What Is Prayer by Henri Nouwen?
The passages below written by Henri Nouwen are taken from the book, “The Only Necessary Thing,” compiled and edited by Wendy Wilson Greer and published in 1999.
A spiritual life without prayer is like the Gospel without Christ. (Reaching Out)
To pray. . . means to think and live in the presence of God.
(Clowning in Rome )
Reaching Out to God (26)
Don’t we use the word “prayer” mostly when we feel that our human limits are reached? Isn’t the word “prayer” more a word to indicate powerlessness rather than a creative contact with the source of all life?
It is important to say that… feelings, experiences, questions, and irritations about prayer are very real and often the result of concrete and painful events. Still, a spiritual life without prayer is like the Gospel without Christ. Instead of proving or defending anything, it might be worthwhile to simply bring all the doubtful and anxious questions together in this one question: “If prayer, understood as an intimate relationship with God, is indeed the basis of all relationships—to ourselves as well as to others—how then can we learn to pray and really experience prayer as the axis of our existence?” By focusing on this question, it becomes possible to explore the importance of prayer in our own lives and in the lives of those we have met through personal encounters or through stories and books.
. . .
Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayers is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on God’s terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer, therefore, is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many “safe” gods to the God whose love has no limits.(Reaching Out)
Dwelling in Jesus (27)
Jesus leaves little doubt about the meaning of prayer when he says: “Apart from me you can do nothing; those who dwell in me as I dwell in them, bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Dwelling in Jesus is what prayer is all about.
Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Saviour and see only hunger to be alleviated, injustice to be addressed, violence to be overcome, wars to be stopped, and loneliness to be removed. All these are critical issues, and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel oppressive weight.
Most of us try to get out from underneath by saying: “I have enough problems in keeping my own family and work going. Please do not burden me with the problems of the world. They only make me feel guilty and remind me of my powerlessness.” We no longer participate in the full human reality, choosing instead to isolate ourselves in that corner of the world where we feel relatively safe. We may still say our fearful prayers, but we have forgotten that true prayer embraces the whole world, not just the small part where we live. (“Prayer Embraces the World”)
The Divine Spirit Praying in Us (27-28)
The practice of contemplative prayer is the discipline by which we begin to see God in our heart. It is a careful attentiveness to the One who dwells in the centre of our being such that through the recognition of God’s presence we allow God to take possession of all our senses. Through the discipline of prayer we awaken our selves to the God in us and let God enter into our heartbeat and our breathing, into our thoughts and emotions, our hearing, seeing, touching, and tasting. It is by being awake to this God in us that we can see God in the world around us. The great mystery of the contemplative life is not that we see God in the world, but that God within us recognizes God in the world. God speaks to God, Spirit speaks to Spirit, heart speaks to heart. Contemplation, therefore, is a participation in this divine self-recognition. It is the divine Spirit praying in us who makes our world transparent and opens our eyes to the presence of the divine Spirit in all that surrounds us. It is with our heart of hearts that we see the heart of the world. This explains the intimate relationship between contemplation and ministry.(Clowning in Rome)
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. (Sabbatical Journey)
Prayer and Suffering (28)
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your soul will find rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 12:29-30).
Here the deeper meaning of prayer becomes manifest. To pray is to unite ourselves with Jesus and lift up the whole world through him to God in a cry for forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and mercy. To pray, therefore, is to connect whatever human struggle or pain we encounter—whether starvation, torture, displacement of peoples, or any form of physical and mental anguish—with the gentle and humble heart of Jesus. . . .
Prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing; it is letting the warmth of Jesus’ love melt the cold anger of resentment; it is opening a space where joy replaces sadness, mercy supplants bitterness, love displaces fear, gentleness and care overcome hatred and indifference. But most of all, prayer is the way to become and remain part of Jesus’ mission to draw all people to the intimacy of God’s love. (“Prayer Embraces the World” )
Finding My Way to Pray (29)
There are many ways to pray. When we are serious about prayer and no longer consider it one of the many things people do in their lives but, rather, the basic receptive attitude out of which all of life can receive new vitality, we will, sooner or later, raise the question: “What is my way to pray, what is the prayer of my heart?” Just as artists search for the style that is most their own, so people who pray search for the prayer of their heart. What is most pro found in life, and therefore most dear to us, always needs to be properly protected as well as expressed. It, therefore, is not surprising that prayer is often surrounded by carefully prescribed gestures and words, by detailed rituals and elaborate ceremonies.
