Henri Nouwen "Spiritual Disciplines for a Busy Life" Part 1 | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you something new. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each one of us is a beloved child of God. In this podcast, you’re going to hear directly from Henri Nouwen on the disciplines of the spiritual life. Henri’s addressing a group gathered at the 17th Consultation on Parish Ministry in Orlando, Florida in early January of 1990. Listen to Henri as he outlines the disciplines we need in a busy life to keep us in touch with the deeper truths.
Henri Nouwen: This morning, I would like to offer you a series of reflections on the disciplines of the spiritual life. We’ve talked about being the beloved. I’ve talked about the life of the beloved as a life that is taken, blessed, broken and given. But before you go home and I go home, I would just like to speak a little bit about, sort of, the nitty gritty of it all. How to practise, in our very busy and active ministries, disciplines that allow us to stay in touch with these deep truths.
I think the word “discipline” is really important, but it has a very negative quality. We use it like “disciplining” your children. Or you use it as. “Well, what kind of discipline are you in?” Psychology or sociology or whatever. But the word “discipline” is the other side of the word “discipleship.” It’s the same word. To be a disciple, in a way is someone who disciples himself, who disciplines himself. And someone who disciplines herself is someone who wants to follow. Discipline without discipleship becomes sort of false asceticism. And discipleship without discipline becomes false enthusiasm. I mean, it’s just wonderful, but am I going to do anything? And what is discipline? I mentioned that yesterday at our workshop, but I just want to say it again. Discipline is the concentrated effort to keep an empty place empty, because we live in a world that doesn’t tolerate empty places. And we want to fill them up. Because of our fear, we want to fill them up.
I was saying we have a “horror vacui” – a fear for the empty place – and we fill them up. We want to be occupied. And if we’re not occupied, at least we want to be preoccupied. We want to be full. We want to work. And discipline is to be sure that in our personal life, in our congregational life, in our communal life, that a space is kept open, so that in that open space, God can appear and speak to us and guide us. That we can really stand around the mystery and keep the place open. Any good liturgy, any good form of worship, any way of good counseling, any way of good preaching, you have to think about it as creating spaces where God can enter and speak. So that in a way you always have to get out of the way, but you have to be there only to keep things open.
That’s a hard work in a world that doesn’t tolerate much openness. So, when I speak about disciplines of the spiritual life, I speak about concrete ways in which to leave that openness for God. And I have formulated seven disciplines that I’d like to just go through. And, these seven disciplines are not – you can make another 10 up. There’re not like a law – there’re just to help us think. So, you know, I like the number seven, and we could’ve made nine, but that’s not the point. It’s just that we have a way of structuring, creating some space for our minds. Okay. I want to talk about prayer, talk about slowing down, and we’ll talk about sense control. And we’ll talk about daily routines. I want to talk about ministry as a formal activity. I want to think about spiritual reading, and I want to say something about fellowship, as disciplines. And because if we want to live the life of the beloved, we have to keep creating these spaces where we can really live that. And so I want to start with just speaking for a moment about the discipline of prayer, whatever prayer is – it can be meditation or contemplation or prayer. Let’s just not get too confused in all these different terms.
Prayer – and I speak at this moment about your individual prayer – is that discipline through which you let the word of God descend from your mind into your heart, where you can listen. It’s the discipline by which you allow the word that is spoken to you to become flesh in you. Prayer in that sense is living the incarnation. “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word became flesh.” That is what prayer is about, to let the word become flesh. So that the word that has become flesh can be listened to. Very important. The Latin word for “listening” is audire, and listening with great attention is ob audire. The word “obedience” comes from there. An obedient person is someone who listens to the voice. Jesus is the obedient one, that is, the listener.
If you no longer listen, you become deaf. And the Latin word for deaf is surdus. And if you’re absolutely deaf, you are absurdus. That’s where “absurd” comes from. An absurd life is a life in which you no longer listen to the voice that calls you to life. An obedient life is a life in which you listen to that voice and allow that voice to lead you to new places. To help people in their prayer life is to help them move from an absurd to an obedient life. Not obedient in that old-fashioned sense of letting people tell you what to do, but in the sense of listening to the voice of love. That’s what obedience is. Total attentiveness to the voice that calls to the beloved. And I have a feeling that so many people who live in anguish because of addiction or because of loneliness or because of violence or because of abuse – I mean, from a spiritual perspective – are living a life that they experience as absurd. They don’t hear the voice of love and in order to survive, they have to do something. And this is not a psychological judgment. This is a spiritual statement, to say, “What do we see from the eyes of God? What do we see, when we look from above, so to say. Where’s the eyes of God? What do we see in ourselves and in others? We see this constant temptation to absurdity, to deafness. And Jesus kept saying, “Blessed are the ears who hear, blessed are the eyes that see.”
