Henri Nouwen "The Importance of Meditation" | 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 of us is a beloved child of God. Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s podcast. In January of 1992, Henri Nouwen was asked to address a gathering in Orlando, Florida on the role of pastor as spiritual leader. Henri shared with the people gathered the importance of meditation as the core to the spiritual life.
He used the passage in Luke 4, verses 18 to 21, where Jesus stands in his home synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the book of Isaiah. In this podcast. Henri gives us a wonderful lesson on how to meditate on God’s word and then how to use it in our daily lives, as we encounter others hungry for words of life and encouragement. I invite you to take time and sit in the room with Henri, as he teaches. This is a very intimate and inspiring talk, where Henri Nouwen teaches us that prayer is descending from the mind to the heart and letting God’s word become flesh in us.
Henri Nouwen: The theme of this session is meditation and silence. And what I would like to do is to invite you into that silence, if that’s possible. But I thought what I would do is read to you a passage from Scripture and ask you to stay with that for a little bit. Well, about maybe 10 minutes, just to do a little meditation together, just for a few moments. And then I would really like you to raise some questions about your own life and meditation, prayer, silence, you know, these words, solitude. And to simply speak about it a little bit. So, we’ll spend about 10 minutes or maybe 15 minutes to hear different voices. Not answering any of them, but just simply hear you speak about it. And then I will listen to what you’ve been saying and respond to the different questions or experiences you have shared, and then try to take that to a new place, so that you can really speak from your own experience. So, when I talk about meditation, I just want to say a very simple thing about it. I usually spend some time in the morning to simply take the gospel of the day, Scripture text, and stay with that. And to let that sort of descend from the mind into the heart. That’s what meditation is about – to let the words become flesh in us. And to start, I’m wondering what happens to us as, as that word is no longer a word spoken from a distance to us, but a word that really speaks from the heart. So, I will read this text to you that you all know very, very well, and just invite you to stay with that for a moment.
“He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as he usually did. He stood up to read. And they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it is written, ‘The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord.’ And then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. And then he began to speak to them: ‘This text is being fulfilled today, even in your listening.’ And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.”
I would really like you to take that text and spend a little time with it, to visualize what you have just heard; that you are in that synagogue and that you are listening to these words that Jesus speaks. If you see Jesus there and read the text, and then to allow these words to become words for you, because there is something very beautiful here. Jesus is saying. “This text is being fulfilled in your listening.”
So, in other words, your listening to these words makes you aware that you are the one that Jesus speaks about. You are the afflicted. You are the captives. You are the blind. You are the oppressed. You need good news. And to listen to Jesus as the one who is looking for good news, for liberty, for sight, for freedom. And so, why don’t we just be quiet just for a few moments? And I might have to let that story become part of your own prayer. And I might read it very slowly. Yes, you do that because of the music that’s sort of is around us. Don’t let that distract you too much; just try to stay with it, go back to it. In a way we are in a world has always sounds of all sorts around it, anyhow, and to somehow say, “Okay, I want to be there.” And keep focused right in that place.
Look at Jesus, who was coming into the synagogue as he usually came there. So, he was known there. And he stood up to read, you see. You should see Jesus standing up among his own people. It’s two times, to read. “And they handed him the scroll.” Which scroll? The scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “And he unrolled the scroll and he found the place.” Try to, just to see that happening, you know, Jesus among his own people in his own village, reading, reading from the prophet Isaiah.
And he says these words (and try to hear them as spoken by Jesus to your heart): “The spirit of the Lord is on me.” So, Jesus is there and the spirit of the Lord is on him. The spirit that has called him the beloved. “And he has anointed me. He has ordained me. He has sent me to you, to me, to bring good news to the afflicted.” Now, just allow your own affliction to be known to you. What’s your affliction? What’s your poverty? Good news to the poor. Where are your poor? You can allow that to be there, because the good news, the word that heals, wants to go right to that place where you are afflicted. It can be something very concrete – conflict with your colleague or difficulties with your own son or daughter – or it can be just anxiety about the state of the world. But somehow, where is your affliction? Where are you in pain? Where are you poor? And you hold that for a moment, because that’s where the good word wants to touch you, wants to become flesh in you. The word is to become flesh. That good word has to enflesh itself in the place of your affliction.