To Whom Do I Pray? (29-30)
Speaking about prayer, I asked John Eudes a question that seemed very basic and a little naive: “When I pray, to whom do I pray?” “When I say ‘Lord’, what do I mean?”
John Eudes responded very differently than I expected. He said, “This is the real question, this is the most important question you can raise; at least this is the question that you can make your most important question.” He stressed with great and convincing emphasis that if I really wanted to take the question seriously, I should realize that there would be little room left for other things. “Except,” he said smiling, “when the question exhausts you so much that you need to read Newsweek for a little relaxation!” “It is far from easy,” John Eudes said, “to make that question the centre of your meditation. You will discover that it involves every part of yourself because the question, Who is the Lord to whom I pray? leads directly to the question, Who am I who wants to pray to the Lord? And then you will soon wonder, Why is the Lord of Justice also the Lord of love; the God of fear also the God of gentle compassion? This leads you to the centre of meditation.
Is there an answer? Yes and no. You will find out in your meditation. You might some day have a flash of understanding even while the question still remains and pulls you closer to God. But it is not a question that can be simply one of your questions. In a way, it needs to be your only question around which all that you do finds its place. It requires a certain decision to make that question the centre of your meditation. If you do so, you will realize that you are embarking on a long road, a very long road.”
(The Genesee Diary)
On a Pilgrimage (31)
Praying means, above all, to be accepting toward God who is al ways new, always different. For God is a deeply moved God whose heart is greater than ours. The open acceptance of prayer in the face of an ever new God makes us free. In prayer, we are constantly on the way, on a pilgrimage. On our way, we meet more and more people who show us something about the God whom we seek. We will never know for sure if we have reached God. But we do know that God will always be new and that there is no reason to fear.(With Open Hands)
Anticipating Life in the Divine Kingdom (31-32)
Prayer is the act by which we divest ourselves of all false belongings and become free to belong to God and God alone. This explains why, although we often feel a real desire to pray, we experience at the same time a strong resistance. We want to move closer to God, the source and goal of our existence, but at the same time we realize that the closer we come to God the stronger will be God’s demand to let go of the many “safe” structures we have built around ourselves. Prayer is such a radical act because it requires us to criticize our whole way of being in the world, to lay down our old selves and accept our new self, which is Christ.
This is what Paul has in mind when he calls us to die with Christ so that we can live with Christ. It is to this experience of death and rebirth that Paul witnesses when he writes: “I live now not with my own life, but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). . . . .
In the act of prayer, we undermine the illusion of control by divesting ourselves of all false belongings and by directing our selves totally to the God who is the only one to whom we belong. Prayer therefore is the act of dying to all that we consider to be our own and of being born to a new existence which is not of this world. Prayer is indeed a death to the world so that we can live for God. The great mystery of prayer is that even now it leads us into a new heaven and a new earth and thus is an anticipation of life in the divine kingdom. God is timeless, immortal, eternal, and prayer lifts us up into this divine life. (“Letting Go of All Things”)
Prayer and Hope (31)
To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, not as a pos session to defend, but as a gift to receive. Above all, prayer is a way of life which allows you to find a stillness in the midst of the world where you open your hands to God’s promises and find hope for yourself, your neighbour, and your world. In prayer, you encounter God not only in the small voice and the soft breeze, but also in the midst of the turmoil of the world, in the distress and joy of your neighbour, and in the loneliness of your own heart.
(With Open Hands)
Praying Is Living (31-32)
Prayer leads you to see new paths and to hear new melodies in the air. Prayer is the breath of your life which gives you freedom to go and to stay where you wish and to find the many signs which point out the way to a new land. Praying is not simply some necessary compartment in the daily schedule of a Christian or a source of support in time of need, nor is it restricted to Sunday mornings or mealtimes. Praying is living. It is eating and drinking, action and rest, teaching and learning, playing and working. Praying pervades every aspect of our lives. It is the unceasing recognition that God is wherever we are, always inviting us to come closer and to celebrate the divine gift of being alive. (With Open Hands)