The Way of the Heart

“What is required of a man or a woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope?”

Abba Arsenius was a well-educated, well-situated Roman in the court of Emperor Theodosius when he prayed this prayer, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” It was the beginning of an odyssey. God would ultimately answer his prayer with these words. “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always…”

In his powerful book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen distills the essential wisdom of the desert fathers into these three things: Solitude (flee), Silence, and Prayer. When these become as natural to us as breathing, we will know the joy of continual communion with the Father and the words we speak will be life.

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter.”

I am defined by the people around me. I depend on them to tell me whether I am ok. Solitude rids me of this scaffolding. “…no friends to talk to, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me–naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful,deprived, broken–nothing.” It is a terrifying prospect. But as I carve out my own desert where I “dwell in the gentle healing presence of [my] Lord” the false self is extinguished and I am transformed.

Though it seems ironic, compassion is the fruit of solitude. As I face my own brokenness, I can enter with others into the places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, broken. When I stop using others as a yardstick to measure myself, I no longer need to judge them. “Compassion can never co-exist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.”

“Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”

When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. ~Diadochus of Photiki

“Out of his eternal silence, God spoke the Word” Likewise our words “can only create communion and thus new life when they embody the silence from which they emerge…when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its own silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken.”

“Real prayer comes from the heart.”

To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you. ~Theophan the Recluse

Prayer is not meant to be an intellectual exercise in which we figure God out. Nor is it bargaining, manipulation, or an opportunity to impress God. Prayer of the heart is vulnerable, exposed, simple, and ceaseless. “When, for instance, we have spent twenty minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day.”

“Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit towards God.” ~from The Way of the Pilgrim

How I wish I could say to you that I have fully integrated this into my life. But perhaps being discomfited and knowing the longing are worthy first steps…

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me.


*Unattributed quotes in the post are by Henri Nouwan.