“He has sent me, the anointed one, to proclaim liberty to you who are captive.” Where are you captive? Where are you entrapped? Where are you victimized? Where are you addicted? So, find your own addictions. It can be work. It can be alcohol. It can be sex. It can be just relationships that you are not free in. Where you are compulsive. Where you are obsessed. Where you are not free. Where you are captive. And look at Jesus who says, “I come to give you liberty, to free you from your captivity.”
But Jesus cannot free us from our entrapment if we are not acknowledging that we are entrapped. We can’t do it on our own. We need someone to come to us and to pull us out of the entrapment, like a lost sheep that got caught in the bushes and can’t get out of it. Because the more he tries, the more he gets caught. We [need to be] willing to say, “I can’t get out of this trap myself. I have to look up to you. Free me.”
“He has sent me to bring sight to the blind.” We are very blind. “Happy are the eyes that see,” but we don’t see that right where we are, right with the people that we are [with], God is calling us. But we have become blind. Are we able to see the presence of God among us? In the child that is given to us, in the parishioner that comes to us with his pain? And we see that precisely there, where we sometimes want to run away from, can we see that there’s some light there in the darkness? Can we see the star? These wise men were looking at the sky. And they saw a star different from others. They saw something. Can we see? Jesus wants to give us sight, so that we can see in the midst of our darkness, this new star, this new light flashing, this new – and right? It’s always there where we are. It’s nowhere else. It’s always there where we are.
“He has sent me to you to let the oppressed go free.” Where, where are we oppressed? We’re talking about oppressed people, but we have to know our own oppression. We can feel oppressed by our milieu, or by the expectations of our family. We can be oppressed by our sexuality, and what people think about it. We can be oppressed by our being a man or being a woman or being a child. We can be oppressed. There are many, many ways in which we can feel heavy oppression holding us down. You can only talk about others’ oppression when you are in touch with your own. Where are you oppressed?
“I’ve come to proclaim a year of favor.” And hear that, hear that. Jesus is speaking to you and says, “I come to proclaim to you the time of favor, the time in which you can listen to the voice that calls you the favorite son or the favorite daughter. And that’s now, it’s now. The year of favor is always here, now, because God is here, now when I speak in God’s name. I’m with the Lord.”
Somehow, are you willing to claim that God’s favor is here for you? You don’t have to wait until tomorrow or next year or later. That’s all what you need is here. Jesus is here, right here, where you are. He’s reading these words to you as words that will take away your blindness and your oppression and your captivity and your poverty.
“And then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down.” See that happening. See Jesus sitting down after he had read these words, and then look at him. “All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Fix your eyes on him. Yes. Fix the eyes of your heart on him. You live in a world of oppression, of poverty, of captivity. And you’re constantly asked to let your eyes go in all different directions. But Jesus is in front of you, he says, “Keep your eyes on me. He who sees me, sees the Father. Who sees me, sees with the eyes of the heart, the heavens being opened and sees the gateway of joy.” I want to live with my eyes fixed on Jesus. That’s the only one I really want to see. And if I want to see only him, I will see him in everyone who comes to me with their struggles and pains. But it’s always him again who I see. But in my heart, I learn to fix my eyes on Jesus. Jesus will become visible to me in any person that comes to me. And then they won’t be a burden, but because they bring good news, they bring freedom, they bring favor, they bring freedom. they bring liberty, they bring sight. Who brings sight? Well, all those who come to me with their problems and their concerns. They’re not coming to bother me. They come because they reveal to me the face of the one on whom I have fixed my eyes. I’ll see him in everything.
“All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. And then he began to speak.” And he speaks with authority. Authority that comes from his communion with his Father, with his God, with the one who calls him the beloved. It’s an authority of compassion. He was sent into the world to heal us. And he says, “This text, these words are being fulfilled today.” Now. At this moment. In this second. In this encounter, even as you listen. So, your listening to these words becomes the place where the healing takes place. Your listening is a listening to that voice that speaks about liberty and sight and freedom, to you who are willing to confess that you are captive and blind and poor. Now, right now in that, in this moment where I am, that’s happening. If I am listening and keeping my eyes fixed, it’s always what I do with my ears and with my eyes. Happy the ears who listen, happy the eyes who see, to keep listening to his word and looking at his face and walking through the world as a listener, as a contemplative who sees the face and hears the words.
“And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.” Gracious words that came from his lips. Grace, tenderness, gentleness came from his lips. It’s really important for us to see Jesus and to realize that the words that come from his lips and speak to our darkness are grace-filled, God-filled, and bring about something new.
We’ll sing a tiny little song and then we’ll have a little discussion. The song is – just follow me:
In this place, Lord, be glorified, be glorified.
In this place, Lord, be glorified today.
In our hearts, Lord, be glorified, be glorified.
In our hearts, Lord, be glorified today.
In our church, Lord, be glorified, be glorified.
In our church, Lord, be glorified today.
If you’d like to say something about your life of prayer and meditation, your questions around silence in your ministry, could you stand up, call, mention your first name and raise your question or make your observation. And then I will make a note and then we’ll go to the next one and simply see what’s among us here for questions. And then I’d like to, after maybe five minutes or so, pick up what I think would be most helpful to respond to. Who likes to start? Yes.
Steve: I have a big problem with finding time for meditation. I’m real busy, it’s real noisy. There’s clutter. I never get it all done, but want to. So, my problem is finding the time, finding meaningful time for meditation.
John: The struggle with me is over the temptation to deliver fullness in the form of sexy events within the church, that the congregation really likes. And it’s difficult to enter into my poverty and my emptiness, because I’m being called to deliver fullness so much, and part of me wants to do that, and I get rewards for doing that. But ultimately, I think I attempt too much. So, that’s the struggle that I face in my prayer life.
Henri Nouwen: You speaking about your ministry in which your people want you to live a fullness. And how does that relate to your prayer life?
John: Because I need to pray very often that God will free me from the need to be liked by the people and to deliver what I think they want.
Holly: My name is Holly. I can admit to my afflictions, but it’s hard to, and perhaps I can be vulnerable, but I think sometimes it’s really hard to accept the gift. To trust enough, to let Jesus in. To say, yeah, you really are here to comfort me or to take away my afflictions.
Henri Nouwen: Thanks so much. That’s a very important spiritual question.
Melody: My question is about centering prayer, getting from the head down into the heart, that whole process.
Gail: I’m Gail. I find ministry in the local church sufficiently difficult so I know I couldn’t do it unless I drew on my silence. And I often wonder if I haven’t become addicted to the silence itself, when you talk about addiction. And I wonder about the seduction of the silence.
Henri Nouwen: The seduction of the silence.
Gail: The seduction of meditation.
Henri Nouwen: Just a few more words, so I know where you feel that the seductive, that means pull you away from something where you should be, I mean.
Gail: And sometimes enabled me to carry more than I want to be carried. Because I am part of a meditation community, and we meet monthly in an Oblate meeting, and we talk about meditation and what it means in our lives and how it has grounded us. And we talk at the same time about lives that are filled and so busy and so intense. And I often wonder if it isn’t the silence and the meditation in the community that’s enabling the schizophrenic lifestyle of ministry.
Henri Nouwen: Silence enables you to live a schizophrenic lifestyle?
Gail: Silence gives me the strength to live in the insanity of what is demanded of me, in a life that is overwhelming.
Van: My name is Van. I feel like I like to check things off, and I certainly get ahead of myself, and I think I get ahead of God.
Gary: Gary. I’ve experienced enough of the silence and of contemplation to know how precious it is to me and to try and practise it, and how meaningful it is. I’m wondering if style of worship in the congregation doesn’t really invite periods of silence and quiet, and pastoral prayer concluded by the Lord’s Prayer. So, I’ve tried to do some quiet, and yet I’ve sensed that many people are uncomfortable with quiet and silence. I’m just wondering what kind of ideas you might have to suggest for introducing that in a creative way, so that the congregation becomes more and more comfortable with it. I’ve had some members of my congregation express that they’re happy with what I’ve done, and I’d like to do more [inaudible],
Henri Nouwen: Why don’t I just say a few things. Let me try to respond a little bit to the questions in an indirect way, and we’ll say a few things and then see if some of you have heard an answer to these questions. The core of the spiritual life obviously is to let the Spirit guide us and to trust that when we let the Spirit of God guide us, that will lead us to places where the deepest desires of our heart shall be fulfilled.
And the whole vision in a way is that we cannot lead ourselves there. And every time we want to control our own destiny, that we end up in another form of addiction or entrapment. And so, meditation and silence and solitude and prayer and worship and all the ways in which we live the Christian life. I wish to discern the action of the Spirit within us and among us, within us as an individual and among us a community, in a congregation. What is the Spirit saying to us? And therefore, the word we need is discipline. Steve started with that question and it’s indirectly in other people’s, too. Discipline is the other side of discipleship. It’s actually the same word, discipline, disciple, the same word. Discipline is the effort to keep empty space empty so that God can speak. And because we are so fearful people, we fill up every empty space. Do you notice I called that horror vacui. The fear of the empty space. Wherever we see emptiness, we want to fill it up. That’s because we’re so afraid that some other strange power will take over and destroy us. Discipline means to create boundaries around an empty space so that that empty space can remain empty. And in that emptiness, the Spirit can manifest itself to us.
You know the words we play around with, you know, we all tend to be people who are very occupied. That’s busy, “occupied” means “full.” And if we’re not occupied, we are preoccupied. That is, we are full before we are there. It’s important that your life as a minister, and my life as a pastor, and the people’s life are all talking about filling things up. That’s why retirement for some people is fearful. That’s why losing a job is fearful. Not just because they don’t have money anymore, but because of emptiness. Emptiness is terribly fearful.
And it’s interesting and crucial that to live a spiritual life is to create emptiness for God. Vacancy for God. Space for God. And it’s not just in your individual life, but it’s in what you’re called to do for your community and your congregation. It’s not just a question of having an hour in the morning that you pray, and then you get busy again. Because you have to be busy with creating empty spaces for people. That’s what liturgy is about: a little bit of bread, not enough for everybody to take hungry away. A little bit of wine, not enough to take all thirst away. A few words, not enough to take ignorance away. And it’s a little bit, and it create some boundaries where we are poor together. We sing a song. It’s useless. We read a little reading. It’s not saying everything. We take a little piece of bread or a little sip of wine and we are silent.
I think words and songs and everything we do to to create a safe, silent place where we can hold hands around an empty spot and trust that there, God will reveal himself to us. If that is not your ministry, then your ministry becomes entertainment. It’s precisely the opposite. And you enter a competition with the movie industry and with the theater and with whatever’s going on. And I know that. I want to have people have a good time when they come to the service, but that’s not my vocation. My vocation as a priest, or as a minister, is to withdraw so much that there is a new space where people can be in and discover God, and not say, “Well, Henri was wonderful. He had such interesting things to say, um, ‘now I have something else to discuss.’” Then I’m entertaining people. Entertaining them to keep them going between the places where they are busy. To entertain – to hold people attentive, so they won’t get bored. They won’t have to deal with their emptiness. And as soon as our life becomes entertainment, keeping people busy with programs and with interesting things to do, we are no longer creating the space where God can let something happen that is radically new in us and among us.
And then, let me just say a few words about that very first question that Steve brought up. I’m so busy, I have no time to pray, or I don’t know how to find it. I mean, that’s your question, my question. But it’s a very important question because it’s a question that says, “If I am basically an entertainer, even when I’m an excellent minister, but that’s the model that I finally ended up working with. I need to be converted.”
And the place to convert is precisely to create, to start creating for myself, places where I’m useless, places where I have nothing to do, places where I am wasting time with God, who says that I am the beloved. And everything in us protests against this because we are so fearful people that we again want to fill everything up. But I do think that once you’re willing to radically look at your life as a life that has to be a life in which God finds the place within and among you, then you have to dare to create that empty space.
And, in a way, you do that by co-opting space and time. You know, having a body means to be time bound and space bound. That’s the two qualities of being in the body. And if, as people who are in space and time, we need to listen to God, then we need to co-opt a space. Where do you pray? And when do you pray? It’s interesting that most people’s rooms and houses – I go always to visit people in their homes and ask, “Where do you pray?” Nobody knows. Is there a corner? Is there a room? Is there anything set aside of the physical space in which you live, where you can be for half an hour a day, and where you can return? If you do that, that space will continue to call you. If the space has to be made every moment you pray, it’s not continuing to call. I’m very convinced that it’s very valuable to have a space that is set aside to pray. That’s my prayer corner. That’s my prayer room. That’s my prayer space. That’s where I go. And even when I’m working and doing a thousand things during the day, that place is still there in my mind and in my heart. And it calls me back to it. Everything is ready, and the place continues to pray, even when I’m gone. That’s a very old vision: Pray in the place so that the place can pray for you when you’re gone. So that, that space is always there. If you step into it, you step into prayer again.
A friend of mine made a retreat with me. He’s somebody that is very dear to me, and he and his wife are friends. And after the retreat, he says, “I suddenly saw my house different. I suddenly realized that I had a basement that I could use and make a little chapel.” And he put a little cloth there and a few candles and a book. And he says, “Now every morning, my wife and I, we go down and we sit there silently for about 20 minutes. And our relationship with one another has so radically changed, because somewhere we are together for 20 minutes in the morning in silence and in the presence of God. And then we go out and we feel that we’re helped by that place.” That old basement suddenly becomes a sacred place and they go there and it’s always there.
