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But there is a problem with a linear projection of the inner life where we move from one plateau to the next, from one state of existence to another. Life is just not like this. It is more circular. There are times when, as it were, we have to start all over again, when we have to be converted again and to relearn lessons and disciplines that we have neglected in our spiritual formation.
At the same time, we experience life as paradoxical. Things stand in tension with each other, and things do not always work out in anticipated ways. Good sometimes has unfortunate consequences, and out of tragedy blessings can emerge. Thus the spiritual journey does not consist of neat stages. Seldom do we move smoothly from "darkness" to "enlightenment" and live happily ever after in the latter state.
In this collection of reflections and meditations, we prefer to speak of the rhythms of the spiritual life, the to-and-fro movement that not only calls us forward, but also calls us to retreat. This approach recognizes that ecstasy and despair, inwardness and worldly concern, maturity and simplicity, growth and conversion, spiritual power and repentance, faith and fear,loneliness and friendship all jostle together as we seek to grow in the spiritual disciplines.
One of the most basic rhythms of the inner life is the movement from our restless senses to an inner solitude in order to reengage the world with new creativity and hope. It is the movement from where we are-with our struggles, burdens, and pains-in order to drink again at the fountain of life, the place of God's encouragement where we can find inner renewal for our ongoing participation in our world.
The rhythm starts with where we are, not idealistically with where we think we ought to be. It helps us to focus realistically on what is happening to us. It looks life squarely in the face and makes no excuses.
The second stage in this rhythm occurs when we are drawn to the place of solitude and the source of renewal. This is the place where we lay down our burdens, confess our failures, lance our hurts, expose our grief, and acknowledge our foolishness and idolatry. This place is God's loving presence, where we can be embraced, forgiven, empowered, and fueled for the journey.
The third stage in the rhythm is when we can reengage our circumstances and our world with these new resources and creativity so that we are no longer overwhelmed, but are able to respond with newfound courage.
If we don't start with the first stage, we live in unreality. If we don't move to the second stage, we may end up living in despair and will certainly exhaust our inner resources. If, however, we fail to engage in the third stage, we may be spiritually replete, but we are socially irrelevant.
In the particular way that these reflections have been grouped together, this rhythm of the spiritual life will become all the more apparent. To help in this journey of discovery, we have invited Henri Nouwen to join us. A well-known Catholic writer on spirituality, Nouwen demonstrates a sensitive intimacy in the quest for wholeness. This will complement our own struggle toward the light and our groping for faith and authenticity in a secularized world.
This world is to be my home, as much as it is not to be the place that sets the agenda for my life. It is the place that sustains me, but that also needs to be transformed by the grace of God. Thus, while participating in all of life, I need to draw aside to find a place of intimacy with the God who loves and sustains me. And from this reoccurring center-point I can be personally enriched so that I can continue to wash the feet of the world.
Psalm 46:10 Reflection I
Taking Time for Inner Renewal
There is just so much that needs to be done. Extra demands at home and at work. More time with the family. Keeping up with our exercise program. Planning the next holiday. Time out for friends. Involvement in our children's school activities. Completing that new management course.
In these and many other ways, the busy round of life draws us into a myriad of activities, all important, but all demanding more of our time and energy. Even church activities jostle for our attention and commitment. And creative acts of service requiring long-term support and care often demand more than we are able to give.
So we try to do more while our energies ebb away and we become like uprooted trees with our roots wildly groping for the sky. Thus we anxiously throw our arms toward heaven, praying for extra grace and special enabling, when instead we should be planted again in nourishing soil. That soil is not meant to make us do less, but to change our priorities so that we take time to be still. And in the stillness, find new strength and hope.
Henri Nouwen reminds us that "time given to inner renewal is never wasted." In fact it is the fuel for the journey, and more importantly, it is the discipline that will shape the very fabric of our being.
Reflection 2 John 6:15
The Surprising Way to a New Openness
We are often afraid to be alone. Afraid of what we may discover about ourselves when we stop long enough to be still. Afraid of the insecurities and sins that still lurk within us even though we have tried so hard to sublimate them. Afraid to face our insignificance, lack of fulfillment, and the eventuality of our death. And afraid to face the lack of closure and resolution of issues that we have tried so hard to square away.
