On October 14, I set aside 24 hours for silence, solitude and prayer. The quotes are from Henri Nouwen’s “The Way of the Heart.” Here is my reflection.
The excitement of anticipating a day of solitude eventually ebbed away as I confronted its discomforting reality. Initially, I looked forward to the silence and the disconnection from technology which would simplify the task of seeking God and finding rest. I confined myself to an unfamiliar space, limiting my diet to simple foods such as bread, soup, water, and coffee. Being out of reach of technology made me realize that it had become a part of me, like a limb that needed tending. I realized that phones and computers, if not carefully monitored, can swiftly morph from being allies to making us their slaves. Nouwen describes solitude as the place to encounter our false sense of self. The “compulsive” behavior that characterizes my own false identity was manifested in my reflexive compulsion to check my phone: to be on top of things, to have control, to see if anyone needed me. A certain restlessness was felt because I knew that I was unreachable; I wondered if I should have let more people know where I was and what I was doing. Accordingly, one of the “demons” that I met in the “desert” of solitude was my apparent need to be needed. Solitude placed this need in clear view, convincing me that I am no exception to the luring modern system of “domination and manipulation” which ultimately translates into anger and greed (11). Acknowledging this ailment brought about a posture of confession and dependence on God.
I also recognized that my eagerness for a spiritual retreat was fueled more by the novel nature of the assignment, rather than my pursuit of God. I looked forward to brewing fresh coffee, preparing simple snacks, reading and journaling, and being alone. I soon discovered that silence, scripture reading, and prayer are disciplines that require hard work. Boredom struck sooner than I had anticipated, and maintaining focus on these disciplines became more difficult as time went on. Nevertheless, the progressively lull mood was eventually interrupted. I noticed a difference in my temperament as I became calmer in many respects, no longer planning ahead the tasks for the day or week but allowing silence to reorient me. Prayers became slower and more carefully invoked.
This spiritual retreat created a space for me to be made me more sensitive to the work of the Spirit. I was engaged in the present, no longer anxiously preoccupied with the future. I went from not knowing what to pray for, to praying fervent words of confession, desperation and faith. I committed myself to reading the Gospel of John and the words of Scripture attuned my posture, birthing and reawakening dormant spiritual yearnings. Conclusively, through this retreat the Spirit made me confront the reality of the cross and resurrection: my sin came to light, bringing conviction and the hard work of repentance, which then turned to a taste of the resurrection life through a renewed hope and a reoriented perspective.
I am finding myself drawn the beauty that comes from candid concession of inherent brokenness. Truthful transparency is vulnerability, which by definition, is the “susceptibility to physical or emotional harm.” Yet paradoxically, in it, there is much strength and freedom. There requires a sense of confidence and self awareness when one musters the courage to confess their needs – and thus confess their lack. Confession of lack is to admit that I can do nothing without Jesus.
Today I started reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I was impressed with his self knowledge, his recognition of weakness, and his ability to articulate it with such forthright honesty. What begins as honest self knowledge and confession turns to Christ awareness and reception. In this book he speaks of his mesmerizing experience with Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, which led him to his reflection of Jesus’ parable on the subject. Initially, Nouwen sensed a personal identification to the youngest son, which drew out his admiration for the painting. He then tells of his subsequent realization that he, in addition to the brash recklessness of the younger son, has also tended towards a behavioural pattern much like the pharisaic older brother. Even more surprisingly, Nouwen admits that through the words of a friend, he is called live like the father:
“You have been longing for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation — to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return. Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.”
These words have rung true for me. My hope is to reflect and confess my own weaknesses as I consider Nouwen’s, and, like him, reveal my personal tendency towards the two son’s in the parable, while simultaneously becoming increasingly aware of the calling to adopt the father’s mantle.
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen