Yesterday I wrote about one of my favorite books, The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen. In it, Nouwen advocates that we, as believers in a modern world that is full of distraction, emulate the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These fiery believers were the first to resist the impulses and compulsions of the world by fleeing to the desert to meet with God.
But how do we do it? How do we make for ourselves a sacred space where we meet with God and God alone, a place where we are washed by his loving word and renewed according to the image of the one who fashioned us? Once we’ve set aside time to meet with God—that is a crucial step that we need nobody tell us— then begins our journey into the heart of God.
Silence guards the inner fire
Silence and solitude go hand in hand. Nouwen explains that the endless talking that so characterizes our verbose culture actually drains us of needed focus and passion. By contrast, he says, “Silence guards the inner fire.”
When we come before God, it may feel like we’ve got to fill up the time we’ve allotted with a list of prayer needs. Prayer lists are good, but if we are to get to the place where we actually hear the voice of our father, even prayer lists will distract us. Just like any other conversation, when we are talking we are not listening. And in solitude, our overwhelming posture must be listening.
So we adopt the wise counsel of Solomon: “When you come before God, let your words be few.” We enter into the silence knowing that in the silence we will hear a word from our father and our beloved.
The Prayer of the Heart
What then is prayer? The first disciples could have asked Jesus anything, and yet they asked him, “Teach us how to pray.” Prayer is not something that comes naturally, not even to the child of God. Prayer is the practice of interacting with our father in heaven, and if we are unaccustomed to it, prayer may feel foreign.
Nouwen’s definition of prayer is this:
“Prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place. There heart speaks to heart, because there we stand before the face of the Lord, all-seeing, with us.”
Prayer is the place of encounter. Prayer is the place of knowing and being known. Prayer is the place where our striving, our calculating and our double-mindedness cease, and we become just a heart before our father.
And from there, the posture of undistracted identity where we are accepted and known, is the place where we can ask anything in his name. How our father longs to answer prayer, but from the place of the unbroken gaze.
Descending through the Word
One of the best ways to enter prayer is through scripture. Scripture is God breathed, and as we enter our place of solitude, we can rely on the written word to guide our hearts. It is right, in another context, to approach the Bible for study. But here, when our aim is prayer and communion with God, we approach the word to see, and to hear.
John Piper, a well known Bible teacher, recommends that we prayerful approach the word with a simple acronym: IOUS. This little phrase guides us into the place of encounter with the word of God. The letters stand for this:
- Incline my heart — David prayed that God would actually bend his heart to the ways of God so he could understand it and walk in it. It takes God to reveal God to the human spirit,
- Open my eyes — Again, David’s heart cry was that God would open his eyes to see marvelous things in the word. For many, the scriptures are boring. But it takes God to ignite our minds and hearts to see the beauty found therein.
- Unite my heart— The enemy of single-minded focus on Jesus is distraction. Only when God unites our heart and we shed our false identities and fears, can we come before him in fear, awe and love.
- Satisfy me— The ultimate prayer, David relied upon God’s mercy to meet every cry of his heart and hunger in his soul. When we make this our prayer before the Lord, he opens the scripture and fills our heart, and we begin to look more and more like him.
When we approach scripture in this way, we find that we are not reading the bible for information, but for encounter. Soon enough, we find that a single verse moves upon our hearts. That is the beckoning call of the Holy Spirit. We close our eyes and say the verse again and ask for more illumination. Before long, we will find that time can go by without saying hardly a word as we enjoy his presence.