Yet we need to be alone. For we need to rediscover ourselves as much as we need to bask in the searchlight of God's love and light-to face our pain and lack of resolution with new hope and faith. In learning to be alone and still, we make a way to meet God with openness and honesty. It is there we can rediscover that we cannot blame others or live in unreality.
Nouwen speaks of the importance of experiencing a loneliness "that cannot be removed by any other sinful human being." For it is not to others that we should first of all turn; instead, we should create the necessary space to meet with God Himself. While we may fear this place of quietness and openness, it is the only road that will lead to new life. For from new insights come new motivations, which give us new strength, and this will only come when we are loved, sheltered, and affirmed, as well as corrected by the One who truly knows and loves us.
Matthew 11:28-30 Reflection 3
From Restlessness to Solitude:
Finding a New Center
We need to learn to face ourselves and come to acknowledge our inner pain and frustrations. More importantly, in the loneliness of who we are, we need to recognize our powerlessness to achieve the good and to control our own existence. While we are to act decisively and to be responsible for our own choices, we need to recognize that we are not the masters of our own fate.
These insights need not drive us to despair, but to a new acknowledgment of our creatureliness and of our need to come into a relationship with God where our strivings are transformed into a new sense of trust.
Nouwen speaks of the movement "from the restless senses to the restful spirit." Such a movement is not an attempt to escape from ourselves, but the bringing of ourselves to find a new center. Nor is such a movement simply an attempt to escape the pressures of our world. This is no more than a dream and an illusion. Instead, this movement is the bringing of our whole selves, with all our fears and pain, to find a new center of inner peace.
This can begin to be found when we meet with the God who does not necessarily relieve us of our burdens nor answer all our concerns, but who embraces us so that our burdens become light on our journey ahead.
Reflection 4 Psalm 139-23-24
An Invitation to Be Loved and Nurtured
Much of our praying is asking because there is so much that we think we need. Some of our praying is frantic because we are in difficult circumstances. Sometimes our praying is manipulative because we assume that we know better than God what we need and what must take place.
But prayer is meant to be something quite different. It is an invitation to come home, to be loved, nurtured, and refreshed. Nouwen puts it this way: "Praying ... demands a relationship in which you allow the other to speak there, allow him to touch the sensitive core of your being, and allow him to see so much that you would rather leave in darkness."
Prayer is thus the call to intimacy with the God of the universe, who is our Father in Jesus Christ. Prayer is listening to what He would whisper to us. Prayer is being renewed by His loving presence. Prayer is being exposed, embraced, and healed by Him who alone knows what is best for us.
I Samuel 3:9 Reflection 5
Being in the Place to Find New Directions
One of our biggest challenges is to resist doing more. It is to be still long enough to evaluate our many activities. Activities that drive us to distraction and sometimes exhaustion, but also give us meaning and fulfillment. Activities that can give us our routines and our security, but can also block out the "voice" of correction and change.
We need to recognize that all our much-doing is not always fruitful. It is sometimes mindless. Sometimes it is driven. It can be self-protecting. It keeps us going when in fact we should be still-still in order to evaluate and to hear.
Thus a far greater challenge is not to do, but to be in the place where we can hear; not to hear the old and familiar, but to hear again what God thinks about our life's direction, priorities, and activities-and to hear again what our heart is saying. This is often difficult for us. It is a struggle.
Nouwen writes about learning to listen "carefully to the inner movements of the spirit and struggling with the question 'How do I follow Jesus all the way?'" This is the struggle to hear what we may not wish to hear. It is a groping toward an openness that may cause our life to be turned around.
Yet hear new things we must! For we cannot simply continue to plunge headlong into the incessant round of activities that are no longer a part of God's direction for our lives and that no longer express our creativity and our central concerns.
Reflection 6 I Samuel 16:7, 11-12
God's Unlikely Spokespersons:
Hearing God's Voice Through Others
God has an immense sense of humor. This is not a negative reflection on His holiness and majesty, but a recognition of the amazing way He works in human affairs. Simply stated, He is seldom impressed with our definitions of what is important.
God tends not to recognize our stereotyped explanations of the way we think that God should act. In the past, He chose a mere shepherd in the form of Amos to be His spokesperson, used the pagan King Cyrus to execute His justice, called a maiden to give birth to His Son, and used fishermen to establish His church. Nouwen observes that "the most unlikely people are chosen by God to make us see."
Sadly, we frequently fail to hear God's unlikely mouthpieces, for we regard them as socially unacceptable and therefore as not credible and worthy of our attention. Yet, from someone young in the faith we can hear wisdom, from secular prophets we hear legitimate criticism of the church, from the poor we hear God's cry for justice, and from those who have suffered much we can frequently hear words of graciousness and forgiveness.
It is therefore important that these voices be heard, including God's unlikely spokespersons, if we wish to hear all that God may want to say to us. The difficulty is usually not a lack of voices, but a discernment to hear what we most urgently need to hear.
Isaiah 40:31 Reflection 7 From Inner Stillness to Active Engagement:
Finding a New Self to Serve the World
We need to resist making unhelpful distinctions where we play off one thing against another. Prayer, for example, is not opposed to work; and the search for solitude is not opposed to active involvement in our world. These seeming opposites belong together. Prayer leads to work, and work needs to be done prayerfully. Similarly, solitude is not simply a withdrawal from the world in order to be renewed and refreshed. It is also finding a new center of inner quietness and certitude from which we act in the midst of a busy and demanding world.
Nouwen expresses the seeming paradox in this way: "The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of growing withdrawal, but is instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time." This seeming contradiction finds its resolution in the fact that we can lose ourselves in our much-doing but cannot find ourselves simply through withdrawal.
In our much-doing we lose perspective, lose our energy, and more importantly, lose our creativity and sense of humor. We thus begin to carry the world on our shoulders and soon become overwhelmed or disillusioned. But to simply withdraw does not provide the way forward, for we then take our hurt or tired self with us. Rather, the movement to solitude is to find a renewed self, and from the center of being loved and nourished we can again enter our world with purposeful engagement and joyful detachment.
Reflection 8 Psalm 46:1
Finding a Place of Safety
Every home is not necessarily a haven of peace. Every church is not necessarily a community of love and service. And the workplace is not always a place of cooperation. Nor are all our relationships healing and encouraging. Thus in the midst of life, we can feel lost and alienated.
We therefore need to hear the call to come home, home to the Father's heart. Nouwen states that in prayer, God so much wants "to give a home, a sense of belonging, a place to dwell, a shelter where I feel protected and a refuge in which I feel safe."
This place of safety can be found in our world, but only in the place of prayer-a place of fellowship with the Father of all grace and consolation, who invites me to be with Him. It is there that we are truly at home. And it is from this center that we seek to build families of joy and openness, churches of reconciliation, workplaces of productivity and partnership, and friendships that are not stifling, but are marked by servanthood and reciprocity.
I Thessalonians 4:9-10 Reflection 9
Avoiding Expecting What Others Cannot Give
We can expect too much of others. This is particularly so when we stand in a meaningful relationship with others. From those we love much we often expect much, and from those we serve well we frequently expect progress and thankfulness. But our expectations may be unrealistic. Families can become ghettos of unfulfilled expectations, and Christians can be hurt when they expect too much from each other in the form of understanding, encouragement, and mutual support.
It is therefore important that we assume the responsibility of reevaluating our expectations of others. One important factor is to ask whether we are at the right address. We can expect something that others may not be able to give. Nouwen warns us against "expecting from a friend what only Christ can give." A second issue is to look at our motives for service. All too frequently we give in order to get.
Finally, we need to realize that one of the greatest gifts we can give to others is the gift of freedom, where we allow the other person to take the responsibility for his or her own responses, choices, and future.
Excerpted from DARE TO JOURNEY WITH Henri Nouwen by CHARLES RINGMA Copyright © 2000 by Charles Ringma. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 19, 2012
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