October 19, 2017

Nouwen: With Open Hands (1)

Open Hands

I would like to take a few days to discuss some ideas on prayer from Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands.

Before we begin, I would encourage you, if possible, to get a copy. It is available for only $0.99 on Kindle right now if you have the ability to read ebooks. Click on the link above or on the book’s picture below and it will take you to Amazon, where you can get it for that price.

Here are the first few paragraphs from the book’s introduction. In them, Nouwen sets out the basic metaphor that he will develop — moving from resistance (clenched fists) to relational vulnerability (open hands).

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched. Why would you really want to do that? Perhaps you would let the other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something, but to allow the other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped — that is dangerous and calls for defense.

The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear….

…When you want to pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? Certainly not by violence. Nor by a forced decision. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the worlds the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway.

Henri Nouwen reminds us of some important characteristics of prayer in his introduction, as he unravels this metaphor.

First, without resorting to the cliché meme of “my personal relationship with God,” he does point out that prayer is part of developing a trustful companionship with a personal and accessible God, a conversational communion that involves knowing and being known by Another. For all the talk I have heard expressed in these terms through my life, I suspect that few of us actually have this kind of intimate acquaintance with God.

Not that we don’t want it. But perhaps we don’t grasp what it is we say we want. After all, who among us has any background with falling in love and growing more deeply in love with another person who is present but unseen, who communicates but is silent, who we long to feel but cannot touch? The best of us struggle to become one with our human lovers, sensibly available to us. How much more mysterious and opaque to speak of allowing “the [O]ther into that place where your most intimate life is shaped”!

Second, Nouwen is kind to remind us that the “detachment” that keeps us from opening our hands and hearts to God is not just a grasping of things we love. In our humanness we often cling not only to that which is attractive, but also to things that are repulsive. We know, for example, that resentment and bitterness, fear and envy are bad for us and for our relationships. Yet we hold on to them — who knows why? — no matter how destructive they may prove. Perhaps we prefer the demons we know and have learned to live with over the thought of risking something new.

Third, he notes that we sometimes want to receive the love of God but think we must make a clean way for him by hiding those imperfect and embarrassing aspects of our life. We want to put on the best face when he comes to us. Nouwen calls this “forced and artificial,” a response that is motivated by fear more than love. Note: at the heart of our tendency toward self-justification is the fear of being found out.

Fourth, the life of prayer is a long journey. Henri Nouwen describes how we have spent our whole life making clenched fists and “behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless.” The life of prayer is like a lifelong marriage or friendship. It ebbs and flows through any number of seasons and circumstances. We are never done knowing and being known. Our hands close and open, close and open, close and open. We find ourselves clenching them shut. A fresh wind blows and we open them to heaven. We hide and we emerge from hiding. We draw near and run away.

But God never stops calling, “Where are you? What is that you have in your hands?”

Comments

  1. who among us has any background with falling in love and growing more deeply in love with another person who is present but unseen, who communicates but is silent, who we long to feel but cannot touch?

    I sure don’t. But that doesn’t stop most Christians I have known from talking about it like it’s as easy as boiling water. :-/

    • Christiane says:

      and yet it is only in that silence that so many Christians discover that God’s Presence is near to them

      “Be still my soul,
      the waves and winds still know
      His voice Who ruled them
      while He dwelt below . . . ”

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqb125qDqVA

      • Forgive my bluntness, for I know you mean well, but this is the exact sort of answer I have received time and again, and it is an answer that does not help. What is to separate this sort of vague “spirituality” from every other religious experience claim? What *is* God’s presence? What does it feel like? And most important of all, how could I be sure, even if such a thing happened to me, that it is not a figment of my imagination? For I have had several such “experiences” over my lifetime, and in most cases the thing I thought they meant was eventually proven false.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi EEYORE,

          all bluntness is forgiven here at imonk, which is why many of us come here, so no worries there . . .

          I can’t answer for anyone else, but recently, when a close family member died suddenly, after the initial shock, I was able to feel ‘peace’ . . . a sense of being comforted . . . undeserved, but it sure generated a great deal of thankfulness on my part as many years ago, I had experienced some anxiety and depression and I knew the difference that the ‘peace’ I am feeling now is a merciful gift

        • I can definitely identify with this.

