Henri Nouwen believed in quiet time to fully open yourself to listening for God. Wikipedia

Nouwen sets example of ‘emptying our lives’

By 
  • April 3, 2020

A little quiet time — away from work and the constant interruptions of daily life — ought to be just what the doctor ordered for those seeking more spiritual focus in their lives.

It is precisely what Canada’s medical officers of health have ordered to combat COVID-19. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re all going to find peace, focus and a closer relationship with God because we are confined to our homes.

“What I’m seeing a lot of people doing is they’re just filling their lives in a lot of different ways. They’re not working, but they’re now listening to podcasts, etc.,” said writer, editor and Henri Nouwen Society archivist Gabrielle Earnshaw.

Given the opportunity for a self-guided retreat — prayer, contemplation and meditation — we instead fill our time with distractions, said Earnshaw, author of Return of the Prodigal Son, The Making of a Spiritual Classic about how Nouwen, the Dutch-Canadian priest and psychologist, came to write one of the world’s most beloved spiritual books.

While the Nouwen Society boasts all kinds of online spiritual resources, from a daily meditation in your e-mail inbox to online book discussion groups, Earnshaw believes Nouwen would tell us all to step away from our computers and stop filling our heads with more images and sounds — even if they seem to be spiritual, religious images and sounds.

“The discipline Henri Nouwen is calling us to is emptying our lives, carving out empty space for God,” Earnshaw said.

Everything from rosary groups to lectio divina and live-streamed Masses are abundant on the Internet, but Earnshaw warns against forms of spirituality that merely reproduce our workday lives. 

“Let’s not approach this like we’ve approached everything else — being productive, having an end goal, and task oriented,” she said.

Taking her cues from Nouwen, Earnshaw recommends people find a corner in their home where they can be alone and quiet.

“We can’t go to church anymore. So can we create that physical space in the house?” she asks. “It doesn’t need to be a whole separate room, although it could be. And then, can we make it a discipline that we go to that space every day?”

To take on the discipline of time alone, listening for God, is difficult in the midst of a global crisis that has turned people’s lives upside down.

“This is challenging for people. People are feeling so fearful right now, myself included. I’m not trying to come off so high and mighty,” she said. “We’re fearful because everything that we’ve built our lives on has fallen away. But let’s not run away from the fear and fill it up with something else.”

Nouwen’s normal, everyday method of listening for God was reading the Bible. He didn’t read it to get to the end of the story. Rather he read the stories in the Gospels and the Old Testament in order to occupy the text — to place himself inside the world of the Scriptures. In other words, lectio divina.

“Henri had this beautiful practice, where he would take one word from that Scripture — lectio divina that he usually did for about 30 minutes in the morning. He would then take a word from that time and he would carry that word with him for the rest of the day,” said Earnshaw.

Whether the word is “shepherd” or “forgive” or “listen,” Nouwen found that throughout the day it resonated with the people and situations he encountered.

But for many of us it will take a little courage to go on retreat at home, sitting quietly in a particular place, perhaps with a candle, a crucifix or an icon, but definitely without our phones.

“What’s happened is there’s been this vacuum. We’ve come up against this vacuum in our lives. Everything that we had been pointing our lives towards is now completely up in the air,” said Earnshaw.

“What we need is to fill up the vacuum, really quickly. So we think that we’re going to fill it up with spiritual things. Well, that’s OK. But I really do think that the main thing is not to fill up our time,” Earnshaw said. “I like the word useless. Can we be useless during this time? ... Grasping that something is at work in the uselessness, something is at work in the emptiness.”

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