So, prayer is to become more obedient to the word, by letting that word become flesh. I think it’s about three years ago, I had that accident, in which I was hitchhiking at six o’clock in the morning to go to Tse Fu. Tse Fu. You remember Tse Fu, that’s your friend. Tse Fu is one of our people, very, very handicapped, cannot walk or talk or anything, a beautiful Chinese member of our community. And he had called me the evening before, if I would be so kind to give him a bath in the morning, because the person who normally does that couldn’t be there. And I was so happy to be asked, that I was going to do it, whatever the weather was. Well, the weather was so bad that I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway because of the ice. And so, I decided to walk. And I got to the main road and cars were passing by at that point. And I started to hitchhike.
And interiorly, I was sort of saying, “Why don’t you stop for me? Don’t you know, I’m go to Tse Fu. That’s important.” So, but everybody was sitting in their cars, and it was obvious that nobody was going to stop. But emotionally, I felt they were all rejecting me. And I got angry and angry at these passers-by who were sitting in their cozy big cars and having three places free and not letting me go. And I got madder and madder. Finally, I felt I should stop a car by just going closer to them. And that’s how I got hit.
A little van just hit me with the right-side mirror. I just lifted up in the air and flopped down. Well, I was laying down for about two minutes until somebody came to me and said, “Are you all right?”
“No, somebody hit me,” I said. He said, “I did.”
So, he had stopped his car and come running back. And he said, “I’ll take you to the hospital.”
So, we’re sitting in his car and I was still – you know, the bleeding hadn’t started badly enough, so I could still speak okay. And so, I was talking to him and I said to him sort of, “What are you doing?”
And he says, “I’m a mechanic.”
And he said to me, “What are you doing?”
And I said, “I’m a priest.”
He said, “Oh God, I hit a priest!”
Well, while I was in the hospital, I was operated on. They took out my spleen. They said, originally, that I might not survive. I did survive. It was a very beautiful, profound, spiritual experience. But while I was in the hospital, I was visited by all the ministers from Richmond Hill, because they all know me. And so, I had a real experience, to experience Christian Reformed ministry, Dutch Reformed ministry and Anglican ministry and Roman Catholic ministry and Jewish ministry. They all came and they all came to minister to me. And every one, they did give me something very beautiful. But one minister, he was the Christian Reformed minister, who was very . . . he said, “Henri, I have a psalm for you.”
And this was the psalm: “Yahweh, dear God, my heart is not haughty. I do not set my sights too high. I’ve taken no part in great affairs, in matters beyond my scope. No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself.”
And he said, “Henri, I want you to know that prayer by heart. Pray it, learn it by heart and keep praying it, keep praying it: “My heart is not haughty. I do not set my sights too high. I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.”
And I started to be very grateful. I thought, I have to know this. And I learned it by heart and I said it and I said it and I said it. And gradually I realized, you know, how haughty I am in a way, how I want to do too many big things and, and how that is there. But my heart, my soul, my beloved self, the one who is the beloved can say, “I am not haughty. I am not trying to do things beyond my scope. I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.” And gradually, I realized that that was telling the deeper truth of me, and that I had to let that truth sink into me. And I tell you that that became not a reminder of something, it became flesh in me.
And when I started to feel what these words were saying – “like a little child in its mother’s arms, so I hold myself in quiet and silence” – suddenly that became flesh in me. That became real in me. That became me. The word, that idea, suddenly became incarnate in my own interior life. And I could live from that place as a little child, held safe in its mother’s arms. And I could somewhere lift my illness in that place of safety and say, “Yes, I can’t do this anymore. And I can’t do that anymore. And I have to give up all these things.”
But suddenly, I realized that the Psalm was telling the truth about me and making the truth true in me. I want to say that to you because I think that’s what prayer finally is, that you learn something by heart and let that word sink deep into you, and in a way form within you an inner space in which these words are written on the wall.
And if these words, whatever they are, they can be, “Blessed are the poor,” or they can be the words of “The Lord is my shepherd,” or they can be words that come from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he speaks about love. But that these words are not just words you can read. They are not just words you can understand, but words you can taste and feel in your inner room. They are there, they’re there. And it is in that inner place that you can invite your people who come to you for ministry. That is the place from where you can speak. And you can speak, not sort of consciously, but since these words are there, in a way, people can read them on the walls of your inner life. And that’s what you have there for them. And the more you pray, that is, the more you let the word become flesh in you, the larger that inner space becomes. And people will come to you from different places, and they will read in your heart, you know, the words of consolation and hope. And more and more, I feel that if you pray, you create the inner sanctum, the inner holy place where your people can enter. And the discipline is precisely to create that space, that inner space, that spiritual space that can offer hospitality to whoever comes to you.
And if you spent a little time praying that way, it might be good to hold onto one particular word that speaks to you, like, “I hold myself in silence and quiet.” You know, maybe that’s a good word to hold for the day. And you will discover how many times you have an occasion to say that. To drive your car and say, “I hold my soul in quiet and silence.” You’re in the supermarket, and you say, “Hold my hands in quiet and silence.” When the cash register is holding you up for about half an hour, or when you’re getting angry, or when you wait for a bus, or when you sit in the airplane. Where is your heart? Are you praying? Is your soul saying again these words that you’ve learned, so that they can continue to become flesh in you? So that you keep discovering in newer and newer ways, God’s love. That’s the discipline of prayer.
A very important discipline – and it’s just the hardest for me. And I’ve never succeeded in it – is slowing down. Now, I think I want to say something about it. You and I are called to slow down. You know, you have this image of yourself getting up a little too late. Rushing. You eat something for breakfast. Reading the paper at the same time. Rushing to your car. Getting frustrated for the red lights. And coming to your office. And already you are totally frustrated. And by the time you start working, you have already lost it.
And I think, is there a way of getting up a little earlier? So that dressing and taking a shower is not simply something to get to breakfast. And breakfast is not simply to get in the car. And getting in the car is not simply to get to your work. And getting to your work is not simply to get out of it as soon as possible. But that somehow, this is living. This is really living. This is tasting the beauty of the Lord. And that if you dress yourself, you know, you deal with your body. If you take a shower, you enjoy the feeling of freshness of water and the call to live a good life. And eating breakfast is . . . what are you saying to people that are with you at the breakfast table? What happens at breakfast is one of the most important things.
What are we saying to each other? And how do we be together and how do we say goodbye to each other as we leave our home? Does that happen with some grace and some gentleness that’s in slowness: “Have a good day. It’s going to be hard, but I’m thinking of you.” And then, slowly you’re discovering that we are living every part of life. And I think that’s a very, very difficult thing to do.
And the third discipline is sensory control. I just want to mention to you, what do you allow your senses to perceive? And I feel that we fill up our inner life with a lot of garbage, enormous amount of garbage that we don’t want and that we don’t need, but that we allowed to get in there. And it’s very, very hard to control that, because somehow, it’s always available to us. And ask yourself, you know, do you really need to read all that? Do you really need to read the newspaper for a half hour a day? Would it be possible to get the news once a week or so? I remember when this crisis took place in Russia, with the coup. I was nailed in front of the television for hours, as if I was in control of that situation.
And I kept saying, why don’t you read about God and Scripture? And at the end of the week, you will find out what happens with the coup. You know don’t have to sit there and follow it every second. And what happens with your mind when you spend so many hours doing that? And television – I must frankly say television is one of the most seductive instruments that fill us with images and words and ideas and stories that are not good for us. Very few. Obviously, there are programs that we can carefully select and all that, but ask yourself . . . people say, “I like to relax in front of the television.” I can never hear a more contradictory statement. People come home at 10 o’clock and they go to bed at midnight. And from 10 to midnight, they fill themselves with garbage.
Now, how do you expect your dreams to be after that? I mean, there’s violence. There is sexuality. There is confusion. And you know it all, it’s not news for you. It’s not something that forms or nurtures your heart. so that the next day you can minister better. And we let our ears and our eyes and our mouth, we let them all be bombarded by stuff that’s not good for us. And who is surprised that we don’t live a real spiritual life, when our whole basket is full of all this old stuff. It’s not very good. And I really think it’s a real, real important thing to be at least aware of it. You know, if you fly, you take a plane [trip] of three hours, what do you do during these three hours? Are you just picking up the New York Times and Newsweek? And sure. But could you also have a little plan that you say during this week, I’m reading this book and this is good for me. I’m going to keep reading it.
Or I have a conversation with somebody that is life-giving, but there has to be some discipline there. But if you just let the moment decide, you’re ready to do things that are not necessarily nurturing your soul and therefore not your ministry. What is life giving? What do I choose? I think it’s very important. And so that’s a very important discipline, because you want to be, in that sense, master of your mind. You don’t let other people master your mind by throwing all this stuff in it. And right now, driving through an American city, I was driving through Los Angeles not long ago. And it was like driving through a dictionary: “Eat me, drink me, do this, sleep here.” All these words tried to grab my attention. And I think, well, where is the word that becomes flesh in us? Do I want these words to become flesh in me? Do I want that word that speaks about eating and sex and sleeping and buying and going? Do I want these words to sort of determine my own physicality and spirituality or, can I let the words become flesh in us that is life? And that’s real choice. We are constantly in front of a choice: What to let in and what not.
Karen Pascal: We’ve listened to Henri expound on the importance of prayer, slowing down and sense control. These archival recordings are made available courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Archives at the John M. Kelly Library. Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. If you found this podcast helpful, please give it a thumbs-up and be sure and share it with others. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content, book suggestions, including books to get you started, in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.
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