          My faith in God isn’t great, but my faith in my ability to ‘hear’ God is worse.

          Two times in my life I was certain I’d ‘heard’ God, but subsequent events appeared (at least) to show that either I’d imagined it, or I’d ‘misunderstood’ (which makes hearing kind of useless).

          I just console myself with the thought that I must just be a spiritual thick-head. Born with small antennae 🙂

          • I can relate, Ben. Several years back, I was pretty sure I was discerning what God wanted in a couple of instances only to discover as things played out that maybe He wanted something completely different.

            And now when I hear people say, “I think God wants us to do this,” I share that my experience suggests they need to keep an open mind and be prepared to discover there is often more than one path.

  2. Just in case everyone isn’t aware, if you have access to this blog and a computer, you have access to a free e-reader. Just google “free kindle app”. The books still cost money though. 😉

  3. Aidan Clevinger says:

    This sounds wonderful.

  4. As someone who has always been really selective of who who gets to be let in to what door, the idea of this Person who holds all the keys, who doesn’t just want to visit but actually wants to stay despite the mess and the skeletons, has drawn me back to my knees over and over again.

    I don’t know much, but it’s encouraging to consider I’ve only barely begun on this journey of intimacy as Nouwen describes.

  5. Fantastical! Fanatical! Absurd! God is not speaking to anyone intimately or personally. He has given us the scriptures and that is His communication to us. Individual, ongoing communication? God forbid. Disaster for the church. One hears this and another hears that. The whackos come out of the woodwork with a “word from the Lawwd.”
    There. I think I have, as a public service, sufficiently summed up the anti-intimacy, anti actual, real and living relational dynamic platform.
    As for me and mine, we ain’t buyin’ it but I’m hesitant to say anything else.

    • Tell us what you think, Chris. Don’t hold back.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        ChrisS is not alone. I do not know what I think of Prayer anymore; it is a topic so loaded down with word-salad and double-speak that I struggle to be interested any longer.

        I am not as absolutist as ChrisS’ “He has given us the scriptures and that is His communication to us” – but any notion of “intimacy” I think is the aforementioned word-salad. Nothing about prayer is Intimate, even taking the term in a poetic sense is false, IMO. “Intimacy” has a definition – using it to describe prayer is a linguistic misdemeanor.

        • SottoVoce says:

          Everything I have ever been taught about prayer is basically either meditation with a coat of Christianese paint or spellcasting in all but name. Mostly I see people use it as an excuse for inaction.

          • It’s often a spiritualized version of the power of positive thinking. Pray for something good to happen and believe it will and it does? God. Pray for something good to happen but don’t really believe it will but still hope it does? 50/50, God/not God.

            So the key is to always just believe it will happen, to see it before it happens, and thus the universe/God will grant it. But doubt it will happen or pray will may be done or whatever? Doesn’t seem to happen, and if it does, what a coincidence.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > taught about prayer is basically either meditatio

            The better side of Prayer Teaching goes there. I do not feel that denigrates Prayer. Stillness, mindfulness, presence, and concentration are all virtues – and virtues are virtues, not Christian Virtues.

            > spellcasting in all but nam

            Yes; the Prayer Chain, an occult practice if ever there was one.

      • It seems my sarcasm was not understood. I am on the other end of the spectrum but I have more than once spoken about the intimate nature of prayer on this site and been shot down by some commenters as pretty much a lunatic. Yes it’s true, I’m not making that up. This was my attempt at defense by stating the other side’s argument before they could. In actual fact I very much believe in the intimacy and genuineness of a two way interaction with the Lord that is ever growing and changing and drawing more out of us as we are able to give it. The whole thing is very involved and can’t be summarized briefly so I thought it best not to say anything. Sorry for being misleading and doing sarcasm badly.

        • I got it. I equally detest the idea of such a personal relationship to God can exist where he’s daily talking to anyone above and beyond scripture. Makes a mockery of every believer who doesn’t have that.

          There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom.

          • If he is not calling us into a unique relationship with him, and is that not precisely what this post is about, then what is he doing? What is this second class citizen stuff? Who is even talking about classes? There is one spirit. One body. One calling. This is the most fundamental tenet of Christianity to my mind. Union with the living God. Communion. I will be your God and you will be my people. Love the Lord your God with your whole…. If some folks have a weak or undeveloped prayer life should we not talk about the joys and hardships of prayer lest we damage their egos? Let’s not talk about giving lest their are any greedy out there who might feel left out because they are not so much about giving. Let’s keep talk of love on the down low too. I really don’t get it. I really must be missing something. Am I to be made out the insensitive bad guy if I say I love the Lord? Should I worry about those who don’t feel such love and refrain? Help me understand. I realize that we are all at different stages and places and I do not in any way claim to be in some advanced mystical retreat in the clouds. I just don’t get it.

            • I hope the discussion will proceed along these lines as we work through the book on other days. Nouwen, in my opinion, is a reliable guide who is capable of communicating something significant about prayer and contemplation. I hope we’ll listen to him and respond to what he is saying.

              Plus, one of the characteristics of our new site description involves that word, “contemplative.” I welcome a frank and open discussion about this aspect of “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” After all, this is an iMonastery.

          • @Chris –

            If he is not calling us into a unique relationship with him, and is that not precisely what this post is about, then what is he doing?

            Well, that’s the whole point of this discussion, isn’t it? What does “being in a unique relationship” with a Being who doesn’t talk and isn’t physically present *mean*?!?

            Let’s not talk about giving lest their are any greedy out there who might feel left out because they are not so much about giving. Let’s keep talk of love on the down low too.

            Apples and oranges. We are commanded to give and love sacrificially, just as we are commanded to pray. What we *feel* about it during and afterwards? There, I think Scripture is far less clear.

          • My experience has been that in my “simple” prayer there is a “contemplative” kernel and dimension, and conversely, in my “contemplative” prayer there’s a “simple” kernel and dimension. But for me the underlying truth is that I pray as one in need before a God who needs nothing from me, and who I depend on to hear and respond. In this sense, all prayer, contemplative or simple, is petition. Whether I’m asking for bread or wisdom and equanimity, I still ask as one in need.

          • Eyeore,
            Not apples and oranges. You read me wrong. Feelings are not the issue at all. The only mention of feelings was in regard to a hypothetical person who didn’t feel love for God. The issue is being able to have a discourse on the experience of deep contemplative prayer in its many aspects without being attacked as an elitest Mr. Mystical Man. I experience the presence of God in prayer. He is not absent or silent. In the traditional sense, yes, he is both absent and silent but in the spirit he is fully present. There is a difference! A very real and substantive difference. I don’t feel free to talk about that reality and how I actually experience that, and won’t, because I’m making some other hypothetical poor soul, never named, feel second class. Talk about political correctness and defense of “feelings”.

          • Chris, I’ve been around way too many zealous types who redefine and understand prayer through a charismatic lens, with God constantly talking to them throughout the day. If you don’t hear from God through the day, you aren’t a believer, or you are a “second class citizen”, substandard, not part of “normal christian life”. They would even take this at times to mean don’t even begin your day until you’ve “broke through” and heard from him.

            There is one spirit. One body. One calling. This is the most fundamental tenet of Christianity to my mind. You would think so. But now you can argue who is in and who is out, or whether it’s the right version of any of those things. If you don’t hear the voice of God, are you a Christian?

            That’s what I’m pointing out. For many, God is silent, sometimes speaking in moments, sometimes never. But for some, maybe a lot more. The tipping point is between the haves and have nots, when what is normal christianity gets redefined.

            So yeah, I detest the other side, where God is seemingly constantly talking.

            Am I to be made out the insensitive bad guy if I say I love the Lord? Should I worry about those who don’t feel such love and refrain? Help me understand.

            No, you aren’t the bad guy, lol. And maybe you should worry about those who don’t feel such love, but worry out of love for your fellow believer, and what may be happening in their lives to not feel like you do, but without assuming your experience is normative.

            Makes sense?