And we have to co-opt time, too. We have to say, “What is the time that’s good for me to be there?” Half an hour, 20 minutes, 15 minutes? And in a way, I very much want to advise you, if you can, to start asking yourself, “What is the time of the day that I have set aside?” And don’t shift it all the time, because that time has to be there for you, so that when it’s 12 o’clock and you say, “This is my prayer time,” your inner clock is telling it – whether it’s at seven o’clock in the morning, or whether it’s at night before you go – but somehow in your desires to do that again. And it might take you a month or two months, but gradually you’ll start discovering that you need that space and that time, and that it responds to something deep in you, even when you felt that nothing really was happening while you were there. Gradually you discover that something is happening, but on a much deeper level.
And what do you do in that time? I don’t want to make too many suggestions. What I did just before is what I do myself a lot. Just take the Scripture of the day and read it and read it again and let it sort of sink in. To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart. To descend, to let the word that comes to the mind become flesh in me. If I say, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” when I say that, I know immediately that I want all sorts of things. And I keep saying it: “The Lord is my shepherd. There’s nothing I shall want.” And that most of my time of prayer, it’s just an explosion of wants, because I keep thinking about all these things that I want. But I keep going back to the truth: “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.”
Or, in this text we had today, Jesus is there in front of me. I just have to keep my eye fixed on him. Even though I keep fixing my eyes on things from the past and the present, I keep going back, going back, going back.
And trust. And it’s not that I sit there thinking what a shepherd means, but I finally want to experience the shepherding presence so deeply in my heart that it becomes true for me, that I don’t want anything because the Lord is there.
And you will discover that all the texts that you choose constantly bring you back to that place. I hope that at least this makes any sense to you, these few words. I mean, I could talk a lot about it. And, the style of worship, I’ve talked a little bit about. About finding time to pray. Fullness and emptiness. I mean, how to accept the gift. That’s precisely it, because we want to stay in control so much that it’s so hard to become really dependent.
And the whole question that silence finally allows me to live in a schizophrenic world. That’s very true. I mean, that’s because I suddenly have this place from where I can go into the day. And just let me close here and say, those of you who haven’t heard an answer, if you have a little time just to hang around here and I will be there.
Meditation will also offer you the model for worship. If you know silence in your heart, you will know how to create it for your people. But you have to be able to claim it for yourself. You will know. You qill know. Gradually, you’ll be much more comfortable with your own silence. And secondly, if you live through the day, what is the word you take into the day? “The Lord is my shepherd. There’s nothing I shall want.” You can drive your car. You can do shopping. You can say that, all the time: “Lord, have mercy on me.” Is there a word that gradually continues to become flesh in you as you go through your day?
And I tell you that one more thing I want to say just on the end is: If you meditate, and by meditation, I simply mean, if you let the gospel become flesh in you, you will continuously, as the word descends in you, you will have an inner room. An inner space will grow in you. And on the walls of that inner space, there will be these words that you meditate on. It will be the gospel of the day, or “the Lord is my shepherd,” or “They fix their eyes on Jesus,” and suddenly, there will be these words. And I can absolutely guarantee that if that space is there, people will keep walking into it all the time. That’s what ministry is – to let people walk into the space and read the words on the wall that you have put there for today.
And you will discover that these words that you put there on the wall of your inner space, are the words that the people that come to you need to hear, because you know them, and you know that they are for those who are sent to you. Just as that word was given to you in the morning or in your meditation in the evening. Just as that word was given to you, it was given for those who walk into that inner space that you keep creating. And it becomes wider and wider. And you will discover that you know what to say. And so, you might say to a person, without even realizing it, “The Lord is your shepherd, too. And there is nothing you shall want. Can you believe that?” And you could say it in a way that suddenly it is not phony or preachy, it’s just there. And people will hear it. Of course, it comes from that inner room and where you invited people to be.
So, let’s just pray: Lord, thank you for your love. Help us to be people who pray, and make prayer the core of all our ministry. Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Let’s go in peace.
Karen Pascal: I’ve been moved myself by taking time to sit with Henri Nouwen, and learn from him how to meditate on Scripture. These archival recordings were made available courtesy at 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 and 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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