months, we have the feeling that we are simply wasting our time. Time in solitude may at first seem little more than a time in which we are bombarded by thousands of thoughts and feelings that emerge from hidden areas of our minds.
One of the early Christian writers describes the first stage of solitary prayer as the experience of a person who, after years of living with open doors, suddenly decides to shut them. The visitors who used to come and enter his home start pounding on his doors, wondering why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they realise that they are not welcome do they gradually stop coming.
This is the experience of anyone who decides to enter into solitude after a life without much spiritual discipline. At first, the many distractions keep presenting themselves. Later, as they receive less and less attention, they slowly withdraw.
The analogy of the visitors being ignored contains an important principle for living by priorities. What other analogies could be used to make the same point? How do these encourage you?
Tempted to Run Away
It is clear that what matters is faithfulness to the discipline. In the beginning, solitude seems so contrary to our desires that we are constantly tempted to run away from it. One way of running away is daydreaming or simply falling asleep. But when we stick to our discipline, in the conviction that God is with us even when we do not yet hear him, we slowly discover that we do not want to miss our time alone with God. Although we do not experience much satisfaction in our solitude, we realise that a day without solitude is less “spiritual” than a day with it.
Nouwen is speaking here of the significance of forming habits through the discipline of repeated actions (faithfulness). What ‘holy habits’ do you already have in place in your discipleship? Which ones would you be seeking to develop in 2017?
The First Sign of Prayer
Intuitively, we know that it is important to spend time in solitude. We even start looking forward to this strange period of uselessness. This desire for solitude is often the first sign of prayer, the first indication that the presence of God’s Spirit no longer remains unnoticed.
As we empty ourselves of our many worries, we come to know, not only with our mind but also with our heart that we were never really alone, that God’s Spirit was with us all along. Thus we come to understand what Paul writes to the Romans, “Sufferings bring patience …… and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Rom. 5: 4-6)
Thank God for a time that has been really difficult yet you have been conscious of Jesus being ‘Emmanuel’ – God with you in it. Write down one thing that has been ‘gift’ to you through this time.
The Way to Hope
In solitude, we come to know the Spirit who has already been given to us. The pains and the struggles we encounter in our solitude thus become the way to hope, because our 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 this hopeful presence of God in our lives, and allows us also to taste even now the beginnings of the joy and peace which belong to the new heaven and the new earth.
The discipline of solitude, as I have described it here, is one of the most powerful disciplines in developing a prayerful life. It is a simple, though not easy, way to free us from the slavery of our occupations and our preoccupations and to begin to hear the voice that makes all things new.
How has God’s Spirit spoken to you through these insights from Henri Nouwen and his reflections on the Bible? What will be your next step in growing in the practice of solitude as you learn to live a more prayerful life?
Sunday 15 January 7.30pm – Sunday 22 January 6.30pm Seek 24/7 week of prayer. Prayer room open in the Chancel at Christ Church all day and all night for one week for prayer.
Time for stillness and solitude
At the end of our week of prayer there will be a special evening service “Spirit Space” at 6.30pm on Sunday 22 January 2017