Summary of The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henri Nouwen

In these difficult times to be Christians, Nouwen presents the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, those men and women who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 4th and 5th centuries and pursued a new kind of martyrdom: a white martyrdom of witnessing against the powers of evil with the saving power of Christ.

Nouwen’s structures his reflections around advice our Lord gave to Abba Arsenius. In response to Arsenius’ prayer, “Lord, leave me in the way of salvation,” our Lord said to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.” For Nouwen, these three words not only capture the spirituality of the desert but also provide us with three ways to prevent the world from shaping us in its image and are thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.

1: Solitude

Since society was regarded by the Desert Fathers “as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life,” fleeing from our society was considered an essential first step.

How difficult this is for us today. Our lives are so easily shaped by this shipwreck of society and we do not want to flee because our false self – our sense of identity in this world – is so caught up with it all, addicted to the compulsive desires to be liked, praised, admired – to continually gather more. Angry if we are criticized in this pursuit. Greedy for more.

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self” (26).

Solitude is more than some therapeutic place of privacy. It’s more than some gas station to fill up our tanks for the day. It’s more than some corner of our boxing ring to be given some inspiring sayings to keep fighting.

Solitude is above all a place of conversion and transformation. We come face to face with our real self – the naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – self. And we come face to face with our real God – the loving, compassionate, tender, merciful, awesome – God.

“Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature” (Nouwen, 30).

Set apart a time and place for this daily encounter.

Out of this solitude, genuine compassion emerges. Compassion is the result of a death to self and a live for others – entering into their sufferings. We stop judging others and we enter into their lives.

2: Silence

Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.

“One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up. As soon as a minister says during a worship service, “Let us be silent for a few moment,” people tend to become restless and preoccupied with only one thought: “When will this be over?” Imposed silence often creates hostility and resentment” (59).

“After all, silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth. Abba Poemen said: “A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet his is truly silent.” (64).

“Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity. Once a visitor said to a hermit, “Sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered, “My rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace.” Charity, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry. About this all the Desert Fathers are unanimous” (64).

Far too often, our words are superfluous, inauthentic, and shallow.

3: Prayer

“To pray always – this the real purpose of the desert life. Solitude and silence can never be separated from the call to unceasing prayer” (69).

“The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” The Greek word for rest is hesychia, and hesychasm is the term which refers to the spirituality of the desert… This rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle” (69-70).

Prayer is not primarily an activity of the mind (speaking with God or thinking about God), in which God becomes an intellectual activity or subject to be scrutinized or analyzed but rather an activity of 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” (Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse).

Prayer is heart speaks to heart.

The heart, in its full biblical meaning, is the central and unifying place of our personal life – the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual energies – in which God dwells and Satan attacks.

“The chief task of the athlete [that is, the monk] is to enter into his heart” (Macarius the Great).

What does this mean? Prayer seeks to transform the whole person from his inmost depths.

“[R]eal prayer penetrates to the marrow of our soul and leaves nothing untouched” (78).

To pray at all times, we need to offer up short, simple prayers on a continual basis. Quiet repetitions of words. This helps us to concentrate, to move to the heart, to create an inner space to hear God’s voice. Use a word from Scripture you meditated upon in the morning throughout the day. This is how you can pray throughout the day. Eventually, the words on your lips will pass into your heart (see page 85 for The Way of the Pilgrim story).

“When we have been remodeled into living witnesses of Christ through solitude, silence, and prayer, we will no longer have to worry about whether we are saying the right thing or making the right gesture, because then Christ will make his presence known even when we are not aware of it” (94).

“Three Fathers used to go and visit Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him: ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough to see you, Father.’ (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (London & Oxford: Mowbrays, 1975), p.6).

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