Henri Nouwen and Prayer
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I have been reading the works of the late Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Roman Catholic Priest who, among other things, was a the pastor of a local Church, a University Professor, and the Chaplain of a community for the "mentally challenged." During the many different phases of his ministry, with all the changes that time and pain can bring, one thing remained constant: from the mid-1960s until his death, he was an author.

Over the years he shared with the general Church his experiences, his thoughts, his hopes and dreams in word, poem, and song. His life and ministry was, in may ways, a model for me; his faithfulness, insight, and willingness to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit inspired me to see that, even in the mundane and common things of this life, there is always the spark of the Spirit of the living God, shining through into a world of darkness and despair. His insights have helped me through some dark and lonely times. And his sharp wisdom was always the sharpest when it pointed me back to the Holy Scriptures.

One of the things that I have learned from Nouwen is that the people of God are always more ready and willing to learn and grow than most Clergy are willing to admit. And so, with Father Nouwen as an example, my newsletter articles were born A fellow United Methodist Minister once told me that my newsletter was different than most he read: "It has something to say, instead of just filling up space with fluff and puff." I appreciated his insight, for that is exactly how I feel about these articles. They are a part of my ministry.

I am never quite sure what I am going to write about. Sometimes I really have to dig. Sometimes the words flow faster than I can type (and I can type fast). Today has been an example of the latter, especially because of how I feel about Nouwen’s writings, and because of how I feel about prayer. Nouwen talks a great deal about prayer. I could write many letters about his understanding of the prayerful life, but then I would be plagiarizing. Read Nouwen’s Reaching Out if you’re interested. Besides, he doesn’t really address, except in passing, what I have felt led to ask you today: Do you pray?

It has been my experience that when I fail to take time to pray -- when I fail to be intentional about, and protective of, my prayer time -- not only do I miss it, but I inevitably run aground when the storms winds start blowing.

When I speak of prayer, I’m not talking about what most people do when they pray: namely, begging. No, prayer is more than just presenting your petitions before God, although it does include that. Far too often, we fail . . . due to lack of time, or lack of will, or lack of knowing how . . . to allow God to speak to us. We say our little prayer, make our petition, and run on, and it’s almost as if God is left sitting there, alone, saying "uh . . . ." Prayer involves more than just our talking to God; more important that what we say in prayer is what God says to us. Prayer is supposed to be more than just our begging to God for things. Our prayer time is supposed to be a time for conversation with God, and in a conversation we talk and GOD talks.

How do you let God speak to you? Do you sit in silence and listen for the voice of God? Do you use any means, any tools, any instruments to help you hear the voice of God? Human beings are naturally disposed toward the use of instrumentality; we need tools to help us do so much, and this is true in prayer as well. One of my favorite tools for prayer is the Scriptures, and particularly the Psalms. In our evening worship services I have been encouraging you to take a Psalm and allowing its words to form our prayers. By praying with the Psalms, we remove ourselves from the driver’s seat and allow God to move in and through our prayers, forming them and conforming them to the words of the Psalmist.

I offer this practice to you today. If you need help in praying, open your Bible to the Psalms and allow them to speak for you and through you.

© 1994, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved