Never has there been a time in all history that we have been inundated with words. From the time we awake and by the time we hit the sack at night, words never leave us. No thanks to the power of the internet and the social media that have invaded our most guarded thoughts, stretched in full our waking moments and wracked the peace and quiet we used to enjoy.
It is a noisy and chatty world we live in. And funny how people relish being in the middle of such frenzy. Almost everyone from the young to the ‘young once’ makes for a willing victim of such unprecedented verbal and audio-visual assaults.
Have you not noticed that in this explosive age of information and non-stop stimuli, we dread being left without our devices to keep us preoccupied? Most of us hang on to our favorite smartphone or tablet as if our life depends on it (and unfortunately, for most of us, it does feel like it). We take it with us even when we don’t need to (I should know, I accidentally dropped my phone inside a toilet bowl filled with urine—eeeewww). We are so attached and fascinated with this device, we oftentimes run into panic when, for some reason or another, it is out of our sight or touch.
In the midst of the noise and distractions in this techie world we are in, haven’t you wished you had a day or even a moment away from it all? Don’t we all desire, albeit secretly for some, a little space, some solitude and a wee bit of silence?
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was scouring for some cheap reads at Bookfinds, when I came across a real gem. I found Henri Nouwen’s writings on a booklet titled, “Way of the Heart.” His name was often mentioned by my fave Christian apologist, Ravi Z in his talks in Manila so, I grabbed the booklet and after leafing a few pages, (it’s an 81-page read—so short) I headed to the cashier. I initially thought of buying some mushy reads by romance authors of old (yeah, the likes of Anne Mather, Violet Winspear and Penny Jordan) for my fiction writing project, but they seemed to have parked their writing pen for good. And I couldn’t find their babies (the products of their prolific and overly-thick imagination) anymore in any of the dust-kissed shelves of Booksale or Bookfinds.
The following morning of my book-hunting spree, I started to read Nouwen. I didn’t stop until I memorized by heart the salient points of his thought-provoking words.
The book is addressed to believers of the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever station in life they may be in.
According to him, we can find nurture and strength, and alleviate our spiritual hunger and thirst in the midst of the increasing worldly assaults and diminishing satisfaction, by following the way of the Desert fathers. These Desert fathers (and mothers, for there were women, too) lived in the Egyptian desert in the fourth and fifth centuries to “escape a tempting conformity to the world.” They sought a new form of martyrdom— not that as blood witnesses—but as living ones unmoved by the grain of the world’s thinking and doing.
The book outlines three primitive ways, as followed by Christians of old, from which we, modern day followers of Christ can draw inspiration, wisdom and direction as we face our core struggles in this world of fleshly provocations. They indicate the ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image. When the desert father Arsenius prayed for the way of salvation, he heard God’s voice telling him to “flee from the world, to be silent and to pray.”
The ways that Nouwen has expounded on this piece of writing are SOLITUDE, SILENCE and PRAYER.
Solitude, according to H. Nouwen is not what the world defines it to be. It is not simply being alone and shutting one’s self from outside concerns so that we can think our “own thoughts,” express our “own complaints,” and “do our own thing.” In short, it does not mean privacy. Neither is it a place to recharge one’s batteries and gather new strength. It is not a private therapeautic place.
Solitude, is, according to the author, a furnace of transformation. It is a place of conversion where the old self dies and the new self, governed by Christ, reigns. It is a place of struggle where one lets go of all pretense –scaffolding—that’s what H. Nouwen describes it. In solitude, we face our nakedness—our nothingness. With no friends to run to, no distractions whatsoever, no books nor gadgets to keep us from facing the hideousness within, we enter this place—this desert—of struggle and encounter, and of cleansing and transformation.
According to Nouwen, we enter into solitude to meet our Lord, and to be with him and him alone. In this world of distractions, we need to “fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.” And with such spiritual dwelling place, we will be increasingly conformed to Him in whose Name we minister.
I love how Nouwen avers that “Silence is the home of the word,” And that words are “meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come.” Wow. True words of wisdom are those that come from meditative, timely silence.
This is an apt reminder for all of us who prefer to prattle (oftentimes in the guise of exerting one’s right to self-expression) than to listen. In this chatty society, silence makes us uncomfortable, even fearful. When silence deafens, we find ways to break it. Most of us have been fashioned to believe that our words are more important than our silence.
But as the Desert fathers exemplified, silence is one of the major disciplines of the spiritual life. And there are three aspects of silence that we can distinguish:
First, silence makes us pilgrims.
To be on pilgrimage, according to one Desert father is “to control one’s tongue.” (What??? This made my brows creased initially. On one hand, it does make absolute sense. ) A traveller who is in for a long journey of spiritual discovery and transformation has silence for company.
Second, silence guards the fire within.
This fire, according to Nouwen, is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. We tend and keep this inner fire alive through the discipline of silence.
Our foremost task is to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to travellers.
And third, silence teaches us to speak. Nouwen says, thus:
A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence.
Too often, our words are superfluous, inauthentic and shallow. It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words. But having acknowledged this, a more important message from the desert is that silence is above all, a quality of the heart that can stay with us even in our conversation with others.
A word for you, therefore: Befriend your silence!
Prayer is the end goal of solitude and silence. We flee from the influence of the world and guard our silence precisely to meet the Lord.
Real prayer comes from the heart. It is a prayer transcending interesting words or pious emotions. It is a prayer of truth. We come before him stripped of any pretense, fully aware of our nakedness and desperate to surrender ourselves to his mercy.
In the author’s words, the prayer of truth “unmasks the many illusions about ourselves and about God and leads us into the true relationship between the sinner and the merciful God,” It is in this truth that we find rest — rest in God even in the midst of struggles.
In short, real prayer is not a struggle but a rest. Nouwen says the literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” For me, no definition of prayer could be more beautiful than this. At a time when words like “stress,” “burn-out,” “tired,” and “depressed,” spring from our lips with hopelessness and resignation, when rest has remained elusive and regarded as a pie in the sky, we need only to bow our heads and pray. Why? Because when we pray, we acknowledge the One who holds the universe. And clearly, we can hear “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).
So, there… We are called to be in solitude, silence and prayer.
These are our antidote to the merciless and relentless assaults of the techie, wordy world we live in.
I so need this, and so do you.
Oh, by the way, with the wealth of insights I learned from this short read, do you know how much I purchased it?
It’s a bargain hauler’s dream— six pesos. Yasss, they might as well have just stamped it “not for sale” but for giveaway.
It was silently lying in a heap of “trash.” But the moment I laid hands on it, my heart leapt in excitement for I knew I had found a diamond. The saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could not have been more true in this case.
I sense my feet itching for another treasure-hunting spree.