Prayers are Pictures on Our Inner Walls by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.
1. Mother Teresa’s Answer (88-96)
Once, quite a few years ago, I had the opportunity of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I was struggling with many things at the time and decided to use the occasion to ask Mother Teresa’s advice. As soon as we sat down I started explaining all my problems and difficulties — trying to convince her of how complicated it all was! When, after ten minutes of elaborate explanation, I finally became silent, Mother Teresa looked at me quietly and said: “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong.. . you will be fine!”
When she said this, I realized, suddenly, that she had punctured my big balloon of complex self-complaints and pointed me far beyond myself to the place of real healing. In fact, I was so stunned by her answer that I didn’t feel any desire or need to continue the conversation. The many people waiting outside the room to see her could probably use her time better than I. So I thanked her and left. Her few words became engraved on my heart and mind and remain to this day. I had not expected these words, but in their directness and simplicity, they cut through to the center of my being. I knew that she had spoken the truth and that I had the rest of my life to live it.
Reflecting on this brief but decisive encounter, I realize that I had raised a question from below and that she had given an answer from above. At first, her answer didn’t seem to fit my question, but then I began to see that her answer came from God’s place and not from the place of my complaints. Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answers from below. The result is more questions and more answers and, often, more confusion.
Mother Teresa’s answer was like a flash of lightning in my darkness. I suddenly knew the truth about myself.
2. From Worrying to Prayer
One of the least helpful ways to stop worrying is to try hard not to think about the things we are worrying about. We cannot push away our worries with our minds. When I lay in my bed worrying about an upcoming meeting, I can’t stop my worries by saying to myself:
“Don’t think about these things; just fall asleep. Things will work out fine tomorrow.” My mind simply answers: “How do you know?” and is back worrying again.
Jesus’ advice to set our hearts on God’s kingdom is somewhat paradoxical. You might give it the following interpretation: “If you want to worry, worry about that which is worth the effort. Worry about larger things than your family, your friends, or tomorrow’s meeting. Worry about the things of God: truth, life, and light!”
As soon, however, as we set our hearts on these things our minds stop spinning because we enter into communion with the One who is present to us here and now and is there to give us what we most need. And so worrying becomes prayer, and our feelings of powerlessness are transformed into a consciousness of being empowered by God’s spirit.
Indeed, we cannot prolong our lives by worrying, but we can move far beyond the boundaries of our short life span and claim eternal life as God’s beloved children.
Does that put an end to our worrying? Probably not. As long as we are in our world, full of tensions and pressures, our minds will never be free from worries, but when we keep returning with our hearts and minds to God’s embracing love, we will be able to keep smiling at our own worrisome selves and keep our eyes and ears open for the sights and sounds of the kingdom.
3. From Mind to Heart
How do we concretely go about setting our hearts on God’s kingdom? When I lay in my bed, not able to fall asleep because of my many worries, when I do my work preoccupied about all the things that can go wrong, when I can’t get my mind off my concern for a dying friend — what am I supposed to do? Set my heart on the kingdom? Fine, but how does one do this?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people with different lifestyles, personalities, and external circumstances. There is not one specific answer that fits everyone’s needs. But there are some answers that can offer helpful directions.
One simple answer is to move from the mind to the heart by slowly saying a prayer with as much attentive ness as possible. This may sound like offering a crutch to someone who asks you to heal his broken leg. The truth, however, is that a prayer, prayed from the heart, heals. When you know the Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed, the “Glory Be to the Father” by heart, you have some thing to start with. You might like to learn by heart the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd…” or Paul’s words about love to the Corinthians or St. Francis’s prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace….” As you lie in your bed, drive your car, wait for the bus, or walk your dog, you can slowly let the words of one of these prayers go through your mind simply trying to listen with your whole being to what they are saying. You will be constantly distracted by your worries, but if you keep going back to the words of the prayer, you will gradually discover that your worries be come less obsessive and that you really start to enjoy praying. And as the prayer descends from your mind into the center of your being you will discover its healing power.
4. Nothing Is Wanting!
Why is the attentive repetition of a well-known prayer so helpful in setting our hearts on the kingdom? It is helpful because the words of such a prayer have the power to transform our inner anxiety into inner peace.
For a long time, I prayed the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose. Near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit.” I prayed these words in the morning for half an hour sit ting quietly on my chair trying only to keep my mind focused on what I was saying. I prayed them during the many moments of the day when I was going here or there, and I even prayed them during my routine activities. The words stand in stark contrast to the reality of my life. I want many things; I see mostly busy roads and ugly shopping malls; and if there are any waters to walk along they are mostly polluted. But as I keep saying: “The Lord is my shepherd…” and allow God’s shepherding love to enter more fully into my heart, I become more fully aware that the busy roads, the ugly malls, and the polluted waterways are not telling the true story of who I am. I do not belong to the powers and principalities that rule the world but to the Good Shepherd who knows his own and is known by his own. In the presence of my Lord and Shepherd there truly is nothing I shall want. He will, indeed, give me the rest my heart desires and pull me out of the dark pits of my depression.