          • Stuart,
            Thank you. That makes perfect sense. God is not a ‘Chatty Cathy’. If that were the case Jesus could have taken a day or two in the desert and called it good. I have no expectation of hearing from him but I do on occasion. Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice.” Not every voice, not every thought, not every intuition or inclination is the Lord. It is not a Burger King drive up. Nothing happens on demand. 99% for me is silence but it is an attendant silence like being with someone you love. There is a two way thing happening. It’s real. I was just getting the feeling that the idea of any communication with God is considered insane and impossible. That to me is treacherous. God needs his children and desires their love. I mean a warm love not an academic or commanded love. That only occurs experientially by developing a living, two way communication that develops over years through failure, frustration, tender mercy, joy and the like. Turns out that’s a giant sticking point but that is what I am getting at, not “The Lord told me you shouldn’t wear such a bright tie,” or some such. The majority of my personal communication is not even in the form of words. I want to talk about it this here but I don’t at the same time. So much noise about something so quiet.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    Anyone who uses the Nook (Barnes & Noble) reader can also purchase the book for 99¢ at Barnes & Noble.

  7. –> “In our humanness we often cling not only to that which is attractive, but also to things that are repulsive.”

    I’m not into the Calvinist “total depravity” thing, but I think the above statement is true and gets at the fact that there are times when I AM totally depraved.

    Curiously, though, I find that as my Christian walk has gone on and on and I’ve “matured,” I’m LESS detached from God due to this clinging to things that are repulsive but rather I’m more DRAWN TO Him. In other words, I’m less bothered by guilt and shame than I used to be (and caused detachment) and instead seek Him for Joy and Love.

    • I teetered on the precipice of Calvinism for years having attended churches that, while never stating so, held to Calvinistic doctrine but that is one thing I think ‘ol John got mostly right; I’m “totally depraved” in that, while I’m not as bad as I could be, I’m not as good as I should be; all of my motives are tainted–none are totally pure.

      Like you, however, I’m less bothered by the repulsive, by my sin, than I am drawn to the grace offered me in Jesus Christ. I’ve jumped off the “sin management” bandwagon–that probably means my salvation is suspect with many in my circle.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I find that as my Christian walk has gone on and on and I’ve “matured,”
      > I’m LESS detached from God due to this clinging to things that are repulsive

      It may also be partially attributed to getting older. Claiming My Sin seemed much more important when I was younger; professions of fallibility and even depravity more impressive [in a way]. At this point that I am, and always will be, a battered mess and a collection of obnoxious habits… yeah… shrug. I’d bow before a divine judge without hesitation or offered defense, there would be no contesting ego – which all the pastors assured me would be there fighting the bending of the knee. With time the protestations of the ego become sadly comical; all the evidence indicates he is a fool who can rarely follow through on his claims.

      I no longer recognize the recognition of that reality as notable “Christian”. My atheist friend does describe himself in the same way.

      > than I am drawn to the grace offered me in Jesus Christ

      Grace is difference.

  8. Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway.

    Now there’s a tall order.

    • So empty yourself to prove yourself a more willing recepticle for ideas. Don’t let your ego or your mind or reason get away, for the things of the spirit are often irrational and unreasonable. And that’s how you know it’s of the spirit.

      I’ve been thinking about the idea of “brokenness” a lot in Christianity. How when you are at your lowest, you will do anything, believe anything, sell yourself for anything. That only when you are “weak (in yourself) are you strong (in someone else’s ideas)”. (see the recent Tarantino movie for a horrific example of this)

      Which is why I guess the religion appeals to the poor so well. It promises no reward here but your hidden secret master one day will reward you as long as you continue to bow while on earth to both masters. All riches will be yours, and in fact, already are yours, if you just see it and believe it and accept you are already rich. Except you may not see it here, and it doesn’t (rarely) encourage you to work towards it. Those latter Jewish writings, the wisdom of Job and Ecclessiastes, and working hard all the days of your life…those aren’t preached that often.

      I’m having a hard time with this type of thinking nowadays. I don’t find the concept of God trustworthy. Shouldn’t you get a blessing to prove his worth, instead of just promises of blessings? I miss the transactional God, tho I don’t think he ever truly existed.

      • Someone recently gave me the unhelpful advice that, when I pray for my wife to be healed of the malignancy that a recent biopsy exposed, I should have no doubt that my word would come true; and if I believed them without doubt, they would come true. I thought of responding that I would rather believe what God has say, but quickly realized that I’m not sure what that is.

        • senecagriggs says:

          Robert, obviously I know nothing about your wife’s situation but I’d hope her prognosis is positive and you and your family are coping. Cancer is a very dreadful word. Sen

          • Thank you, senecagriggs, for your good wishes. We have a way to go down this path before any outcome, good or bad, can be known.

        • On topic, my best friend’s mom passed away yesterday morning. She had been winning and doing good against the cancer, but liver was shutting down, so they decided to make her comfortable and stop chemo. It was literally days. Not sure when funeral will be, but soon I imagine, and I’m keeping myself available for him and them.

          2016 has started off great. But…at least it feels like it’s the last gasps of 2015.

          • Probably the greatest prayer is to make ourselves present and available to those in need. I’m sorry to hear of your friend’s loss; a friend’s loss is always also ones own.

        • Hi Robert,

          I hope u can still hold on in your difficult time. There’s a Good book I read called”Christ the Healer by Bosworth, that reflects what you mention. The best way to see it is that healing is part of the Atonement, however the timing is in God’s hands. That could mean now, later or at journey’s end. He told us The faith of God can move mountains. Never told us when…

          Cheers
          Dennis

  9. I believe that God hears prayer, including my prayer; I also believe that almost all the time he’s hugely unlikely to respond in any way that I can recognize. That’s okay, though, because I have no choice but to pray, however inexpertly and foolishly and uncertainly and irregularly and inconstantly I do so. I have to pray as assuredly as I have to bleed when I’m cut, or smile when I hear a really happy song.

    In an interview, someone once asked the renowned scholar of Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, if he prayed. Suzuki answered that prayer is a futile waste of time, that there is no god who answers human prayer, that there is no way to avoid the suffering that each person must experience on the path toward understanding and wisdom; and then he said, “Of course I pray.”

    I’m a Christian. I don’t agree with the religious perspective expressed in Suzuki’s reply; but I sure do like his answer.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > because I have no choice but to pray, … as assuredly as I have to bleed when I’m cut

      This.

      > I believe that God hears prayer, including my prayer;

      Agree. But I really have no idea what even that statement means – for God to “hear”. I would be more comfortable saying “understands”. There is a comfort in ‘merely’ being understood. But all the fancy words in Scripture, and then the silence. I appreciate being understood… I would also very much like to punch him in the face.

      • I would also very much like to punch him in the face.

        There are times when I would like to crucify him.

    • I feel very much the same. For me, prayer has become more of a 24/7 radio broadcast than a deliberate, get-down-on-your-knees act. It’s an SOS piping out into space on all frequencies. As much as I am greeted by silence in my prayers, I don’t feel like I have a choice to stop praying, anymore than I have a choice to stop believing in God.

  10. senecagriggs says:

    Many times my prayer has simply been, “Well, you know God” [ and I don’t. ]

  11. I have wrestled with the concept of prayer for such a long time. In these last 18 months or so I basically gave up, God was silent, i.e. I didn’t feel there was any point. In my earlier Christian life I wished I could pray like some of the heroes of the faith, and even tried. It took me a long time to realise I couldn’t pray like them because I wasn’t them. I find articles like the above of no help whatsoever I think I have finally come to the realisation that prayer is individual to each person, there is no formula or particular way to pray that will somehow make me believe that I have got it right. These days I just converse and hope that God hears.

    • CB, thank you for this. Your comment and several others underline my last point in the post. Prayer, like life itself and all its serious relationships, involves a journey across many landscapes, some rather banal, others downright ugly, and yet others breathtaking.

  12. I have recently realised that I only have two fears about God:
    That he doesn’t really exist
    That he really does exist

    This post and accompanying comments speaks to both of these fears.
    If he’s not there, I’m praying into the abyss.
    If he is there, what ‘s going to happen to me if I do unclench my fists?

    Lord have mercy.