As we continue looking at Henri Nouwen’s description of prayer, we must remember that he wrote as a Roman Catholic priest—that is, as someone who was daily immersed in multiple services where public prayer was the norm. If we fail to remember this, his description of prayer may seem one-sided.
He did not have as great a need to view communal prayer as we may have, and I will return to that theme a bit later. For now, we will follow Nouwen as he leads us into further insights about solitary prayer.
He stuns us when he writes, “Somewhere we know that without a lonely place, our lives are in danger” (p. 21). He’s commenting on Jesus’ regular practice of going to such a place to do a substantial amount of his own praying (Mark 1:35).
These words stopped me in my tracks because I don’t automatically think of private prayer as a protection from danger. Ours is not a culture that frames our lives in relation to “danger.”
But Nouwen is right. When we do not experience “time alone with God,” we put ourselves into the daily round of feverish activities without either a sufficient orientation to life or an adequate power to deal with the things we will surely face. Unless we can find occasions of “aloneness” we are vulnerable.
Nouwen says it better than I can, so let’s return to his words: “Somehow we know that without silence, words lose their meaning; that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure. Somehow we know that without a solitary place, our actions quickly become empty gestures. The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the spiritual life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention” (pp. 21-22).