I recently finished reading Our Second Birth by Henri Nouwen. The book is drawn from his year on sabbatical from September 1995 through August 1996. Each chapter features a month's worth of daily (or almost daily) reflections on his year away.
As I was reading it, I was inspired by this passage or that passage or this thought and I wanted to stop and write but I decided to finish it once through and then go back and read it again, stopping to write about a passage as it struck me.
So here we go...the first one:
Saturday, September 2 and Sunday September 3 entries, right at the start of his sabbatical, Nouwen writes thoughts on prayer:
"I am starting this year with the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, the prayer I say every day with much trepidation:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
I offer it to you with all the love that is in my heart.
For I love you, Lord, and so want to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands,
Without reserve and with boundless confidence,
For you are my Father.
"Prayer is the bridge between my unconscious and conscious life. Prayer connects my mind with my heart, my will with my passions, my brain with my belly. Prayer is the way to let the life-giving Spirit of God penetrate all the corners of my being. Prayer is the divine instrument of my wholeness, unity, and inner peace" (14).
"The truth is that I do not feel much, if anything, when I pray.... Whereas for a long time the Spirit acted so clearly through my flesh, now I feeling nothing. I have lived with the expectation that prayer would become easier as I grow older and closer to death. But the opposite seems to be happening. The words darkness and dryness seem to best describe my prayer today" (15).
He continues wondering if this darkness and dryness in prayer is a result of overactivity but he wonders less about how he got there but what the darkness and dryness are calling him to. "Are the darkness and dryness of my prayer signs of God's absence, or are they signs of a presence deeper and wider than my senses can contain? Is the death of my prayer life the end of my intimacy with God or the beginning of a new communion, beyond words, emotions, and bodily sensations?" (16)
He says that while his prayer might be "dead as a rock" within him, the Spirit's prayer within him is not. It was time to let of his prayer and join the Divine prayer. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:14-16, ESV). He notes that our spirits join the Spirit of God as we cry out to Abba Father.
I experienced a "mmm-hmm" moment here. There have been many days in the last year that I felt the "dead as a rock" prayer within me. Either "I've got nothing to say to you, God, because you already know it" or "I've got nothing to say to you, God, because I'm afraid of what you'll say back" or "I've got nothing to say to you, God, because you're sovereign and you'll work it out." Prayer that was going nowhere.
None of those words I tossed God's way made any of the connections that Nouwen mentions: mind with heart, will with passions, or brain with belly. Prayer is about connecting and I wasn't doing a good job of it. Maybe it was the stuff on my to-do list and the amount of work that filled my day, the overactivity that he mentions. And maybe it was all the distractions and avoidance I placed in my own path. Whatever it was, it felt like what he described: darkness and dryness.
And I loved what he wrote about the darkness and dryness calling you to something new because even in the times that I've felt the darkness and the dryness in the past year, I never felt like I had been left for dead. I never felt that God gave up on me; I never felt like the Spirit left. I still felt the Spirit's presence deep in me, keeping me. There was something deeper inside me than my own surface choices, keeping me. Where my thoughts and prayers to the Divine ended, the Spirit picked up. I was a child of God, I am a child of God and the Spirit bore witness with that and picked up the prayer.
I admit to sitting down to pray and feeling nothing, blank, no interest, and saying, "God, I got nothing," and immediately feeling that inexplicable stir deep down: the Spirit making a plea. Oh, how grateful I am for the deep down plea, for that unexplained stirring. How grateful I am for the keeping. The prayer of benediction that Aaron gives at the end of each service is running through my head right now as I hear part of it for the first time:
The LORD bless you
and keep you;
The LORD make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
The LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
That first line, the LORD bless you and keep you.... May the Spirit of the Lord keep you.... I look back over the past year and I understand what it means to be kept by God, to be held by the Divine, to learn about a new communion that has less to do with my saying all the right words but my connecting mind, heart, will, passions, brain and belly, united with the Spirit, to engage with Abba Father.