It is good to know that millions of people have prayed these same words over the centuries and found com fort and consolation in them. I am not alone when I pray these words. I am surrounded by countless women and men, those who are close by and those who are far away, those who are presently living and those who have died recently or long ago, and I know that long after I have left this world these same words will continue to be prayed until the end of time.
The deeper these words enter into the center of my being, the more I become part of God’s people and the better I understand what it means to be in the world without being of it.
5. Contemplating the Gospel
Whatever concrete method we use to set our minds and hearts on the kingdom, it is important only in that it brings us closer to our Lord. The attentive repetition of a prayer is one method that has proven to be fruitful. Another is the contemplation of the daily Gospel. Each day of the year has its own Gospel passage. Each passage holds its own treasure for us. For me it has been of immense spiritual value to read each morning the story about Jesus that has been chosen for the day and to look at it and listen to it with my inner eyes and ears. I have discovered that when I do this over a long period of time, the life of Jesus becomes more and more alive in me and starts to guide me in my daily activities.
Often I have found myself saying: “The Gospel that I read this morning was just what I needed today!” This was much more than a wonderful coincidence. What, in fact, was taking place was not that a Gospel text helped me with a concrete problem, but that the many Gospel Passages that I had been contemplating were gradually giving me new eyes and new ears to see and hear what Was happening in the world. It wasn’t that the Gospel proved useful for my many worries but that the Gospel proved the uselessness of my worries and so refocused my whole attention.
Once I was trying very hard to help two of my friends resolve their marriage difficulties. As I read the Gospel stories day after day it dawned on me that I was more interested in being a successful counselor than in making my friends fully open to God’s will, whatever the implications would be for their future life. I became less anxious to solve their problems and more free to be an instrument of God’s healing.
The daily contemplation of the Gospel is one of the most straightforward ways to set our minds and hearts first on the kingdom.
6. Pictures on Our Inner Walls
The daily contemplation of the Gospel and the attentive repetition of a prayer can both profoundly affect our inner life. Our inner life is like a holy space that needs to be kept in good order and well decorated. Prayer, in whatever form, is the way to make our inner room a place where we can welcome those people who search for God.
After I had spent a few weeks slowly repeating Paul’s words, “Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous — love never seeks its own advantage,” these words began to appear on the walls of my inner room much as the license in a doctor’s office. This was obviously not an “apparition” but the emergence of an image. This image of a picture with sacred words on the wall of my inner room gave me a new understanding of the relationship between prayer and ministry.
Whenever I meet people during the day, I receive them in my inner room, trusting that the pictures on my walls will guide our meeting.
Over the years, many new pictures have appeared on my inner walls. Some show words, some gestures of blessing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Many show faces: the faces of Jesus and Mary, the faces of Thérèse of Lisieux and Charles de Foucauld, the faces of Ramakrishna and the Dalai Lama.
It is very important that our inner room has pictures on its walls, pictures that allow those who enter our lives to have something to look at that tells them where they are and where they are invited to go. Without prayer and contemplation the walls of our inner room will remain barren, and few will be inspired.
7. A Spiritual Milieu
We cannot live a spiritual life alone. The life of the Spirit is like a seed that needs fertile ground to grow. This fertile ground includes not only a good inner disposition, but also a supportive milieu.
It is very hard to live a life of prayer in a milieu where no one prays or speaks lovingly about prayer. It is nearly impossible to deepen our communion with God when those with whom we live and work reject or even ridicule the idea that there is a loving God. It is a super human task to keep setting our hearts on the kingdom when all those whom we know and talk with are setting their hearts on everything but the kingdom.
It is not surprising that people who live in a secular milieu — where God’s name is never mentioned, prayer unknown, the Bible never read, and conversation about the life in the Spirit completely absent — cannot sustain their communion with God for very long. I have discovered how sensitive I am to the milieu in which I live. With my community, words about God’s presence in our life come spontaneously and with great ease. How ever, when I join in a business meeting in downtown Toronto or keep company with those who work with AIDS patients, a conversation about God often creates embarrassment or even anger and generally ends up in a debate about the pros and cons of religion that leaves everybody unhappy.
When we are serious about living a spiritual life we are responsible for the milieu where it can grow and mature. Although we might not be able to create the ideal context for a life in the Spirit, we have many more options than we often claim for ourselves. We can choose friends, books, churches, art, music, places to visit, and people to be with that, taken together, offer a milieu that allows the mustard seed that God has sown in US to grow into a strong tree.